Robert Wilton Burton (1848-1917) published minor prose works in local newspapers, serial stories in national juvenile magazines, and dialect tales featuring African American characters in regional city newspapers from the mid-1870s through the 1890s. His most significant work involves the tall tales Burton heard and recorded from Jake Mitchell, also known as Marengo Jake.
Burton was born on February 29, 1848, in Camden County, Georgia, to Robert Perrin and Amarintha Elizabeth Robarts Burton; he grew up in LaFayette, Chambers County, where he attended a private male school for five years. Too young to enlist when the Civil War broke out, he joined a Confederate youth militia that helped to build Fort Tyler in West Point, Georgia. In March 1865, he joined the Confederate army and was assigned to the Sixth Alabama Cavalry, Troop F. Captured two days later, he remained imprisoned until the end of the war in May 1865.
After his release, Burton returned to Alabama, where he taught school for a time in rural Lee County and in Opelika before opening a bookstore in Opelika with his brother. In 1875, Burton began publishing adventure stories in the Lafayette Clipper under the name Trubon Townly, an anagram for “Burton, Wylton.” These stories were followed in 1876 by descriptive travel letters about the South, written under the pen name Moses Primrose. The following year, using the name Haywood Oates, Burton published “Letters from a Farmer” in the West Point, Georgia, newspaper Riverside Echo.
In 1878, at the invitation of the faculty of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, now Auburn University, he opened Burton’s Bookstore, which became an Auburn institution for nearly a century. During Burton’s time, the bookstore was a gathering place where Auburn residents met to discuss life and literature. Townspeople especially looked forward to the daily rhymes and jingles Burton composed for the advertising blackboard in front of his store. On December 19, 1879, Burton married Anna Maria Persons; they would have two daughters.
From 1882 to 1888, Burton published serial stories under his own name in magazines of national circulation, one of which was Golden Days for Boys and Girls, a juvenile magazine published in Philadelphia that featured such then-popular writers as “Oliver Optic” (W. T. Adams), “Harry Castlemon” (C. A. Fosdick), and Horatio Alger. In 1885, he built a one-story house in Auburn, humorously calling the home a “Four-Story Cottage” because proceeds from the sale of the four stories in Golden Days financed its construction. In addition, Burton served as secretary of the Town Board of Education, County School Superintendent, Clerk of the Town Council (1892-1917), and Secretary to the College Board of Trustees (1899-1917).
Burton is best known for his dialect tales featuring African American characters that he published between 1885 and 1894 in the Montgomery Advertiser, Birmingham Age-Herald, and New Orleans Times-Democrat newspapers. Burton’s local-color stories relate events in and around Auburn from his perception of the point of view of its black citizens, all rendered in dialect. Although at least part of his motivation in publishing such stories was what he saw as preservation of memories of a bygone time, like other local color writers of the day Burton reinforced racial stereotypes.
Thirty-six of Burton’s stories are framed narratives involving the character Marengo Jake. These stories were told to Burton by Jake Mitchell, a freedman living in Auburn, who recounts time after time the superiority of all things in his home, Marengo County, compared with the inferior attributes of Lee County. For example, in Marengo County, water moccasins stretch across rivers and disrupt steamboat traffic and horses can run faster than a telegraph. In all of these tales, Mitchell insists that he is telling not just the truth, but the “remnant truth”—the highest truth.
In 1903, Burton collected the material he had written for the advertising blackboard in front of his bookstore in the pamphlet Bulletin Board Rhymes and Jingles: A Souvenir of Auburn. He died on June 22, 1917, and is buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The “four-story cottage” was dismantled in 1993, and a historic marker stands at the home’s location.
Sport, Kathryn, and Bert Hitchcock. De Remnant Truth: The Tales of Jake Mitchell and Robert Wilton Burton. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Sport, Kathryn McLeod. The Tales and Sketches of Wilton Burton. M.A. Thesis. Auburn University, 1986.
Stewart, Gladys Steadham. “Robert Wilton Burton.” M.S. Thesis. Alabama Polytechnic Institute [Auburn University], 1932.