Category Archives: obscenity

In the Archives: Mark Twain, “[Date, 1601.] CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.”

Tracy Wuster

“[Date, 1601.] ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors” or “1601” is one of the most fascinating works in all of the writing of Mark Twain.  The piece is written as a conversation between Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, and others in the Queen’s closet, by the Queen’s cup-bearer.  As the company talks, the narrator relates:

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.

Then follows each member of the company discussing the fart, followed by some ribald talk of sex, poetry, and religion.  Depending on your view of the matters at hand, the piece is either immensely hilarious or shocking… or maybe both.  And it is almost wholly without peer in Twain’s writings.

Written in 1876, the same summer he began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the piece was originally meant for Samuel Clemens’s minister–the Reverend Joseph Twichell.  He later wrote:

“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.”

As you read the piece, think about Samuel Clemens writing the piece for his minister–the man who performed his wedding ceremony.

Mark Twain samuel clemens portrait painting 1877

Portrait by F.D. Millet (1877)

In 1880, John Hay–the humorist and statesman–had four copies printed, without a name attached (only one copy of this version is known to exist).  Amazingly, the first book edition was printed in 1882 at West Point, by a friend of Clemens and Twichell, in an edition of 50 copies on handmade paper soaked in coffee, with special punches for the Old English spelling required.  Truly, it may have have been the best use of military technology in the history of the Army. Further editions were printed during Twain’s lifetime, although Twain did not claim the piece until 1906 in a letter. (See Franklin J. Meine’s introduction for more information).

1601 represents the profane, vulgar side of Mark Twain that was seldom seen in his work, although it was well known that he had a passion for swearing.  Franklin Meine argues that:

Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a man’s man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases of Mark’s rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier journalist.

While I am not sure that it is so easy to say that this piece represents the manly man Mark Twain, it does point to a largely masculine culture of letters in which fugitive pieces, often of a rather profane or vulgar bent, were passed around amongst friends.  Benjamin Franklin’s “Fart Proudly,” (1871) was of a similar vein of American humor–one that blends folklore with the dirty joke while presenting the subject in a “respectable” form.  Twain and Franklin’s pieces are surely remembered because of their famous authors, and each is hilariously funny in its own way.  Are there other examples of this type of humor that might be put into the conversation?

In the meantime, enjoy 1601, although if you are at work, there are some truly dirty parts.  Be warned.

[Date, 1601.]

CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.

     [Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the
     diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen
     Elizabeth's cup-bearer.  He is supposed to be of ancient and
     noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille;
     that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping
     to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his
     nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and
     yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to
     dismiss him.]

YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-six yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, thirty; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.

I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?

Lady Alice.—Good your grace, an’ I had room for such a thunderbust within mine ancient bowels, ’tis not in reason I coulde discharge ye same and live to thank God for yt He did choose handmaid so humble whereby to shew his power. Nay, ’tis not I yt have broughte forth this rich o’ermastering fog, this fragrant gloom, so pray you seeke ye further.

Ye Queene.—Mayhap ye Lady Margery hath done ye companie this favor?

Lady Margery.—So please you madam, my limbs are feeble wh ye weighte and drouth of five and sixty winters, and it behoveth yt I be tender unto them. In ye good providence of God, an’ I had contained this wonder, forsoothe wolde I have gi’en ‘ye whole evening of my sinking life to ye dribbling of it forth, with trembling and uneasy soul, not launched it sudden in its matchless might, taking mine own life with violence, rending my weak frame like rotten rags. It was not I, your maisty.

Ye Queene.—O’ God’s name, who hath favored us? Hath it come to pass yt a fart shall fart itself? Not such a one as this, I trow. Young Master Beaumont—but no; ‘twould have wafted him to heaven like down of goose’s boddy. ‘Twas not ye little Lady Helen—nay, ne’er blush, my child; thoul’t tickle thy tender maidenhedde with many a mousie-squeak before thou learnest to blow a harricane like this. Wasn’t you, my learned and ingenious Jonson?

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Sunday Stand Up: George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words”

Tracy Wuster

Today, May 12th, would have been George Carlin’s birthday.  Born in 1937, Carlin was one of the key figures of the stand-up renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s.  Carlin is listed as #2 on the Comedy Central list of the 100 most influential comedians of all time and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor.

“Seven Dirty Words” originated on Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, and was revisited on 1973’s, Occupation: Foole.  Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 for performing the routine in Milwaukie.  The case was dismissed when Carlin’s routine was judged indecent, not obscene. Carlin’s explication of the words led to a court case that eventually ended at the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundationa decision that is a modern touchstone in the debate over obscenity (here is part of the FCC transcript of Carlin’s monologue).

George Carlin, mug shot, seven dirty words, 1972, obscenity

Every once in a while, I try to think what those seven words are–can you think of them?

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