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 Lincoln did.
“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.”