A Former Slave Writes to his Old Master

I came across this wonderful, authentic letter from a former slave named Jourdan Anderson to his old master, Col. Anderson of Tennessee. After the civil war,  Jourdan moved to Ohio with his wife, also a former slave, and found work there. The Colonel  wrote to his former property,  inviting him to come back to work on the plantation, this time as a free man. Below  is Jourdan Anderson’s perfect reply.  Keep reading till the end—it gets better and better.

This letter comes from the Project Gutenberg eBook.  I found it on the Letters of Note website, which will include it in an upcoming book of notable letters. That site’s log line is “Correspondence Worth of a Wider Audience.” I think this letter is worthy of the widest possible audience, and I hope you’ll pass it on.



[Written just as he dictated it.]

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.

To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the[266] folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq.,[267] Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.

What Neuroscientists Are Learning That Writers Already Know

Imagine you’re in a bookstore (remember bookstores?) and you’ve chosen three novels. You can only buy one, so you sit down in a cozy armchair intending to read the first pages of each. An hour later, you glance up blearily and realize that you’re still reading the first book and you have no idea where the time went. You’ve been transported.

How did it happen? Not by accident. The writer made it happen. He created a world so real and compelling that it sucked you right out of your own and into his. Now, through the use of brain scan technology, neuroscientists are beginning to discover the mechanisms by which this phenomenon occurs.

The New York Times ran a fascinating article 2 months ago—“Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul — that examined recent studies of how our brains function when we read. Teams of researchers have repeatedly found that when subjects hooked up to MRI machines read descriptive, sensory language, the parts of the brain that process sensory input became active. When subjects read words like perfume and coffee, their brains reacted as if they actually smelled those scents. This was true even when the language was used metaphorically. “Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.”

Within this simulated world, which through the alchemy of reading now exists within the reader’s mind as well as on the page, the encounters and events of the story are experienced as real. Interactions between characters are handled by the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which explains, for the scientific-minded among us, why we form lasting relationships with fictional characters who never really existed.

Writers need to take account of this phenomenon in their work. It takes skill to create such a world; specifically, it takes descriptive skill. As an agent, I found that the ability to create a fully fleshed, convincing setting was rare compared to the ability to create characters and events. And as a writing teacher, I’ve heard many students say that they “don’t do description;” I’ve never heard any say that they don’t do dialogue or action. But unless the setting is fully realized, nothing that happens there will matter.

With regard to concrete and specific, consider the difference between these two passages. The first is by Ron Hansen, from Atticus:

“Atticus put on his Army Air Corps jacket and cattleman’s hat and went out. Cold snow crunched between his gray cowboy boots with the toothgrind noise of cattle chewing. Jewels of sunlight sparked from the whiteness everywhere. And there under the green pine limbs was the red hay baler, the yellow crawler tractor and bulldozer blade, the plows and reaper and cultivator that were going orange with rust, and the milkwhite Thunderbird just as it was sixteen years ago when Scott took Serena to the store. The high speed impact of the accident had destroyed one headlight and crumpled up the right fender and hood like writing paper meant to be thrown away. The right wheel tilted on its axle as though it had not been fully bolted on, and the rubber tire shredded from it like black clothing scraps.”

Now this second passage is one I wrote – to make a point, I hasten to add:

“Atticus put on his jacket and hat and went out. There was snow on the ground. The sun was shining. Rusty farm equipment sat under some trees, beside the wrecked car, left just as it was after the accident 16 years ago.”

Flat, right, that second one? Two-dimensional? Whereas in Hansen’s description, the scene springs to life. Since they see it so clearly, readers cannot doubt its reality. Notice how the language and sentence structure, and the repeated mentions of color, lull us even as they lead to the unexpected end: the hideously mangled car. (The description also sets up the gradual revelation of the story behind the accident, a vital part of the story.)

With regard to selectivity, no one said it better than Mark Twain, who wrote to a schoolboy writer: “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.” To give every detail is to rob the important ones of significance. Language counts, too. “Use the right word,” Twain advised, “not its second cousin.”

Scientists are now beginning to piece together the nuts and bolts of a phenomenon Flannery O’Connor explained long ago in an essay on writing: “One quality of fiction which I think is its least common denominator—the fact that it is concrete….The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” We have five senses, she wrote, and “if you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.”

The take-away for writers? Call a spade a spade, not a digging implement.

A quick note to those folks who’ve asked for updates: I’m teaching a class called “Focus On the Novel” for Writers Digest University starting June 21, 2012. Anyone interested in my own Next Level Workshops should drop me a line–getting on my emailing list is the best way to get in. Next offered will probably Revising Fiction, probably in late 2012. Also, I’m delighted to announced that Simon & Schuster have just reissued SUSPICION as an ebook. Good book for a stormy night, though I says it myself.

A Writer, an Agent, and an Editor walked into a bar…


A writer, an agent, and an editor walked into a bar.

  “What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.

  “Scotch,” she said.


I’ll admit right up front that I had reservations about starting this blog. Reservations may  be putting it lightly.  Internal arguments raged throughout the various levels of my brain, infiltrating my unconscious, so that I dreamed about blogging when I could have been dreaming about Matt Damon or George Clooney. The Antiblogger within put up a hell of a fight. “What,” he demanded (he, yes, and with a slight Yiddish accent)  “there aren’t enough blogs in the world, you gotta go spit in the ocean?”

“Well, yes,” I said diffidently, “but I think I have something unique—“

“Unique, shmunique! You’re a writer! They all blog now, poor schumucks, they can’t help themselves. You’d have to pay them to stop.  You got time for this blogging?”

“I could make time.”

“Look at your desk! You got students. You got clients. You got proofs to read and books to write, not to mention the poor dogs wanting their walk.  What time?”

The Antiblogger had a point there, his strongest. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  A blog, in my hands, could become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog. They come with expectations, and arouse them. It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself. Could I really make the commitment? Should I? The blogosphere is full of wonderfully informative blogs, many of which I read, by writers, literary agents, editors, book reviewers, marketing specialists, and passionate readers. It’s an interesting, contentious world, full of uncertainty and pitched battles between the gatekeepers and the gatecrashers, supporters of traditional publishing and self-publishing gurus. One could spend 24 hours a day reading good blogs and only skim the surface. Why, then, write another?

There is a reason, though, and it stems from who I am. A writer, first and foremost: author of eight novels, with the next one coming out in 2013 with Viking/Penguin. But like most writers, I’ve had many day jobs, and all of mine have been in publishing. I started straight out of college as a proofreader in one of the large New York publishers, and quickly graduated to editing. Then I moved to Israel (long story for another time) and, after a stint with an Israeli publisher, found a niche where my experience could be useful. I started a literary agency to facilitate the translation of foreign books into Hebrew and Israeli books into other languages. In industry parlance, I became a subagent for many of the major publishers and literary agents in the US and Europe.

The agency was successful. I had the pleasure of working with many of the leading publishers, editors, agents and authors in the world, and in the process I received a first-class education in the business of publishing.

But it wasn’t enough. Wonderful as that life was, seductive as it was, I needed to write my own stories.  I carved out time. It took two years, but my first novel sold to Doubleday in the US, Weidenfeld in England and Edanim in Israel.  For years I kept on writing and running the agency, but eventually, with a growing family, a demanding business and a burgeoning writing career, I had to choose between writing my own books and selling other people’s. I chose to write. Since then, my career as a writer has been informed by the many years I spent as an editor and agent.  I see the world from both sides now, and that unique perspective is what I hope to share in this blog.

So here’s the deal. I can’t post daily. Once a week is more my speed, but I promise I won’t waste your time. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I look forward to exploring that evolving world. Other posts will deal with the craft of writing, because the writer, teacher, editor and agent in me all agree on one unchanging truth: The best thing aspiring writers can do for themselves is to thoroughly learn their craft. In addition to providing my own take on the business and the craft of writing, I will rope in some publishing and writer friends for their insider savvy.

Writing is a lonely profession, and publishing a daunting one. I hope this blog will prove a helpful resource and spark some dialogue. I invite you to comment.  “If you build it, they will come,” Kevin Costner was told, but I’m a warier type. If you come, I will write it; and I’ll keep on writing till I run out of useful things to say.