1 May 200
[comment1]Hank Morgan, Missionary of
Civilization or Opiate of the Masses?: Marxist Criticism of A
at King Arthur's Court
The late nineteenth century in the United States saw the
peak of the buzz and commotion that is presently known as the Industrial
Revolution. Caught deep within the gears of this mechanized movement,
both socially and financially, was one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best
known as Mark Twain. Twain's ideas on industrialization were based on
practical experience, due in part to heavy investment in, and loss from,
a newly developed type-setting machine as well as an acute interest in
the universal ramifications of such modernization (Kaplan 12). It is amid
such an economically turbulent and technologically elevated era that Twain
conceived, wrote, and published the critically complex A Connecticut
Yankee at King Arthur's Court. Twain's vision of sixth century England
as seen through the eyes of "Yankee" Hank Morgan is the setting
for biting social commentary on what was occurring throughout the States,
especially in his home region of the Northeast. Technology was not the
only area experiencing rapid growth, but new political and economic theories
abounded and Twain was aloof to these changes. A Connecticut
Yankee attacks specifically three institutions which Twain had dealt
with and experienced first hand: capitalism, slavery, and organized religion.
Critical analysis of Twain's piece, given a Marxist slant, dissects each
of those institutions addressed and examines what are, perhaps, the "covert"
intentions of the author and the social and political environments that
spawned such ideology (Barry 167). Beyond the deliberate, surface level
criticism of such ideas, Twain intertwines the fantastic foreground of
a fictional tale with much of his own personal belief masked by the brilliant
and brutal society artificially crafted by the protagonist and political
mouthpiece, Hank Morgan.
The setting of A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court, sixth-century England, is not one naturally
conducive to the economic and political products of capitalistic rule.
However, as Henry Nash Smith states in his Fable of Progress, "this
medieval setting is obviously not meant to represent any actual place
or time. It's a backdrop designed to allow a nineteenth-century American
industrial genius to show what he can do with an underdeveloped country"
(36). With a neutral setting established and a familiar plot based on
Sir Thomas Malory's legendary Morte d'Arthur, Twain creates an
idyllic arena for his exploration of the effects of capitalism on a relatively
"primitive" society. Once Hank adjusts to his new surroundings,
he sets at once to develop a new democratic, capitalistic republic, so
that he might "boss the whole country inside of three months"
(Twain 50). Twain was intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of capitalism.
He had experienced an admirable standard of living due to his writing,
but knew poverty as a child and bankruptcy with the aforementioned failed
investment later in life. With this in mind, Twain uses Hank and his financial
prowess to exemplify both the advantages and ills of a free-trade economy.
This "doctrinaire didacticism" (Baldanza 118) is manifest in
Hank's theoretic and specific explanations of "income versus cost
of living" to the local working class, which efforts are proven futile.
In Fulton's Ethical Realism, he adroitly addresses this scene:
"For all his nineteenth-century intelligence, Hank spoils the banquet
that would celebrate the ultimate truth about labor and wages: the right
to enjoy the fruits of one's labor" (104). Also found in the same
aptly titled Chapter 33, "Sixth-Century Political Economy,"
are hints of Twain delving into almost purely socialistic ideas with the
description of modern labor unions and a debate over minimum-wage. The
detailed and explicit style of this chapter could well be Twain's personal
"manifesto" on such issues.
Twain sneaks enterprising
ideals into A Connecticut Yankee from beginning of the book. This is exemplified,
as Richard Slotkin states in Mark Twain's Frontier, Hank Morgan's Last
Stand, by Hank's insistence on the knight's adopting advertising banners
for hygienic items aimed a general populous which neither reads nor uses
the products (121). Slotkin sees the political agenda of Twain as "meant
to contrast the progressive spirit of nineteenth-century American values
with the regressive ideologies of traditional aristocracy, political monarchism,
and established religion" (121). Even such ironies as a newspaper
to an essentially illiterate population sprout from Hank's dually fueled
fire of socialistic well-meaning and capitalistic greed. The eventual
self-destruction of what has come to be an ideal political state is comes
from this dueling sense of duty. When Hank destroys the factories and,
in a sense, civilization, he does so in an effort to save what is left
of the country from what were originally created for its well being. David
R. Sewell suggests Hank as either a "progressive hero [. . .] sabotaged
by reactionary forces" or "an authoritarian, proto-fascist,"
both connote his total influence on that era due mainly to his radically
reformative capitalistic ideologies (Sewell 142).
It is no mystery how Twain's
life, especially his childhood along the Mississippi River, evolved and
revolved around the issue of slavery. Critics have long debated the ambiguity
of Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee
offers similar room for debate. Twain devotes four chapters to the enslavement
and eventual freedom of Hank and a disguised King Arthur. "Slaves!
The word had a new sound - and how unspeakably awful!" cries Hank
upon the decree that both he and the king are to become the property of
someone else (319). The ensuing pages relate the horrors the pair face
as stories and ideas of slavery "take a meaning, get to be
very vivid, when you come to apply them to yourself" (319). Once
Hank has been subjected to the inhumane existence of a slave he demands
that the king abolish slavery upon their rescue. This comes as an open
renunciation of slavery, especially for those who have witnessed the atrocities
that accompany it firsthand, yet also hints toward in ignorance-based
excuse for proponents of slavery. Twain's personal experience growing
up in the South no doubt molded his conception of the evils of slavery,
yet also afforded him the ability to honestly and objectively look at
the issue from the other side, without coming to agree with it. Perhaps,
in a Marxist perspective, Twain's continual use of slavery as an issue
in his works, throughout A Connecticut Yankee and beyond, represents
his inner-struggle with the issue himself. "He seemed to think that
both the human situation and the humans who could do nothing about it
left nearly everything to be desired" (Schmitter 7).
Of all the issues touched
upon in this paper, none is as blatantly attacked as the age-old scapegoat,
organized religion. Hank Morgan, from the beginning, openly decries the
"concentrated power" and "political machine" that
Catholic Church (160) and later his "project" to "overthrow
the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins--not
as an Established Church" (365). "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" (102). Twain was not
tinkering with novel ideas behind the mask of Morgan. It is well documented
that he was opposed to powerful, organized religion and such a quote could
have as easily been taken from his personal notes. In fact, Smith writes,
"A reviewer of A Connecticut Yankee for the Edinburgh Scots
Observer called the book a Îlecture' in dispraise of monarchial institutions
and religious establishments as the roots of all evil" (73). Twain's
attack on established religion was not all-encompassing. In fact, he gives
a slightly compassionate nod toward those earnest members of religious
groups, specifically some priests of that era: "Not all priests were
frauds and self-seekers, but that many, even the great majority, of these
that were down on the ground among the common people, were sincere and
right hearted and devoted to the alleviation of human troubles and suffering"
(160). Hank also speaks approvingly of a fragmented, non-denominational
Protestant "go-as-you-please" style church (365). However, the
overall tone is clear: The separation of church and state is essential
in maintaining the freedom of the individual. Ironically, Hank's downfall
is due in a big part to the scheming of the Church, the very organization
he so openly opposed, and the Interdict it decrees throughout the land.
Hank Morgan's industrialization
of sixth-century England can be treated as both symbolic of progress and
characteristic of corruptive imperialism. Hank's determination to shift
national focus from religion and superstition toward technology is either
an amazing venture in capitalism or simply a repackaged, fiscally sound
"opiate of the masses." Mark Twain's roots in the South show
through as he jabs at all things aristocratically established, from religion
to slavery. In a sense, "A Connecticut Yankee could be taken
as the expression of an international crusade for democracy," with
a support for both industrialization and free enterprise (Smith 76). However,
Twain's personal experiences give away the cautionary tone toward such
a generalization of his outlook towards humanity, which, if A Connecticut
Yankee serves as an archetype for the human race, appears dismally
Baldanza, Frank. "Connecticut Yankee."
Mark Twain: A Collection of Criticism. Ed. Dean Morgan Schmitter.
McGraw-Hill, 1974. 117-121.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester
and New York: Manchester UP, 1995.
Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain's Ethical Realism:
The Aesthetics of Race, Class, and Gender. Columbia and London:
U of Missouri P, 1997.
Kaplan, Justin. Introduction. A Connecticut
Yankee at King Arthur's Court. By Mark Twain. London: Penguin, 1986.
Schmitter, Dean Morgan, ed. "Introduction:
Mark Twain and the Pleasures of Pessimism." New York: McGraw-Hill,
Sewell, David R. "Hank Morgan and the Colonization
of Utopia." Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Ed. Eric J.
Sundquist. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994. 140-149.
Slotkin, Richard. "Mark Twain's Frontier,
Hank Morgan's Last Stand." Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical
Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist.
New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994. 113-128.
Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain's Fable of
Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in "A Connecticut Yankee."
New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1964.
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King
Arthur's Court. London: Penguin, 1986.
Webster's New World Dictionary. College
Ed. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1958.
Barry: A Stylistic
Approach to A Connecticut Yankee
Of the many approaches that Barry offers when analyzing
literature, one of the most obviously related forms, aside from the obvious
socio-political implications, is the style and language which Twain so
masterfully uses to create a medieval mood and tone to his work. Twain
obviously studied older forms of the English language in order to accurately
portray the language of the era in which Hank Morgan finds himself after
a run in with an "occupational hazard" at the Colt factory.
Twain plays upon what would be an obvious discrepancy between Hank's late
nineteenth-century Northeastern speech and that of ancient England, especially
in the opening exchanges between Hank and the bewildered townspeople.
Gradually, Hank begins to describe the use of "modern" English
amongst the people, most notably in the editor of the first newspaper,
Clarence. This shift in language is used to underscore the overall shift
of what was primitive England to a near replica of late nineteenth-century
When looked at in an overall
textual grammar view, A Connecticut Yankee, is most effective in
its combination of personal narration, descriptive imagery, and jovial
dialogue in both entertaining the reader and educating toward the more
serious aspects of the book, as discussed previously. Some of the chapters
rely on imagery and description, while some, Chapter 33 for example, which
deals with economic theory, is almost entirely compose of dialogue. Twain's
juxtaposition of these different styles lends to the books comic effectiveness,
allowing brevity when necessary as well as long windedness when deemed
appropriate for the right effect. A stylistic approach to A Connecticut
Yankee is a very plausible option when examining the critical theory
behind Mark Twain's medieval and modern masterpiece.