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“We should see certain things yet, let us hope and believe”: Technology, Sex, and Politics in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee

  • Bernard J. Dobski and Benjamin A. Kleinerman
Abstract

Through his modern “Yankee,” Mark Twain reveals to his readers the underlying desire to overcome the very material world he seems to want to instantiate. Although the Yankee seems a modern man who simply wants to create the conditions in Arthurian England by which his body will be most comfortable, both his zeal for this project and the trajectory of his soul's course during the book betray an underlying hope to overcome his “mortal coil” through first technological and then political projects. In charting the impetus and evolution of the Yankee's psychology for us, Twain teaches us much about the nature of the “modern project”—its underlying hopes and its potential for dangerous, even totalitarian, excesses. As appealing as the starkly contrasting Arthurians might be, given this insight, Twain does not ultimately endorse this position but shows that its explicit claim does not ultimately satisfy our desire for noninstrumental goods.

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1 For a similar statement of the benefits of studying literature for political scientists, see Zuckert, Catherine, “Why Political Scientists Want to Study Literature,” PS: Political Science and Politics 28 (2):189–90 (1995).

2 All references to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court are from the Signet Classic edition with an “Afterword” by Edmund Reiss, published by Harper & Row. While Twain's literary genius has long been a source of study, his contributions to contemporary political philosophy have too rarely been appreciated. The most prominent exceptions to this are “‘And In Its Wake We Followed’: The Political Wisdom of Mark Twain” by Catherine, and Zuckert, Michael, Interpretation (Summer 1972): 5993; a section entitled ‘Connecticut Yankee: The Problem of Commercial Progress’ (443–50) in the chapter “Mark Twain on the American Character” by Foster, David in History of American Political Thought, ed. Frost, Bryan-Paul and Sikkenga, Jeffrey, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2003); Cantor, Paul's “Yankee Go Home: Twain's Postcolonial Romance,” in Democracy's Literature: Politics and Fiction in America, ed. Deneen, Patrick J. and Romance, Joseph (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005); and McWilliams, Wilson Carey, “Poetry, Politics, and the Comic Spirit.” PS: Political Science and Politics 28 (2): 197200 (1995). This paper differs from each of these studies by its particular focus on Twain's treatment of piety and the issue of divine right. Catherine and Michael Zuckert's early work proved especially fruitful. It provides a comprehensive treatment of the novel as a whole and has thus served as inspiration for many—including us—who treat Twain as a political philosopher. We contend, however, that their treatment of religion and divine right tends to get submerged. Subsequently, they do not draw out as clearly as we think they could the relationship between the Yankee's political character and the work's intent as laid out in the preface. For a defense of reading the novel as a work of political philosophy, see Deneen and Romance's introduction to Democracy's Literature.

3 See, for example, Smith, Henry Nash, Mark Twain's Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964).

4 See De Voto, Bernard's Mark Twain's America (Boston, 1932); Hoben, John B.'s “Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee: A Genetic Study,” American Literature 18 (Nov. 1946): 197218; Budd, Louis's Mark Twain, Social Philosopher (Bloomington, IN, 1962); Howard Baetzhold's “The Course of Composition of A Connecticut Yankee,” American Literature 33, (Jan. 1961) and Mark Twain and John Bull (Bloomington, IN, 1970). For a more moderate view of the Yankee's criticism of England, see Carter, Everett's “The Meaning of A Connecticut Yankee,” American Literature 50 (1978): 418–40. Cantor in “Yankee Go Home” reads the work as a screed about British colonialism.

5 See Guttman, Alan's “Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee: Affirmation of the Vernacular Tradition?New England Quarterly 33 (June 1960): 232–37; Smith, Henry Nash Mark Twain, the Development of a Writer (Cambridge, MA, 1962) and Mark Twain's Fable of Progress (New Brunswick, NJ, 1964); Cox, James M.A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: The Machinery of Self-Preservation,” Yale Review 50 (1960): 89102; and Lynn, Kenneth's Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston, 1959). For a nonpolitical scientist who adopts a reading similar to ours, see Bellamy, Gladys's Mark Twain as a Literary Artist (Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).

6 On the problems with turning solely to Twain's external comments, see Williams, James D.'s “Revision and Intention in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee,” American Literature 36 (19641965): 288–97. Those who read Connecticut Yankee either in light of Twain's reading habits at the time or his prevailing political opinions or his ever-worsening economic circumstances (see most of the literature cited in footnotes 4 and 5), find themselves in the difficult position of arguing that Twain's work merely reflected his immediate surroundings (making him very much a prisoner to his times) and that Twain is a satirist (making him very much not a prisoner to his times). As for the impact of the Paige typesetter's failure on the novel's tone and mood (with the huge financial losses it inflicted for Twain), one should consider that despite the apparent despair in technological progress with which the novel concludes, Twain himself continued to work doggedly on (and invest heavily in) the Paige typesetter for five years after the novel was published. And while his economic situation fluctuated considerably over the rest of his life (bankrupt in 1894, dying a wealthy man in 1910), Twain's literary style remained largely unchanged. We are more persuaded by the Zuckerts's “In Its Wake” that the work's internal evidence suggests a unity of composition and intention that defies reducing the novel to changes in personal political views, reading habits, or economic standing.

7 Twain, Mark, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Neider, Charles (New York, NY: Harper, 1959), 271–72 (emphasis added).

8 Quoted in Zuckert and Zuckert, “In Its Wake,” 77.

9 McWilliams, Wilson Carey, “Divine Right: Mark Twain's Joan of Arc” (published in The Review of Politics 69, no. 3 [2007]: 329–52). We would like to thank Susan McWilliams for digging through her files and providing us with a copy of this paper.

10 While Twain doesn't mention this book by name in his preface, the novel about this French saint is the next new book he published. Not only does this book examine the divine right of a single king—that tack seemingly abandoned by Twain in his preface—but its genre (historical romance) and its format (a journalistic account by Joan's oldest friend and constant companion) invite further comparisons with the Yankee. On Joan of Arc as the Yankee's “follow-up,” see also Zuckert and Zuckert “In Its Wake.” We understand these novels to form two sides of the same literary coin: to explore the claim that there is such a thing as a divine right of kings, and thus to explore the theological implications of what the affirmation or rejection of such a claim would mean. The Yankee addresses this question from the perspective of what is practically possible, exploring the political limits to divine intervention in human affairs. Joan of Arc, taking its cues from such limits, offers a more extensive spiritual meditation on the nature of divinity. The connection between the two books and the priority of the tack taken in the Yankee thus appears informed by the spirit of that Burkean insight that nothing which is practically false can be theoretically true.

11 See Smith, Henry Nash's Mark Twain's Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964).

12 For a similar argument connecting the “full of fight” passage to his practicality, see Sewell, David R., “Hank Morgan and the Colonization of Utopia,” in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Sundquist, Eric J. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994).

13 See Foster, “American Character,” 444.

14 For another modern political philosopher whose approach to the soul's longings the Yankee's project echoes and mirrors, see Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois, 25.12 ([1748] 1951). In Oevres completes, ed. Roger Caillois. 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Gaillamard).

15 See McWilliams, “Comic Spirit,” 198.

16 Twain suggests the Yankee's lack of seriousness about traditional religion by having him use a clothing metaphor to describe conventional religious belief. “Spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and statue of the individual who wears it” (62). Such garments might appear nice on a man when he is healthy, but they do not protect from winter, disease, and death.

17 That the Yankee's psychology could transform without his own awareness is suggested when he says at one point, “I had undergone a considerable change without noticing it” (162).

18 It is surely part of Twain's irony that the Yankee's burgeoning nationalism directs itself toward the salvation of England.

19 See footnote 13 above.

20 “Comic Spirit,” 198.

21 Lustig, T. J., “Twain and Modernity,” in A Companion to Mark Twain, ed. Messent, Peter and Budd, Louis J. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

22 See “American Character.”

23 Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 186–87.

24 David Ketterer makes a similar point: “The essential similarity between the sinister Morgan Le Fay and our hero, Hank Morgan, pointed to by their common name, becomes increasingly obvious as the book goes on.” See “Epoch-Eclipse and Apocalypse: Special ‘Effects’ in a Connecticut Yankee,” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Composition and Publication, Criticism, ed. Allison R. Ensor (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), 429.

25 See, for instance, Sandy's extensive speech when the Yankee asks her about a map to the castle they must find (68) or the response of one of the noble's when asked a question during his examination: “[V]erily, in the all-wise and unknowable providence of God, who moveth in mysterious ways his wonders to perform” (173).

26 The Yankee is quick to note that the report lacked “the whoop and crash and lurid description” of the tournament's bloodier episodes. But the concluding reference to Lancelot makes no impression on him.

27 The book itself is written over monkish legends; beneath—and perhaps between—the lines is a religious story.

28 After avoiding talking to her for most of the book, he finally seems interested in having long conversations with her only when she is not there to respond as he “talks” to her and his daughter while holed up in the cave.

29 For more on the connection between Rousseau and this aspect of the novel, see Zuckert and Zuckert, “In Its Wake.”

30 It is this telephone operator for whom the Yankee calls out for in his sleep, “Hello-Central,” thus prompting Sandy, unaware of its significance but having heard it so often from her husband, to name their daughter “Hello-Central.”

31 It seems precisely the absurdity of this passage which justifies its neglect to so many scholars of Twain's work.

32 Queen Guinevere's affair with Lancelot not only made the King a cuckold, heaping shame onto his throne, but it also deprived Arthur of a legitimate heir (178, 288).

33 For another attempt to make sense of Twain's place in the novel's argument, see Foster, “American Character,” 450. See also Zuckert and Zuckert, “In Its Wake,” 66.

34 We are grateful to Zuckert and Zuckert “In Its Wake,” 75–76 for bringing this particular dimension of the Yankee's problems to our attention. See also Zuckert, Catherine's Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form. (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1990), 152 and especially 34).

35 Deneen and Romance, Democracy and Literature, 6.

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