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The Unvarnished Truth

The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America

Ann Fabian
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 268
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  • Book Info
    The Unvarnished Truth
    Book Description:

    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 Americais 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 Truthanalyzes 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92803-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Near the end of his novelIsrael Potter: His Fifty years of Exile(1854), Herman Melville inserted a meditation on the risks of making a pauper the center of a story: “The gloomiest and truthfulest dramatist,” he wrote, “seldom chooses for his theme the calamities, however extraordinary, of inferior and private persons; least of all, the pauper’s; admonished by the fact, that to the craped palace of the king lying in state, thousands of starers shall throng, but few feel enticed to the shanty, where like a pealed knuckle-bone, grins the unupholstered corpse of the beggar.”¹

    In 1824 the actual Israel...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Beggars
    (pp. 9-48)

    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 insabots. 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...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Convicts
    (pp. 49-78)

    “It is common among authors, to beg an introduction to their works to the public, by making an humble apology for the crime of writing.” Or so said our wandering preacher Michael Smith in a preface to the first edition of his geography. Smith’s formulaic apology was surely ironic, but with it he acknowledged that writing was a questionable activity, an imposition on the public, for a man like himself.¹ In contrast, neither the early-nineteenth-century convicts who wrote confessionally of their lives and crimes, nor those who published their accounts, saw a need to apologize for printing such material. This...

    (pp. 79-116)

    On January 4, 1838, the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society authorized the poet John Greenleaf Whittier to “write a narrative of the life and escape of a fugitive slave now in this neighborhood, & that the same be published under direction of the Publishing Committee, with a portrait and other embellishments.”¹Narrative of James Williams, an American Slavewas the first story of a fugitive slave to appear under the official auspices of organized abolition, and the small book about James Williams took its place in a growing library of antislavery publications. When the abolitionist James Birney took a...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Prisoners of War
    (pp. 117-158)

    In 1865, Mr. A. 0. Abbott, a lieutenant in the First New York Dragoons, published hisPrison Life in the South. He wrote, he said, to “throw some light upon the barbarous treatment we received at the hands of Rebels.” But, he added quickly, “Should these pages serve to throw any light upon the question ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I shall feel that my labor has not been in vain.”¹ Abbott said little that could be read as a direct answer to his second question, but by posing it in his preface, he placed his whole book...

  10. Epilogue Lovers, Farm Wives, and Tramps
    (pp. 159-176)

    In January 1919 Bernarr Macfadden, “physical culturalist,” self-promoter, and publisher, printed the first issue of a pulp magazine he calledTrue Story. In it, he promised readers he would reprint their own stories of love and romance.True Storywas an astounding success, read in the mid 1920s by more Americans-male and female-than any other magazine. As one contemporary remarked, “The rage for unadorned truth as to personal experiences finds its expression in the ‘true story’ and ‘confession’ group, where veracious narratives of titillating human experiences thrill literally millions of readers.”¹

    Although the pledge to print readers’ stories was probably...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 177-246)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 247-255)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 256-256)