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A Connecticut Yankee In Hell

May 2024
18min read

For a hundred years now Americans have been reading as comedy Mark Twain’s dark indictment of chivalry, technology—and all mankind

After a full century in print, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court remains one of the queerer and more disturbing exercises of the American literary imagination, a brilliant comic fantasy that turns savage and shakes itself to pieces.


Hank Morgan, Mark Twain’s hero and narrator, is a nineteenth-century Yankee master mechanic who wakes up (after being hit on the head with a crowbar) in sixth-century Britain. “No pockets in the armor,” reads Mark Twain’s first working note for the new book. “No way to manage certain requirements of nature. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get at handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve....Can’t dress or undress myself. Always getting struck by lightning. Fall down, can’t get up.” A Tom Sawyerish character addicted to spectacle, extravaganza, and “effects,” Morgan launches what he hopes will be a peaceful revolution to transform King Arthur’s agrarian, feudal, slaveholding realm into an industrialized modern democracy. He unseats the wizard Merlin, portrayed here as a wicked old fraud, and along with the title of Sir Boss assumes an authority over the kingdom second only to Arthur’s.

Morgan’s innovations include a patent office, factories, soap, advertising, a military academy, grade schools and colleges, scientific mining, the telegraph, telephone, bicycle, typewriter, phonograph, and sewing machine, steam power, electricity, and daily journalism. “One greater than kings had arrived,” he says, “the newsboy.” For three years Morgan’s progressive order prevails over the old. Suddenly sixth-century England, by command of the church, turns against him, and his republic perishes. Morgan reawakes in his own century, a harmless lunatic babbling about drawbridges and battlements. (“Has lost all interest in life,” Mark Twain wrote in another manuscript note. “Is found dead the next morning—suicide.”)

A Connecticut Yankee starts out as an avowedly sweet-natured takeoff on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, a cycle of fifteenth-century legends about sixth-century Camelot and the Round Table. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the same legends, clothed in high sentiment and winningly retold in blank verse by the poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his Idylls of the King, delighted large audiences in both England and America. But once Hank Morgan realizes that cruelty, ignorance, and superstition are the driving forces in this picturesque society, his mild exasperation turns into rage, and Mark Twain’s sweet-natured parody turns into anarchic rampage.

A Connecticut Yankee pillories romantic glorifications of the Middle Ages, from Malory to Tennyson. It also pillories the continued survival into Mark Twain’s era of monarchy, aristocracy, religious authority, and slave mentality. Despite several refractions through a distant past, it’s clear that this apparently backward-looking novel grapples with its own century. The illustrations by Dan Beard, which Mark Twain supervised and enthusiastically approved, are loaded with topical references. The illustrator pictured Tennyson as the wicked Merlin; Queen Victoria as a troublesome “old sow,” ancestor of Miss Piggy; the queen’s oldest son (the future Edward VII) and Kaiser Wilhelm II as “chuckleheads.” The Slave Driver, a lord of the lash herding his human property to auction, is unmistakably the hated American financier and speculator Jay Gould.

The year Mark Twain published his new novel was the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. Visitors to the international exposition in Paris marveled at Gustave Eiffel’s iron tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure, and Carl Benz’s gasoline-powered automobile. Across the Channel two of Victoria’s subjects had just invented cordite, an improved smokeless explosive of considerable interest to her Imperial General Staff (and still used in conventional warheads). The time would never come, in Queen Victoria’s long reign, when her soldiers were not fighting somewhere along a far-flung battle line; British jingoes dreamed of a great war that would fulfill their nation’s destiny. England exercised dominion over one-quarter of the earth’s population, but at home one in every three or four inhabitants wanted for food, clothing, and shelter and died in the workhouse, the charity hospital, or the streets. In “Darkest England” the permanent poor were “the people of the abyss.”


Benjamin Harrison, a successful Indiana lawyer, was serving his first year in the White House as a businessman’s President. In a celebrated magazine article about the responsibilities of wealth, the smokestack industrialist Andrew Carnegie urged Americans to “accept and conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.”

For those at the bottom of the economic order, the “law of competition” had merely replaced chattel slavery with wage slavery. Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, published a year before Mark Twain’s, compared American society with the Black Hole of Calcutta—“its press of maddened men tearing and trampling one another in the struggle to win a place at the breathing holes.” During its first decade in print Looking Backward sold nearly a million copies in the United States and England. Another popular book of the time, the Minnesota populist Ignatius Donnelly’s overwrought, somewhat demented novel Caesar’s Column, arrived at an apocalyptic conclusion similar to Mark Twain’s. According to Donnelly, capitalist, industrialized society had no redemptive future except through catharsis by dynamite—”a tremendous massacre, such as the world has never before witnessed”—and the survival of a tiny saving remnant holed up in the mountains of Central Africa.

In May 1889, with A Connecticut Yankee finally finished after more than four years of work, Mark Twain sent a birthday letter to the poet Walt Whitman. A fervid pitch for steam, electricity, steel, and other nineteenth-century “marvels,” it would have been just as appropriate as a birthday greeting for Andrew Carnegie and his intellectual mentor, the evolutionary philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least tacitly, it appears to endorse their survivalist version of progress under capitalism. “You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history, and richest in benefit and advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man and the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

“What great births you have witnessed!...the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, and then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to those whose nativity you have witnessed; and conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result—Man at almost his full stature at last!—and still growing, visibly growing, while you look.”

Here Mark Twain may have been whistling in the graveyard as bravely as he could. The drift and conclusion of A Connecticut Yankee suggest that covertly, in ways he was reluctant to acknowledge, he held an altogether different opinion of automatic “progress.” Far from approaching “full stature,” “man,” in the distressing final battle of A Connecticut Yankee, has merely narrowed the interval between himself and “the other animals.” In the writing of this novel—“my swan-song, my retirement from literature permanently,” as he described it—Mark Twain unearthed hidden doubts and convictions and was too honest to bury them again.

Mark Twain was a hero and celebrity of the Gilded Age who enjoyed its rewards to the full. But he was also a moralist whose purpose was never altogether blunted by success, and he was almost as much a stranger in his times as Hank Morgan in sixth-century Britain; his imagination was rooted in the stabilities of antebellum, agrarian, even pre-gold rush America. No more than Henry Adams was he able to adapt to the conditions that Karl Marx (in 1848) had said distinguished “the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones”: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation....All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy profaned....” For all its shabbiness and violence, with its economic footing in slavery, Hannibal, Missouri—“a white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning”—was Mark Twain’s Camelot.

Given such internal contradictions between overt and covert belief, it’s hardly surprising that the author and his most enthusiastic first reader took views of A Connecticut Yankee that are so at odds with each other that the two might as well have been talking about different novels. “Well, my book is written—let it go,” Mark Twain told William Dean Howells in September 1889. “But if it were only to write over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; & they keep multiplying & multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—& a pen warmed-up in hell.” Howells had written to him a few days earlier: “Last night I started on your book, and it sank naturally into my dreams. It’s charming, original, wonderful—good in fancy, and sound to the core in morals.” In his 1890 review in Harper’s magazine, Howells said, “At every moment the scene amuses.” And twenty years later, after reading A Connecticut Yankee for at least the second time, he told Mark Twain that it was “the most delightful, truest, most humane, sweetest fancy that ever was.”

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.

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 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 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.’”

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 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.

“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.”

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.

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