Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mark Twain saved American pornography

In free association, if you heard "Mark Twain," you would probably respond with Huckleberry Finn, a 19th century American literary masterpiece. You would not associate this giant of American letters with a masterpiece of erotica. But in An Unhurried View of Erotica, by Ralph Ginzburg; The Helmsman Press, NY (1958), the author offers his opinion that Mark Twain stepped up to the challenge of producing a fine piece of erotic literature that could stand up against the European benchmarks of the day. That book was titled 1601... Conversation as It Was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors.

In the Introduction to An Unhurried View of Erotica, Theodore Reik, a prominent psychoanalyst who trained as one of Freud's first students in Vienna, writes:
This little book deals with the universal interest the Anglo-Saxons had and have in all aspects of sex in a surprising manner. It shows the powerful undercurrent of pornography that runs faithfully with the great stream of literature. It follows the erotic trend that moves under the surface of literature from its beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book until the pornographic works of our time.
Reik writes further, from his psychoanalytic background, that this book shows which components of sexuality and which disavowed impulses strive for satisfaction and which appeal to the appetite of the average man (and woman). Woman seems a parenthetical afterthought. Although it was written in the 1950s, it's still a curious notion coming from a famed psychoanalyst. Or was it the editors that objected to assigning equal drives to women? Who was at the helm of the Helmsman Press at that time? A valuable contribution to the exploration of unconscious emotions makes this book an interesting read to the psychiatrist, psychologist, sociologist, and historian of civilization.

In one of Reik's concluding paragraphs, he notes:
The author justifiably includes the scatalogical interest in the area of erotica. The discoveries of psychoanalysis and analytic child-psychology leave no doubt that the functions of evacuation are not only biologically but also psychologically intimately connected with sexuality.

This is a good point to jump off the psychoanalytic ship and back onto Twain's riverboat humor, with references in a 1601 scene to flatulence, as well as fornication, during a fictitious meeting of Queen Elizabeth's inner circle in the year 1601 (hence the title of the book). The terms erotica and pornography get tossed around in An Unhurried View of Erotica with a pretty wide net to catch references such as these and assign them pornographic status. Today, where the nearly hardcore has become nearly mainstream, we would laugh at what passed for pornography back in the (Twain) day.

But Twain had written 1601 in between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, at a time when America's output of erotically-tinged material was sorely lacking in comparison to Europe's erotic masterpieces in morocco bindings, elegant papers, and fine illustrations. Written for the amusement of Twain's closest friend, Reverend Joseph Twichell (wonder what his sermons were like?), 1601 was later first published by another friend, John Hay, who later became Secretary of State. Hay had 4 copies printed in pamphlet form in 1880. If any of these still exist, I'd have to think they are among the rarest of Twain collectibles, if not the rarest.

The first hardcover printings did not come out for another two years. Yet another friend was involved, this one a Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood, who was in charge of the Academy's printing press. Lt. Wood published an elegant edition of 50 copies on handmade linen paper and distributed to dignitaries around the world. Even the Pope got a copy!

Subsequent U.S. editions to date of 1601's publication brought the total editions to 44. Around the world, many more editions flourished in places like Japan where it is still more popular there than in America. Twain's new found status as America's premier creator of fine erotica landed him some unusual invitations, which he gladly accepted during his celebrated trip abroad.

One was a chance to visit the secret treasure vaults of the Berlin Royal Library and browse the Kaiser's pornographic holdings. And another invitation was to address the Stomach Club in Paris, where his topic was "Some Remarks on the Science of Onanism." One wonders at the self-gratification Mr. Twain experienced having been invited to address that auspicious group... Regardless, American erotica would never be viewed the same by our friends overseas. All thanks to the witty whims of a former Mississippi River steamboat pilot.

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