The publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889 was part of a progression in Mark Twain’s writings to more serious themes. Twain’s major popular works dealing with his travel experiences and his Mississippi River boyhood were already published and invariably ended positively. While his first historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper (1881), dealt realistically with similar social issues, it is lighter in tone and also ends happily.
In 1884, inspired by his reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Twain began sketching out a story line and worked on the novel sporadically until its completion in the spring of 1889. The author was also influenced by a resurgence in interest in Arthurian legend attributable in part to the popularity of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885). Twain’s novel is curiously similar to Charles Heber Clark’s The Fortunate Island (1882), in which a modern American encounters Arthurian England, but Twain claimed never to have read Clark’s book.
Although A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is commonly regarded as a failure by literary critics, it has remained popular with readers since its initial publication. Hank Morgan’s story has been adapted to the stage, film, and television, but Twain’s bitter satire, social commentary, and violent finale are often omitted in order to make it suitable for young audiences. Young readers familiar with the story from popular culture will find the novel complex, challenging, and rewarding.