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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
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.”
“A man can’t write successful satire except he be in a calm judicial goodhumor,” Mark Twain had written to Howells in 1879. “I don’t ever seem to be in a good enough humor with ANY-thing to satirize it; no, I want to stand up before it & curse it, & foam at the mouth—or take a club & pound it to rags & pulp.” Early and late, all through his career, he linked humor with mayhem and pain. The “bloody massacre” hoax he published in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise when he was still in his twenties was the forerunner of more sophisticated inflictions, in the course of which he moved toward darker, increasingly complex and conflictive modes of humor. He aimed to find out what the traffic would bear in the way of probing and pain and compared humor with dynamite, with the dentist’s drill striking the raw nerve. Only laughter, he was to write, had the power to reduce its targets “to rags and atoms at a blast.” As this greatest of American humorists grew older, more cynical, and more misanthropic, he relied for stimulus on larger and larger doses of indignation directed against larger and larger targets: Mary Baker Eddy, King Leopold II of Belgium, William Shakespeare, and God.
A Connecticut Yankee may have been Mark Twain’s decisive turn away from geniality and toward “the imagination of disaster” that shaped much of his later work. Like the Civil War memoir he published four years earlier, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” A Connecticut Yankee began as a lark and ended in heartbreak. The book could have been subtitled “The Private History of a Revolution That Failed”: “failed,” because, in Mark Twain’s understanding of the psychic substrate of revolution, there had never been much chance of its success.