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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
Once Twain ‘s hero realizes that cruelty and ignorance are the driving forces in his society, sweet-naturedparody turns into anarchic rampage.
The wholesale and retail body count in this humane, sweet, and wholesome fantasy puts Robert Ludlum to shame: it’s well over twenty-five thousand men, women, and children. “During the next fifteen minutes,” the Yankee says after exploding one of his portable dynamite bombs, “we stood under a steady drizzle of microscopic fragments of knights and hardware and horseflesh.” King Arthur’s subjects die by sword and lance, by stabbing, torture, hanging, drowning, clubbing, boiling in oil, burning at the stake, starvation, and disease. Not even Sir Dinadan, the court humorist and author of a volume of half-witted anecdotes that never saw the day they were worth telling, is exempt. “I suppressed the book,” says Hank Morgan in the role of Yankee Ayatollah, “and hanged the author.”
“The Battle of the Sand-Belt,” recounted in Mark Twain’s final chapter, employs mines, electric charges, a man-made flood, machine guns, and other lethal “labor-saving machinery” (Hank Morgan’s phrase). “We could not count the dead,” the Yankee says of the final battle, “because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm with alloys of iron and buttons.” (For reasons of taste Mark Twain suppressed a reference to four million pounds of human meat.) In one of many explicit parallels with the American Civil War, this battle recalls the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Ulysses Grant’s troops had tunneled under the Confederate works, mined them with gunpowder, and set off perhaps the greatest manmade explosion up to then. In the ensuing Battle of the Crater, the attacking force was massacred. (The wholesale drownings recall a more recent event, the Johnstown flood of May 1889.) The battle in the novel also looks ahead in time—to Verdun and the Somme in the First World War and to the nuclear age’s strategic concepts of “megadeath” and “mutual assured destruction.”
Sixth-century knight-errantry and King Arthur’s old order perish in this last battle. But along with them, if one reads the broader implications of Mark Twain’s novel, also perish nineteenth-century America’s most sacred beliefs: in automatic progress, the upward march of civilization and culture, technology, enlightenment, education, industrial capitalism, universal suffrage, the primacy of the average man and woman. Nevertheless, and despite disappointing first-year sales of only thirty-two thousand copies, A Connecticut Yankee established itself as an upbeat family-circle classic, a favorite of readers of all ages whose dreams are somehow undisturbed by it. After all, as Mark Twain’s wife assured him, A Connecticut Yankee came from “the sweet dear, tender side” of his nature, from the same mind that created The Prince and the Pauper. A Connecticut Yankee has been made into three happy movies (one starring the cowboy humorist Will Rogers, another Bing Crosby) and two Rodgers and Hart musical comedies. None of these translations to screen and stage acknowledged the book’s cruelty and violence or any of its conclusive anarchism.
“The outcome of A Connecticut Yankee,” the critic and scholar Henry Nash Smith commented, “reveals a loss of faith in the doctrine of progress that was central to the American sense of identity. The experience was so shocking that Mark Twain’s critics and even the writer himself were unable to admit to consciousness the pessimistic implication of the end of the fable.” A president of the American Psychological Association once cited this blindness to the drift and thrust of A Connecticut Yankee as evidence that denial may be one of the most active and highly developed of human faculties. We just don’t want to receive Mark Twain’s message.
Like Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee is in part a language experiment. It plays on contrasting vocabulary, idiom, and, in the long run, point of view, understanding, and value systems. Much earlier in his career Mark Twain had explored the comic possibilities of such contrasts in short narratives—the “Jumping Frog” story, for example, and the account of Buck Fanshaw’s funeral in Roughing It. Now he tries to sustain the contrasts through a full-length book. Its first-person narrator, the Connecticut Yankee himself, is the latest (and last) in a succession of Mark Twain vernacular heroes that extends from Simon Wheeler, of the “Jumping Frog,” who wore “an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance,” to Huck Finn. “I never care to do a thing in a quiet way,” the Yankee confesses. “It’s got to be theatrical, or I don’t take any interest in it.” Despite his “circus side” and his annihilative ingenuities, like Huck, the Yankee is both a “blackguard” and (in some respects) “a natural gentleman” possessing a “good heart” and “high intent.” But here the resemblance between the two characters and their respective books stops.