Thursday, June 2, 2016

Twain's Connecticut Yankee, a book about books - good enough Arkansas proof-reading, anyhow

When I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) long ago, long, long ago, I already knew that it was a mishmash of stories, King Arthur stories blended with other things.  An American engineer and pragmatist is transported to 6th century England, allowing lots of mockery of the tropes, if I am using that word right, of Arthurian stories and adventure fiction more generally.

Now, corrupted by knowledge, I can see that it is also a mishmash of books.  Not just King Arthur stuff, although once in a while Mark Twain just plops in a chunk of Thomas Malory, but Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote.  Robinson Crusoe:

But perhaps the worst of all was, that there wasn't any sugar, coffee, tea, or tobacco.  I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did – invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy.  Well, that was in my line.  (Ch. 7)

More subtly, just slightly, Connecticut Yankee is part of Twain’s continuing argument with Walter Scott’s phony baloney medievalism and its damaging influence on the American South.

The practical puzzle to me has been that of the seven Scott novels I have read only one, Ivanhoe (1820) is a medieval story.  The Scott I know is Scottish, and his history is modern, not medieval.  Yet the ethos of the Scottish novels, a world of glory and honor in the service of lost causes, goes directly to Twain’s criticisms.

Luckily, though, Twain ignored me and did not send his American back to Covenanter Scotland, because almost no one cares about that history any more, while King Arthur stories are still endlessly copied and retold.  We still get the jokes.  Also, it allows Twain and his stand-in to abolish slavery.

The narrator, the man sent back in time by a knock on the head, is not just a “practical Connecticut man” (Ch. 2) but an engineer, so a man of knowledge, yes, but also a hardhead:

… if on the other hand it was really the sixth century, all right, I didn’t want any softer thing: I would boss the whole country inside of three months; for I judged I would have the start of the best educated man in the kingdom by a matter of thirteen hundred years and upwards.  I’m not a man to waste time after my mind’s made up and there’s work on hand…

This is in Chapter 2, so a snap decision.  What any qualified Yankee would do.  Soon enough telephone lines are strung throughout the kingdom, factories are producing gunpowder, and newspapers are published that have “good enough Arkansas proof-reading, anyhow, and better than was needed in Arthur’s day and realm” (Ch. 26, “The First Newspaper”).  But he is also an idealist, attacking slavery, chivalry, and kingship.  His ultimate goal is to overthrow the Catholic Church.  Connecticut Yankee is – here are more books – a Utopian novel in the sense that it is a Lucianic satire.  The ignorance of mankind is laid bare and mocked without mercy, but the narrator’s Yankee certainty takes plenty of hits, too.


  1. i don't reread early read books because i don't want to lose that sense of enchantment... brave of you to delve in... i've read most of Scott with enjoyment; they fall into that category above... i read you saying the "Yankee" may be a satirical portrayal; probably is, but a very likeable one, and comforting somehow, even to remember... tx for the post re a familiar book, not that the others aren't interesting and your remarks as well; it's just that old brains are cheered by old memories, i guess...

  2. "Good enough Arkansas proofreading"... still true today, alas.

  3. I believe that I am easily enchanted. If it's not one thing, it's another.

    The Arkansas newspaper jokes are a scream.

  4. "His ultimate goal is to overthrow the Catholic Church."

    Well, I need to reread Twain's "Connecticut Yankee" because I do not recall that important theme/notion.

    My interest in God and American writers -- title of my new blog -- will eventually take me to Twain, via Hawthorne and Melville first, so I will file-away your posting and return to it when I might be able to respond more sensibly and substantively.

    Still, your comment about Twain v. Catholicism very much intrigues me. Twain, if I correctly recall his biography, seems to have agonized over religion his entire life. He was more of an agnostic than an atheist, and I think he was uneasy about his doubts.

    I hope you will have more to say about Twain (or other American writers) and God in other postings. v/r George

  5. See Chapter 10, "Beginnings of Civilization," third paragraph for a clear statement of the narrator's goals. "I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power," etc. The Yankee wants a mix of Protestant churches. "I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature."

    How this matches up with anything Mark Twain wanted I cannot say. In the novel, the Catholic Church wins in the end.