Christine Hoff

TC 357 - Fishkin

December 7, 1998

 

“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 America, 1886-1889), Yankee seems to have all the prerequisites – but they are hopelessly jumbled. Pfalezer sees the utopian novel as containing two kinds of rhetoric: fable and manifesto. She defines the former as “a sequence of events fashioned into a story, usually influenced by the traditions of romance” (18). Yankee definitely fits the bill here: as Pfaelzer implies, the utopian novel often has only a semblance of plot. Twain’s novel is episodic, more a string of events than a structured story. Appropriately, it is also heavily influenced by romantic traditions – a large portion of its humor is based on burlesquing that very genre. The philosophical portions of the utopian novel are articulated in the rhetoric of manifesto, writes Pfaelzer: it “interprets the narrated events and explains the utopian context to the protagonist-visitor, who, like the reader, is an outsider” (18). Once again, Yankee has all of these elements, but not in quite the order one would expect. The novel has a clear philosophical background in the form of Hank’s capitalistic and democratic diatribes. Hank, as required, is an outsider, but he is also the architect of the utopia. Yankee further defies the structure of the traditional utopian novel in that it takes place in the fictionalized past and presents the author’s present day as the ideal society. In contrast, most utopian novels take place in the future, and use their reader’s knowledge of a flawed present day to demonstrate the utopia’s advantages. For this reason, Pfaelzer rejects Yankee as a true utopian novel.

            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 nineteenth-century America, but an idealized version of it, stripped of classism, wage slavery, and superstition.

            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)

 

For critics 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 Britain.

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.

            Thomas Bulger’s 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 England into a progressive egalitarian society is not an indictment of his utopian vision,” but “his enormous power as technocratic ruler of England goes to his head. Consequently, he . . . loses sight of what is genuinely beneficial for the larger good” and, most importantly, becomes incapable of “perceiving the ideological inconsistencies in his actions” (238-9). Certainly Hank’s inconsistencies are many; among the more famous are Hank’s condemnation of Morgan Le Fay’s murder of the page and his arbitrary execution of the incompetent band, as well as his calling the peasantry “human muck” while simultaneously affirming their essential dignity and humanity. Bulger concludes that “Connecticut Yankee, therefore, is both utopian and dystopian . . . utopia is not a fool’s paradise, nor are human beings unable to comprehend the ways in which society could be improved, but those few who are able to perceive the validity of the utopian visions are powerless to bring it about, given the radically flawed nature of humanity” (239).

            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 Britain’s childlike backwardness.

            At the root of Hank’s mismanagement of Britain is his unquestioned assumption that he is a superior being. Smith observes that this point of view was a common one in the late nineteenth century; the author, he notes, “in common with virtually all of his contemporaries, held to a theory of history that placed these two civilizations along a dimension stretching from a backward abyss of barbarism toward a Utopian future of happiness and justice for all mankind” (92). Hank’s nineteenth century, in his eyes, is more advanced in every way, and he expects to rule the country as easily as an adult would a group of infants. He calls Britain “the grandest field that ever was; and all my own; not a competitor; not a man who wasn’t a baby to me in acquirements and capacities” (96); at other times, he seems to see the Britons as not just children but lower forms as life: they are “nothing but rabbits” (97), “a nation of worms” (100). This smacks of the influence of Social Darwinism, the popular nineteenth century theory that individuals and social groups obtain advantages over others as a result of inborn superiority – biological or genetic. Some, such as writer Josiah Strong, claimed the specific superiority of the “American race” over foreign nations, citing their “love of liberty, genius for self-government, and pure Christianity (Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism)” as their major advantages in the survival of the fittest (quoted in Oliver, 30). Hank demonstrates strong belief in all three of these American institutions, particularly the third. He argues that the Church is the primary cause of the submissive attitudes of the peasantry, and that the only solution is to overthrow it and “set up the Protestant faith on its ruins – not as an Established Church, but a go-as-you-please one” (514) – “[i]t being my conviction that any Established Church is an established crime, an established slave-pen” (191). Combined with universal suffrage, Hank argues, the result can only be an American-style republic, the most highly evolved society in history. Hank’s plan, in his eyes, is essentially forced evolution – he is merely rushing the British through the steps they would eventually take anyway.

            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 America and its consequent attempts to maintain its superior position among the races of the world” (30). Expansion no longer depended upon such nebulous ideas as “natural rights,” “divine providence,” or the moral obligation to spread American institutions far and wide; since Americans were scientifically ‘proven’ to be more highly evolved, their expansion westward as well as into foreign territories was entirely justifiable: after all, it could only result in a higher quality of life and a faster journey towards the ideal society for all.

            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 America – was the extension of the United States” (28). Given that all of Britain is already occupied, however, Hank encourages individual freedom in the matter of industry. He opens a patent office, naïvely assuming that this will encourage inventors; he sets up “Man-Factories” to educate people, to teach them reading and writing as well as various trades. Like many nineteenth-century thinkers, Hank sees the freedom of the nation to grow as resting on the individual progress of each citizen. Unfortunately, his belief that there is only one path to freedom leads him to provide an education incompatible with all other aspects of sixth century life – one that is quickly forgotten when the Church slams down the Interdict at the end of the novel.

            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 Britain can be interpreted as imperialistic, a word that has acquired a number of unpleasant connotations in the latter half of the twentieth century. Modern historians have become increasingly aware that history is always written by the dominant culture, and have begun systematically revising history books, giving oppressed cultures – African-Americans, Native Americans, South American Indians, etc. – a voice to protest their treatment by Europeans and their descendants. The Yankee, however, is thoroughly politically incorrect; he exhibits all of the blindnesses and cruelties of the famous conquerors and exploiters, making his reference to the Britons as “white Indians” all the more signficant (40).

            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 Sandy’s threat of magical retribution:

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 Columbus’ enslavement of the Indians and Crusoe’s use of superior firepower to successfully attack the “savages.” Sewell observes further that all three figures were involved in a clash of a higher-tech society with a lower-tech one, with victory practically assumed from the start by the former. Hank’s comparisons, perhaps as much as his outright statements that he will “boss the whole country inside of three months” (36), indicate that his form of imperialism emphasizes domination through technological superiority, whatever altruistic justification he may give.

            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 Arthur’s Britain if Hank’s students learn to press the proper buttons and turn the right handles on nineteenth-century machines without knowing why they are doing so. (62-3)

 

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 U.S. government itself, interfering in the affairs of the Filopinos and the Native Americans to their detriment and to American benefit. Although Twain left no evidence of having been aware of imperialist activity at the time he wrote A Connecticut Yankee, ten years later found him railing against the American government on charges that could just as easily have been leveled at Hank Morgan. In “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” he accuses both American and European governments of offering foreign nations democracy, technology, and Christian religion (which he sarcastically calls the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust”), only with a catch:

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,

                        Justice,                         Liberty,

                        Gentleness,                               Equality,

                        Christianity,                              Honorable Dealing,

                        Protection to the Weak,            Mercy,

                        Temperance,                            Education,

                        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)

 

Twain goes on to give examples of foreign peoples oppressed, villages massacred, fines imposed, all by supposedly well-intentioned, liberating nations. He quotes from an Iowa newspaper, describing the exploits of an American soldier: “We never left one alive. If one was wounded, we would run our bayonets through him” (279). The words, as well as Twain’s biting list of declared American virtues, echo weirdly in Hank’s declaration of war on the massed chivalry of Arthurian England:

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 United States did not halt its territorial expansion (and various degrees of native exploitation) to the what is now the contiguous 48 states. The United States toppled the functioning Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and annexed the chain of islands in 1895; in 1898, U.S. troops occupied Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War and then began much-resented attempts to Americanize it after the island became a territory the following year; American gold-miners rushed to Alaska in the 1880s and 1890s and settled, taking land from the Native American residents and leading the U.S. government to declare Alaska a territory in 1912. America’s imperialist period, like Europe’s, reads like a laundry list of native exploitation – and Hank Morgan seems to have followed suit.

            America’s last major imperialist venture, the Vietnam War, received probably the best media coverage in history. For the first time, Americans could watch the war as it happened on television – complete with the blood and horror that were always part of war, but had never before reached the public in an entirely uncensored state. The impact was enormous. People recoiled from stories of the My Lai massacre, tales of entire villagers slaughtered, and wondered what the government could be doing to “their boys” to make them into such killers. For the first time, the World War II slogan “Making the World Safe for Democracy” rang incredibly false: the television showed Vietnamese women and children dying, some combatants, some only civilians; more and more young American men came home maimed, or worse, not at all. At last the American people began to deeply question their belief that America should be meddling in foreign affairs, trying to institute democracy and capitalism in every struggling nation. In the stories of the poorly-armed, desperate Vietnamese being shot down on their native soil, there are clear echoes of Arthur’s knights, dying for their way of life by the thousands against a better-armed, self-righteous few.

            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’ former Soviet Union. Are our fumbling efforts to acknowledge the minority cultures we nearly destroyed reflected in Hank’s deathbed longing for Sandy and the simple romance of medieval Camelot? Perhaps, like Hank, the American public is tormented with terrible dreams, the endless images of foreign peoples that, in the name of progress and democracy, we exploited, oppressed, and killed.

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----. “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches. Ed. Tom Quirk. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.