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Stories were their assets
Tales of 19th-century Americans

Archived article from Dec 9, 2002

By Amy Vames  

Remember Amy Fisher? Dubbed the Long Island Lolita by the media, Fisher was accused and convicted of shooting her boyfriend's wife a decade ago. The case was the subject of countless tabloid headlines, not to mention a few made-for-TV movies. So what could Fisher's story possibly have in common with the yarns of 19th-century slaves, beggars, convicts and prisoners of war?

Quite a bit, says Ann Fabian, associate professor of American studies and the recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Fabian was prompted, in part, to write "The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America" (University of California Press, 2000) by a quote from Fisher's lawyer. "When Amy Fisher was in jail and her lawyer was trying to peddle her story to raise cash for her legal fees, he said that since she was a teen-ager, her story was her only asset," notes Fabian, whose book was reissued in paperback this year.

Fabian realized that Fisher was just another in a long line of storytellers who sought profit by providing a commodity - their stories - to a public hungry for true-life experiences. "Like Amy Fisher," Fabian says of these predecessors, "their stories were their only assets."

The book looks at four categories of personal narrative writers - beggars, convicts, slaves and prisoners of war - and explores why these various groups wanted to tell their stories and how they went about getting those stories published.

"I also wanted to look at the changing world of publication," Fabian says. "How did people think of print, what did it take to make yourself an author? I was looking at the history of printing and print culture as it developed throughout the 19th century and how different groups of impoverished individuals encountered it at different points."

According to Fabian, two factors helped these narratives flourish. First, the printing industry was highly decentralized in those days. Just about anyone with a good yarn could convince a local printer to write down his story and print it, then split the profits from the sales. Second, beginning in the early years of the 1800s, "Americans were coming to see that the lives of both the noble and ignoble not only had literary merit but also, as lived experience, had the shape of stories," Fabian writes in the book's introduction.

Some of the first people to capitalize on this interest were men who, through various hardships, had become dependent on the kindness of strangers to provide them with money or at least a meal and a bed for the night. One of the biggest challenges for these beggars was convincing the public of their stories' veracity. Many devote a copious number of words to authenticating their printed tales.

Take, for instance, Robert Adams, a mixed race, illiterate American sailor who later became a beggar on the streets of London. After Adams told his tale of having been shipwrecked on the western coast of Africa and having visited the exotic city of Timbuktu, a wealthy London merchant transcribed the story in hopes of selling it. Adams' travails are recounted in just 50 pages of his book; the remaining 150 pages include various devices meant to authenticate his story, such as maps, appendices and commentary by the merchant. When Adams' story was published, skepticism about its veracity was abundant, and Fabian delves into whether his story was true or an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Adams, the merchant, or possibly both.

While readers of these narratives often assumed beggars were prevaricating, narratives by convicts were considered to be more truthful, given the legal record of court proceedings and the feeling that anyone sentenced to death would have little to gain from lying. "In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, dozens of those condemned to die produced pamphlets on their lives and crimes, usually with the help of ministers, reporters, printers, and lawyers," Fabian writes.

The book's third chapter focuses on slaves who, like beggars, encountered skepticism among white Americans about their narratives' veracity. Fabian was particularly fascinated by the story of James Williams, whose 1838 narrative was the first story of a fugitive slave to be published by an abolitionist group, the American Anti-Slavery Society. After the narrative's publication, Williams left for England and was not around to corrobo rate his story. Squabbles among various abolition- ist groups broke out. "The Boston abolitionists, who were much more radical, said it didn't matter if Williams had made the whole thing up; it still got at the emotional truth of slavery," Fabian notes. New York abolitionists, however, were less accepting and eventually discredited his account.

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