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A Connecticut Yankee In Hell
For a hundred years now Americans have been reading as comedy Mark Twain’s dark indictment of chivalry, technology—and all mankind
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
After a full century in print, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court remains one of the queerer and more disturbing exercises of the American literary imagination, a brilliant comic fantasy that turns savage and shakes itself to pieces.
Hank Morgan, Mark Twain’s hero and narrator, is a nineteenth-century Yankee master mechanic who wakes up (after being hit on the head with a crowbar) in sixth-century Britain. “No pockets in the armor,” reads Mark Twain’s first working note for the new book. “No way to manage certain requirements of nature. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get at handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve....Can’t dress or undress myself. Always getting struck by lightning. Fall down, can’t get up.” A Tom Sawyerish character addicted to spectacle, extravaganza, and “effects,” Morgan launches what he hopes will be a peaceful revolution to transform King Arthur’s agrarian, feudal, slaveholding realm into an industrialized modern democracy. He unseats the wizard Merlin, portrayed here as a wicked old fraud, and along with the title of Sir Boss assumes an authority over the kingdom second only to Arthur’s.
Morgan’s innovations include a patent office, factories, soap, advertising, a military academy, grade schools and colleges, scientific mining, the telegraph, telephone, bicycle, typewriter, phonograph, and sewing machine, steam power, electricity, and daily journalism. “One greater than kings had arrived,” he says, “the newsboy.” For three years Morgan’s progressive order prevails over the old. Suddenly sixth-century England, by command of the church, turns against him, and his republic perishes. Morgan reawakes in his own century, a harmless lunatic babbling about drawbridges and battlements. (“Has lost all interest in life,” Mark Twain wrote in another manuscript note. “Is found dead the next morning—suicide.”)
A Connecticut Yankee starts out as an avowedly sweet-natured takeoff on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, a cycle of fifteenth-century legends about sixth-century Camelot and the Round Table. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the same legends, clothed in high sentiment and winningly retold in blank verse by the poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his Idylls of the King, delighted large audiences in both England and America. But once Hank Morgan realizes that cruelty, ignorance, and superstition are the driving forces in this picturesque society, his mild exasperation turns into rage, and Mark Twain’s sweet-natured parody turns into anarchic rampage.
A Connecticut Yankee pillories romantic glorifications of the Middle Ages, from Malory to Tennyson. It also pillories the continued survival into Mark Twain’s era of monarchy, aristocracy, religious authority, and slave mentality. Despite several refractions through a distant past, it’s clear that this apparently backward-looking novel grapples with its own century. The illustrations by Dan Beard, which Mark Twain supervised and enthusiastically approved, are loaded with topical references. The illustrator pictured Tennyson as the wicked Merlin; Queen Victoria as a troublesome “old sow,” ancestor of Miss Piggy; the queen’s oldest son (the future Edward VII) and Kaiser Wilhelm II as “chuckleheads.” The Slave Driver, a lord of the lash herding his human property to auction, is unmistakably the hated American financier and speculator Jay Gould.
The year Mark Twain published his new novel was the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. Visitors to the international exposition in Paris marveled at Gustave Eiffel’s iron tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure, and Carl Benz’s gasoline-powered automobile. Across the Channel two of Victoria’s subjects had just invented cordite, an improved smokeless explosive of considerable interest to her Imperial General Staff (and still used in conventional warheads). The time would never come, in Queen Victoria’s long reign, when her soldiers were not fighting somewhere along a far-flung battle line; British jingoes dreamed of a great war that would fulfill their nation’s destiny. England exercised dominion over one-quarter of the earth’s population, but at home one in every three or four inhabitants wanted for food, clothing, and shelter and died in the workhouse, the charity hospital, or the streets. In “Darkest England” the permanent poor were “the people of the abyss.”
Benjamin Harrison, a successful Indiana lawyer, was serving his first year in the White House as a businessman’s President. In a celebrated magazine article about the responsibilities of wealth, the smokestack industrialist Andrew Carnegie urged Americans to “accept and welcome...as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.”