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 sender!”
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
THE FIRST PRINTING Verbatim Reprint
Conversation, as it was by
the social fireside, in the
time of the