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Shelley Fisher Fishkin <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 19 Jan 2020 03:16:53 +0000
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Although, like Kevin, I don’t know the name of the anonymous author of of Facts By A Woman (1881), the book is a favorite of mine because it contains a rare and very detailed account of a wildly enthusiastic Black fan of Twain’s work who surprised the agent  by  purchasing the most expensive version of Tom Sawyer that she had available.  Since it’s not a well-known story, and since relatively recent research on the  community in which this encounter took place sheds light on the likelihood of it having happened as described, I’ll share my thoughts on it here….

The encounter took place in Nevada City, in Nevada County, California.  The agent tries to capture an encounter she had with a  “gentleman of color in a distinguished barber shop” in that city by rendering his black dialect as best she can. Although parts of her efforts to transcribe his speech contain humorous malapropisms redolent of minstrelsy, the specificity of why he wanted to buy the most expensive edition, and her pride in selling this pricy copy of the book suggests that the encounter happened as she said it had.

Summarizing  (in standard English) what the man said, he enthusiastically shared why he liked the earlier work by Twain with which he was familiar  (clearly Innocents Abroad) because it offered people who were denied the pleasures of traveling a sense of the broader world - and he liked the fact that Twain did all  this while catching the reader unawares with wonderful humor that made him laugh so hard and fill him with so much joy, that it did him more good than a revival meeting. He said Mark Twain had “done a heap of good to these United States of Ameriky.” He wanted the leather library binding to preserve the book as it circulated among his neighbors,  passing through many hands. The agent tells us that she “left his beaming presence wishing that everybody would be as patronizing and considerate about their ’neighborin’ hands;’ for that was always a point with me, persuading some people out of the idea of buying a cheap binding in cloth, which very soon fades, even in careful home hands.”

Although UV does not reprint this excerpt from the book, the entire volume is available on HathiTrust. The passage that sparked by interest is on pp. 139-140.  I also quote it passage in the end notes of my 1993 book  Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices on pp.188-189.

I was fascinated by this since it’s essentially the earliest “review” of Twain by a Black reader.

It is completely plausible that there were enough educated black readers in Nevada City in the mid-nineteenth century for the man’s estimate of the many hands the book would pass through to be prudent.  I first became aware of the importance Nevada City placed on the education of black children from an 1869  column in the (San Francisco) Elevator by Jennie Carter, a black journalist from Nevada City whose work was recently recovered and published in a 2009 book edited by Eric Gardner (Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West). In this column (which I teach in my “American West” class) Carter  compares the school for black children in Marysville unfavorably with the one in Nevada City.
A 2016 article in the (Nevada County) Union by Emily Lavin (“Nevada County Historical Society Highlights Stories of African American Pioneers,”) explains that the local historical society recently documented the 19th-century Black community in the county. The article notes that although almost no African Americans live in the area today, in the second half of the 19th century there were “anywhere from 150-350 African Americans in Nevada County,” a population that included “enslaved African Americans who were brought ot the area by their Southern owners, former slaves who had escaped captivity, and free African Americans. The community founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church and  a school for their children on Church Street in Grass Valley. They bought property and founded businesses. They worked as miners laborers, musicians, teachers and clergymen.” The head of the local historical society said that “These were people that were very aspirational. They really believed and expected that freed slaves for the most part would be integrated into this country and that the promise of this country would be fulfilled.” Although she mentions the names of some of the most prominent Black residents  (in addition to Jennie Carter - “who served as an advocate for educational and social advancement,” she mentions “John Bulmer, who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, and Isaac Sanks and his son, Isaac T. Sanks, who advocated for voting rights for African Americans.” She notes that “the county’s African American population began to decline as the 19th century came to an end’ and many relocated to San Francisco and Sacramento, where there were more jobs.

We do not know who the unnamed “gentleman of color”was  who took it upon himself to share Tom Sawyer with with his friends and neighbors. But  I share all this information to make it clear that it is entirely plausible that this early African American fan of Twain’s did just what he said he planned to do. Thanks for prompting me to revisit all this, Clay, by asking your question!


On Jan 18, 2020, at 5:26 PM, Mac Donnell Rare Books <[log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]>> wrote:

Ben Griffin mentioned FACTS BY A WOMAN (1881). The source at UV says it was written by Harriet Wasson, but my catalogue notes say the author was Harriet Wasson Styer (1842-1921) so I'll need to resolve that possible conflict. Maybe she married; she was not married at the time she was a book agent in California.

The one Barb mentions is an eccentric account, and I don't think mentions actually selling books by Twain, but the false claim is made that Twain was once a book agent.

I can add a third: Elizabeth Lindley's DIARY OF A BOOK AGENT (1912). It's of special interest because she was selling books in Hartford, and tried to sell a set of Twain's books to a fellow-who was, unbeknown to her--a friend of Twain. The fellow declined, but suggested she go to a particular address and offer a set to one Samuel Clemens, who would very likely be interested in Mark Twain's books. She fell for the trick, not knowing who this Clemens fellow was. At least, that's the story she tells in her book.

Mac Donnell Rare Books
9307 Glenlake Drive
Austin TX 78730

You can browse our books at:<>

------ Original Message ------
From: "Barbara Schmidt" <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: 1/18/2020 12:59:22 PM
Subject: Re: Twain's Book agents

This one may be of interest — THE BOOK AGENT: HIS BOOK by Joshua Wright
(1904).  The text is available at


On Saturday, January 18, 2020, Clay Shannon <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Did any book agent write up his experiences - what it was like traveling
around the country, from house to house and farm to farm, selling people
advance copies of Twain's next book? I would wager a healthy sum that there
were some quite interesting stories to tell.
- B. Clay Shannon