TC 357 - Fishkin
“Manifest Destiny made flesh” –
Imperialism in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
In many ways, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a perplexing book. Not even its genre is easily determinable – the ‘time travel’ frame story has led some critics to label it science fiction, while others, pointing to heart-wrenching ‘slave narrative’ passages, consider it a commentary on the slave-owning South. Still others see it primarily as a satire on Arthurian romances, or on the lingering classism in European society. Nearly all critics agree, however, that whatever Twain intended, the novel says as much about the nineteenth century and its representative Yankee as it does about medieval Britain, time paradoxes, or Southern history. To many readers, what comes through most strongly is the main character’s dedication to the late nineteenth-century American ideal: freedom, equality, entrepreneurship, and above all, progress. Accordingly, many critics have taken A Connecticut Yankee at face value, reading it as one man’s fight to build a democratic utopia in a society hobbled by aristocratic and religious tyranny. In the past few decades, however, readers have become increasingly aware of the book’s ambiguous tone and the implications of the Yankee’s bloody, apocalyptic revenge on Arthurian chivalry. Instead of a hymn of praise to democracy, A Connecticut Yankee functions far better as an indictment of both American and European imperialism, and may prefigure our modern disillusionment with attempts to spread ‘civilization’ to developing nations.
The Yankee’s dream of an ideal
society, along with his extended philosophical justifications of his position,
suggest that it is reasonable to group A
Connecticut Yankee with novels such as Bellamy’s Looking Backward and call it a utopian work. Indeed, using Jean Pfaelzer’s definition of a utopian novel (as she
articulates it in The Utopian Novel in
Other critics, however, have
disagreed. Yankee does more than use
the egalitarian, nineteenth-century Yankee mindset to point out the flaws in
romanticized sixth century Britain. Critics such as William Dean Howells have
argued that the novel functions to point out lingering classism
and Church oppression in the nineteenth century as well – anachronistic
leftovers from a time of less enlightened ideas. Illustrator Dan Beard, who did
the famous drawings for the first edition of A Connecticut Yankee, picked up on this angle and magnified the
degree to which the novel attacks nineteenth-century problems and institutions.
Twain, in Hank’s voice, lauds the more intellectual and egalitarian nature of
Protestantism over Catholicism; Beard’s illustrations go a step further,
illustrating churchmen as gluttonous, hypocritical, and tyrannous (see
illustration of monk downing a tankard of ale as he stands on The Boss’ hat and
the King’s Crown, 93), predatory (as foxes where the people are rabbits, 97),
and as deriving their power from slavery, superstition, and ignorance (283).
That Beard did not merely intend to criticize the sixth century Church is clear
from the reaction of American Catholics – Catholic magazine advertisers
boycotted magazines featuring either Twain or Beard for four years after Yankee was published. In many places
Beard’s drawings have a biting political angle that the novel does not
specifically contain. His illustration for the slave driver wears the face of
robber baron Jay Gould, thus drawing a parallel between slavery and
dehumanizing factory labor (465). Other drawings attack the superiority of the
European aristocracy, a notion which Twain first attempted to undermine in The Innocents Abroad (one illustration
depicts a perfectly balanced scale, with a king on one side and a scruffy
nineteenth-century worker on the other (159)). Clearly, the novel does criticize the present day. Howells
and Beard would most likely argue that Hank’s utopia is not pure
The tendency to read A Connecticut Yankee as reflecting a “simple-minded confidence in nineteenth-century democratic culture,” as Holmes puts it (472), has waned as the decades have passed. Certainly critics have begun to shy away from Howells’ wholehearted 1890 endorsement, which fails to deal with the complex implications of Twain’s bloody ending:
[Twain’s] strong, indignant, often infuriate hate of injustice, and his love of equality, burn hot through the manifold adventures and experiences of the tale. . . . At every moment the scene amuses, but it is all the time an object-lesson in democracy. It makes us glad of our republic and our epoch; but it does not flatter us into a fond content with them; there are passages in which we see that the noble of Arthur’s day, who fattened on the blood and sweat of his bondmen, is one in essence with the capitalist of Mr. Harrison’s day who grows rich on the labor of his underpaid wagemen. . . . It is one of its magical properties that the fantastic fable of Arthur’s far-off time is also too often the sad truth of ours[.] (145-8)
of the mid-twentieth century, the explanation that Hank’s “beautiful
civilization” came to ruin because of the indomitable power of the Church over
the Britons’ superstitious minds fails to satisfy. Joseph Jones’ 1950 analysis
is interesting both for its uncategorical
classification of the novel as utopian, and because it probes Hank’s character
for a more satisfying explanation of that utopia’s ultimate failure. As a
critic writing in the midst of the Cold War, Jones is as yet unwilling to
question the Yankee’s democratic philosophy; he agrees with earlier critics
that the theme of Yankee is
“antagonism to the superorganization – a protest
against or a fear of the assault of institutions upon the individual” (217).
Oddly, Jones criticizes Hank for not being harsh enough with the backward institutions of medieval
Thus the failure of the Boss may be viewed as less a failure of will than of judgement, judgement as to the degree of expedient action necessary . . . Can he be viewed as a prototype of the too easygoing ‘academic’ liberal? (224)
To our modern sensibilities, describing Hank, who quite remorselessly electrocutes thousands of ignorant knights in defense of his already shattered civilization, as too liberal is ridiculous. Jones’ stance is heavily influenced by Red Scare-era fears, and the common belief that to question democratic culture was to be un-American. Nevertheless, the idea that democracy fails because of a weakness in Hank is an intriguing idea, and one that later critics expanded upon.
1989 analysis is equally uninterested in questioning the viability of Hank’s
version of democracy, but his criticisms of Hank’s character are far more harsh. Bulger traces the
development of Hank’s egotism throughout the novel, focusing on his desire for
ever-increasing power and his Tom Sawyer-like miracle-working that gains him
fame but only reinforces the superstitions he professes to despise. He affirms
that “Morgan’s failure to transform medieval
We know Twain’s general opinion of humanity from essays such as “The Damned Human Race”; we also know that Twain himself, according to Beard, once called the Yankee “a perfect ignoramus” (Budd, 3). Considering the numerous flaws in the Yankee’s character, we may agree with Charles S. Holmes when he writes, “It is tempting to see [A Connecticut Yankee]’s clutter of popular ideology as deliberately ironic, particularly in light of the conclusion of the book” (464). Given the (according to the author) ignorant Yankee and the book’s bloody climax, the idea that Twain may have intended the novel to criticize, not praise, democratic society is appealing. Could Howells and Beard have been completely wrong? Yet Holmes cautions us: “[T]his would be to overlook the fact that almost all the elements of the Yankee’s program represent values to which Twain himself subscribed” (464). Holmes is representative of critics from the 1960s onward in pointing out the myriad ambiguities in the novel – Hank is power-grabbing one moment, outraged at the oppression of the people the next; he condemns summary execution and practices it; he affirms the basic worth of every human being and yet cheerfully exterminates thousands of members of the aristocracy. Holmes astutely attributes this confusion to Twain’s own sense of uncertainty about whether, given human nature, an ideal society is possible. On the subject of the ending, Holmes concludes, “[T]he baffled idealist, unable to reconcile himself to the gap between what he hopes of human nature and what he sees, simply unmakes the world which has such painful contradictions in it” (470). Did Twain believe in democratic principles? Did he question the ability of human beings ever to live up to them? In Holmes’ view, the answer to both these questions is yes.
In summarizing the critics that treat A Connecticut Yankee as a utopian novel, we can come to the following conclusion: though Twain’s original intent seems to have been to praise democratic principles, as Howells and Beard believed, his uncertainties about human nature led him to create a flawed protagonist, thus introducing significant doubts about the validity of that same democratic philosophy. Today, many critics agree that as a novel in praise of democracy, A Connecticut Yankee is a poor example.
Ironically, the intrusion of Twain’s pessimism into what started as an entertaining, positive commentary on democracy may have saved A Connecticut Yankee from obscurity. In the wake of the permissive atmosphere of the 1960s, when it became increasingly acceptable to question the validity of democratic and capitalistic beliefs, critics began to notice that approaching A Connecticut Yankee as a dystopian novel produced a wealth of anti-imperialist material. Again and again, the Yankee’s attitudes echo in American behavior towards less-developed foreign nations, beginning as little as ten years after Twain completed and published the novel. In creating the Yankee as a kind of archetypal American, it seems, Twain imbued him with the very imperialist traits that the author would viciously attack in his years with the Anti-Imperialist League – making the Yankee the naïve architect, not of a liberated paradise, but of a society every bit as oppressive as the one it seeks to replace.
Perhaps the best explanation of how
the Yankee’s outwardly altruistic intentions go awry comes from Twain’s own
writing. In “The New Dynasty,” the author writes, “Power, when lodged in the
hands of man, means oppression – insures oppression:
it means oppression always: not always consciously, deliberately, purposely;
not always severely, or heavily, or cruelly, or sweepingly; but oppression, anyway, and always, in one shape or another” (quoted
in Sewell, 141-2). The Yankee is simply unable to separate his belief in social
justice from his personal agenda. Hank claims to want to set the peasantry
truly free, but his actions often seem selfish and short-sighted – at times, he
seems to recreate the nineteenth century out of a sense of his (and its)
perceived superiority, never stopping to ask if the sixth century Britons need
or want his technological innovations. Hank is blind to the simple, romantic
charm of Arthurian Britain; only after he has destroyed it and is dying does he
call out for Camelot and for Sandy, the woman he once
thought the personification of
At the root of Hank’s mismanagement
Nancy S. Oliver sees this belief in
Social Darwinism to be a major component of new Manifest Destiny, which, she
writes, “freed the restrictions of the mandate of divine providence and
wholeheartedly embraced the scientific justification of Social Darwinism for
the superiority of
Believers in new Manifest Destiny
also put considerable emphasis on individual freedom – particularly the freedom
to improve one’s station in life and therefore the nation’s. Oliver notes this
tendency in the glorification of the pioneer movement: “The extension of
individual freedom – the freedom of American pioneers to extend their lives and
thus the institutions of
New Manifest Destiny, or the belief
in the biological superiority of the American race and of the philosophies they
hold, was the basis for imperialism in the late nineteenth century. Hank’s
behavior is clearly that of a believer; by extension, his power grab and
subsequent ‘civilization-building’ in medieval
Hank’s weirdly inconsistent attitude toward the Britons (“now seeking to make free citizens of them, now dismissing them as ‘human muck,’” as Sewell puts it (146)) is a paradox, but one that can be explained. Sewell discusses The Conquest of America by Tzvetan Todorov at some length, focusing on what Todorov calls the “paradox of the understanding-that-kills.” This paradox is drawn specifically from writings about (and presumably by) Cortés who, bafflingly, demonstrated a refined understanding of the Aztec civilization, yet was instrumental in its destruction and the assimilation of its people into European ways. His actions defy everything multi-cultural consciousness-raisers believe today; in the case of Cortés, understanding bred no tolerance. Todorov explains this paradox by appealing to the psychology of the colonist/imperialist. If he regards the native residents of the country as his equals, he will naturally want to press his own views on them, believing that as intelligent human beings they will eventually see their worth (see Hank’s man-factories and academies as illustrations of this). If, however, he focuses primarily on how the natives are different from him, he can easily begin to regard “difference” in terms of superior and inferior, clearing the way for all forms of paternalistic tactics (Sewell, 146). Whether the imperialist sees the natives as equals or as lesser beings that need to be disciplined and cared for, the result is the same: the imperialist feels driven by his belief in the superiority of his culture to force it on others.
For both Cortés
and the Yankee, their faith in their culture’s superiority revolves around its
technological development. For those in the nineteenth century, this is clearly
linked to the ideas of evolution and progress discussed above, but Holmes
suggests that Western culture in general assumes a connection between technological
and moral progress (464). For Hank, this may well be related to his hatred of
superstition. He quickly discovers that the sixth-century mind is perfectly
capable of understanding nineteenth-century science – the fact that by the end
of the novel, Clarence is practically indistinguishable from a
nineteenth-century jack-of-all-trades is proof of that. Despite this fact, Hank
holds their ignorance and superstition against them, chortling at their awed
reactions to his “miracles.” He observes contemptuously as the residents of
Morgan Le Fay’s castle flee from
The assemblage rose, whiffed ceremony to the winds, and rushed for the door like a mob; overturning chairs, smashing crockery, tugging, struggling, shouldering, crowding – anything to get out before I should change my mind and puff the castle into the measureless dim vacancies of space. Well, well, well, they were a superstitious lot. It is all a body can do to conceive of it. (206)
Hank is entirely unable to understand the function of superstition in the medieval world – never once does it occur to him that superstition is often the Britons’ only way of making sense out of a chaotic and dangerous world. Nor does he ever see that the hodge-podge of science and democratic philosophy, taken out of its historical context, is hardly enough to exorcise the fears bred into the people from birth. Ultimately, Hank forgets his own conviction that “training is everything” (217) and condemns the Britons’ superstition as an inborn defect, permanent, unconscionable evidence of their inferiority:
Toward the end of the week I began to get this large and disenchanting fact through my head: that the mass of the nation had swung their caps and shouted for the republic for about one day, and there an end! The Church, the nobles, and the gentry then turned one grand, all-disapproving frown upon them and shriveled them into sheep! From that moment the sheep had begun to gather to the fold – that is to say, the camps – and offer their valueless lives and their valuable wool to the "righteous cause." Why, even the very men who had lately been slaves were in the "righteous cause," and glorifying it, praying for it, sentimentally slabbering over it, just like all the other commoners. Imagine such human muck as this; conceive of this folly! (551)
Hank’s rhetoric here is incredibly harsh: “sheep,” “valueless lives,” “human muck.” His worst prejudice has apparently been confirmed: only the products of a technologically advanced society, those raised with science instead of superstition, can fully grasp the value and truth of democratic principles over those of the aristocracy and established religion.
It is significant as well that the
Yankee, though he sees himself as a liberator and a reformer, compares himself
to historical and fictional personalities whose aims were far more
self-serving. The Yankee associates himself with Cortés,
the conqueror, Columbus, the explorer, and Crusoe, the captive. While comparing
himself to Crusoe may seem fairly innocent, Sewell argues that all of these
roles are implicit in that of the colonial imperialist. “[E]xploration
and captivity narratives are attenuated or masked forms of the conquest
account: domination, the overt subject in the latter, appears at the level of
discourse as a submerged motive in the former,” he argues, indicating
Unlike Cortés, however, the Yankee appears to have a fairly limited understanding of the culture he seeks to destroy. For Roger George, this failing is primarily due to dissimilar mental models. He cites Hank’s frustrating first encounter with Alisande, in which he repeatedly tries to get concrete directions to her castle from her and eventually asks for a map, which she has never heard nor even conceived of. George explains:
For Alisande, the way to reach the castle is to set out on the road and follow it wherever it might lead . . . Every journey is, in effect, a quest. Alisande’s directions are perfectly accurate and make considerable sense – if one perceives phenomena as she does. . . . Hank’s desire for a map reveals a need for all sorts of concepts we take for granted – a goal or destination, sequence, teleology – the very idea that a specific order of events will lead to a specific conclusion sometime in the future. (58)
Hank is simply unable to understand that in Camelot, there is literally no need for maps, nor for telephones, a postal service, or advertising. No one has friends, acquaintances, or business connections outside of their towns; traveling knights do not need long-distance communication because their quests are intended to be amorphous and only vaguely linked to a goal. Hank, on the other hand, just wants to travel to the castle, free the damsels, and leave – the romantic, transformative journeys that knights undertake seem pointless and silly to him.
Perhaps the one idea that would have significantly helped Hank in his effort to convert the Britons to nineteenth-century ideas was their lack of the notion of progress. The historian Janet Meisel has argued that the behavior of many groups in the medieval period can be explained by the common belief that the way things were – level of technology, dominance of the Church, the feudal system, etc. – had never really changed. In the words of the Catholic Doxology, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be” – such was the way that people, particularly the uneducated, saw the world. This world view, naturally, was linked primarily to the low level of literacy among the people. When only priests could read and learn of past events, the very notion of ‘history’ was unavailable to the general population.
Hank, coming from a literate culture, does not grasp this lack of sense of history; nor does he entirely see that the Britons’ “irrational” passivity is a reasonable reaction in the face of an unchangeable world. The task of overturning such a time-honored belief system is vast. George states it thus:
If Hank is truly to reform
the kingdom, he must first recognize . . . that he can only introduce his new
universe which operates by cause and effect if he can show that his system
makes more sense than theirs. . . . it will not reform
Ultimately, Hank’s lack of understanding of the Britons’ mindset leads him to undermine his own efforts to educate them – he performs “miracles” even when his power has already been firmly established, and (George continues)
. . . hides from the awestruck people his techniques. He introduces electricity, telephones, newspapers . . . modern gadgets of all kinds, but trains only a small handful of people to operate them – sorcerer’s apprentices, in effect. . . . Nothing he does is really anomalous, for no matter how astounding the effect his scientific wizardry produces, it can be explained as magic, and therefore it does nothing to demonstrate the inadequacy of the prevailing paradigm (in fact, it serves to reinforce it). (63)
Hank has, to put it in his own vernacular, jumped the gun; he has attempted to transfigure a culture he does not truly understand, and so worked against his own declared intentions from the beginning.
To summarize what we know so far about Hank’s imperialistic tendencies: he is convinced of his superiority, both technologically and morally; he displays behaviors that suggest belief in Social Darwinism and new Manifest Destiny; and, perhaps worst of all, he seeks to dominate the Britons and convert them to his own values without really understanding them. From our modern standards of open-mindedness and tolerance, Hank falls far short of being a model human being. But exactly what sort of ‘human being’ is he? We have already discussed his inconsistency of character and his rapid switches between humanitarianism and arbitrary callousness. Gerber catalogs his similar inconsistency of speech:
In three consecutive paragraphs, for example, the Yankee narrator sounds like a Malory (“he lightly took his spear and gat him hence”), a sentimental novelist (“They could remember him as he was in the freshness and strength of his young manhood, when he kissed his child and delivered it to its mother’s hands and went away into that long oblivion”), an American rustic (“when you can say that of a man, he has struck bottom, I reckon”), an essayist gifted with erratic literary elegance (“all gentle cant and philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion”). Despite its basic colloquialism the writing in A Connecticut Yankee is just about as patchwork a production as its unstable viewpoint would lead one to expect. (127)
As critic after critic has observed, the Yankee’s character is so inconsistent that it is almost more profitable to see him as having no character at all. Andrew Jay Hoffman sees this as a failure of imagination, however. The Yankee, he argues, makes a very poor representation of a human being, but as an archetype, he lends structure and coherence to the novel. Significantly, the Yankee is not an unfamiliar stock character in American literature. Daniel G. Hoffman traces the appearances of the Yankee in literature in Form and Fable in American Fiction, noting that the Yankee (generally a comic character) is notable for his qualities of “rusticity, boastfulness, inquisitiveness, and independence,” though character actors from the 1820’s onward rounded out his personality with more solid virtues – bravery, honesty, and the “good heart” that Twain himself noted in his protagonist (46). Hank is all of these things to a fault, and where they conflict, his language and behavior become contradictory and strange.
Seeing the Yankee as a type opens
the novel up to historical analysis, whether we treat him as a “daimonic entrepreneur,” “Manifest Destiny made flesh” (as
Hoffman suggests), or an absolutely archetypal American imperialist. It is not
even much of a stretch to see him as a metaphor for the
The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, wisely and cautiously administered, is a Daisy. There is more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than there is in any other kind of game that is played. (269)
Like Hank’s, the American government’s supposedly altruistic efforts are also extremely profitable, resulting in power, territory, and profit above all. Yet is the trade worth it for the lesser power? Twain suggests that the promised benefits are little more than a mirage, never to be realized:
In the right kind of a light, and at a proper distance, with the goods a little out of focus, they furnish this desirable exhibit to the Gentlemen who Sit in Darkness:
Love, Law and Order,
Christianity, Honorable Dealing,
Protection to the Weak, Mercy,
– and so on.
There. Is it good? Sir, it is pie. It will bring into camp any idiot that sits in darkness anywhere. . . . Privately and confidentially, it is merely an outside cover, gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilization which we reserve for Home Consumption . . . (270)
on to give examples of foreign peoples oppressed, villages massacred, fines
imposed, all by supposedly well-intentioned, liberating nations. He quotes from
SOLDIERS, CHAMPIONS OF HUMAN LIBERTY AND EQUALITY: . . .We know what is before us. While one of these men [the knights] remains alive, our task is not finished, the war is not ended. We will kill them all. (556)
Basic parallels between Hank’s
actions and attitudes and those of the U.S. government can be found in the
events leading up to the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, including the government’s
suspicious reaction to the Ghost Dance ritual (we can recall Hank’s contempt
for superstition) and their use of machine guns and rifles against Native
Americans armed only with knives and clubs. But the
In the end, America became
disillusioned with the fight for ‘democracy’ in other nations; the concept was
too nebulous, the profits were less, and after Vietnam, the public found itself
nursing the guilty feeling that ‘they’ hadn’t wanted us there, after all – the
Vietnamese, the Filipinos, the Hawaiians. Our faith in the innate superiority
of capitalism had dwindled in the face of the misery of the newly ‘liberated’
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