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.”
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 (1935).
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