Did Mark Twain publish a dirty book in Cincinnati? Not exactly. Did a Cincinnati printer publish a dirty book written by Mark Twain? Most assuredly so. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, has several connections to Cincinnati. He lived here for a year as a young typesetter, he toured through here to promote his books, and he famously feuded with a Cincinnati newspaper. A little-known connection dates to 1901 when a local print shop produced a scandalously obscene short story written by Twain.
Those who are familiar with Mark Twain know his writing could be acerbic and satirical. He had a biting sense of humor, and his unpublished speeches were often ribald, risqué, and flagrantly off-color. An 1879 lecture, for example, delivered at a men’s club in Paris expressed his views, humorously, on masturbation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Mark Twain left a variety of indecent writings floating about, many passed along only in manuscript or typescript, often anonymously, until they found someone daring enough to print them. So it was with a curious “squib,” as they called them back in the day, known to Twain scholars as “[Date: 1601.] Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors,” or, alternately, just “1601.”
There is no question that this brief (just seven pages) story is obscene. Although it verges on pornographic, it probably does not cross that line, being mostly gross and scatological, largely devoted to a discussion of flatulence. Additionally, Twain wrote “1601” as an exercise in recreating Elizabethan speech, so it almost takes an English major to make sense of the faux early-Modern English. For example:
“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.”
There is no plot to “1601.” It purports to be an extract from the diary of Queen Elizabeth’s elderly cup-bearer, recording a conversation among the Queen, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and some younger guests gathered around a fireplace in the Queen’s chambers.
While it is generally agreed that Twain wrote “1601” at the same time he was writing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn—that is, sometime near 1876—there are conflicting accounts explaining why he wrote it. Franklin J. Meine, in an introduction to a 1939 edition, claims that Twain wrote it for his good friend, the Rev. Joseph Twitchell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut. Shelley Fischer Fishkin, author of A Historical Guide to Mark Twain, agrees on the timing but says it was written for an all-male writing group in imitation of Rabelais.
The first printed edition came off the press in 1880 at the instigation of John Hay, later U.S. Secretary of State, who convinced a friend in Cleveland to pull a handful of proofs. Twain himself talked a West Point Lieutenant, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, into running off 50 copies from the military academy’s print shop in 1882. Lt. Wood attacked the project with gusto, creating a special typeface to match obsolete Elizabethan characters and “aging” the paper stock in weak coffee to resemble antique vellum.
Twain needed the West Point edition to satisfy demand. As word got around, more of his friends wrote, asking for a copy, and Twain was tired of writing copies out by hand or by typewriter. One of those type-written copies landed in Cincinnati around 1901. It is not clear who produced this typewritten manuscript, whether Twain himself or one of his friends, but Cincinnati book dealer William C. Smith saw an unusual opportunity. Smith ran a bookshop on Fourth Street, and he had just taken under his wing a couple of artistic printers named Arthur E. Goetting (who later changed his name to Curtis) and John L. Ludlow, who went by the name Lawrence Ludlow. The pair had recently created a publishing house dedicated to hand-crafted fine printing called Byway Press, housed in the backroom of Smith’s bookstore. In 1933, Smith told American Book Collector magazine:
“About 1900, there was in existence [in Cincinnati] a small private press called the Byway Press, operated by one Ludlow and Mr. A. E. Curtis. I bought out the Ludlow interest, and having recently come into possession of the ‘Fireside Conversation,’ I conceived the idea of printing a small edition for private consumption. My copy was typewritten, and in printing the book we followed copy, which fact accounts for the variations in spelling. The edition comprised 200 copies, but owing to the primitive character of the little press, there were a great many copies thrown out because of imperfections, gray printing, etc. The net result was 120 copies.”
One wonders how Smith and Curtis got away with distributing 120 copies of this volume at a time when Cincinnati authorities were cracking down on shops that sold risqué dime novels from under the counter. Nevertheless, the Byway Press edition sold out and was reprinted by a Chicago printer in 1916 and 1930, the latter edition amounting to 500 copies.
Byway Press survived into the 1930s, publishing fine editions of Old English drinking songs, translations of Icelandic sagas, a story by Edgar Allen Poe, and some short runs of letters and memoirs by Cincinnati artists.
Although literary scholar and critic Edward Wagenknecht called Twain’s raunchy squib “the most famous piece of pornography in American literature,” there is no evidence that the bluenoses of Cincinnati suspected a little press in a little bookstore was peddling filth. The Cincinnati edition is a collector’s item these days.
If you are interested in reading this classic, it is posted to Project Gutenberg here.