A Connecticut Yankee In Hell

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“I shall leave unsmirched & unbelittled the great & beautiful characters drawn by the master hand of old Malory,” he wrote in 1886 to Mary Fairbanks, a mentor who had played a major role in his transformation from Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope to Hartford Gentleman. “I should grieve indeed if the final disruption of the Round Table, & the extinction of its old tender & gracious friendships, & that last battle—the Battle of the Broken Hearts, it might be called—should lose their pathos & their tears through my handling.” He was probably sincere in saying this, or at least sincerely accommodating. (In the same spirit this lifelong heretic once represented himself to his fatherin-law as an orthodox Christian planning to write a life of Jesus.) Under Mark Twain’s hand Malory’s “great and beautiful characters” became “lummoxes” and “labricks.” To tell the story of the Round Table the way Mark Twain really wanted to tell it, he needed not a gentler pen but one “warmed-up in hell.”

While writing his book, he noted “the changes which age makes in a man while he sleeps.” He wrote to Howells: “When I finished Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently—being influenced & changed, little by little, by life & environment...& now I lay the book down once more, & recognize that I am a Sansculotte!—And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat. Carlyle teaches no such gospel: so the change is in me—in my vision of the evidences.”

His “changes”—from moderate middle-class republican to rebellious proletarian to ideologue of revolutionary terror—recapitulated the successively more murderous and repressive stages of the French Revolution, from the fervent Declaration of the Rights of Man to the Commune, Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon’s martial dictatorship. A “very great event that took a bad turn” is the way one French historian, François Furet, now describes the Revolution on the eve of its bicentennial. In his new book, Citizens, the Harvard historian Simon Schama says that the Reign of Terror was “merely 1789 with a higher body count” and that the most important legacy of the entire upheaval was the creation of a “militarized state.” By the time of Waterloo and the restoration of Bourbon monarchy, the Revolution appeared to its enemies to have devoured itself as well as its children.

The Yankee first establishes his authority by blowing up Merlin’s Tower; this is his version of the destruction of the Bastille. “The Battle of the SandBelt” is his version of the wholesale exterminations of the Reign of Terror. “Next to the 4th of July & its results,” Mark Twain said in a letter to Howells, the French Revolution “was the noblest & the holiest thing & the most precious that ever happened in this earth. And its gracious work is not done yet....” Nevertheless, Mark Twain’s book suggests that you can’t have a revolution without a Terror and can’t have a successful one even with a Terror. Deep down he is in the grip of the worst imaginings of his century. The force of “miracle, mystery, and authority” always prevails, says Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Men “are slaves...though rebellious by nature.”

Mark Twain’s “vision of the evidences” was also shaped by the career of the Paige typesetter, a complex machine in which he made investments of faith and money that proved to be disastrous. Its ultimate failure drove him into bankruptcy. The machine and A Connecticut Yankee were twinned in his mind. Both were tests of a perfectible world in which friction and mechanical inelegance were the equivalents of ignorance and superstition. He expected the novel and the perfected typesetter to be ready for the market at the same time, and when the machine, its inventor, and its backers began to betray him, as it seemed, his novel became the story of a failure. His lament for the disastrous typesetter could have served as well for the Yankee’s lost republic. “I watched over one dear project of mine five years,” he wrote in 1890, “and failed to make it go—and the history of that would make a large book in which a million men would see themselves as in a mirror; and they would testify and say, Verily this is not imagination, this fellow has been there—and after would they cast dust upon their heads, cursing and blaspheming.”