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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
For those at the bottom of the economic order, the “law of competition” had merely replaced chattel slavery with wage slavery. Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, published a year before Mark Twain’s, compared American society with the Black Hole of Calcutta—“its press of maddened men tearing and trampling one another in the struggle to win a place at the breathing holes.” During its first decade in print Looking Backward sold nearly a million copies in the United States and England. Another popular book of the time, the Minnesota populist Ignatius Donnelly’s overwrought, somewhat demented novel Caesar’s Column, arrived at an apocalyptic conclusion similar to Mark Twain’s. According to Donnelly, capitalist, industrialized society had no redemptive future except through catharsis by dynamite—”a tremendous massacre, such as the world has never before witnessed”—and the survival of a tiny saving remnant holed up in the mountains of Central Africa.
In May 1889, with A Connecticut Yankee finally finished after more than four years of work, Mark Twain sent a birthday letter to the poet Walt Whitman. A fervid pitch for steam, electricity, steel, and other nineteenth-century “marvels,” it would have been just as appropriate as a birthday greeting for Andrew Carnegie and his intellectual mentor, the evolutionary philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least tacitly, it appears to endorse their survivalist version of progress under capitalism. “You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history, and richest in benefit and advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man and the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.
“What great births you have witnessed!...the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, and then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to those whose nativity you have witnessed; and conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result—Man at almost his full stature at last!—and still growing, visibly growing, while you look.”
Here Mark Twain may have been whistling in the graveyard as bravely as he could. The drift and conclusion of A Connecticut Yankee suggest that covertly, in ways he was reluctant to acknowledge, he held an altogether different opinion of automatic “progress.” Far from approaching “full stature,” “man,” in the distressing final battle of A Connecticut Yankee, has merely narrowed the interval between himself and “the other animals.” In the writing of this novel—“my swan-song, my retirement from literature permanently,” as he described it—Mark Twain unearthed hidden doubts and convictions and was too honest to bury them again.
Mark Twain was a hero and celebrity of the Gilded Age who enjoyed its rewards to the full. But he was also a moralist whose purpose was never altogether blunted by success, and he was almost as much a stranger in his times as Hank Morgan in sixth-century Britain; his imagination was rooted in the stabilities of antebellum, agrarian, even pre-gold rush America. No more than Henry Adams was he able to adapt to the conditions that Karl Marx (in 1848) had said distinguished “the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones”: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation....All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy profaned....” For all its shabbiness and violence, with its economic footing in slavery, Hannibal, Missouri—“a white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning”—was Mark Twain’s Camelot.
Given such internal contradictions between overt and covert belief, it’s hardly surprising that the author and his most enthusiastic first reader took views of A Connecticut Yankee that are so at odds with each other that the two might as well have been talking about different novels. “Well, my book is written—let it go,” Mark Twain told William Dean Howells in September 1889. “But if it were only to write over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; & they keep multiplying & multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—& a pen warmed-up in hell.” Howells had written to him a few days earlier: “Last night I started on your book, and it sank naturally into my dreams. It’s charming, original, wonderful—good in fancy, and sound to the core in morals.” In his 1890 review in Harper’s magazine, Howells said, “At every moment the scene amuses.” And twenty years later, after reading A Connecticut Yankee for at least the second time, he told Mark Twain that it was “the most delightful, truest, most humane, sweetest fancy that ever was.”