Though neither a humanist nor a Christian—nor, for that matter, even a romantic in the vein of Blake who feared the “dark Satanic mills” of Industrial England—Mark Twain identified the late-nineteenth century fear of the machine run amok perfectly in his last novel, the tragically whimsical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. One of the first to use time travel as a plot device, the story revolves around Hank Morgan, an engineer devoid of any poetry or sentiment. As his German last name indicates, he is the man of “tomorrow.” A practical man schooled in the servile rather than the liberal arts, Morgan can create almost any type of mechanism: “guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery.” A materialist, he “could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make a difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, [he] could invent one.” He was also, Hank assures the reader, “full of fight.” And, a conflict employing crowbars with one of his employees, a man named Hercules, results in severe blow to Morgan’s head, knocking him unconscious.
When Morgan awakes, he finds himself in Arthurian England. Whether he really has traveled back thirteen centuries or is merely in an insane asylum, Morgan decides that he will become, significantly, “boss.” True to his desires, Morgan slowly gains control of England. The process, to be sure, is not an easy one. Morgan has to fight monarchical government, aristocratic culture, the Catholic Church, and a population ignorant of classical economics. This strange world, as he believes, is nothing but medieval darkness and superstition, a people kept from democracy and enjoyment of their natural rights by wicked forces. To counter the traditional stalwarts of Arthurian society, Morgan builds factories, indoctrinates young boys in his schools—known as “man factories—and introduces laissez-faire competition in the market place. To placate the knights of the Round Table, he forms a baseball league so that the participants can demonstrate their manliness in non-violent ways. After living in Arthurian England for three years, he decides to establish universal suffrage and “overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins—not as an Established Church, but as a go-as-you-please-one.” Fearing that Morgan has taken things too far, the Catholic Church imposes an Interdict upon Morgan and his followers. Only a few remain faithful to Morgan, and an army of twenty-five thousand knights of Christendom challenge Morgan’s attempt at modernity. In response, Morgan selects fifty-two loyal boys between the ages of 14 and 17 as his soldiers. Why these? “Because all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it. It is in their blood and bones,” Morgan explains. “We imagined we had educated it out of them; they thought so too; the Interdict woke them up like a thunderclap!” The fifty-two boys, Morgan, and one friend, hole up in a cave, awaiting the attack.
“Death to the Republic” cry the Jacobite-like enemies of the Jacobin Morgan, the defenders of the Church, monarchy, and tradition. They stand no chance, however, against Morgan’s freshly-minted and well-oiled machine, ready “to vomit death.” Foreshadowing the horrifying trench warfare of the first world war, Morgan defends his army and his claims with electric wire fences, dynamite, and machine guns. “As to the destruction of life, it was amazing. Moreover, it was beyond estimate,” records Morgan. “Of course we could not count the dead, because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons.” In a political sense, Morgan finally gets his greatest desire, a society of equals. Indeed, true collectivism results from his machine: the equality of the dead and mutilated, the flesh and the materials of the earth, one and the same. One could argue that Twain presented the world with its first modern dystopian novel, eighteen years earlier than R.H. Benson’s apocalyptic Lord of the World.
Whatever Twain’s intentions for his novel, he brilliantly demonstrated the inhumanity of modernity, and one cannot easily forget the final scene of destruction. In this, he echoed the last full year of the American Civil War, as Grant attempted to grind Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into nothingness at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, then resorting to the siege of Petersburg and nine months of hellacious trench warfare. One also thinks of Grant’s subordinate and close friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, a lover of the humanities and the generals of ancient Greece, and his 62,000 battle-hardened troops cutting a swath of pain and pathos sixty miles wide from Atlanta to the sea. For the nineteenth-century mind, what more impressive image of a machine destroying the garden could exist? “This movement in not purely military or strategic, but it will illustrate the vulnerability of the South,” Sherman argued. “They don’t know what war means, but when the rich planters of Oconee and Savannah see their fences and corn and hogs and sheep vanish before their eyes they will have something more than a mean opinion of the ‘Yanks.’” Twain also foreshadowed the nearly incomprehensible killings and murders of the twentieth-century world wars, in the ideological Gulag states, and even in the sterile American labs and offices in which highly-educated physicians and nurses—that is, educated like Morgan in the servile arts rather than in the liberal arts—have forgotten their Hippocratic oaths, mutilating and forcibly extracting millions of the unborn since 1973. Modernity has rendered human persons, as Twain put it perfectly, as nothing more than mere “homogenous protoplasm.” Indeed, modernity has parasitically fed on the human person: mind, body, and soul. It destroys or perverts true beauty wherever it blooms. And, Kirk frequently reminded his readers of Burke’s understanding of beauty and patriotism: “to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
What, then, is the machine? It is any form of political organization or bureaucracy, any corporation or business, or any economic system that attempts to turn a man into a means rather than an end in and of himself and denies or significantly hinders his right to exit from the exploitative situation. The machine of modernity appears in many forms—Demos, Mars, and Leviathan—and it develops in countries ruled by ideologues of both the Left and the Right. It develops anywhere that Love loses its place as the object of life. Recognizing the highest truth of Love, the true person disapproves of “an efficient machine for efficient machine operators, dominated by master mechanics.” Instead, Russell Kirk argued, persons “are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men,” and “to struggle, to suffer, [and] to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves.” The machine always devours men, using their minds, their spirits, and their souls as fuel to devour yet more men. Society, though, is an organic and developing whole, existing in time, but transcending any one specific moment, rooted to eternity through the Trinitarian God. And, “men of ability are not cogs in a machine, but the blood or life-spirit of society.”
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.
1. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889; New York: Signet, n.d.), 14-15.
2. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 21.
3. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 279.
4. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 294.
5. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 300.
6. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 310.
7. Twain, A Connecticut Yankee, 303.
8. Quoted in Victor Davis Hanson, Soul of Battle, From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (New York: Free Press, 1999), 136-37.
9. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1954), 56.
10. Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 21.
11. Kirk, Prospects, 145.