If you only know the various comic-book and film adaptations of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” you’re liable to imagine the book as a laugh riot, an exercise in anachronistic fun. Knights on bicycles! Knights in armor playing baseball! A newspaper named “The Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano”! In fact, Twain’s 1889 novel — now available in a handsome anniversary edition — is seldom what we’d call funny. Instead, it’s more the literary equivalent of the Fourth of July — a farrago of politics, preaching and fireworks.
The plot is simple enough and may sound eerily contemporary: A brash outsider arrives from nowhere and, after acquiring almost unlimited power, quickly upsets a country’s long-established political and social order. Hank Morgan, however, is much smarter, and far more humane, than the person you’re thinking of. He’s a 19th-century American shop foreman who finds himself mysteriously transported back to sixth-century England. There, his technological expertise, combined with a taste for the stagily theatrical, allows him to perform apparent miracles. After showing up Merlin and thus earning that magician’s lifelong enmity, Hank becomes King Arthur’s right-hand man, eventually granted a special title: The Boss.
All this, Twain relates in a jaunty, first-person style, almost a cleaned-up, more formal version of the voice he used in his previous novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885). But just as that book assailed the evils of slavery, so this one indicts society’s entrenched elites, the parasitically wealthy (represented by England’s nobles) who are, in Twain’s words, “idle, unproductive, acquainted mainly with the arts of wasting and destroying, and of no sort of use or value in any rationally constructed world.” For Twain, this heartless 1 percent also includes the period’s ultraconservative religious establishment (the Catholic Church). As Hank angrily recognizes:
“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, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, 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.”
Even worse than this, the peasants and working people, brainwashed into docility, dumbly accept whatever their overlords do to them. A pageboy slips and jostles the beautiful Morgan le Fay, who casually shoves a dirk into his heart. A dying mother — her husband already a corpse, her sons imprisoned for no good reason — caresses her dying daughter, happy that the girl will soon suffer no more. A slave-master — in Dan Beard’s original illustration he resembles the robber baron Jay Gould — brutally whips an exhausted woman for stumbling as she tramps along in a chain gang. A group of well-to-do pilgrims, Hank tells us, “looked on and commented — on the expert way in which the whip was handled.” Later, the woman is sold and separated forever from her husband, who looks longingly, desperately at her and their child before he is pulled away. As Hank says: “And the husband and father, with his wife and child gone, never to be seen by him again in life! — well, the look of him one might not bear at all, and so I turned away, but I knew I should never get his picture out of my mind again, and there it is to this day, to wring my heartstrings whenever I think of it.”
Hank quickly resolves to transform this callous, brutal system. In an attempt to show the king the realities of life, he and Arthur disguise themselves as artisans and wander the countryside. As they set out, Hank worries that his royal companion looks too proud, too manly:
“Make believe you are in debt,” he tells him, “and eaten up by relentless creditors; you are out of work . . . and can get none; and your wife is sick, your children are crying because they are hungry —‘And so-on, and so-on. I drilled him as representing, in turn, all sorts of people out of luck and suffering dire privations and misfortunes. But lord, it was only just words, words, — they meant nothing in the world to him. I might just as well have whistled. Words realize nothing; vivify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing which the words try to describe. There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about ‘the working classes,’ and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. . . As far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down — and I will be satisfied, too. Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward.”
Eventually, Hank does establish a democratic republic, but the latent forces of reaction soon strike back. In Twain’s last chapters the Connecticut Yankee and his few remaining supporters coolly calculate how to destroy an army of 25,000 enemy knights — and then, using explosives, electrified fences and Gatling guns, they do it. Some critics have described this massacre as exaggerated tall-tale humor and not to be taken seriously. To me, it reads like Swift or Céline, pure nihilism, a giving-up on what Twain once called “the damned human race.” When you consider our own world these days, you can certainly understand his despair.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Mark Twain
SeaWolf Press. 438 pp. Paperback, $14.95