A Connecticut Yankee In Hell

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Huck’s view of the world is in keeping with his character; through him Mark Twain channels moral fervor into irony, realism, and lyric flights that never abandon their vernacular base. But the Yankee was “the wrong man” for the job, as he himself says, reflecting on his dashed hope to bring about a “new deal” in Arthur’s England. He decides that “what this folk needed, then, was a Reign of Terror and a guillotine.” For all his “good heart” and “high intent” this “natural gentleman” turns out to be profoundly, fleeringly misanthropic. He describes his fellow creatures—sixth-century Englishmen but also, by extension, average American citizens—as: “animals,” “white Indians,” “big boobies,” “worms,” “intellectual moles,” “children,” “modified savages,” “cattle,” “Comanches,” “sheep,” “groping and grubbing automata.”

In Arthur’s kingdom the Yankee had hoped to make “a rounded and complete governmental revolution without bloodshed.” But how can he create a peaceful revolution and a republic with what he calls “such human muck as this”? We’re hearing a different voice, a different point of view, from that of the unlettered working-class democrat, Hank Morgan, as he was first introduced to us. The voice could be Colonel Sherburn’s (in Huckleberry Finn). Sherburn faced down a lynch mob and told them, “I know you clear through. I was born and raised in the South, and I’ve lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man’s a coward.”

Morgan ostensibly knows nothing but slang and machinery. Superintendent at the Colt firearms factory in Hartford, he represents his city in only one of its aspects—as capital of Gun Valley, supplier to the nation and the world of the Colt single-action sixshooter (the famous “Peacemaker”), the Sharps rifle (“Beecher’s Bible”), and the Gatling gun, precursor of the modern maching gun. But he has turned into Mark Twain, excoriator of "the damned human race" who will soon write a bitter tract called What Is Man? (“Man’s proudest possession—his mind—is a mere machine,” he was to argue, a machine fueled by self-interest and hunger for approval.) This celebrated Hartford author, whose mansion on Farmington Avenue serves as a headquarters of the city’s highbrow life, is a sophisticated and informed student of society, technology, and history. A Connecticut Yankee reflects a wide range of preparatory reading: Malory, Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, William E. Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon, Charles Ball’s black-slavery narrative Fifty Years in Chains, Hippolyte Taine’s The Ancient Regime, and George Kennan’s lectures about Russian life under Czar Alexander III. “If such a government cannot be overthrown otherwise than by dynamite,” Mark Twain exclaimed at the end of one of Kennan’s public lectures, “then thank God for dynamite!”

 

The language battles of A Connecticut Yankee pit science against magic, reason against superstition, moderns against ancients, the republican against the feudal, the vernacular against the high-flown. “I instructed my boys to...be ready to man the pump...and make the fur fly,” the Yankee says. “I prepared, now, to sock it to him.... A knight is a lummox, & sometimes even a labrick.” (“Labrick,” as Mark Twain later defined the word, occupies “in the matter of strength the middle ground between scoundrel & son of a bitch.”)

The Yankee teases these untutored infants of the sixth century with a technical, idiomatic language of implicit insult and deliberate mystification: “keep open”; “knock off”; “shut up shop”; “the running-gear clewed up...forward of the weather gaskets.” In contrast, the sixth-century verbal style is “slow torture,” all “jaw, jaw, jaw, talk, talk, talk, jabber, jabber, jabber.” When Merlin recites a stupefying tale out of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, his audience responds with “a soft snoring...like a deep and subdued accompaniment of wind instruments. Some heads were bowed upon folded arms, some lay back, with open mouths that issued unconscious music...the rats swarmed softly out from a hundred holes, and pattered about, and made themselves at home everywhere....

“You can’t tell one fight from another,” the Yankee complains. “It’s pale and noiseless—just ghosts scuffling in a fog.” The king of Ireland’s son “talks like all the rest,” says the Yankee, falling into a vaudeville mode. “You ought to give him a brogue, or at least a characteristic expletive....You should make him say...‘be jabers.’”