No writer so early recognized and so credibly exposed the dangerous inadequacies concealed in the Progressive world view than did Mark Twain in his sardonic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
By 1912, the triumph of Progressivism was complete. Both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt had advertised themselves as Progressive candidates, and both pursued a thoroughly Progressive agenda. Progressive ideas had become a mainstay of American civic religion, with laws and constitutional amendments establishing the income tax, the secret ballot, and the direct election of senators following in rapid succession. Yet, in important respects, the Progressive ideology was already old-fashioned, as the carnage of the Great War was soon to demonstrate. Paradoxically ahead of and behind the times, Progressivism rested on a faith in the improvability of human nature and the perfectibility of modern society, a disposition that originated in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. (Imagine for a moment the reaction of such contemporaries as Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, or Freud to the utilitarian and meliorist vision that American Progressives brought into focus.) But if the Progressives’ aspirations went unrealized, their optimism could, and did, succumb to despair. No writer so early recognized and so credibly exposed the dangerous inadequacies concealed in the Progressive world view than did Mark Twain in his sardonic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Twain’s book provides a sustained meditation on the hope of integrating technology into a democratic social and political order, in an effort to bring about uninterrupted improvement. Unlike most other writers of utopian fiction who cast their vision forward, promising to resolve the anxieties of the present in some idyllic future, Twain looked to the past where he sought the genesis of a different future for the United States. In A Connecticut Yankee, Twain initially projected an image of America spared the contradictions and turbulence so rampant in the late nineteenth century. Yet, whatever Twain’s intentions, the theme that at last dominates the novel is the threat of catastrophe. The imagination of tragedy darkens A Connecticut Yankee, calling into question the American belief in progress.
The popular conception of history that dominated the American mind at the end of the nineteenth century was the record of unbroken advancement. The rise of technology, the increase of human knowledge, and the extension of liberty proceeded together, with each development reinforcing the others. Continued technological innovation, many Americans felt certain, anticipated reduced labor, enriched leisure, improved health, and enhanced longevity, to say nothing of material abundance and universal peace. Technology would banish the ignorance and eradicate the barbarism of the past, confining all primitive vestiges of this former way of life to the museum and the lecture hall, curiosities to be viewed and studied in grateful appreciation of their irrelevance. To Twain’s generation, the arrival of utopia no longer seemed possible, or even probable, but imminent. More important, that utopia existed precisely where Americans had always contended that they would discover it: in the future that they had fashioned for themselves and their progeny.
So completely had Americans of the late nineteenth century embraced technology that they could scarcely conceive of life without the conveniences that machines provided. To regress into the appalling void of the past, mired in ignorance and superstition, was not only unthinkable but would also have been unendurable. Far more pleasant to contemplate the recent achievements, and to await the future marvels, of technology, sublimely confident that no dream was too bold.
Technology thus became the principle of American order, the guarantor of American prosperity, and the harbinger of American progress. But the paradox of the age was the coexistence of technological innovation with social injustice and chaos. Despite its extraordinary growth, the industrial economy was inefficient, capable of erratic and even dangerous fluctuations, with each crisis worse than the last. The Panic of 1873 had prompted a groundswell of urban and agrarian discontent, culminating in the violent nationwide railroad strike of 1877. Another massive railroad strike in 1885 and the so-called Year of Great Upheaval in 1886, punctuated by the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, ushered in a dozen years of turmoil that approached a cataclysm during the Panic of 1893.
Notwithstanding the din of praise for technology, a succession of critics from Henry George to Jacob Riis and Henry Demarest Lloyd emphasized the fissures in American society that resulted from an unjust distribution of the wealth that industry had produced. In Progress and Poverty, originally published in 1879, Henry George wrote:
The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But in factories where labor-saving machinery had reached its most wonderful development, little children are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infants suckle dry breasts; while everywhere the greed of gain, the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land flies before us like a mirage.
Although their nostrums differed, George, Riis, Lloyd, and other reformers agreed that industrial America had strayed perilously from the democratic promise, the republican values, and the Christian ethics that constituted the pillars of its strength. Unless Americans honored the tenets that had guided the founding of their nation, critics warned that the oppressed might seek deliverance through revolution.
This sense of contradiction between inherited values and unsettling change welled up evocatively at the end of the nineteenth century. Frustrated with reality, writers desired to effect a synthesis of technology and democracy in utopian literature. During the 1880s and 1890s, more than 150 utopian and dystopian novels appeared, many of them examining the prospects for the survival of democracy in a technological age. Amid the deluge of utopian literature, A Connecticut Yankee distinguishes itself as the most original, incisive, and disconsolate literary review of the American predicament.
To state the matter bluntly, Mark Twain accented the potential for barbarism lurking at the heart of a progressive civilization. In a society whose historic commitments to liberty and self-government had been abandoned or corrupted, Twain suggested that technology might serve not as an instrument of freedom but as a tool of oppression, not as an engine of creativity but as the herald of destruction. The hopeful vision of a technological republic that Twain articulated at the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee struggled against the anticipation of a technological despotism, and finally surrendered to the horrors of an industrial apocalypse. A Connecticut Yankee presents disturbing portents of failure in the quest for technological perfection. Twain’s personal life reflects many of the inconsistencies and contradictions of his novel, his society, and his age.
Although he uttered some of the gravest forebodings about the impact of technology, Twain beheld it with the same uncritical fascination as did many of his peers. Animated by the spirit of novelty and enterprise, Twain was an inventor and an entrepreneur. He financed as many as one hundred inventions, almost all of them unsuccessful. These projects included a steam generator, a steam pulley, a marine telegraph, and engraving machine, a device to cut carpet patterns, the Telectroscope (a forerunner of television), a skim milk cure-all remedy called “plasmon,” a cash register, and a spiral hat pin. Twain himself held patents on three inventions: an adjustable and detachable clothing strap, a memory game, and a pre-gummed scrap book from which he actually made money. Twain also incorporated himself, registering the name “Mark Twain” as a trademark in 1873. He owned the first private telephone in Hartford, Connecticut, experimented with phonographic dictation, and bought and used one of the first Remington typewriters, which he purchased in 1874 for $125.
Twain’s enthusiasm for technological gadgetry and various get-rich-quick schemes led him to invest time and money in the most famous and most disastrous of his obsessions: James W. Paige’s automatic typesetting machine. Between 1880 and 1894, when Twain finally abandoned the project, it had consumed more than $300,000. One among a number of machines designed to replace the human printer by automatically setting, justifying, and distributing single foundry type, the Paige Typesetter was an impossibly cumbersome and intricate device. It weighed 5,000 pounds and had 18,000 individual moving parts. The complexity of the machine alone ought to have alerted Twain to its impracticality. But in his naïve zeal, it was that very complexity which proved so enticing, a radiant illustration of the mysterious wonders of inventive genius.
By 1884, ten years before Twain gave up on the venture, the German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler had already rendered the Paige Typesetter obsolete. But Twain refused to acknowledge the superiority of Mergenthaler’s linotype machine. The deeper his fanatical support of Paige took him, the more flamboyant became his visions of immense wealth. At their most outrageous, Twain’s calculations predicted returns approaching $1 billion, and he exulted that he would need to employ ten accountants just to tally the profits.
During much of the time that he was engaged in the development of the Paige Typesetter, between December 1884 and May 1889, Twain conceived and wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He initially saw the novel as an attempt to justify his passionate attachment to, and fascination with, technology. By dispatching a nineteenth-century Yankee, expert in all the mechanic arts, to Arthurian England, Twain intended a humorous contrast between the two cultures, one modern, democratic, imaginative, rational, and free, the other primitive, aristocratic, superstitious, backward, and repressed. In conception, Twain intended A Connecticut Yankee to endorse contemporary American society against both skeptical critics and romantic dreamers. For Twain, history confirmed steady progress from the vulgarity of the Middle Ages to the civility of the present, however dolefully inconsistent and agonizingly slow that evolution might be. He validated the achievements of the modern world by describing a journey through the past to burlesque its countless inadequacies. Twain thereby reassured contemporary Americans, stunned at the changes disturbing their world, that if the United States remained on the path of technological advancement, it would, in the fullness of time, shed the dead weight of the past and approach the perfection for which it was destined.
Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, describes himself as “a Yankee of all Yankees—and practical, yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry in other words.” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, hereafter CY, “A Word of Explanation,” p. 4) In Morgan, Twain combined the common sense pragmatism of the technician with the persuasive charm of the showman. Morgan is at once Thomas Alva Edison, the magician of the practical, and P.T. Barnum, the master of the humbug, the flim-flam, the deception. Scornful of the arts and enthralled with machinery, Morgan embodies homo faber, man the maker. He is the epitome of a man devoted to technology and enchanted by its power.
At the Colt arms factory in Hartford, Morgan boasts that he has:
learned all there was to it; learned to make everything; guns, revolvers, cannon, bailers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted,—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log. (CY, pp. 4-5)
Less skilled at managing people, Morgan, as superintendent of the factory, backs up his legitimate authority with brute force. “A man that is full of fight,” (CY, p. 5) Morgan is hardly a republican statesman whose power derives from consent. He operates the factory as his private domain in which the subjects require the discipline that Morgan is only too happy to enforce. Some of his subordinates are less inclined to acquiesce than others. In “a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars,” (CY, p. 5) one such reprobate delivers such a crushing blow to Morgan’s skull that it transports him back in time thirteen centuries to Arthurian England. When he again comes to his senses, Morgan initially thinks that the inhabitants of Camelot are the inmates of a lunatic asylum. He at last persuades himself that he has indeed awakened in the year 526, and quickly adjusts to his new circumstances to make himself at home in the sixth century. Despite his confidence in the progressive course of history, Morgan, ever the pragmatist, finds limitless possibilities in his ordeal. “Look at the opportunities here for a man of knowledge, brains, pluck, and enterprise to sail in and grow up with the country,” he tells himself. “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.” Far better, Morgan decides, to have been plunged backward into the past than hurled forward into the future where he “could drag a seine downstreet any day and catch a hundred better men than myself.” (CY, Chapter VIII, “The Boss,” p. 37) Rather than an unendurable torment, his predicament offers a piece of extraordinary good fortune.
Morgan thus approaches the prospect of life in early medieval England as if he were an entrepreneur come upon a new land populated by a vulgar and unsophisticated people ripe for exploitation.
I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe, cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did—invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy. Well that was in my line. (CY, Chapter VII, “Merlin’s Tower,” p. 32)
A one-man imperial expedition, Morgan regards Arthur’s subjects much as the nineteenth-century English and Americans regarded the Indians, Asians, Africans, Irish, and southern and eastern Europeans. On different occasions, and depending on his mood, he variously calls them “white Indians,” “modified savages,” “pigmies,” “great, simple-hearted creatures,” “big children,” “rabbits,” and “sheep.” They are credulous, irrational, cruel, dirty, gleeful, naïve, and generally harmless, displaying all the virtues and all the vices of which adolescents are capable. Morgan views himself, by contrast, as intelligent, circumspect, virtuous, refined, and humane. In his mind, he reflects the finest qualities of a morally, politically, and technologically advanced civilization.
To the natives, Morgan, a mysterious stranger, seems at best a powerful though perhaps malevolent sorcerer. At worst, he is a monster. He is certainly not a human being like them. Condemned to be burned at the stake, Morgan prevents his execution by resorting to a bit of clever trickery that invokes his unique array of talents: scientific calculation blended with flamboyant showmanship. He providentially remembers the imminent occurrence of a total eclipse of the sun. Armed with this morsel of astrological trivia, Morgan stages a miracle that convinces all who witness it, including King Arthur himself, of Morgan’s extensive knowledge and irrepressible power. He threatens permanently to blot out the sun unless Arthur appoints him chief minister and awards him one percent of the revenue his programs will contribute to the kingdom. The ease with which Morgan secures this agreement only confirms for him his intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority.
Once established, Morgan institutes a curriculum that will bring about the utter technological, industrial, and political reorganization of the kingdom. In this effort, motives of social reform and personal aggrandizement expediently combine. Morgan launches a covert network of factories and schools to train a cadre of experts to administer the new world that he is building. He conceives of his industrial complex as the crucible of a republican civilization. Unlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrialism, Morgan commends the factory as the place “where I’m going to turn groping and grubbing automata into men.” (CY, Chapter XVII, “A Royal Banquet,” p. 86)
Praising the efficacy of the marketplace, Morgan celebrates the freedom characteristic of an industrial and capitalist society while condemning the slavery that he believes inheres in feudalism. According to Morgan’s definition, liberty means that people are out for themselves and attain success or endure failure as a result of competition, effort, and ability, not birth, custom, or inheritance. He cannot abide the kind of blind “loyalty toward their King and Church and nobility” that the people show—a loyalty that compromises ambition, initiative, and autonomy and breeds oppression, injustice, and despair. For those reasons alone, Morgan is eager to dismantle the outworn aristocratic class structure of Arthurian England. He condemns the people who exist solely:
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 gods of this world. (CY, Chapter VIII, “The Boss,” p. 38)
Justified by his abhorrence of tyranny and his commitment to freedom, Morgan becomes “The Boss,” and sets his reforms in motion fully confident of their success.
But as with all schemes to create perfect worlds, sooner or later complications arise. Within the tragicomic framework of A Connecticut Yankee, Twain assesses the efficacy of Morgan’s economic, political, and social reconstruction. Aspiring to become a great man who will, in this instance, literally alter the course of history, Morgan nonetheless proceeds with caution. He rejects a sudden transformation in favor of “turning on my light one candlepower at a time.” (CY, Chapter X, “The Beginnings of Civilization, p. 48) Gradually, his sense of assurance begins to wane. The docile resignation of the people frustrates him, causing Morgan to wonder whether the enterprise is not doomed from the start. He laments that:
All gentle cant and philosophising [sic] to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed, must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward. If history teaches anything, it teaches that. What this folk needed, then, was a Reign of Terror and a guillotine, and I was the wrong man for them. (CY, Chapter XX, “The Ogre’s Castle,” p. 103)
Morgan discredits the gradualist rhetoric of Progressivism and abandons all hope of reform, declaring that only violent revolution will answer when a “downtrodden people” who are “sunk in slavery” proffer “no outburst of rage” against those who subjugate them. He then shrinks from the political implications of his insight, only to embrace them in the end with a terrible vengeance.
At the heart of Morgan’s dilemma is the contradictory position he has assumed as a self-styled republican leader and reformer who feels no bond with, and no compassion for, the people whom he intends to govern. He is instead disdainful and contemptuous of them. In his more benign moods, he looks upon the English as “the quaintest and simplest and trusingest race,” boasting that he stands among them as “a giant among pigmies, a man among children, a master intelligence among intellectual moles: by all rational measurement the one and only actually great man in the whole British world.” (CY, Chapter VIII, “The Boss,” p. 38, 40.) Whenever he identifies a youth who responds to his encouragement and falls under his sway, Morgan bestows his highest tribute by deeming him “a man,” and sending the esteemed fellow to the factory settlement to complete his education. At the same time, Morgan considers all departures from his cultural, political, and moral values an affront, undeniable evidence of stupidity or perversion.
Morgan recapitulates and caricatures the difficulties that the Progressives faced in dealing with immigration. Largely unsympathetic to the European immigrants whom they were committed to assimilating into American life, Progressives sought to replace various alien cultures as quickly as possible with their own version of American identity. Like Morgan, the Progressives believed that these unfortunate men and women could be transformed and thereby saved. Far from thinking themselves condescending, despotic, bigoted, or cruel, Progressive reformers shared the conviction that, with their help, the dispirited masses of Europe could be remade into decent, trustworthy, and hard working American citizens fit for democracy. Those who disagreed proposed instead that the government halt, or at least severely curtail, immigration, since these vile outsiders could never become respectable Americans.
Ultimately, though, Morgan is seduced by the idea of achieving what he calls his “new deal.” The plan to industrialize and democratize Arthurian England becomes increasingly an expression of hubris rather than of the effort to better the lives of the people. Morgan’s deepest aspirations are personal. He seeks to be “the greatest man in the kingdom,” and to assert “enormous authority,” recasting sixth-century England not as much in the image of nineteenth-century America but according to the dictates of his own imagination. “The Boss” is not, after all, a title illustrative of a republican statesman, but of a tyrant. It connects Morgan to the absolute monarchs of the past, the capitalist plutocrats of his own time, and still more ominously to il Duce and der Führer of the twentieth century.
Despite his professed adherence to liberty and self-government, Morgan reveals an alarming fondness for dictatorial power. “Unlimited power is the ideal thing,” he confesses, “when it is in safe hands. . . . My works showed what a despot could do with the resources of a kingdom at his command.” But once more, Morgan hesitates, retreating from the tyrannical imperatives that his political philosophy demands:
The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the despot was the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual. But as a perishable perfect man must die, and leave his despotism in the hands of an imperfect successor, an earthy despotism is not merely a bad form of government, it is the worst form possible. (CY, Chapter X, “Beginnings of Civilization,” pp. 47-8)
American Progressives faced a similar quandary. Progressivism emerged at a time when thinkers in both the United States and Europe had begun to pose fundamental questions about the future of democratic government. Progressive social theory emphasized the importance of cohesion and the need to impose order on chaos. Individuals, Progressive thinkers affirmed, were not autonomous beings. They were, in fact, enmeshed in a vast web of social relations. The welfare of individuals was entirely dependent on the welfare of society.
In The Promise of American Life (1909), which provided the ideological underpinnings of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive New Nationalism, Herbert Croly articulated the importance of both regimentation and responsibility to the modern social and political order. For the good of everyone, all citizens must accept the regulation of their lives in ways similar to the discipline required of an army. That level of social control, Croly allowed, would be intolerable unless the citizens imposed it on themselves. Were the state to implement such requirements, they would, in time, produce either servility or rebellion. A traditional democratic politics was by itself no longer sufficient to ensure both freedom and stability. Modern civic education, Croly insisted, must teach Americans not to pursue momentary interests or even to defend specific rights, but to focus instead on measures to enhance the permanent well-being of society.
To make conscientious and intelligent choices, ordinary Americans had to rely on experts to tell them what to think, what to believe, and what to do. Without this practical and sage advice, people would lose their way in a labyrinth of modern complexity, and find that even daily life had become unmanageable. Americans would then be paralyzed, Croly feared, or worse, they would respond irrationally, violently, and destructively. To avert catastrophe, Croly and the other Progressives who had adopted his point of view, sought, as has Hank Morgan, to bring about purposeful change and to articulate a common national purpose. No longer content to permit the United States to drift from one crisis to the next, they advocated a society engineered not to sustain the private interests of a few but the public good of all.
Hank Morgan represents the ominous, anti-democratic tendencies that lurked beneath the surface of the Progressive movement. When he glorifies his clandestine factories, his language contains a powerful suggestion of menace. “There it was,” he says, “as sure a fact, and as substantial a fact as any serene volcano, standing innocent with its smokeless summit in the blue sky and giving no sign of the rising hell in its bowels.” (CY, Chapter X, “Beginnings of Civilization,” p. 48) He extends this volcanic imagery in the name of the newspaper that he publishes: The Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano. An admixture of praise and foreboding, the ambiguous title highlights the basic dichotomy of Morgan’s venture. Is he a Progressive Yankee savior bestowing technological liberation and political enlightenment to lead the people to a heaven on earth or is he an Angel of Death come to realize their destruction?
Nowhere, of course, does Morgan explicitly question his benevolent intentions. On the contrary, although his deeds sometimes agitate his conscience, he finds his distress an unfortunate hindrance with which he seeks to dispense as soon as he can. “If I had the remaking of man,” he confesses, “he wouldn’t have any conscience. It is one of the most disagreeable things connected with a person.” Morgan concedes that, in some circumstances, a conscience may be a useful and even a welcome attribute, but “it cannot be said to pay, in the long run. . . . I have noticed my conscience for many years, and I know it is more trouble and bother to me than anything else I started with.” (CY, Chapter XVIII, “In the Queen’s Dungeons,” pp. 92-93) As his inconvenient scruples, always weak, continue to erode, Morgan begins to display his prowess in more terrifying and less beneficial ways, which are calculated to excite the awe and terror of the public. He depends for his success not only on practical knowledge and astounding showmanship, but also on the unremitting credulity of his audience. He is a magician, concealing his methods and purposes behind subterfuge and deception. An enlightened populace, it turns out, is the last thing he wants.
These staged miracles further reveal Morgan’s growing disregard for human life. When he first kills, using dynamite to blow up two mounted knights, he does so ostensibly to save the king’s life. Although the circumstances make Morgan look prudent and loyal, he has been impatient for a chance to test one of his explosive devices. He revels in the spectacle of destruction. “Yes, it was a neat thing,” he reflects, “very neat and pretty to see. It resembled a steamboat explosion on the Mississippi, and during the next fifteen minutes we stood under a steady drizzle of microscopic fragments of knights and hardware and horseflesh.” (CY, Chapter XXVII, “The Yankee and the King Travel Incognito,” pp. 165-66) Twain’s subtle allusion to the failure of nineteenth-century technology introduces another disquieting suspicion about both Morgan’s program and his temperament.
Morgan’s talent for lethal combat asserts itself most audaciously in the challenge he issues to the members of the Round Table “to either destroy knight-errantry or be its victim.” (CY, Chapter XXXIX, “The Yankee’s Fight with the Knights,” p. 234) Dressed as a circus performer to reinforce his appearance of clownish frivolity and innocence, Morgan begins a series of jousts with a lariat and a revolver and ends as a ruthless gunman exalting over ten more victims. With this triumph, Morgan at last feels confident enough to unveil the new order that he has been secretly preparing. Within three years, he announces, England was “a happy and prosperous country:”
Slavery was dead and gone; all men were equal before the law; taxation had been equalized. The telegraph and the telephone, the phonograph, the typewriter, the sewing machine, and the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity were working their way into favor. We had a steamboat or two on the Thames, we had steam war-ships, and the beginnings of a steam commercial machine; I was getting ready to send out an expedition to discover America. (CY, Chapter XL, “Three Years Later,” p. 241) Morgan subsequently plans to overthrow the Catholic Church, the one institution that he has long feared, and, after Arthur’s death, to institute the republic of which he has been dreaming these many years, elevating himself to the presidency.
Although he makes repeated assertions to the contrary, Morgan’s efforts have, ironically, produced few improvements in the lives of the people. Quite the opposite has occurred. In important respects, society has gotten worse. Undisciplined speculation in the stock market, another of Morgan’s innovations, soon divides members of the Round Table and leads to civil war, with the civilian population caught between the belligerents. Having too precisely reproduced nineteenth-century America, with all of its unresolved tensions and contradictions intact, Morgan has been undone by his success. The hope that technology, industry, and capitalism would lift Arthurian England out of its morass of ignorance, inequality, and oppression fails. Much to his disappointment, Morgan learns that he cannot produce an enlightened citizenry or institute heaven on earth by distributing typewriters and sewing machines. Instead of achieving a technological utopia, Morgan’s blueprint delivers anarchy.
Witnessing the disarray that prevails throughout the kingdom, the Catholic Church reasserts its influence to proscribe modern technology and to condemn Morgan himself. When Morgan finally announces the establishment of a republic, it is an empty gesture devised to provoke a confrontation:
BE IT KNOWN UNTO ALL. Whereas the king having died and left no heir, it becomes my duty to continue the executive authority vested in me, until a government shall have been created and set in motion. The monarchy has lapsed, it no longer exists. By consequence, all political power has reverted to its original source, the people of the nation. With the monarchy, its several adjuncts died also; wherefore there is no longer a nobility, no longer a privileged class, no longer an Established Church: all men are become exactly equal, they are upon one common level, and religion is free. A Republic is hereby proclaimed, as being the natural estate of a nation when other authority has ceased. It is the duty of the British people to meet together immediately, and by their votes elect representatives and deliver into their hands the government. (CY, Chapter XLII, “War!,” p. 259)
But the people, in whose name Morgan professes to act, repudiate him and his revolutionary project. The only endorsement and support that he receives comes from his assistant Clarence and fifty-two adolescent boys, all of whom have been thoroughly indoctrinated in his principles since childhood. His aims decisively rejected, Morgan succumbs to a vicious megalomania. He resolves to prevail at any cost. Discarding even the pretense that a peaceful resolution to the conflict is any longer feasible, Morgan demonstrates an affinity for warfare and a fascination with death. He remains, as he has earlier showed himself to be, a man “full of fight.” (CY, “A Word of Explanation,” p. 5) Morgan tries to accomplish by force the changes that he has failed to achieve by less violent means. He escalates the war against the Church, vowing to destroy the forces of political reaction and cultural resistance. A venture that allegedly began as a struggle for freedom and democracy ends as a war of extermination.
Morgan deploys his troops in a cave where he has assembled the most potent and “labor-saving” weapons of mass destruction that he can devise, including Gatling guns, land mines, and his masterpiece, electrified fences. In an eerie forecast of Woodrow Wilson’s characterization of the Great War, Morgan declares that his is a war to end all wars, a crusade undertaken to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations. In his view, the champions of enlightened progressivism must fight to eradicate, once and for all time, depraved superstition and animal brutality. But if the knights marching against Morgan represent the dull barbarism of the Middle Ages, Morgan himself exemplifies the horrific dehumanization that accompanies the use of modern technology detached from the restraints of conscience. In Twain’s narrative, the legacy of reason is not a more just and humane civilization, but a world of mechanized slaughter.
This sophisticated and efficient weaponry isolates Morgan from the reality of the carnage. He loses all perspective, delighting in his ability to kill and thinking of warfare only as a series of technical problems that require ingenious solutions. In an exchange with Clarence, who brings news of how a party of clerics “tested” the land mines, Morgan clarifies his attitude.
“Did the committee make a report?”
“Yes, they made one. You could have heard it a mile.”
“That was the nature of it.” (CY, Chapter XLII, “War!,” p. 258.)
So enamored has Morgan become with technological destruction that he savors his ability to kill 11,000 men with the flip of a switch. The number of dead is incalculable and the victims lose all individuality, dying in an undifferentiated mass. Simultaneously recalling the horrors of the Civil War and anticipating those of the World Wars, Morgan explains that “of course we could not count the dead, because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons.” (CY, Chapter XLIII, “The Battle of the Sand Belt,” p. 264) At the end of the battle, Morgan does render a body count. The 25,000 men whom he has butchered, exploded, electrocuted, or drowned offer a ghastly reckoning of technological progress.
Morgan triumphs, but in a grim irony his youthful adherents are trapped in the cave and die infected by the heap of rotting corpses that have piled up outside. Disguised as a woman, Merlin infiltrates their stronghold to cast a spell inducing Morgan to sleep for thirteen centuries. Clarence pronounces the epitaph: “We had conquered; in turn we were conquered.” In his cautionary tale, Twain asked disturbing questions about Americans’ stubborn embrace of technology and uncompromising devotion to progress. A Connecticut Yankee was Twain’s warning to the American people that they could not expect to manipulate or control history and to create a heaven on earth. Any attempt to transform the condition of humanity to engineer perfection would end not in failure but in the disaster of a technological Armageddon.
The bravado with which Hank Morgan extols his mission, his accomplishments, and his destiny conceals a desperation, even a fatalism, that had long burdened American thought, and from which the Progressives themselves were hardly immune. Endowed with the assurance of inevitable secular progress, Morgan regards himself as the last, best hope of earth. History, in his view, must be unalterably progressive, marking the cumulative advance of enlightenment. If it were not, it would mean the ruin of all future expectations. Morgan cannot endure the prospect of defeat, loss, and tragedy. Convinced that his power, virtue, and righteousness are incontrovertible, and unwilling to accept the verdict of history if he is wrong, Morgan would sooner obliterate the world than see his vision ridiculed, challenged, or subverted. Determined to shatter all limits, impatient to have everything he wants and always on his own terms, Morgan forges a prison from which, even after thirteen hundred years, there can be no escape, save death.
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1 Henry George, Progress and Poverty (New York, 1911), 8.
2 Michael S. Rosenwald, “Mark Twain’s typewriter—`full of defects, devilish ones’—nearly drove him bonkers,” Washington Post, November 16, 2018.
3 There are many editions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. All references in this essay are to the Bantam Classics edition (New York, 1981), which is readily available. In addition to page numbers, I have cited the chapter numbers and titles to aid those who are using a different edition of the novel.
Editor’s Note: The featured image was originally published as a frontispiece for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.