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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
A Connecticut Yankee has been made into three movies and two musical comedies. None of them acknowledged the book ‘s cruelty and violence.
Though they’re always on the move, these Arthurians can’t even give simple directions; they can’t tell the difference between a pig and a princess, a sty and a castle. They gallop and clatter about in a chronic state of infantile hallucination. The Yankee says that none of the Knights of the’ Round Table “had any idea where the Holy Grail really was, and I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it. You see, it was just the Northwest Passage of that day.” As for Arthur’s England in general, “what a creepy, dull, inanimate horror.” Yet language contrasts alone are not able to contain the centrifugal ferocities of Mark Twain’s book.
Hank Morgan’s narrative entrance into the England of the enchanter Merlin has a magic of its own. “At the end of an hour,” he says after one of Arthur’s knights-errant chases him up a tree and takes him prisoner, “we saw a far-away town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond it on a hill, a vast gray fortress, with towers and turrets, the first I had ever seen, out of a picture. ‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing. ‘Camelot,’ said he.”
As Mark Twain originally planned his novel, the Yankee, dubbed Sir Boss, was to put the ogres and wizards out of commission, abolish courtly love and armor, replace jousting with baseball and war-horses with bicycles, reconstitute Arthur’s Round Table as a stock exchange with seats going for thirty thousand dollars apiece, put the kingdom on a strictly business basis, and become very rich on a 40 percent share of the profits. The story was to be, in effect, a comic inversion of Isaac Newton’s famous tribute to the ancients: “If I have seen further … it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants.” The Yankee regards himself as a nineteenth-century giant standing on the shoulders of sixth-century pygmies. He says that, after God, “the creators of this world” are Johann Gutenberg, the first European to print from movable cast type; James Watt, perfecter of the steam engine; Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning machine; Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin; Samuel Morse of the electric telegraph; the locomotive builder George Stephenson; and Alexander Graham Bell.
Morgan could well have added to his list of creators Alfred Nobel, the inventor (1866) of dynamite, both a constructive force—as a way of bending nature to human needs and visions—and a fearsome weapon. Nobel believed, however, that even as a weapon dynamite could serve a humanitarian purpose. “My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses,” he told an Austrian pacifist. “The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”
Like dynamite, the Yankee’s innovations have a double nature. The entire apparatus of material progress is also a “weapon,” a force for destruction. For Mark Twain and his contemporaries a familiar epitome of the two-facedness of technology was the steam locomotive tearing and shrieking its way through the heart of the American Eden. Similarly, the busy factories hidden all over England, the Yankee says (in an early chapter titled “Beginnings of Civilization”), were like a “serene volcano, standing innocent with its smokeless summit in the blue sky and giving no sign of the rising hell in its bowels.” The Yankee’s names for his educational and training institutions—”civilization factories” and, a dehumanizing pun, “man factories”—suggest a bleak, industrial collectivism, a monolithic state ruled by the boss.
Consistent with these premonitory images, the final four chapters of A Connecticut Yankee turn altogether dark. While its hero vacations in Europe, the church places all England under an interdict. He returns to find “the mournfulness of death … everywhere,” Camelot dark, all traffic and commerce vanished, his “beautiful civilization” snuffed out. He proclaims a republic, but, obedient to the church, all England now marches against him. He blows up his “noble civilization-factories. … It was a pity, but it was necessary. We could not afford to let the enemy turn our own weapons against us.” His tiny band of followers carries the Yankee to a cave. Like Arthur, the Once and Future King, on the island of Avalon or the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in his limestone cave in Germany, the Once and Future Boss will sleep away for centuries.
Why does A Connecticut Yankee change so drastically, rejecting its original comic premise and ending in either a gruesome practical joke or a homicidal tantrum? Mark Twain is so forthcoming about his intentions in writing this programmatic book that it’s hard to avoid speculating about them.