Mark Twain, that teller of tall tales from the American frontier, has an almost mythical status in American literature and culture. The white suit, the wild hair, and the homespun humor have combined to add to his obvious literary skills a mystique that has spawned heroic portrayals in biographical one-man shows and works of fiction (one thinks, here, of the Twain character in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld). And, of course, the world’s greatest rock band, Rush, is best known for it’s song, “Tom Sawyer.”
Anyone who has read much Twain will have come across his later works, in which he bitterly mocks and castigates religion, human nature, and in some ways existence itself. These writings sometimes are treated as the results of depression brought on by the deaths of his wife and daughters, but were in several cases written before those events. Still, it is not to these later works one should look in assessing Twain, but rather to the broad themes and overall attitude one finds in his writings. And here, any fair assessment must place Twain with other icons of American liberalism who have gained the admiration of their contemporaries for a certain toughness, an aura of rugged individualism and plain-spoken truth-telling, even as they have gained the lasting admiration of the academic and journalistic left with opinions and policy positions that begin with the humane (e.g. opposing racism), traverse the Progressive (e.g. criticizing organized religion), and proceed to the downright scary.
Much of Mark Twain’s writing is highly enjoyable; I am a particular fan of his travel stories. What is more, as with most authors of real genius, one must not be a prig if one is to share the author’s vision and appreciate what he is trying to do. Tom Sawyer’s cunning in getting his friends to pay him to paint the fence is no tale of virtue, but remains a harmless enough bit of fun. Moreover, it would be less than fair to Twain, for example, to take too seriously every instance of callousness portrayed in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A nineteenth century traveler on America’s frontiers, Twain had seen much death and was accustomed to, and obviously at least in part shared in, the somewhat cavalier attitude toward violence in what was a rather violent society. What is more, he was writing about an even more violent society—medieval Britain—with the intention of pointing out that society’s flaws. So the main character’s decision to allow, for example, a group of musicians to be executed for their poor playing can be taken as the joke it was intended to be.
But there is more to Twain’s satire on the medieval than music criticism, or the occasional off-hand execution by his hero. The bloodthirsty nature of Twain’s hero reflects his own views of politics in a manner that suffuses the novel and is as deeply disturbing as it is indicative of a form of politics that would flower in the mass murders of the twentieth century.
The purpose of Connecticut Yankee, as Twain himself observed, is to debunk the romantic vision of chivalry and the medieval found in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott, a favorite of Russell Kirk and many of us conservatives, looked back to earlier ages for a sense of adventure, but also for a code of honor sadly lacking in the age of industrialization in which he wrote. Twain, on the contrary, viewed medieval (and earlier) society as a construct of religious superstition, unearned power and privilege for the elite, and grinding poverty and oppression for everyone else. More odd, Twain explicitly blamed Scott for the Civil War—claiming his stories caused southerners to see themselves as chivalrous defenders of civilization and duped them into believing they might stem the tide of Progress. And Twain placed himself squarely on the side of Progress, whatever the cost.
There is a naiveté to Twain’s belief in the powers of science that is almost charming at the beginning of Connecticut Yankee. Perhaps it was this aspect on which Hollywood picked up in the Bing Crosby adaptation, which treated the magician Merlin as a Rasputin figure and the rest of King Arthur’s Court as mere simpletons, easily fooled by some hand gestures and a fortunate prediction of a solar eclipse (overlooking, as did Twain, the small detail of changes in calendar reckonings that would render such a prediction fatally inaccurate).
Twain’s Yankee arrives in Britain by accident and begins his time there as a prisoner. But he soon transforms this land, rising to the position of first minister, building trains, telegraph and telephone infrastructure, and setting up factories and schools to make simple peasants into “real men” who “think for themselves” once science replaces religion/superstition as the basis of knowledge. The magician Merlin is presented as a dolt, though a more dangerous one than most of the other inhabitants of the doltish land of Camelot. But the Yankee uses disguised science to discredit Merlin and steadily undermines the code of chivalry by making it look ridiculous (sending out missionaries in armor and with shields advertising various products, for example). He also looks for promising young people to attend his new schools (“factories” for the building of “men”) and uses his knowledge of weapons-manufacture to begin a mini-industrial revolution on the sly.
Secretive at first, so as to avoid the hostility of a Catholic Church he portrays as a greedy, oppressive power structure, the Yankee eventually comes out fully against the upper classes of his day, challenging the nobility ex masse to a joust, which he wins through the use of his own firearms and a fair bit of bluster. This victory ushers in an era of industrial Progress. Nobles are forced to find new ways to pursue honor and wealth, such as acting as conductors and corporate board members. Commerce flourishes. And the people prosper.
Unfortunately for the Yankee, he is tricked by the still-treacherous upper classes into going overseas, which gives these discontented power seekers the opportunity to start a disastrous civil war and, eventually, trigger an interdict from the Catholic Church, which destroys what is left of public life. On returning to Britain, however, the Yankee refuses to be cowed, instead declaring a revolution. King Arthur being dead, he announces the formation of a republic, along with disestablishment of the Church.
To this point one might take with a grain of salt references in the book to mass extermination, and, from the narrator, to the wisdom and beneficence of the French Revolution. But the Yankee’s actions at this final stage of the conflict show that he, and Twain, is in deadly earnest in regard to the need for a clean sweep to make Progress possible. Knowing that he will face armed resistance from the nobles, the Yankee resolves to gather the products of his various schools together to fight for Progress. He is disheartened, at first, to hear that only 52 boys have been found trustworthy under the circumstances. The rest have been corrupted by their upbringing before entering the schools and so cannot be counted upon to fight their former masters.
Given his technological advantage, the Yankee still determines to fight. His minions are loathe, however, to slaughter their whole people, for the people have gone over to the cause of the nobles out of habit, tradition, and fear of perdition. The Yankee wins back his minions, however, when he points out that the people will not be in the vanguard of the attack, and will be happy to join the republic once the nobles are exterminated. And thus his plan comes together, to kill off the entire class of the nobility so as to free the people from their ties to an oppressive past.
What follows is a story of mass, technological butchery that looks forward to the horrors of World War I, including the perpetrators’ facile acceptance of mass death. Indeed, Twain has the Yankee see victory in his grasp, having killed tens of thousands, until he is misled by his humanity to attempt to help the wounded knights. He stabs the very first knight he comes across, making it possible for Merlin to succeed (for the first time in the book) at magic—putting the hero into a 1,300 year sleep. Bereft of their master, the Yankee’s minions succumb to disease spawned by the mass of bodies around them—this latter incident perhaps intended as a metaphor for the weight of tradition, stultifying those who wish to progress.
As someone who teaches at a law school I can perhaps be forgiven for drawing a parallel, here, to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. That icon of the liberal mainstream for many decades has been looked upon as a hero for dismissing the “nonsense” of tradition and custom (and the constitution) in seeking practical solutions to policy problems that happened to find their way into his court. He also was the judge who condemned a rape victim to involuntary sterilization on the highly questionable grounds that she was mentally incompetent, showing the depth of his psychological analysis with that pearl of wisdom “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Twain, like Holmes, wrote before eugenics had produced Hitler’s Final Solution, but the notion of clean sweeps of “bad” populations is and should be recognized to be horrific in its consequences and a sign of serious moral disorder, however beloved the source.
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