Term Paper: Connecticut Yankee to Most Readers

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[. . .] I asked them if they supposed a nation of people ever existed, who, with a free vote in every man's hand, would elect that a single family and its descendants should reign over it forever, whether gifted or boobies, to the exclusion of all other families -- including the voter's; and would also elect that a certain hundred families should be raised to dizzy summits of rank, and clothed on with offensive transmissible glories and privileges to the exclusion of the rest of the nation's families -- INCLUDING HIS OWN.

In Connecticut Yankee, Twain argues that the only way in which the damages brought about by imperialism can be undone is by wholesale destruction. And yet the scene in which all of transplanted modernity is dynamited in Chapter 42 is not as unambiguous as it might seem on a first reading. Indeed, the entire book is more subtle and ambiguous on a second reading than on a first. The meddling of the Yankee and his arrogance vis-a-vis those who know less and have less sophisticated playthings than he does reminds us of the perils of thinking that we know better than do others how to run their lives.

But - and this is an important caveat - it is in fact the case that the Yankee knows things that the court members do not and we see in this book - if we look below the surface satire and wit we see that Twain is asking us to consider the nature of imperialism in a disinterested way. Certainly, overall it is wrong on moral grounds alone, he argues in this novel as well as in a number of his short stories and his essays to abrogate the rights of others to gain access to their territory and their labor and the wealth that they can produce.

But it is also true that imperialist forces usually bring with them superior technologies. Twain admits that this is the case - he scarcely could argue otherwise - even as he reminds us that saving the "savages" from themselves is no moral ground for action. Thus we recognize in the scene at the end of Chapter 42 that the destruction is necessary - for it removes the pretense of benevolence that imperialism so often attempts to clock itself with:

think so. I placed four of my boys there as a guard -- inside, and out of sight. Nobody was to be hurt -- while outside; but any attempt to enter -- well, we said just let anybody try it! Then I went out into the hills and uncovered and cut the secret wires which connected your bedroom with the wires that go to the dynamite deposits under all our vast factories, mills, workshops, magazines, etc., and about midnight I and my boys turned out and connected that wire with the cave, and nobody but you and I suspects where the other end of it goes to. We laid it under ground, of course, and it was all finished in a couple of hours or so. We sha'n't have to leave our fortress now when we want to blow up our civilization."

All Imperialists Believe That They Are Right

If we may isolate a single lesson from the at times ambivalent and always complex novel, it is that the harm that imperialist enterprises bring out results almost entirely from the fact that imperialists always believe that they are right. Hank might actually not have made a complete disaster of his job of running Britain had he considered even for a moment the fact that he was not perhaps, after all, a superior being to those around him. But, even when things are clearly going badly, he never reconsiders his own infallibility - nor does he seem to understand or to accept his responsibility in setting off unfortunate chains of events. This attitude was, of course, entirely common in the late 19th century, as Smith (1964) argues as Hank 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" (p. 92).

Hank sees the sixth-century Britons as essentially childlike: He expects that he can rule over them as easily as a stern but loving father could control a group of infants. In fact, Hank might serve as something of a poster child for the concept of Manifest Destiny (Oliver 28). Strictly defined, this was the idea that many American politicians had in the 19th century that the United States had the right to rule over everything from the East Coast to the Pacific. But more generally the term applies to the idea that if a person happens to come into a place where others are not possessed of weapons as deadly as the traveler's, then the traveler has the right to lay claim to what he sees (Zurlo 60).

This claim is certainly not solely an American belief - anymore than America was the sole colonial power - but the Connecticut Yankee brings with him a distinctly American cast to the practice of imperialism. It is probably the case that all imperialists try to set up governments in the lands that they have conquered that resemble their own. Hank follows in this tradition: He doesn't just want to improve the Britons in some abstract way, he want to make them like good Americans, as Sewall (119) notes.

Of course, part of being a good American is believing in liberty - and Hank prides himself (wrongly, of course) in "allowing" great freedom to his subjects, as we see in this excerpt from Chapter 10:

had started a teacher-factory and a lot of Sundayschools the first thing; as a result, I now had an admirable system of graded schools in full blast in those places, and also a complete variety of Protestant congregations all in a prosperous and growing condition. Everybody could be any kind of a Christian he wanted to; there was perfect freedom in that matter. But I confined public religious teaching to the churches and the Sunday-schools, permitting nothing of it in my other educational buildings. I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and, besides, I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty and paralysis to human thought.

It is of course significant that the Yankee, even as he views himself as a liberator and a reformer, also sees himself as in part the imperial and imperialist conqueror Cortes, the conqueror, as that greatest of all champions of imperial privilege Columbus - and as Crusoe, who even when marooned finds a way to make the only other human present his subject. Hank is, to himself, always a force for goodness (Anderson 21).

But Twain, of course, sees through this. A Connecticut Yankee - like "Jumping Frog" and so much else that Twain created - is a story about an imperializing republic. This fact no doubt made many of his readers uncomfortable, but their desire to read a text that could make them laugh without making them also think must not be held above Twain's desire to have them do both. Certainly Twain makes us laugh. But he also tried to make us think as he cried out in anger against racism, against war, against imperialism. We do him a disservice if we do not now weep through our laughter.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kenneth. "The Ending of Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Mark Twain Journal 14 (Summer 1969): 21.

Anderson, Kenneth. "Mark Twain, W.D. Howells, and Henry James: Three Agnostics in Search of Salvation." Mark Twain Journal 15 (Winter 1970): 13-16.

Carter, Everett. "The Meaning of 'A Connecticut Yankee'. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. New York: Norton.

Foner, Philip S. Mark Twain: Social Critic. New York: International Publishers, 1958.

Geismar, Maxwell. Mark Twain: an American Prophet. New York: McGraw, 1973.

Hoffman, Daniel G. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Holmes, Charles S. "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: Mark Twain's Fable of Uncertainty." South Atlantic Quarterly 61:4 (Autumn 1962), 462-72. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/twain/life1.html


Oliver, Nancy S. "New Manifest Destiny in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Mark Twain Journal… [END OF PREVIEW]

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