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The practice of selling one's tale of woe to make a buck has long been a part of American culture. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America is a powerful cultural history of how ordinary Americans crafted and sold their stories of hardship and calamity during the nineteenth century. Ann Fabian examines the tales of beggars, convicts, ex-slaves, prisoners of the Confederacy, and others to explore cultural authority, truth-telling, and the nature of print media as the country was shifting to a market economy. This well-crafted book describes the fascinating controversies surrounding these little-read tales and returns them to the social worlds where they were produced.
Drawing on an enormous number of personal narratives—accounts of mostly poor, suffering, and often uneducated Americans—The Unvarnished Truth analyzes a long-ignored tradition in popular literature. Historians have treated the spread of literacy and the growth of print culture as a chapter in the democratization of refinement, but these tales suggest that this was not always the case. Producing stories that purported to be the plain, unvarnished truth, poor men and women edged their way onto the cultural stage, using storytelling strategies far older than those relying on a Renaissance sense of refinement and polish. This book introduces a unique collection of tales to explore the nature of truth, authenticity, and representation.
In 1817 he once more endured extremity; this second peace drifting its discharged soldiers on London so that all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walks like locusts. Timber-toed cripples stilted along, numerous as French peasants in sabots. And, as thirty years before, on all sides, the exile heard the supplicatory cry, not addressed to him, "An honorable scar, your honor, received at Bunker Hill, or Saratoga, or Trenton, fighting for his most gracious Majesty, King George!" so now, in presence of still surviving Israel, our Wandering Jew, the amended cry was anew taken up, by a succeeding generation of unfortunates, "An honorable scar, your honor, received at Corunna, or at Waterloo, or at Trafalgar!" Yet not a few of these petitioners had never been outside of the London smoke; a sort of crafty aristocracy in their way, who, without having endured their own persons much if anything, reaped no insignificant share both of the glory and profit of the bloody battles they claimed; while some of the genuine heroes, too brave to beg, too cut up to work, and too poor to live, laid down quietly in corners and died. And here it may be noted, as a fact nationally characteristic, that however desperately reduced at times, even to the sewers, Israel, the American, never sunk below the mud, to actual beggary.
Herman Melville, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855)
But let the reader consider that I am neither historian nor politician, and that I am barely able to relate, and that in an humble and unskilled manner, my own unfortunate story.
Moses Smith, History of the Adventures and Sufferings of Moses Smith (1812)
BEGGARS AND BOOKS
During the cold winter months of 1807–1808, Moses Smith, a poor cooper from Long Island, made his way overland from Maryland to Brooklyn. He had escaped from a prison in Carthagena, a Spanish-ruled city state in present-day Colombia, and returned to the United States with nothing but a good story to get him home. Telling his story, he begged passage, food, and shelter from those he met along the way. His trip was difficult, and once back in New York, he turned to political allies and produced a book in which he recounted his adventures and detailed his sufferings.
In 1812, after America declared war on Britain, Michael Smith, a shabby Baptist preacher, gave up his property in Upper Canada, packed his family in a wagon, and made his way south from Ontario to Virginia. To earn money to feed them all, he preached, cut wood, begged, and sometimes sold books in which he described the Canadian countryside, the war in the northeast, and his personal sufferings.
In October 1815, a merchant with designs on trade with Africa said that he had plucked Robert Adams, a mixed-race and illiterate American sailor, from among the "distressed seamen" and discharged soldiers who, in the wake of Waterloo, crowded the London streets. Adams had attracted notice among the street beggars by including descriptions of the "far-fabled" city of Timbuktu in his story of shipwreck on the western coast of Africa and captivity among the Moors. The merchant, S. Cock, lured Adams into his office with an offer of food and clothes ("of which he stood particularly in need"), gathered a group of "gentlemen" to interrogate him, and transcribed for publication the tale that had made the ragged sailor a man of "consequence" on the street. The merchant promised that a portion of the profits from the book's sale would be reserved for Mr. Adams.
To some of those they met, men like Smith, Smith, and Adams must have seemed annoying beggars, but they were also storytellers who rehearsed their woes aloud and then turned tales into printed books. It is clear that they wrote from the margins of the economy, but they also extracted from their experiences of economic marginality a kind of provisional cultural authority. Much as reading and writing may have hastened the spread of gentility through American life, beggars' narratives remind us that stories set down in books did not necessarily foster high thoughts and fine manners. Storytelling beggars, carrying the books and briefs that detailed their woes, wandered from the courts of the old world into the marketplace of early nineteenth-century America. With help from political allies, wealthy patrons, sympathetic co-religionists, commercial scribblers, and friendly printers, people who had been reduced to begging got stories made up as books, using print to achieve their own ends and turning narratives of misadventure into commodities that could be transferred and sold. These authors pocketed a little authority and a little cash. But exchanges between writing beggars and patronizing readers were complicated. Some prosperous readers who purchased beggars' tales discovered that good stories could mask shoddy motives and that clever dissemblers could pass as deserving sufferers.
Peculiar witnesses beggars may have been, but beggars with stories had good tales to tell. They bore witness, of course, to their own suffering and to their own merit. They also witnessed the effects of an expanding maritime economy that tied men and women of the east coast into an Atlantic world where some prospered but others were sent wandering in search of money or work. Some writing beggars described the stable folk who had grown suspicious of wanderers who asked for relief. Some participated in their country's first imperial adventures and described the beginnings of a world where claims of national identity could give order to a bewildering flux of experience. To be an American, they found, could be beneficial; it could also be risky. Although they described themselves telling tales aloud, they also witnessed a society becoming habituated to finding books in the hands of ordinary people. In their books they described a world dominated by spoken exchange, but they put their descriptions into a form designed not to be spoken but to be read. They boasted no great skills as readers or as writers, yet they became the authors of books. What can we learn of the workings of culture in nineteenth-century America by exploring connections between behavior so socially marginal as begging and behavior so culturally central as writing?
THE ADVENTURES OF MOSES SMITH
Moses Smith, a Brooklyn cooper, was among those who participated (unwittingly, he maintained) in Francisco de Miranda's ill-starred initial attempt to lead Spain's South American colonies to independence. When local peasants failed to rally round Miranda, he abandoned the expedition. His underlings, Smith among them, fell into Spanish hands and were convicted of piracy by a colonial court. Ten of the convicts were hanged, and Smith and several others were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. After an eighteen-month confinement, Smith tunneled out of a "foul and unwholesome" dungeon. A kind American captain took him as far as Maryland. Even though Smith had completed the longest leg of his voyage home, he still had to get to Brooklyn. He had only ten shillings, hardly enough to pay his way to New York, so he decided to tell his tale, in the hope that those who heard it would finance his travels through the wintry countryside. Once home, he sued the Federalist plotters who he insisted had tricked him into enlisting with Miranda. A judge found little ground for his accusations of fraud and dismissed his case. Determined to get the last word, Smith turned to political allies who helped him get his story printed as a book.
Smith thought he had a good story to tell. It began simply enough: innocent and patriotic, he enlisted in a band of men recruited supposedly to ride guard beside U.S. mail stages on the road between Washington and New Orleans. He was promised, he said, a uniform, a monthly salary of twenty-five dollars, and, if he stayed on for three years, a bonus of fifty dollars and "one hundred acres of the lands of the United States." A good offer, he thought, for a young man "reduced in circumstances—and out of employ." To his surprise, the ship he boarded did not head south to Washington but set out on the high seas for Santo Domingo. When Miranda presented himself on deck, Smith said he realized for the first time that he was part of an adventure neither of his choosing nor to his liking.
Miranda went on to plot revolution in London, eventually joining Simon Bolivar and returning to Venezuela in 1811 as dictator of an independent country. He fared less well in the succeeding years. When Miranda signed an armistice with Spain in 1812, Bolivar accused him of betraying the revolution and gave him over to Spanish authorities. He was transported in chains to Cadiz, where he died, still in prison, in 1816.
In the meantime, Smith concerned himself with his story. Unfortunately, in the late fall of 1807 Smith found that Americans had lost interest in Miranda and his revolutionary schemes. Those determined to promote the settlement of the Mississippi Valley had supported the man because his plans for South American independence promised markets for American produce. But support was short-lived, and Smith complained that people he met that winter were more interested in Aaron Burr's newly exposed plots than they were in Miranda and in the injustices suffered by a poor cooper who had been seduced into Miranda's service. Burr's trial, Smith wrote in exasperation, had so "fatigued the public mind" that few now had patience for his story.
Smith said that he had expected to endure icy nights and irregular meals but was surprised at the cold reception given his tale.
Instead of that sympathy which the injured and oppressed in general meet with in this great community, I experienced more of aversion or contempt. As I proceeded on my weary journey, I related my story to such as were disposed to hear it. Besides that it was the story nearest to my heart and nearest to my tongue, it was also necessary to account for my condition and appearance, which was too like that of a convict escaped from legal coercion. It was mortifying, humiliating, and afflicting to find with what indifference, distrust and contempt it was sometimes received by my fellow citizens.
At one tavern, a sarcastic landlord dismissed Smith, telling him that "'such stories were good to tell some people.'" But certainly not his paying customers. "Thus did I pass along," Smith whined, "trailing my wearied steps thru melted snow and ice, shivering and sinking with fatigue; unpitied and never regarded but with eyes of distrust or scorn, nor answered but with the tone of neglect and disgust."
Smith was not the only poor vagrant of his generation trying to finance a journey with a tale of woe; others, however, were more successful. Henry Bird, redeemed from captivity among the Shawanese in the Ohio Valley in 1811, remembered that "his story almost always gained him food and lodging, and, with very few exceptions, he was seldom turned away from any man's door." "Misery and poverty so seldom knock at the doors of an American farmer," he continued, "that his heart is not yet steeled to apathy by becoming familiar with objects of distress." Living off the "benevolence of his countrymen," Bird traveled from Vermont to Washington, where he arranged an audience with President Madison and registered a plea for his friends and neighbors still held captive on the Ohio frontier.
Or consider the case of the Pequot writer William Apess. In 1813, Apess and a companion made their way from New London to New York by spinning a tale of their supposed ordeal on a captured privateer. Apess's companion (a man he described as the better storyteller and the more abandoned liar) gave a "great account of our having been captured by the enemy, and so straight that [our listeners] believed the whole of it," at least until they tried to convince a group of sailors that their captors had forced them to eat bread laced with ground glass. Torture heightened drama, but drama too lurid pushed a story beyond the plausible. Drama, which might well serve the needs of traveling entertainers, could discredit those whose tales had to sound "true" in order to gain the audience's sympathy and assistance.
Moses Smith certainly tried to create a good yarn. He incorporated political intrigue (wily Federalists using guileless young men like Smith to discredit Jefferson and Madison), biography (a "biographical sketch" of Miranda concluded the second edition of his book), travelogue (notes on the climate and landscape of Colombia), and Gothic adventure (escape from an airless, damp, and "dark cavity" behind the moss-covered walls of a castle).18 He described prisoners held in "gloomy seclusion," fed a "loathsome diet," deprived of "light and air," and subject to "irons, insults, and other means of terror, to break down the courage of the victim and weary him of life." Smith also depicted the ingenuity of ordinary Americans. He and his comrades dug through walls of a "thickness twice the length of a man's stature," using only a shoemaker's hammer. They covered the noise of their digging by rattling their chains and making rough music on the flute, fiddle, and fife they had purchased with money advanced them by a visiting American captain.
By rights such stories should have interested American audiences who followed the misadventures of virtuous protagonists like Smith in popular novels. To avoid condemnation by critics suspicious of fiction, novelists often insisted that their tales were based on true stories. Like these novelists, Smith offered readers something akin to an intimate experience, but his tale had to conform to a higher standard of apparent truth, insofar as he asked of his audience something more than the emotional response invited by novelists. Smith had no choice but to create a credible narrative, because incredulity (as Apess and his friend learned) would break his contract with the reader. Moreover, Smith needed responsive readers to complete his story. No fictional hand could right the wrongs he had suffered. That task was reserved for the readers who invested mind and money in Smith's tale. Resolution of Smith's plot waited for readers who would believe his version of events and relieve his suffering.
Smith sought out those who would listen to his story. He "did not like to beg," he said, but when he met a brewer on the road, he admitted that he "had not the wherewithal to pay my lodging for the night." The brewer invited him home and helped him arrange to insert a paragraph about his South American adventures in a Baltimore paper. When he later spotted men reading the paper in the stage office in Philadelphia, he hailed them, presenting himself as a celebrity of sorts. They accepted this apparent confirmation of his story and gave him money to continue to New York, where, after a tearful reunion with his father, he launched a lawsuit against those he contended had tricked him into enlisting on the ill-fated voyage.
Smith's luck in the courtroom was little better than it had been in the tavern, and after three and a half years of motions and delays, the judge dismissed Smith's suit. In print, Moses Smith prevailed, pursuing a back channel, if you will, into the archives and making sure his version of the events was on record. He republished the charges that the New York court had dismissed and favorably compared the swift, if severe, justice he had received in a Spanish colony with the arcane practices of the United States. Spanish judges, he declared, believed him but found it hard to accept the fact that a country supposedly ruled by law could harbor seducers of innocent workers. Finally, Smith appended his opinion of legal writing, criticizing the excesses of lawyers and praising the plain and unadorned prose that characterized narratives such as his. "I am sorry," he wrote,
that it becomes necessary to my story, to lay before my reader a law paper: for I know that it is the dryest, dullest kind of reading, and that such things are generally so skillfully drawn up, as to be unintelligible to plain people. The lawyers, call it my declaration; some for shortness call it my narr. It is as intelligible, I believe, as a law matter can be.... I am sure, if my counsel had been at liberty to use their own good sense, and tell my story in their own way, instead of this distorted manner of legal narrative, it would have been much better.
We know Smith's version of the story of his story only because he recruited enough subscribers in New York City and Albany to produce two editions of his book. Smith incorporated his adventure into a partisan narrative, blaming the New York Federalists for his woes and turning his Republican confreres into subscribers to his book. In the person of Thomas Kirk, Smith enlisted the help of a Democratic-Republican printer. He also found nearly five hundred men and women in and around New York City to subscribe to his book. He found some four hundred more upstate (more than 10 percent of them women) and hired the commercial printers, Packard and Van Benthuysen, to produce a second edition. Smith attracted supporters from a wide range of occupations: merchants, shipmasters, grocers, hairdressers, sailmakers, coopers, masons, sailors, cartmen, and laborers.
Excerpted from The Unvarnished Truth by Ann Fabian. Copyright © 2000 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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