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1601: Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors

Mark Twain

  Produced by David Widger


  Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors

  By Mark Twain


  "Born irreverent," scrawled Mark Twain on a scratch pad, "--like allother people I have ever known or heard of--I am hoping to remainso while there are any reverent irreverences left to make fun of."--[Holograph manuscript of Samuel L. Clemens, in the collection of theF. J. Meine]

  Mark Twain was just as irreverent as he dared be, and 1601 revealshis richest expression of sovereign contempt for overstuffed language,genteel literature, and conventional idiocies. Later, when a magazineeditor apostrophized, "O that we had a Rabelais!" Mark impishlyand anonymously--submitted 1601; and that same editor, a praiser ofRabelais, scathingly abused it and the sender. In this episode, as inmany others, Mark Twain, the "bad boy" of American literature, revealedhis huge delight in blasting the shams of contemporary hypocrisy. Too,there was always the spirit of Tom Sawyer deviltry in Mark's make-upthat prompted him, as he himself boasted, to see how much holyindignation 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 ofthe 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 late90's, asserted that it was originally written by an English actor (namenot divulged) who gave it to him. Ball's original, it was said, lookedlike a newspaper strip in the way it was printed, and may indeed havebeen a proof pulled in some newspaper office. In St. Louis, WilliamMarion Reedy, editor of the St. Louis Mirror, had seen this famous tourde force circulated in the early 80's in galley-proof form; he firstlearned from Eugene Field that it was from the pen of Mark Twain.

  "Many people," said Reedy, "thought the thing was done by Field andattributed, as a joke, to Mark Twain. Field had a perfect genius forthat sort of thing, as many extant specimens attest, and for that sortof practical joke; but to my thinking the humor of the piece is toomellow--not hard and bright and bitter--to be Eugene Field's." Reedy'sopinion hits off the fundamental difference between these two greathumorists; one half suspects that Reedy was thinking of Field's FrenchCrisis.

  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 supposititiousconversation which takes place in Queen Elizabeth's closet in that year,between the Queen, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Duchessof Bilgewater, and one or two others, and is not, as John Hay mistakenlysupposes, a serious effort to bring back our literature and philosophyto the sober and chaste Elizabeth's time; if there is a decent wordfindable in it, it is because I overlooked it. I hasten to assure youthat it is not printed in my published writings."


  The circumstances of how 1601 came to be written have since beenofficially revealed by Albert Bigelow Paine in 'Mark Twain, ABibliography' (1912), and in the publication of Mark Twain's Notebook(1935).

  1601 was written during the summer of 1876 when the Clemens family hadretreated to Quarry Farm in Elmira County, New York. Here Mrs. Clemensenjoyed relief from social obligations, the children romped over thecountryside, and Mark retired to his octagonal study, which, perchedhigh on the hill, looked out upon the valley below. It was in the famoussummer of 1876, too, that Mark was putting the finishing touches to TomSawyer. Before the close of the same year he had already begun workon 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', published in 1885. It isinteresting to note the use of the title, the "Duke of Bilgewater,"in Huck Finn when the "Duchess of Bilgewater" had already made herappearance in 1601. Sandwiched between his two great masterpieces,Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the writing of 1601 was indeed a strangeinterlude.

  During this prolific period Mark wrote many minor items, most of themrejected 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 ofconversation and court manners of a bygone day, written in the phrase ofthe period. The result was 'Fireside Conversation in the Time ofQueen Elizabeth', or as he later called it, '1601'. The 'conversation'recorded by a supposed Pepys of that period, was written with all theoutspoken coarseness and nakedness of that rank day, when firesidesociabilities were limited only to the loosened fancy, vocabulary, andphysical 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 fortyyears, 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 asocial, and their meeting ripened into a glorious, life long friendship.Twichell was a man of about Mark's own age, a profound scholar, a devoutChristian, "yet a man with an exuberant sense of humor, and a profoundunderstanding of the frailties of mankind." The Rev. Mr. Twichellperformed the marriage ceremony for Mark Twain and solemnized the birthsof his children; "Joe," his friend, counseled him on literary as wellas personal matters for the remainder of Mark's life. It is importantto catch this brief glimpse of the man for whom this masterpiece waswritten, for without it one can not fully understand the spirit in which1601 was written, or the keen enjoyment which Mark and "Joe" derivedfrom it.


  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 beenwritten, 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 sketcha masterpiece, and wrote immediately to his old Cleveland friend,Alexander Gunn, prince of connoisseurs in art and literature. Thefollowing correspondence reveals the fine diplomacy which made the nameof John Hay known throughout the world.


  Washington, June 21, 1880.

  Dear Gunn:

  Are you in Cleveland for all this week? If you will say yes by returnmail, I have a masterpiece to submit to your consideration which is onlyin 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 hisdeep concern for its safety.