A Night at the Mermaid

By RUSSELL MALONEY

I SPENT four years at a great Eastern university, studying the history of English literature. It seems to me sometimes that my mastery of this useful subject is somehow apparent in my manners and conversation, and that the proprietresses of lending libraries treat me in consequence with a certain deference.

For the benefit of those who are in modest circumstances. or who for any other reason have not been able to spend four years studying the history of English literature, I might explain that the course of study tends mainly towards indoctrination in what I call secondhand gusto. Secondhand gusto is, for instance, jovial delight in the antics of Falstaff as expressed by an assistant professor who would get up and change his seat if a tipsy fat man sat down beside him in a streetcar.

In my day — and I suppose it’s the same way now — lecturers in the field of English literature were almost unanimous in regretting that they had been born too late to be able to pass an evening at the Mermaid Tavern, in the company of Beaumont, Fletcher, Jonson, Shakespeare, and the other notables of the English set. What fine talk there must have been, as the wind howled without and the potboys came and went with great flagons of ale! The class would stir torpidly, and one or two of the students would jot in their notebooks, “merm tav - - - gt tlk.”

Somewhere in the attie I have whole notebooks full of data on bygone literary gatherings that various members of the English Department at my particular Eastern university were sorry to have missed. Some were sorry not to have sipped tea at Mrs. Thrale’s with Sam Johnson, some regretted being born too late to bandy whimsies with Charles Lamb; but in the end the experience the members of the Department of English missed more than anything else was an evening at the Mermaid. A Gallup Poll of an entire cross section of instructors in English literature would probably indicate that this yearning is common throughout the profession.

Well, since leaving the Eastern university and going out into the world, I have met quite a few contemporary writers of eminence, and I have come to the conclusion that lecturers in English literature, like everybody else, just don’t know when they’re well off. The truth is, none of them would have been any happier at the Mermaid Tavern than Shakespeare would have been at a faculty tea. I claim no special knowledge of what went on during those golden nights at the Mermaid; but, after all, certain things remain unchanged from century to century. Alcoholic beverages have a predictable effect on those who consume them, whether in the form of a firkin of nut-brown ale or a Cuba Libre; the vagaries of writers are, I am sorry to say, fairly standard vagaries; the difference between tavern and bar-and-grill is merely nominal. It should not be especially difficult, then, to reconstruct, for the purposes of argument, an evening at the Mermaid.

Past and present are alcohol-soluble, so to speak, and I do not feel that I am taking an undue liberty in postulating that the Mermaid resembles in all essentials a contemporary literary rendezvous I happen to know of, a barroom patronized by space salesmen, proofreaders, publishers’ salesmen, engravers, and other people in the arts. As in all such haunts (the Mermaid included, I would guess), the management is dimly proud of its artistic clientele; better a drunken novelist than a drunken wholesale grocer or a drunken insurance man, any day. A few outsiders are tolerated by way of background. Writers — at least the breed of writers who frequent saloons — are innocently convinced that the only reason non-writers go to these saloons is to see the writers.

Sometimes, to be sure, this is really true. I have in mind a scholarly young man whom I shall call Oliver Minch. Oliver has already taken his B.A. and his M.A., and is making patient, ant-like progress towards his Ph.D. His field is English literature. Naturally, he wishes he could have spent an evening at the Mermaid, trading quips with Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson, while the wind howled outside and the potboys came and went with flagons of ale. Well, let’s give him his wish.

As Minch enters the tavern (wiping the steam from his glasses, looking around to get his bearings, and betraying himself with every gesture as an outsider), it happens, by great good fortune, that one of the tables is occupied bv Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson. It isn’t that they are inseparable; it’s just that they aren’t speaking to anybody else at the moment. Writers mistrust all non-writers and most other writers. They have nothing to say to one another, either; this results in what is called a companionable silence.

Writers recognize only one possible relationship with non-writers, and Minch, with the instinct of his kind, realizes what it is; he approaches Shakespeare, the only one of the group he recognizes, with a request for his autograph. Shakespeare is bound to act disgusted, the convention being that writers don’t like to be approached by admirers, and the other three really are disgusted, because Minch didn’t ask for their autograph. Nevertheless a relationship has boon established, and there is a good chance that Minch may be grudgingly invited to sit down and have a drink.

The wind is howling outside, the potboys — several rather uninviting specimens sent over by the Waiters’ Union, which is sore at the management — are coming and going with tiny highballs and huge plates of gray chophouse food; now for the great talk.

Well, what do writers talk about?

I know of only one successful writer who is able to get through an evening without talking shop; I play pool with him now and then, and the experience is balm to my soul.

Writers generally talk about themselves. But they speak without candor, the man who stole his style from F. Scott Fitzgerald naturally mistrusting the man who stole his from Booth Tarkington, the war correspondent feeling a certain condescension towards the man whose fiction is labeled fiction, the humorists coddling their respective neuroses like suspicious mothers at a public playground. Minch would sit for an hour without hearing any talk greater than the following specimen:—

BEAUMONT: Say. I think the boy got our drinks mixed. I ordered rye and this tastes like Scotch.

FLETCHER: Mine tastes all right.

SHAKESPEARE: So does mine.

JONSON: My Scotch tastes like rye. I guess he got mine mixed with yours.

Once in a while a writer will make a simple statement about himself, such as, “My feet hurt,” or ” I’m going to Croton for the week-end,” or “I wish I could get a divorce.” This is rare, however. I know one group of writers who have whiled away twelve years of evenings by playing a simple game with matches, similar to the Sicilian game of Mora, without exchanging a single abstract idea.

Mr. Minch is a sticker, however; he still hopes for some great talk, and to that end has stayed at the table, nursing his firkin of ale as long as he could, reordering when he had to. There is a great deal of table-hopping; one or another of the writers will disappear for ten minutes at a time, while he has a drink at the bar with some friend just back from Hollywood or says hello to an editor. All at once Minch, who has been almost drowsing over his fourth firkin, is aware that there is nobody else at the table. He looks around without seeing any of them. However, the potboy, catching his eye, comes forward with a check. “Your friends have gone,” the potboy says, menacingly placing the check under Minch’s nose. “Fourteen dollars, please.”

I’m afraid I haven’t really clarified the situation, though. I have no doubt that some graduate student, morosely leafing through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature in years to come, will be struck by the mention of the Mermaid, look up my essay, and embody it in a footnote to his thesis on “Ye Goodlie Companie at ye Mermaide,” with some such comment as, “This suggestion is more ingenious than scholarly, and may safely be ignored.” And so it may. So it may.

  1. RUSSELL MALONEY is well known toAtlantic readers for his series of notes on the theater.