Essays and Criticism
Reading and becoming informed about the past is part of a well-rounded education. Still, it is not always easy. An especially difficult task for modern readers is to determine the proper approach to a work that was not only written decades prior, but whose setting is centuries in the past. Published in the late 1880s, the book is about history; at the same time, for the contemporary reader, it is history. Twain wrote about the Middle Ages, setting his novel in the year 587. His central idea concerns explaining the changes that had come over the world over the course of thirteen centuries. There is nothing in the novel to explain the changes of the past hundred and fifteen years .
Contemporary readers are presented with the world Twain was writing about and also the world that he assumed his readers would know. That is a lot of information to synthesize. To make matters worse, a good case can be made that in the twentieth century the rate of social change accelerated at a pace quicker than it did in many of the pretechnological centuries that separated Twain from his subject. The book focuses on the developments that occurred between King Arthur’s time and Twain’s, such as the locomotive, the telephone, the newspaper, and the gun; these are all significant advances, but they do not really hold up in magnitude to the automobile, airplane, television, laser, DNA mapping, and thousands of other achievements that have occurred. The time that has passed...
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Just War, Pure and Simple
We are able to document the genesis of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court quite precisely. During Twain’s “Twins of Genius” reading tour with George W. Cable in December 1884, the two entered a Rochester, New York, bookstore where Cable introduced his friend to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Alan Gribben has convincingly shown that this episode was not Twain’s first encounter with Malory—his daughters owned an 1880 children’s version of Malory, which their father must have known about, and in a letter dated August 1883 Twain had alluded to Sir Kay and Sir Launcelot—but the first notebook entries for the novel did appear in December 1884, just after the Cable incident. The first entry reads “Dream of being a knight errant in the middle ages,” followed by a hilarious exploration of what it was like to wear medieval armor. Serious work on the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee, however, did not begin until mid-December 1885 and January 1886. After Howard G. Baetzhold’s solid and informative genetic study, it has been accepted that Twain wrote the novel in sporadic bursts until publication of the first British and American editions in December 1889.
Apparently a dark cloud hung over the novel’s ending from the start of its composition. As early as December 1884, Twain had jotted a note about a battle between a “modern army, with gatling guns. . . 600 shots a minute, . . .torpedoes,...
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The Reality of the Dream
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is centrally important to the effort to identify and chart a level of basic consistency in the life and works of Mark Twain. The novel should bring us much closer to the goal of establishing that there are particular ideas and values which are characteristic of Mark Twain, and that they exist in an unbroken chain from the formative years of his youth to the end of his life. However, the prevailing critical position on A Connecticut Yankee, that it fails because excessive autobiographical intrusions by Twain destroy its fictional unity, leaves the thrust of the novel in doubt. As a consequence, what almost all commentators agree has the makings of a major novel is instead regarded as a disappointment, and its author is seen as being in a state of vacillation or declining power. This critical position is based on a great deal of evidence, especially biographical, which indicates what Twain’s overt attitudes and intentions probably were at various stages of the novel’s composition.
Although this position is valid as far as it goes, it is not necessarily compelling for it does not account for other evidence that points to the novel’s unity. More importantly, it either underestimates or overlooks entirely the deep control of the brooding concerns that were always on Twain’s mind but were seldom—until his late period—explicitly discussed at length. Alan Gribben has recently encouraged...
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