Mark Twain's 'Yankee' Is Still of Our Time

By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, September 5, 2009

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

By 1889, when Mark Twain published "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," he was in his mid-50s and the most famous writer in the United States, not merely author but also book publisher, lecturer and enthusiastic but invariably failed investor. Two more decades of writing and performing lay ahead of him, but "Connecticut Yankee" brought to an end the period of his greatest work, which had started in 1867 with "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches" and continued apace with "Innocents Abroad," "Roughing It," "Life on the Mississippi," "The Prince and the Pauper" and of course, most famously, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

For most of the way, "Connecticut Yankee" is a wonderfully funny and wildly improbable romp through Arthurian England, but toward the end it turns dark, with a bloody massacre that, as Justin Kaplan suggests in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, reflects Twain's own disenchantment with the mechanized modern world for which he had once held such high hopes. We now know, from the convenient vantage point of hindsight, that the darkness that had descended upon Twain never really lifted, and his writing became more eccentric and even angry as he railed against Christianity, despotism, humanity itself and anything else that aroused his considerable capacity for invective.

When I first began reading Twain, as a boy of 8 or 10 in the late 1940s, I knew nothing of his dark side. Twain had been dead for less than four decades and was still a palpable presence in the country's life. Boys (perhaps more than girls) read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" for the sheer fun of it, most of them (myself certainly included) doubtless failing to recognize that while the first was a wonderful book for young readers, the latter was a literary masterpiece of immense depth and complexity. More sophisticated readers had long understood that Twain, celebrated and loved as humorist and journalist, was America's first truly great writer and had engineered his way into the classroom, which today is probably the place where people first encounter him.

My own first encounter with "Connecticut Yankee" was at the movies. Adaptations had been filmed in 1921 and 1931, and soon forgotten. Then in 1949 a new version appeared, in the full (and still novel) glory of Technicolor, starring Bing Crosby as the Hartford mechanic who, "during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars with a fellow we used to call Hercules," is knocked for a loop and wakes to find himself in 6th-century England. I was enchanted and much amused by the movie, which takes vast liberties with the novel and now seems fairly dated, though Crosby is charming and some of the secondary characters, notably Cedrick Hardwicke as King Arthur, are terrific.

The movie led me to the book, but at this remove I remember absolutely nothing about how, as a 10- or 11-year-old, I responded to it. My hunch is that parts of it must have puzzled me, because what may seem at first glance to be a book for young readers is in fact a singularly adult novel. There are scenes a young reader can enjoy, and after well over a century the novel's language remains remarkably fresh and accessible, but behind all the fun lurks a grown-up's book that deals with grown-up themes, among them freedom and oppression, democracy and autocracy, religion and superstition.

Hank Morgan is "a practical Connecticut man" who quickly determines that the Knights of the Round Table are "big boobies" who pick fights with strangers and then boast endlessly about their triumphs, though he also finds "something very engaging about these great simple-hearted creatures," because "there did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fish-hook with; but you didn't seem to mind that, after a little, because you soon saw that brains were not needed in a society like that, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry -- perhaps rendered its existence impossible." It is a society that this freedom-loving Yankee finds utterly incomprehensible:

"The most of King Arthur's British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world. And for all this, the thanks they got were cuffs and contempt; and so poor spirited were they that they took even this sort of attention as an honor."

That is an authentic American voice as immediately recognizable today as in 1889: the voice of the small-d democrat. Hank is a 19th-century American who has been plopped down in the Dark Ages and resolves to do what any good Yankee would do: Fix them. He is "the best-educated man in the kingdom by a matter of thirteen hundred year," and he resolves to use his superior knowledge to "boss the whole country." Knowing the specific day and hour that an eclipse had appeared in the 6th century, he predicts the disappearance of the sun and, when it happens as advertised, the entire land is in fear and awe of him. Merlin, the royal wizard, is revealed as a fraud, and Hank is dubbed the Boss, "the second personage in the Kingdom, as far as political power and authority were concerned."

So at once Hank sets about turning Arthurian England into 19th-century America. The first thing he establishes is a patent office, then a school system, then a newspaper, then onward to "the destruction of the throne, nobility abolished, every member of it bound out to some useful trade, universal suffrage instituted, and the whole government placed in the hands of the men and women of the nation, there to remain." After a mere three years, Camelot has become Connecticut:

"Slavery was dead and gone; all men were equal before the law; taxation had been equalized. The telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the type-writer, the sewing machine, and all the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity were working their way into favor. We had a steamboat or two on the Thames, we had steam war-ships, and the beginnings of a steam commercial marine; I was getting ready to send out an expedition to discover America."

Along the way to this nirvana (which of course doesn't last, but how and why is for you to discover), Hank acquires the companionship of Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, who is as chatty as she is lovely. This is discussed in a paragraph that must be savored in full, as it is quintessential Twain:

"I was gradually coming to have a mysterious and shuddery reverence for this girl; nowadays whenever she pulled out from the station and got her train fairly started on one of those horizonless transcontinental sentences of hers, it was borne in upon me that I was standing in the awful presence of the Mother of the German Language. I was so impressed with this, that sometimes when she began to empty one of these sentences on me I unconsciously took the very attitude of reverence, and stood uncovered; and if words had been water, I had been drowned, sure. She had exactly the German way: whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

Having spent more of my teenage years than I care to remember wrestling with (and losing to) the intricacies of the German language, I can testify that in this one paragraph Twain nails it on the head and leaves it for dead. But then when Twain was at his absolute best, he did that all the time. Nearly a century after his death (he died in 1910), his humor remains as fresh as ever, and it is as a humorist that he lives on. Yes, it certainly is true that in "Huckleberry Finn" he went far beyond humor to depict this country with astonishing acuity, yet even there it is the humor that sets the novel's basic tone.

The same goes for "Connecticut Yankee," though the change of mood in its closing pages comes as a surprise, by no means a welcome one. I still love the book, and I understand it far better than I did lo these many years ago, but "Huckleberry Finn" remains the greatest achievement of Twain's stupendous career.

Numerous editions are available.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

Coming Up

The next book in this series is "Pomp and Circumstance," by Noel Coward. It is out of print, but used copies are widely available.

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