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"Born irreverent," scrawled Mark Twain on a scratch pad, "—like all
other people I have ever known or heard of—I am hoping to remain so
while there are any reverent irreverences left to make fun of." —[Holograph
manuscript of Samuel L. Clemens, in the collection of the F. J. Meine]
Mark Twain was just as irreverent as he dared be, and 1601 reveals his
richest expression of sovereign contempt for overstuffed language, genteel
literature, and conventional idiocies. Later, when a magazine editor
apostrophized, "O that we had a Rabelais!" Mark impishly and anonymously—submitted
1601; and that same editor, a praiser of Rabelais, scathingly abused it
and the sender. In this episode, as in many others, Mark Twain, the "bad
boy" of American literature, revealed his huge delight in blasting the
shams of contemporary hypocrisy. Too, there was always the spirit of Tom
Sawyer deviltry in Mark's make-up that prompted him, as he himself
boasted, to see how much holy indignation he could stir up in the world.
WHO WROTE 1601?
The correct and complete title of 1601, as first issued, was: [Date,
1601.] 'Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the
Tudors.' For many years after its anonymous first issue in 1880, its
authorship was variously conjectured and widely disputed. In Boston,
William T. Ball, one of the leading theatrical critics during the late
90's, asserted that it was originally written by an English actor (name
not divulged) who gave it to him. Ball's original, it was said, looked
like a newspaper strip in the way it was printed, and may indeed have been
a proof pulled in some newspaper office. In St. Louis, William Marion
Reedy, editor of the St. Louis Mirror, had seen this famous tour de force
circulated in the early 80's in galley-proof form; he first learned from
Eugene Field that it was from the pen of Mark Twain.
"Many people," said Reedy, "thought the thing was done by Field and
attributed, as a joke, to Mark Twain. Field had a perfect genius for that
sort of thing, as many extant specimens attest, and for that sort of
practical joke; but to my thinking the humor of the piece is too mellow—not
hard and bright and bitter—to be Eugene Field's." Reedy's opinion
hits off the fundamental difference between these two great humorists; one
half suspects that Reedy was thinking of Field's French Crisis.
But Twain first claimed his bantling from the fog of anonymity in 1906, in
a letter addressed to Mr. Charles Orr, librarian of Case Library,
Cleveland. Said Clemens, in the course of his letter, dated July 30, 1906,
from Dublin, New Hampshire:
"The title of the piece is 1601. The piece is a supposititious
conversation which takes place in Queen Elizabeth's closet in that year,
between the Queen, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Duchess
of Bilgewater, and one or two others, and is not, as John Hay mistakenly
supposes, a serious effort to bring back our literature and philosophy to
the sober and chaste Elizabeth's time; if there is a decent word findable
in it, it is because I overlooked it. I hasten to assure you that it is
not printed in my published writings."
TWITTING THE REV. JOSEPH TWICHELL
The circumstances of how 1601 came to be written have since been
officially revealed by Albert Bigelow Paine in 'Mark Twain, A
Bibliography' (1912), and in the publication of Mark Twain's Notebook
1601 was written during the summer of 1876 when the Clemens family had
retreated to Quarry Farm in Elmira County, New York. Here Mrs. Clemens
enjoyed relief from social obligations, the children romped over the
countryside, and Mark retired to his octagonal study, which, perched high
on the hill, looked out upon the valley below. It was in the famous summer
of 1876, too, that Mark was putting the finishing touches to Tom Sawyer.
Before the close of the same year he had already begun work on 'The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', published in 1885. It is interesting to
note the use of the title, the "Duke of Bilgewater," in Huck Finn when the
"Duchess of Bilgewater" had already made her appearance in 1601.
Sandwiched between his two great masterpieces, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,
the writing of 1601 was indeed a strange interlude.
During this prolific period Mark wrote many minor items, most of them
rejected by Howells, and read extensively in one of his favorite books,
Pepys' Diary. Like many another writer Mark was captivated by Pepys' style
and spirit, and "he determined," says Albert Bigelow Paine in his 'Mark
Twain, A Biography', "to try his hand on an imaginary record of
conversation and court manners of a bygone day, written in the phrase of
the period. The result was 'Fireside Conversation in the Time of Queen
Elizabeth', or as he later called it, '1601'. The 'conversation' recorded
by a supposed Pepys of that period, was written with all the outspoken
coarseness and nakedness of that rank day, when fireside sociabilities
were limited only to the loosened fancy, vocabulary, and physical
performance, and not by any bounds of convention."
"It was written as a letter," continues Paine, "to that robust divine,
Rev. Joseph Twichell, who, unlike Howells, had no scruples about Mark's
'Elizabethan breadth of parlance.'"
The Rev. Joseph Twichell, Mark's most intimate friend for over forty
years, was pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church of Hartford,
which Mark facetiously called the "Church of the Holy Speculators,"
because of its wealthy parishioners. Here Mark had first met "Joe" at a
social, and their meeting ripened into a glorious, life long friendship.
Twichell was a man of about Mark's own age, a profound scholar, a devout
Christian, "yet a man with an exuberant sense of humor, and a profound
understanding of the frailties of mankind." The Rev. Mr. Twichell
performed the marriage ceremony for Mark Twain and solemnized the births
of his children; "Joe," his friend, counseled him on literary as well as
personal matters for the remainder of Mark's life. It is important to
catch this brief glimpse of the man for whom this masterpiece was written,
for without it one can not fully understand the spirit in which 1601 was
written, or the keen enjoyment which Mark and "Joe" derived from it.
"SAVE ME ONE."
The story of the first issue of 1601 is one of finesse, state diplomacy,
and surreptitious printing.
The Rev. "Joe" Twichell, for whose delectation the piece had been written,
apparently had pocketed the document for four long years. Then, in 1880,
it came into the hands of John Hay, later Secretary of State, presumably
sent to him by Mark Twain. Hay pronounced the sketch a masterpiece, and
wrote immediately to his old Cleveland friend, Alexander Gunn, prince of
connoisseurs in art and literature. The following correspondence reveals
the fine diplomacy which made the name of John Hay known throughout the
DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Washington, June 21, 1880.
Are you in Cleveland for all this week? If you will say yes by return
mail, I have a masterpiece to submit to your consideration which is only
in my hands for a few days.
Yours, very much worritted by the depravity of Christendom,
The second letter discloses Hay's own high opinion of the effort and his
deep concern for its safety.
June 24, 1880
My dear Gunn:
Here it is. It was written by Mark Twain in a serious effort to bring back
our literature and philosophy to the sober and chaste Elizabethan
standard. But the taste of the present day is too corrupt for anything so
classic. He has not yet been able even to find a publisher. The Globe has
not yet recovered from Downey's inroad, and they won't touch it.
I send it to you as one of the few lingering relics of that race of
appreciative critics, who know a good thing when they see it.
Read it with reverence and gratitude and send it back to me; for Mark is
impatient to see once more his wandering offspring.
In his third letter one can almost hear Hay's chuckle in the certainty
that his diplomatic, if somewhat wicked, suggestion would bear fruit.
Washington, D. C.July 7, 1880
My dear Gunn:
I have your letter, and the proposition which you make to pull a few
proofs of the masterpiece is highly attractive, and of course highly
immoral. I cannot properly consent to it, and I am afraid the great many
would think I was taking an unfair advantage of his confidence. Please
send back the document as soon as you can, and if, in spite of my
prohibition, you take these proofs, save me one.
Very truly yours,
Thus was this Elizabethan dialogue poured into the moulds of cold type.
According to Merle Johnson, Mark Twain's bibliographer, it was issued in
pamphlet form, without wrappers or covers; there were 8 pages of text and
the pamphlet measured 7 by 8 1/2 inches. Only four copies are believed to
have been printed, one for Hay, one for Gunn, and two for Twain.
"In the matter of humor," wrote Clemens, referring to Hay's delicious
notes, "what an unsurpassable touch John Hay had!"
HUMOR AT WEST POINT
The first printing of 1601 in actual book form was "Donne at ye Academie
Press," in 1882, West Point, New York, under the supervision of Lieut. C.
E. S. Wood, then adjutant of the U. S. Military Academy.
In 1882 Mark Twain and Joe Twichell visited their friend Lieut. Wood at
West Point, where they learned that Wood, as Adjutant, had under his
control a small printing establishment. On Mark's return to Hartford, Wood
received a letter asking if he would do Mark a great favor by printing
something he had written, which he did not care to entrust to the ordinary
printer. Wood replied that he would be glad to oblige. On April 3, 1882,
Mark sent the manuscript:
"I enclose the original of 1603 [sic] as you suggest. I am afraid there
are errors in it, also, heedlessness in antiquated spelling—e's
stuck on often at end of words where they are not strictly necessary,
etc..... I would go through the manuscript but I am too much driven just
now, and it is not important anyway. I wish you would do me the kindness
to make any and all corrections that suggest themselves to you.
"S. L. Clemens."
Charles Erskine Scott Wood recalled in a foreword, which he wrote for the
limited edition of 1601 issued by the Grabhorn Press, how he felt when he
first saw the original manuscript. "When I read it," writes Wood, "I felt
that the character of it would be carried a little better by a printing
which pretended to the eye that it was contemporaneous with the pretended
"I wrote Mark that for literary effect I thought there should be a species
of forgery, though of course there was no effort to actually deceive a
scholar. Mark answered that I might do as I liked;—that his only
object was to secure a number of copies, as the demand for it was becoming
burdensome, but he would be very grateful for any interest I brought to
"Well, Tucker [foreman of the printing shop] and I soaked some handmade
linen paper in weak coffee, put it as a wet bundle into a warm room to
mildew, dried it to a dampness approved by Tucker and he printed the
'copy' on a hand press. I had special punches cut for such Elizabethan
abbreviations as the a, e, o and u, when followed by m or n—and for
the (commonly and stupidly pronounced ye).
"The only editing I did was as to the spelling and a few old English words
introduced. The spelling, if I remember correctly, is mine, but the text
is exactly as written by Mark. I wrote asking his view of making the
spelling of the period and he was enthusiastic—telling me to do
whatever I thought best and he was greatly pleased with the result."
Thus was printed in a de luxe edition of fifty copies the most curious
masterpiece of American humor, at one of America's most dignified
institutions, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
"1601 was so be-praised by the archaeological scholars of a quarter of a
century ago," wrote Clemens in his letter to Charles Orr, "that I was
rather inordinately vain of it. At that time it had been privately printed
in several countries, among them Japan. A sumptuous edition on large
paper, rough-edged, was made by Lieut. C. E. S. Wood at West Point —an
edition of 50 copies—and distributed among popes and kings and such
people. In England copies of that issue were worth twenty guineas when I
was there six years ago, and none to be had."
FROM THE DEPTHS
Mark Twain's irreverence should not be misinterpreted: it was an
irreverence which bubbled up from a deep, passionate insight into the
well-springs of human nature. In 1601, as in 'The Man That Corrupted
Hadleyburg,' and in 'The Mysterious Stranger,' he tore the masks off human
beings and left them cringing before the public view. With the deftness of
a master surgeon Clemens dealt with human emotions and delighted in
exposing human nature in the raw.
The spirit and the language of the Fireside Conversation were rooted deep
in Mark Twain's nature and in his life, as C. E. S. Wood, who printed 1601
at West Point, has pertinently observed,
"If I made a guess as to the intellectual ferment out of which 1601 rose I
would say that Mark's intellectual structure and subconscious graining was
from Anglo-Saxons as primitive as the common man of the Tudor period. He
came from the banks of the Mississippi—from the flatboatmen, pilots,
roustabouts, farmers and village folk of a rude, primitive people—as
"He was finished in the mining camps of the West among stage drivers,
gamblers and the men of '49. The simple roughness of a frontier people was
in his blood and brain.
"Words vulgar and offensive to other ears were a common language to him.
Anyone who ever knew Mark heard him use them freely, forcibly,
picturesquely in his unrestrained conversation. Such language is forcible
as all primitive words are. Refinement seems to make for weakness—or
let us say a cutting edge—but the old vulgar monosyllabic words bit
like the blow of a pioneer's ax—and Mark was like that. Then I think
1601 came out of Mark's instinctive humor, satire and hatred of
puritanism. But there is more than this; with all its humor there is a
sense of real delight in what may be called obscenity for its own sake.
Whitman and the Bible are no more obscene than Nature herself—no
more obscene than a manure pile, out of which come roses and cherries.
Every word used in 1601 was used by our own rude pioneers as a part of
their vocabulary—and no word was ever invented by man with obscene
intent, but only as language to express his meaning. No act of nature is
obscene in itself—but when such words and acts are dragged in for an
ulterior purpose they become offensive, as everything out of place is
offensive. I think he delighted, too, in shocking—giving resounding
slaps on what Chaucer would quite simply call 'the bare erse.'"
Quite aside from this Chaucerian "erse" slapping, Clemens had also a
semi-serious purpose, that of reproducing a past time as he saw it in
Shakespeare, Dekker, Jonson, and other writers of the Elizabethan era.
Fireside Conversation was an exercise in scholarship illumined by a keen
sense of character. It was made especially effective by the artistic
arrangement of widely-gathered material into a compressed picture of a
phase of the manners and even the minds of the men and women "in the
spacious times of great Elizabeth."
Mark Twain made of 1601 a very smart and fascinating performance, carried
over almost to grotesqueness just to show it was not done for mere delight
in the frank naturalism of the functions with which it deals. That Mark
Twain had made considerable study of this frankness is apparent from
chapter four of 'A Yankee At King Arthur's Court,' where he refers to the
conversation at the famous Round Table thus:
"Many of the terms used in the most matter-of-fact way by this great
assemblage of the first ladies and gentlemen of the land would have made a
Comanche blush. Indelicacy is too mild a term to convey the idea. However,
I had read Tom Jones and Roderick Random and other books of that kind and
knew that the highest and first ladies and gentlemen in England had
remained little or no cleaner in their talk, and in the morals and conduct
which such talk implies, clear up to one hundred years ago; in fact clear
into our own nineteenth century—in which century, broadly speaking,
the earliest samples of the real lady and the real gentleman discoverable
in English history,—or in European history, for that matter—may
be said to have made their appearance. Suppose Sir Walter [Scott] instead
of putting the conversation into the mouths of his characters, had allowed
the characters to speak for themselves? We should have had talk from
Rebecca and Ivanhoe and the soft lady Rowena which would embarrass a tramp
in our day. However, to the unconsciously indelicate all things are
Mark Twain's interest in history and in the depiction of historical
periods and characters is revealed through his fondness for historical
reading in preference to fiction, and through his other historical
writings. Even in the hilarious, youthful days in San Francisco, Paine
reports that "Clemens, however, was never quite ready for sleep. Then, as
ever, he would prop himself up in bed, light his pipe, and lose himself in
English or French history until his sleep conquered." Paine tells us, too,
that Lecky's 'European Morals' was an old favorite.
The notes to 'The Prince and the Pauper' show again how carefully Clemens
examined his historical background, and his interest in these materials.
Some of the more important sources are noted: Hume's 'History of England',
Timbs' 'Curiosities of London', J. Hammond Trumbull's 'Blue Laws, True and
False'. Apparently Mark Twain relished it, for as Bernard DeVoto points
out, "The book is always Mark Twain. Its parodies of Tudor speech lapse
sometimes into a callow satisfaction in that idiom—Mark hugely
enjoys his nathlesses and beshrews and marrys." The writing of 1601
foreshadows his fondness for this treatment.
"Do you suppose the liberties and the Brawn of These States have to
do only with delicate lady-words? with gloved gentleman words"
Walt Whitman, 'An American Primer'.
Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published
works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated
literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a
man's man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases
of Mark's rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier
On the Virginia City Enterprise Mark learned from editor R. M. Daggett
that "when it was necessary to call a man names, there were no expletives
too long or too expressive to be hurled in rapid succession to emphasize
the utter want of character of the man assailed.... There were typesetters
there who could hurl anathemas at bad copy which would have frightened a
Bengal tiger. The news editor could damn a mutilated dispatch in
In San Francisco in the sizzling sixties we catch a glimpse of Mark Twain
and his buddy, Steve Gillis, pausing in doorways to sing "The Doleful
Ballad of the Neglected Lover," an old piece of uncollected erotica. One
morning, when a dog began to howl, Steve awoke "to find his room-mate
standing in the door that opened out into a back garden, holding a big
revolver, his hand shaking with cold and excitement," relates Paine in his
"'Come here, Steve,' he said. 'I'm so chilled through I can't get a bead
"'Sam,' said Steve, 'don't shoot him. Just swear at him. You can easily
kill him at any range with your profanity.'
"Steve Gillis declares that Mark Twain let go such a scorching, singeing
blast that the brute's owner sold him the next day for a Mexican hairless
Nor did Mark's "geysers of profanity" cease spouting after these gay and
youthful days in San Francisco. With Clemens it may truly be said that
profanity was an art—a pyrotechnic art that entertained nations.
"It was my duty to keep buttons on his shirts," recalled Katy Leary,
life-long housekeeper and friend in the Clemens menage, "and he'd swear
something terrible if I didn't. If he found a shirt in his drawer without
a button on, he'd take every single shirt out of that drawer and throw
them right out of the window, rain or shine—out of the bathroom
window they'd go. I used to look out every morning to see the snowflakes—anything
white. Out they'd fly.... Oh! he'd swear at anything when he was on a
rampage. He'd swear at his razor if it didn't cut right, and Mrs. Clemens
used to send me around to the bathroom door sometimes to knock and ask him
what was the matter. Well, I'd go and knock; I'd say, 'Mrs. Clemens wants
to know what's the matter.' And then he'd say to me (kind of low) in a
whisper like, 'Did she hear me Katy?' 'Yes,' I'd say, 'every word.' Oh,
well, he was ashamed then, he was afraid of getting scolded for swearing
like that, because Mrs. Clemens hated swearing." But his swearing never
seemed really bad to Katy Leary, "It was sort of funny, and a part of him,
somehow," she said. "Sort of amusing it was—and gay—not like
real swearing, 'cause he swore like an angel."
In his later years at Stormfield Mark loved to play his favorite
billiards. "It was sometimes a wonderful and fearsome thing to watch Mr.
Clemens play billiards," relates Elizabeth Wallace. "He loved the game,
and he loved to win, but he occasionally made a very bad stroke, and then
the varied, picturesque, and unorthodox vocabulary, acquired in his more
youthful years, was the only thing that gave him comfort. Gently, slowly,
with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had
the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of
unholy adjectives and choice expletives."
Mark's vocabulary ran the whole gamut of life itself. In Paris, in his
appearance in 1879 before the Stomach Club, a jolly lot of gay wags,
Mark's address, reports Paine, "obtained a wide celebrity among the clubs
of the world, though no line of it, not even its title, has ever found its
way into published literature." It is rumored to have been called "Some
Remarks on the Science of Onanism."
In Berlin, Mark asked Henry W. Fisher to accompany him on an exploration
of the Berlin Royal Library, where the librarian, having learned that
Clemens had been the Kaiser's guest at dinner, opened the secret treasure
chests for the famous visitor. One of these guarded treasures was a volume
of grossly indecent verses by Voltaire, addressed to Frederick the Great.
"Too much is enough," Mark is reported to have said, when Fisher
translated some of the verses, "I would blush to remember any of these
stanzas except to tell Krafft-Ebing about them when I get to Vienna." When
Fisher had finished copying a verse for him Mark put it into his pocket,
saying, "Livy [Mark's wife, Olivia] is so busy mispronouncing German these
days she can't even attempt to get at this."
In his letters, too, Howells observed, "He had the Southwestern, the
Lincolnian, the Elizabethan breadth of parlance, which I suppose one ought
not to call coarse without calling one's self prudish; and I was often
hiding away in discreet holes and corners the letters in which he had
loosed his bold fancy to stoop on rank suggestion; I could not bear to
burn them, and I could not, after the first reading, quite bear to look at
them. I shall best give my feeling on this point by saying that in it he
"With a nigger squat on her safety-valve"
John Hay, Pike County Ballads.
"Is there any other explanation," asks Van Wyck Brooks, "'of his
Elizabethan breadth of parlance?' Mr. Howells confesses that he sometimes
blushed over Mark Twain's letters, that there were some which, to the very
day when he wrote his eulogy on his dead friend, he could not bear to
reread. Perhaps if he had not so insisted, in former years, while going
over Mark Twain's proofs, upon 'having that swearing out in an instant,'
he would never had had cause to suffer from his having 'loosed his bold
fancy to stoop on rank suggestion.' Mark Twain's verbal Rabelaisianism was
obviously the expression of that vital sap which, not having been
permitted to inform his work, had been driven inward and left there to
ferment. No wonder he was always indulging in orgies of forbidden words.
Consider the famous book, 1601, that fireside conversation in the time of
Queen Elizabeth: is there any obsolete verbal indecency in the English
language that Mark Twain has not painstakingly resurrected and assembled
there? He, whose blood was in constant ferment and who could not contain
within the narrow bonds that had been set for him the riotous exuberance
of his nature, had to have an escape-valve, and he poured through it a
fetid stream of meaningless obscenity—the waste of a priceless
psychic material!" Thus, Brooks lumps 1601 with Mark Twain's "bawdry," and
interprets it simply as another indication of frustration.
FIGS FOR FIG LEAVES!
Of course, the writing of such a piece as 1601 raised the question of
freedom of expression for the creative artist.
Although little discussed at that time, it was a question which intensely
interested Mark, and for a fuller appreciation of Mark's position one must
keep in mind the year in which 1601 was written, 1876. There had been
nothing like it before in American literature; there had appeared no
Caldwells, no Faulkners, no Hemingways. Victorian England was gushing
Tennyson. In the United States polite letters was a cult of the Brahmins
of Boston, with William Dean Howells at the helm of the Atlantic. Louisa
May Alcott published Little Women in 1868-69, and Little Men in 1871. In
1873 Mark Twain led the van of the debunkers, scraping the gilt off the
lily in the Gilded Age.
In 1880 Mark took a few pot shots at license in Art and Literature in his
Tramp Abroad, "I wonder why some things are? For instance, Art is allowed
as much indecent license to-day as in earlier times—but the
privileges of Literature in this respect have been sharply curtailed
within the past eighty or ninety years. Fielding and Smollet could portray
the beastliness of their day in the beastliest language; we have plenty of
foul subjects to deal with in our day, but we are not allowed to approach
them very near, even with nice and guarded forms of speech. But not so
with Art. The brush may still deal freely with any subject; however
revolting or indelicate. It makes a body ooze sarcasm at every pore, to go
about Rome and Florence and see what this last generation has been doing
with the statues. These works, which had stood in innocent nakedness for
ages, are all fig-leaved now. Yes, every one of them. Nobody noticed their
nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf
makes it so conspicuous. But the comical thing about it all, is, that the
fig-leaf is confined to cold and pallid marble, which would be still cold
and unsuggestive without this sham and ostentatious symbol of modesty,
whereas warm-blooded paintings which do really need it have in no case
been furnished with it.
"At the door of the Ufizzi, in Florence, one is confronted by statues of a
man and a woman, noseless, battered, black with accumulated grime—they
hardly suggest human beings—yet these ridiculous creatures have been
thoughtfully and conscientiously fig-leaved by this fastidious generation.
You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in
the world.... and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or
leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest
picture the world possesses—Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is
naked and stretched out on a bed—no, it is the attitude of one of
her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe the attitude, there would be
a fine howl—but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that
wants to—and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art,
and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at
her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm
men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to
describe her—just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in
the world—just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself
about my grossness and coarseness, and all that.
"In every gallery in Europe there are hideous pictures of blood, carnage,
oozing brains, putrefaction—pictures portraying intolerable
suffering—pictures alive with every conceivable horror, wrought out
in dreadful detail—and similar pictures are being put on the canvas
every day and publicly exhibited—without a growl from anybody—for
they are innocent, they are inoffensive, being works of art. But suppose a
literary artist ventured to go into a painstaking and elaborate
description of one of these grisly things—the critics would skin him
alive. Well, let it go, it cannot be helped; Art retains her privileges,
Literature has lost hers. Somebody else may cipher out the whys and the
wherefores and the consistencies of it—I haven't got time."
PROFESSOR SCENTS PORNOGRAPHY
Unfortunately, 1601 has recently been tagged by Professor Edward
Wagenknecht as "the most famous piece of pornography in American
literature." Like many another uninformed, Prof. W. is like the little boy
who is shocked to see "naughty" words chalked on the back fence, and
thinks they are pornography. The initiated, after years of wading through
the mire, will recognize instantly the significant difference between
filthy filth and funny "filth." Dirt for dirt's sake is something else
again. Pornography, an eminent American jurist has pointed out, is
distinguished by the "leer of the sensualist."
"The words which are criticised as dirty," observed justice John M.
Woolsey in the United States District Court of New York, lifting the ban
on Ulysses by James Joyce, "are old Saxon words known to almost all men
and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally
and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical
and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe." Neither was there "pornographic
intent," according to justice Woolsey, nor was Ulysses obscene within the
legal definition of that word.
"The meaning of the word 'obscene,'" the Justice indicated, "as legally
defined by the courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to
sexually impure and lustful thoughts.
"Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts
must be tested by the court's opinion as to its effect on a person with
average sex instincts—what the French would call 'l'homme moyen
sensuel'—who plays, in this branch of legal inquiry, the same role
of hypothetical reagent as does the 'reasonable man' in the law of torts
and 'the learned man in the art' on questions of invention in patent law."
Obviously, it is ridiculous to say that the "leer of the sensualist" lurks
in the pages of Mark Twain's 1601.
"In a way," observed William Marion Reedy, "1601 is to Twain's whole works
what the 'Droll Stories' are to Balzac's. It is better than the privately
circulated ribaldry and vulgarity of Eugene Field; is, indeed, an essay in
a sort of primordial humor such as we find in Rabelais, or in the plays of
some of the lesser stars that drew their light from Shakespeare's urn. It
is humor or fun such as one expects, let us say, from the peasants of
Thomas Hardy, outside of Hardy's books. And, though it be filthy, it yet
hath a splendor of mere animalism of good spirits... I would say it is
scatalogical rather than erotic, save for one touch toward the end.
Indeed, it seems more of Rabelais than of Boccaccio or Masuccio or Aretino—is
brutally British rather than lasciviously latinate, as to the subjects,
but sumptuous as regards the language."
Immediately upon first reading, John Hay, later Secretary of State, had
proclaimed 1601 a masterpiece. Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain's
biographer, likewise acknowledged its greatness, when he said, "1601 is a
genuine classic, as classics of that sort go. It is better than the gross
obscenities of Rabelais, and perhaps in some day to come, the taste that
justified Gargantua and the Decameron will give this literary refugee
shelter and setting among the more conventional writing of Mark Twain.
Human taste is a curious thing; delicacy is purely a matter of environment
and point of view."
"It depends on who writes a thing whether it is coarse or not," wrote
Clemens in his notebook in 1879. "I built a conversation which could have
happened—I used words such as were used at that time—1601. I
sent it anonymously to a magazine, and how the editor abused it and the
"But that man was a praiser of Rabelais and had been saying, 'O that we
had a Rabelais!' I judged that I could furnish him one."
"Then I took it to one of the greatest, best and most learned of Divines
[Rev. Joseph H. Twichell] and read it to him. He came within an ace of
killing himself with laughter (for between you and me the thing was
dreadfully funny. I don't often write anything that I laugh at myself, but
I can hardly think of that thing without laughing). That old Divine said
it was a piece of the finest kind of literary art—and David Gray of
the Buffalo Courier said it ought to be printed privately and left behind
me when I died, and then my fame as a literary artist would last."
FRANKLIN J. MEINE