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Not Twain's Best

1601. CONVERSATION AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRE-SIDE IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS, by Mark Twain. Embellished with an Illuminating Introduction, Facetious Footnotes and a Bibliography by Franklin J. Meine. Lyle Stuart. $6.50.

By Kenneth S. Lynn

Last year the Grove Press tried to sell various judges and assorted policemen on the idea that Henry Miller was not a pornographer, but the author, rather, of one of the world's great books. This year the Lyle Stuart firm is working the other side of the same street: the author of one of the world's great books is being pushed as a pornographer.

"At last!" exclaims the blurb on the naughty-pink front of this handsomely-boxed "special collector's limed edition" (there is, of course, no regular edition), "At last! Now you can read this long suppressed literary classic!" 1601, we are further assured, is a "delightfully wicked masterpiece." At $6.50 for a text slightly in excess of 2000 words, it had better be.

Alas (if that is the proper word), it is not. At any price, 1601 is not worth the money of even the most hopeful reader who never bought a magazine at Felix's.

Mark Twain wrote the thing in a letter to his minister. The Reverend Joseph Twichell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church of Hartford, Conn. (the "Church of the Holy Speculators," as Twain called it, in honor of the wealth of its worshipers), was very much "one of the boys." Unable to carry over into the Gilded Age the intellectual prestige which Horace Bushnell had lent to the Hartford ministry a generation before, Twichell sought the approval of his congregation through demonstrations of manliness, not of mind. He was a forceful speaker and an exuberant athlete, and whenever the males in his flock got together for smoking-room humor, Joe Twichell's hearty laugh rang loud and clear. Asylum Hill loved him, especially Mark Twain, who was Twichell's best friend for forty years.

It was, then, only natural that when Twain in the summer of 1876 got the idea for a story in the manner of an Elizabethan Pepys, in which the conversation of Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and a covey of ladies including the Queen was to be recorded in all the coarseness and candor that Twain liked to believe was typical of aristocratic talk of the period, he should write it out in a letter to Twichell. The good pastor, predictably, laughed his head off. After keeping the letter in his pocket for four years so that he could refer to it in moments of despondency (memories of Bushnell, possibly?), he sent it along to John Hay. When Hay recovered from hilarious convulsions he had the parody published--anonymously (the manner of publication preferred both by Hay and his friend Henry Adams for their own fictions).

Thus did this dismal discussion of flatulence and fornication become a part of American literature. The first edition was limited to four copies and all subsequent editions, of which the present one is the forty-fifth, have also been limited. Never have so few pages been read by so few readers and attained such lasting notoriety.

The only significant aspect of 1601 is the date of its composition. For it was in the summer of 1876 that Mark Twain's rage against the restrictions of polite English reached its historic climax: he began work on a novel written entirely in the vernacular of an ignorant river waif. Fed up with literary lies, he wanted Huck Finn to speak not like boys in other books, but exactly the way a boy brought up in the tanyards of Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1840's would have spoken. Yet at the very heart of his determination to be true to Huck lay an awareness that censorship was inevitable. As Twain wrote in 1880, "Fielding and Smollett 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..." 1601 was the junk-heap into which he tossed, half-humorously, half-despairingly, the knowledge and the words which in Victorian America would not have been tolerated in his masterpiece.

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