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 since Twain lived might easily be characterized as the age of the nuclear bomb and the computer. Both destruction and knowledge have become global, not provincial, realities.
It is common to blame contemporary American students for their lack of historical perspective; studies regularly quote students saying that they do not see how incidents in the distant past matter to their lives, and tests show that they cannot identify the dates for milestones in world history like the French Revolution, the Renaissance, or even the First World War. In the case of a novel like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it would be easy to sympathize with their sense of alienation. Readers of this book are not only required to look backward through history, but also have to line up two separate historical points and determine their relationship to each other. Students might approach the book armed with a dictionary, but an astrolabe might be more appropriate.
Students will commonly express their frustration with fiction that was written long ago or about ancient times and their inability to relate to the strange settings and surroundings depicted in both. The standard response is that good readers will look beyond the cultural differences and concentrate on the work’s characters. Literature is about the human condition. Regardless of where a story takes place or what happens in it, the characters should still, at heart, be human. No one says that a reader has to be a student of the sixth century or of the nineteenth century in order to appreciate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The behavior of Hank Morgan, the Yankee of the title, is all that one really has to relate to. In some regards, Twain makes it easy for readers of any generation to join Hank in his adventure, but in other regards, Twain complicates things by making Hank more complex than people expect to find in an adventure yarn or satire.
This type of story should be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched TV. It is a standard stranger-in-a-strangeland myth, a variation on the old fish-out-of-water formula, which throws its protagonist into an unfamiliar environment and studies how he reacts to what he finds there and how the people there react to him.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain continually refines this formula. When Hank becomes a...
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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, balloons, 100-ton cannon, iron-clad fleet &c & Prince de Joinville’s Middle Age Crusaders” (Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, 86). And although the artistic seams and contrasts may be visible between the bulk of the book and its shocking conclusion in the Battle of the Sand-Belt, strong evidence leads us to think that Twain thought of the ending as tragic all along.
In a notebook entry of December 1885, Twain wrote about his newly created Sir Robert Smith, later to be called Hank Morgan:
He mourns his lost land—has come to England & revisited it, but it is all changed & become old, so old!—& it was so fresh & new, so virgin before. Winchester does not resemble Camelot, & the Round Table. . . is not a true one. Has lost all interest in life—is found dead next morning—suicide. (Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, 216)
Twain’s early intent seems consistent with the final version: the ending sounds a tragic note. Hank does not commit suicide, but he apparently dies of a broken heart as he “mourns his lost land.”
During the period from 1885 through 1889, while he was writing the book, Twain had other relevant concerns. Not least among them was money; his obsession with the Paige typesetting machine, which he financed and thought would revolutionize the printing industry, would combine with other business blunders and drive him to bankruptcy. James Cox has shown how this obsession manifests itself in A Connecticut Yankee. But perhaps of greater importance during 1885 was Twain’s major literary project: publication of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, of which Twain speaks at some length in his autobiography. Twain had encouraged the aging hero, who was then living in near-poverty, to relate his experiences to the world. He convinced Grant to decline the Century company’s offer and to accept that of his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster. Twain’s only literary accomplishment that year was “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” (first titled “My Campaign Against Grant”), a short and ostensibly true account of Twain’s own Civil War experience. The article appeared in the December 1885 issue of Century magazine. This short work stands as his only memorable literary achievement in the five year period immediately before and during the composition of A Connecticut Yankee.
Early in 1885, Twain had been asked to write an article for Century’s “Battles and Leaders” series, a collection of personal reminiscences of the Civil War. But he did not finish “The Private History” until November. During the nine months from inception to finished work, the essay changed from a lighthearted anecdote to a more serious, realistic, disturbing record of his experiences. Justin Kaplan finds this shift directly related to Twain’s close contact with General Grant and with the manuscript and proofs of his Memoirs.
Much of what Twain has to say about the Civil War regards Grant; Twain was fascinated by him. It seems inevitable that Grant would surface somewhere in Twain’s fiction. Kaplan has pointed out the importance of the General, mentioned both as a historical figure and possibly as the symbolic “stranger,” in “The Private History.” Grant and the Civil War seem to have had a largely unrecognized influence, however, on A Connecticut Yankee as well. During the composition of the book, when Grant’s Memoirs were part of Twain’s everyday life and when “The Private History” was his most recent literary output, the American Civil War was both consciously and unconsciously at the forefront of his imagination. Civil War imagery pervades the strange and oft-criticized conclusion of A Connecticut Yankee. Viewing it in this light, we may shed light on one of Twain’s most fascinating novels.
After the novel’s two picaresque sequences, which relate Hank’s travels with Sandy and then with King Arthur, there is a civil war in sixthcentury England that ultimately leads to the catastrophe of the book’s conclusion. As Clarence explains, King Arthur has learned of the love between Launcelot and Guenever; when a trap is laid, and Launcelot falls into it, the knights divide into parties loyal either to the King or to Launcelot. Friends take up arms against friends, and Launcelot even mistakenly kills Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, whose “love for Launcelot was indestructible.” Clarence tells Hank “the rest of the tale is just war, pure and simple.” This medieval civil war eventually prompts a Church edict, under which Hank has been condemned. Clarence recognizes the seriousness of the situation and provisions Merlin’s old cave for a siege against all of England’s remaining knights, now under the unified command of the Church. The ensuing Battle of the Sand-Belt not only suggests parallels to the American Civil War, but it so surprisingly and particularly resembles a specific campaign—Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi—that it seems likely Twain’s creative mind was reshaping this crucial siege in his novel.
Grant’s long but successful siege of Vicksburg was seen by many, including President Lincoln, as the key to Union victory in the War. With control of the city, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, came command of traffic on the river’s southern half. Grant led a six-week bombardment and siege upon Vicksburg that ended on July 4, 1863. “The fate of the Confederacy,” Grant wrote in his Memoirs, “was sealed when Vicksburg fell.” Twain knew precise details about the siege of Vicksburg and its crucial impact on the war. In Life on the Mississippi, he devoted an entire chapter, “Vicksburg During the Trouble,” to the siege, and originally he had planned more. He was fascinated by the survivors’ tales of the siege and he questioned them in detail about their experiences.
Many specific details which Twain relates about Vicksburg reappear, with imaginative transformation, in the Battle of the Sand-Belt. Most apparent is the use of caves as hiding places during a civil war siege. Twain tells us of his first impressions of post-war Vicksburg in the following observation from Life on the Mississippi:
Signs and scars still remain, as reminders of Vicksburg’s tremendous war-experiences; earthworks, trees crippled by the cannon balls, caverefuges in the clay precipices, etc. The caves did good service during the six weeks’ bombardment of the city—May 18 to July 4, 1863. They were used by the non-combatants—mainly by the women and children; not to live in constantly, but to fly to for safety on occasion.
In an interview with a civilian survivor, Twain was told of the often “desperately crowded” conditions in the caves during a heavy bombardment, with “air so foul, sometimes, you couldn’t have made a candle burn in it.” In A Connecticut Yankee, when Clarence tells Hank about the cave he has picked for the siege, he is careful to say “that old cave of Merlin’s—not the small one, the big one,” even though there is no reason for Twain to distinguish for readers since we know nothing about either cave. And in Clarence’s postscript to the novel he tells of the “poisonous air” that pervades the aftermath of the battle, sickening the Boss and his followers who are trapped in their cave.
Even exact numbers cited in Twain’s novel are suggestive: in Life on the Mississippi, Twain says the people of Vicksburg numbered “twenty-seven thousand soldiers and three thousand non-combatants,” or 30,000 in all. Hank says that the mounted host of mailed knights is, significantly, “30,000 strong.” The fact that Twain keeps the number of 30,000, but reverses the sides (in the novel there are 30,000 attackers, rather than 30,000 under attack) suggests an unconsciously-made correlation between the 30,000 medieval chivalric knights and the 30,000 citizens of Vicksburg. The latter belonged to a society that turned back...
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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...
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