Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 19. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 19. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is a work of humorous invention set in motion by G. W. Cable, who first brought Malory’s Morte d’Arthur to Mark Twain’s attention. For assignable reasons it has not had the universal admiration enjoyed by Huckleberry Finn; Andrew Lang, for example, could not bring himself to read it; yet one might plausibly argue that it represents Mark Twain more completely than any other single book on his list, and so may serve as a touchstone to distinguish those who care for the man from those who only care for some of his stories. It displays every variety of his style from the mock-heroic and shirt-sleeve journalese of the Yankee’s familiar vein to the careful euphonies of his descriptions of English landscape and the Dantean mordancy of the chapter “In the Queen’s Dungeons.” It exhibits his humour in moods from the grimmest to the gayest, mingling scenes of pathos, terror, and excruciating cruelty with hilarious comic inventions and adventures, which prove their validity for the imagination by abiding in the memory; the sewing-machine worked by the bowing hermit, the mules blushing at the jokes of the pilgrims, the expedition with Alisande, the contests with Merlin, the expedition with King Arthur, Launcelot and the bicycle squad, and the annihilation of the chivalry of England. The hero is, despite the title, no mere Yankee but Mark Twain’s “personal representative”—acquainted with the machine shops of New Haven but acquainted also with navigation on the Mississippi and with Western journalism and with the use of the lariat. The moment that he enters “the holy gloom” of history he becomes, as Mark Twain became when he went to Europe, the representative of democratic America, preaching the gospel of commonsense and practical improvement and liberty and equality and free thought inherited from Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, and Ingersoll. Those to whom Malory’s romance is a sacred book may fairly complain that the exhibition of the Arthurian realm is a brutal and libellous travesty, attributing to the legendary period of Arthur horrors which belong to medieval Spain and Italy. Mark Twain admits the charge. He takes his horrors where he finds them. His wide-sweeping satirical purpose requires a comprehensive display of human ignorance, folly, and iniquity. He must vent the flame of indignation which swept through him whenever he fixed his attention on human history—indignation against removable dirt, ignorance, injustice, and cruelty. As a radical American, he ascribed a great share of these evils to monarchy, aristocracy, and an established church, and he made his contemporary references pointed and painful to English sensibilities. A Connecticut Yankee is his Don Quixote, a sincere book, full of lifelong convictions earnestly held, a book charged with a rude iconoclastic humour, intended like the work of Cervantes to hasten the end of an obsolescent civilization. Whether it will finally be judged a great book will depend in considerable measure on factors outside itself, particularly on the prosperity of western democratic sentiment in the world at large. Since the War of the German Invasions there has been an increase of Quixotism in his sense, and what used to be considered his unnecessary rage at windmills now looks like prophetic tilting at giants.