Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Technology and Democracy

“The repulsive feature of slavery is the thing, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below him to recognize—and in but indifferently modified measure—the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause, in both cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.” (385–386)

In this quote, Mark Twain is giving a transhistorical definition of slavery. Fair enough, I suspect. He does the same with technology, which emerges as either a tool of oppression or a means of liberation. Modern or medieval they have those same potentialities.


To begin, I want to say that Mark Twain gives technology a great deal of autonomy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While we know he was caught up in the excitement for technology of his age. This enthusiasm led to his bankruptcy around the time that this novel was published over his investments into the Paige typesetters. I am not sure if we should read A Connecticut Yankee as Twain’s suggestion that context does not matter in the application of technologies, but that certainly seems to be the implication of the novel. The introduction of nineteenth century technologies to the sixth century promotes political and social reforms. While it is a great novel and very entertaining, it is not at all convincing that a sole time traveler could introduce the infrastructure of industrialization to the sixth century. Even in that episode of Star Trek where Data goes back in time (bumping into Mark Twain as a matter of fact) he only builds devices, not an entire infrastructure.

The novel works as a polemic against slavery and arbitrary hierarchy. Where does technology fit into this picture? Most clear is how technology was the key to the rise of “The Boss” in Camelot. A time traveler, he was able to introduce first small technologies in order to become the greatest wizard in England. First secretly and then openly he rolled out a technocratic republic to replace the medieval monarchy of Arthur. This included public schooling, newspapers, industries, and modern weapons. “The Boss” uses technology to battle the evils of chivalry and over turn their dominance over the enslaved peasants. He is at times a “boss” trying to benefit himself and solidify his leadership of Camelot, but he is also a Robespierre always eager for a political revolution and willing to use technological reforms to affect it.

After touring the countryside, “The Boss” and King Arthur are placed into slavery. After their escape, “The Boss” emerges eager to take on the cult of chivalry. He does this in a tournament, where he comes armed with a lasso and a revolver. After killing a dozen or so knights, he proves to all observers the triumph of his technology (really wizardry to the observers), but not yet his values. The revolution “The Boss” is after required violence.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in “The Boss” over democracy. First, he is very much interested in securing his own power. For all his talk of destroying aristocracy, he did not seem to trust peasants with their freedom (they would need to be civilized first). In this he may reflect the values of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. When describing his battle in the tournament he thoughts: “It was born of the fact that all the nation knew that this was not a duel between two mighty magicians; a duel not of muscle or the mind, not of human skill but of super human art and craft, a final struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age.” (494) In this, he simply shifted the terms of the debate to what was most advantageous to an industrial-era machinist. Not quite a democracy, more of a technocratic meritocracy is in his mind. Like in many meritocracies and technocracies, the terms of merit are defined by those already in power.

If “The Boss” is able to put nineteenth century technologies into medieval England while leapfrogging centuries of economic and political developments, it is not clear that democracy could be placed in Camelot without first some elements of the reforms of “The Boss.” He mentions that democracy is the only way to remove barbarism from the legal and political system. And as far as “The Boss” is concerned, elevating democracy requires brining along all of the nineteenth century along with him. Of course, that is what puts him in a bind at the end of the story when he is holed up with his technology with the corpses of 30,000 knights trapping him in.

The climax to the story comes with the Church’s interdict over “The Boss” and his endeavors. This act is inspired as much by his political reforms, as his technological introductions. He promised to transform Camelot into a republic by replacing the king, when he dies, with an elected leader. The interdict leads to his fall, another suggestion that no matter how easily the technology is able to be placed in a new environment, the political and social transformation “The Boss” sought was an impossibility. For Mark Twain, social changes comes much more slowly and much more violently than technological revolutions. The challenge is not to transcend time, but to ensure that our moral and social values are reflected in the technologies we use.

Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Hierarchy and Power

“The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: 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 the gods of this world.” (263)


It seems to me that there are two major themes in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first, which I will explore in this post, is about the nature of power—both real and imagined—in monarchical and democratic societies. The second, the topic of the second post on this lovely novel, is on technology. The novel came at the end of 1880s, an extremely productive decade for Twain, which saw some of his greatest works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was also during this period that Twain was investing heavily into technological innovation. The most infamous of these investments was in the typesetting machine that nearly bankrupted him, despite the substantial income he enjoyed from his writing. This fascination with technology and his growing anxiety with the increasing power of the technocratic, industrial elite inform this text.

The story is of a machinist named Hank from Connecticut who is transported through time to Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. Although he is taken as a prisoner and about to be executed he uses his knowledge of a solar eclipse to (who remembers important dates in historical astronomy?) fool the court—and most importantly the king—into thinking he was a powerful wizard. He displaces Merlin, whose tricks seem commonplace in comparison. As the new power behind the throne (his salary is 1 percent of any increased revenues to the kingdom) he implemented many reforms, introducing newspapers, industry, Sunday schools, and education. But rather than a full transformation of society, he keeps many of these reforms underground, becoming just another (but more successful) wizard. He spends quite a lot of time debunking wizards, who are exposed as the sixth-century versions of nineteenth-century American con-artists.

Twain is very much interesting in lampooning the values of chivalry and the intelligence of the people in early medieval Europe. Whether or not Twain is a technocrat or a technophobe in this novel (both interpretations are possible) he finds little endearing about the world of King Arthur and is miles away from revival of chivalrous literature, popular in America and England at the time. Knights are murderous, vulgar and exaggerate their exploits for their own gain. Everyone in King Arthur’s time is presented as ignorant and easily tricked. The adventures knights go on are often little more than rampaging through the countryside. (Thus the ogres are in actuality pigs.) Merlin’s magic is little more than parlor tricks. In a revisting of some of the themes of The Prince and the Pauper, Hank and Arthur spend some time in as peasants and are sold into slavery. Hank escapes and imposes his control over the knights through modern violence. The church puts an interdict on Hank and his realm, leading to a general rebellion against his little empire—now fully mechanized and industrial. He slaughters the knights with his modern warfare (in either a mocking of the gallantry of the Confederate military in the face of massive modern firepower or in a prediction of the First World War). The masses of bodies trap Hank in his cave, but Merlin’s magic allows him to sleep 1,300 years to return to his home and report on his adventures.


Almost all the power in the novel is based on lies and deceptions and depends entirely on the gullibility of the people. This is true for the wizards, the knights, the king and eventually Hank. Hank clearly notices this from the start and is fully willing to use their ignorance to his advantage. “Well, it was a curious country, and full of interest. And the people! They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why they were nothing but rabbits. It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility: as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him!” (262) Of course, this does not stop Hank’s manipulation of these characteristics, even as he works hard to find promising people and to bring them into his order of technocrats. It is a question in Tom Paine, the early anarchists, and many other anti-authoritarian thinkers: how was it possible that the few or the one rule the many? As far as Twain is concerned the answer seems to be simple ignorance, an ignorance eagerly cultivated by the elite.

As Hank learns more about England in the early Middle Ages he comes to realize some of the moral implications of power on the people. It dulled their senses and their imagination while also making them a empty vessel that any ridiculous notion can be poured into. They even lost the ability to see the clear truth in front of them. Merlin’s magic, mostly less than illusions, consisted of claims that magic existed even when the truth was obvious that others accepted (much like religion in this regard). That a pig-sty could be a castle for the peasants was evidence of slavish acceptance of what they were told to believe rather than creative imagining.

How is it that a man like Hank is able to work his way into the power structure? He lacks the titles and the heroic “adventures” of the knights. His initial appeal to the court and the people was simply as a much more effective, interesting, and new wizard. He is never quite accepted by the court as a commoner and an outsider, but he has enough of a utility to King Arthur to secure some protection and status, becoming eventually “The Boss,” a technocrat behind the scenes of the formal power. Despite coming from a democratic society, Hank becomes enamored with the idea of despotism. He ponders the possibility of a bottom up revolution at some point, but is much more eager to pursue top-down reforms , finding that to be the prefect form of government. “Unlimited power is the ideal thing—when it is in safe hands. 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 the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual.” (274) Immediately after this Hank confesses that the despot’s death will ensure an inferior person takes over, turning the best form of government to the worst. Still, he pursues his power as a technocratic despot, with free reign to build his civilization parallel to the medieval barbarism.

I never liked the suggestion that people had to become ready for self-rule. This seems to be where Twain is. Arthur and the knights cultivated and enforced ignorance. Hank accepted ignorance of the people as his starting point and used it to justify his claims of power. However, I am not sure it is a historical law that ignorance and subservience are an essential part of rural societies, or that moral progress is inevitable. My reading of the history of peasant societies shows a rather vibrant tradition of resistance and opposition. Of course, highlighting that would have made for a very different book.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “The Gilded Age” (1873): Part One

“Our quotations are set in a vast number of tongues; this is done for the reason that very few foreign nations among whom the book will circulate can read in any language but their own; whereas we do not write for a particular class or sect of nation, but to take in the whole world.” (3)

This is in the preface to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day. While the audience may be global, the story he is telling (and many all of the stories Twain told) is distinctively American. The novel is concerned with an issue Twain took up often in Roughing It, but never with this degree of criticism: land speculation. This is the gilded nature of wealth that Twain and Warner hoped to revealed. The family at the center of the story, the Hawkins family, owns 75,000 acres in Tennessee and is convinced of its immense wealth. Despite dire poverty, they hold onto the land waiting for the proper price. After the first hundred pages, this struggle is taken to Washington, where they attempt to get the government to buy the land. Of course there is no real wealth on the land, certainly none produced by wealth. It is a fantasy.



There is something that bothered me in Roughing It and now I have come at it more clearly. Twain (and we should add for this book Warner) seem to think the major problem of the post-Civil War era was speculation and the facade of prosperity caused by the speculation economy. And while it certainly makes these works important for our day (the housing bubble is not so different from the silver mine prospecting game), I cannot help but feel that Twain is missing an important part of the mid-nineteenth century economy: exploitation. Yes, there were games, corruption, speculation, and delusion schemes that would have made Colonel Sellers (more on him below) proud, but there was also real wealth being created in factories as a result of the rise of a violent and exploitive industrial capitalism. If “the gilded age” really means that behind the surface there is worthless metal, it is misnamed. Someone built the cities, picked the cotton, rebuilt the South, produced the steel, and laid the railroad tracks. Yes, there were games on Wall Street and tricks in Washington. Maybe in the silver mines you did have a situation where everyone was relatively equal and could play games taking advantage of each other without real exploitation, but in the economy at large expropriation was real.

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

Real wealth producers in an age of speculation

As a document of the games and tricks side of the economy, The Gilded Age is a useful text and does interrogate a long-standing American tradition: the belief that money can come from nothing, given the right scheme. In addition to the Hawkins family scheme, there is a secondary plot involving a man named Philip Sterling and one of his coconspirators, who are attempting to get involved in speculating land in Tennessee, not that far from where the Hawkins claim sits. Another figure, Colonel Sellers crosses through both plots and is always engaged in dreaming up or trying out schemes to make money. One of these involves trying to produce a beverage for marketing in Asia, alluding to the strong believe at that time that the China and Asia market was endless.

Around 100 pages in, the major character of the novel turns to Laura Hawkins, who arrived in Washington to take leadership of the family efforts to sell the Tennessee land, turning to the buyer of last resort, the government. She gradually turns more and more odious (at least through this first half of the story). Her brother, Washington Hawkins, is a more passive figure and often pitiable. What these two children had in common was a belief that they were wealth despite their physical conditions. “With the other Hawkins children Laura had been brought up in the belief that they had inherited a fortune in the Tennessee Lands. She did not by any means share all the delusion of her family, but her brain was not seldom busy with schemes about it. Washington seemed to her only to ream of it and to be willing to wait for its riches to fall upon him in a golden shower; but she was impatient, and wished she were a man to take hold of the business.” (145—146) These represent two paths for the children of the rich (that they are not rich in fact is beside the point as they both sincerely believe that they are rich). Laura takes on the most sociopathic qualities of her class, embraces amoral willingness to bride or harm whoever it took to achieve her aims. Washington’s training for a life of sloth began so early he never learned how to create wealth.

Colonel Sellers runs through the novel and every time he emerges he seems to have a new scheme. He reminds me of some of the characters in Twain’s short fiction. I have no doubt that he must have run into a fair number of this sort of person. I suppose it is an inevitable outcropping of a democratic capitalism that leaves more people behind that it lifts up. If we are all equal, we have only ourselves to blame for our failure. If we have just the right plan, the right idea, or the well-executed business plan we can be successful. Sellers is of the type that despite previous failures will never admit that he is defeated. Some of these schemes were inspired by the growing revolution in technology. However false or delusion, there is something projectural about his schemes. “I should go on myself, but I am engaged in the invention of a process for lighting such a city as St. Louis by means of water; just attach my machine to the water-pipes, and the decomposition of the fluid begins, and you will have floods of light for the mere cost of the machine. I’ve nearly got the lightening part, but I want to attach to it a heating, cooking, washing and ironing apparatus.” (173)

There is a wonderful moment in chapter 18 where the authors consider the broader social situation and conclude on the importance of the individual and solidarity over the institutions of civilization. “As we are accustomed to interpret the economy of providence, the life of the individual is as nothing to that of the nation or the race; but who can say, in the broader view and the more intelligent weight of values, that the life of one man is not more than that of a nationality, and that there is not a tribunal where the tragedy of one human soul shall not seem more significant than the overturning of any human institution whatever?” (134) What never ceases to amaze me is how often this sentiment is repeated in American literature. For whatever truth there is to the selfish, capitalist, isolated American, there is also this solidarity, if we are to trust American writers.

These are just some assorted thoughts on what is an assorted and patched together novel. Perhaps I will have more to say next time about the den of corruption known as Washington, D.C.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1871–1879

The 1870s were productive years for Mark Twain, but not too active in the short fiction he started his career with. Having settled in Hartford Connecticut, he spend the decade working on some of his most well-known works: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Tramp Abroad. While several of these were not published until the 1880s, he was working hard on them. At the same time he remained engaged in politics, extensive travel, and lecturing. Reading the chronology of his life, we learn that Twain was very engaged in the publishing of his books, often changing publishers or contracts to improve income, and public life, often taking in visitors. His output is impressive. The collected short writings for the decade, much of it speeches, fits into 200 pages.


Mark Twain was a brilliant hacker. There is a piece that suggests his method. In 1875 he had “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” translated into French and then back into English. The results are humorous enough. It seems that he is doing the same thing, translating his wit through the period’s various assumptions and values such as scientism, pretentious public speaking, and journalism. I want to focus today on his fascinating with science. It was not really there in his writings from the 1860s but it comes up again and again in the 1870s. Twain was fascinated by technology and science. He wasted millions (in present dollars) on investments. And while not blindly optimistic (more on this when we look at A Conn. Yankee), he was interested in the way scientists presented their ideas and the assumptions they made about their audience and reality. It is hard not to read his hacks of scientism without feeling skepticism about the claims of scientists. I think we need a voice like Twain’s to mediate in the climate change debates.

A collection of Twain's sketches, released in 1875

A collection of Twain’s sketches, released in 1875

One of his more playful teases of scientism comes in “The Danger of Lying in Bed” warning that beds are much more dangerous than trains because so many thousands more die on their bed. More rich are “A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science” which juxtaposed the confidence of paleontologists about he lives of “Primeval Man” with the apparent ignorance of Twain’s contemporaries in solving a simple case of murder. I do think he is genuinely fascinated with the scientific process, how knowledge is expanded and gained, but is aware that it is a dynamic and changing processes, where knowledge is not static. “Science is as sorry as you are that this year’s science is no more like last year’s science than last year’s was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal.” (538) All humor and doubt aside, this is a beautiful observation. And I do not mean this in the way of climate change denialists, but in the sense of someone who is eager to learn of new discoveries. (Some of which may change the rigid definitions of what it even means to be human, and therefore knock off one more set of chains.) Along the same theme is “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls in Three Parts,” which is about sentient animals digging up and learning about long dead human societies. About mid-way through this set of fables the arrogance of scientism is laid bare. “Surrounding these fossils were objects that would mean nothing to the ignorant, but to the eye of science they were a revelation. They laid bare the secrets of dead ages. . . . We believe that man had a written language. We know that he indeed existed at one time, and is not a myth; also, that he was the companion of the cave bear, the mastodon, and other extinct species; that he cooked and ate them and likewise the young of his own kind, also, that he bore rude weapons, and knew something of art; that he imagined he had a soul.” (625–627)

Twain had a similar approach to the general economism and money-grubbing of what he would coin “the gilded age.” In “The Facts in the Case of George Fisher, Deceased” he documents how a single family milked the government of thousands, generation after generation, for the possible 1813 burning of the family farm during Indian wars. Summed up in “The Revised Catechism” this ethic that reduced everything to a dollar amount and created an economy of robbing the guy next to you is: “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock—father, son, and the ghost of the same—three persons in one: these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme; and William Tweed is his prophet.” (539)

My favorite short piece in this set was “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” about a man who is able to exile his conscience. By doing so, the narrator is able to become a superman of the age. “Out of this with your paupers, your charities, your reforms, your pestilent morals! You behold before you a man whose life-conflict is done, whose soul is at peace; a man whose heart is dead to sorrow, dead to suffering, dead to remorse, a man WITHOUT A CONSCIENCE! In my joy I spare you, though I could throttle you and never feel a pang!.” (660) He uses his powers to enter into a murder spree, but is ready to profit by it by selling bodies to medical colleges. Such was the brutality of the conscience-less gilded age.

I think people should also take a look at “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn,” which uses the Bounty mutineers as a metaphor for social development and revolutionary turmoil. It concludes that no amount of reform can redeem tyranny. The call of the tyrant at the end of the story is that of all states in the face of the angered masses. “I freed you from a grinding tyranny; I lifted you up out of your degradation, and made you a nation among nations; I gave you a strong, compact, centralized government; and, more than all, I have you the blessing of blessings,­—unification. I have done all this, and my reward is hatred, insult, and these bonds.” (720)

Nice Librivox recording of “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn.”

I will return to Mark Twain’s short writings after a while, but for now I have to tackle some of his longer works. In order, they will be: Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1844–1852)

“The remarkable story of the snow-image, though, to that sagacious class of people to whom good Mr. Lindsey belongs, it may seem but a childish affair, is nevertheless capable of being moralized in various methods, greatly for their edification. One of its lessons, for instance, might be, that it behoves men, and especially men of benevolence, to consider well what they are about, and, before acting on their philanthropic purposes, to be quite sure that they comprehend the nature and all the relations of the business at hand.” (“The Snow-Image,” 1102)



What a simple protest against the reformism of Hawthorne’s age, or any age. The same, it seems to me, could be said of any urban development project declared the necessity for the well-being of all, but affected only at the great destruction of communities, businesses, and homes. This short passage near the end of the tragic tale “The Snow-Image” is a wonderful summation of “seeing like a state.”

I have reached the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales, not including his retelling of ancient mythologies for children, written in his last decade. His writing became dramatically more allegorical (at least his short stories) and difficult as he matured. I truly miss some of his more optimistic tales exploring the creative vernacular side of life, but that theme still always lies on the edge of the dark clouds (I am borrowing from Melville’s description of Hawthorne’s writings here). The overpowering darkness of these stories is evident, but it is not overpowering because it is nearly always explicable. Hawthorne was describing a human heart, dark and terrible at times, but always rooted in a certain historical context. For instance, if we look at “Earth’s Holocaust” the demonic figure at the end suggests humanity to toss the human heart into the fire along with the rest of the trappings of civilization. Yet, it is not entirely clear that the human heart was fallen. This contradicts what I wrote on that tale yesterday, but now I want to believe that “Earth’s Holocaust” was not a warning that the human heart was part of the fallen world, but that the human heart is one of the redeeming features of humanity. (What Kroporkin would call “mutual aid” or what we simply call “solidarity.”)

One important issue that he kept coming back to is the figure of the artist and the line between the artistic and the real. It is the central theme of at least three of the stories in this last set, covering the eight years from 1844 to 1852. At least one of these considers the playful creativity of children and the hostile disbelief and indifference of adults, an issue I have seen emerge again and again in Hawthorne’s stories.

The stories I worked through for today are: “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” “A Select Party,” “A Book of Autographs,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “P.’s Correspondence,” “Main-Street,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Great Stone Face,” “The Snow-Image,” and “Feathertop.” This is also, by the way, the longest set of stories reaching almost 200 pages, compared to the earlier sets which were all around 100. Was Hawthorne getting long to prepare for his novels?


“The Artist of the Beautiful” is one of those stories that explores the line between the artistic and the real. In this case, it is contextualized in the tension between the quest for artistic perfection and the “real” of commercial practicality. Owen Warland is a brilliant apprentice watchmaker who has little time to spend honing his craft as an artisan and instead focuses on creating small beautiful items. He indeed has a quest to produce “The Beautiful Idea,” which is not dependent on size. Since he enjoys producing miniscule works of art, it seems from the master watchmaker’s point of view that his talent is being wasted. He certainly has a skill with the small that would help him succeed in the craft. When he inherits the shop, he quickly runs it into the ground because he has little time for the practicality of business. This tension between the artistic and the practical runs through the story. “This it is, that ideas which grow up within the imagination, and appear so lovely to it, and of a value beyond whatever men call valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the Practical. It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects to which it is directed.” (913) Eventually, he completes his work, a small butterfly, which is alive and departs, thus the act of creation becomes real through the art. “When the artist rose high enough to achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the Reality.” (931)

A similar tale is told in “Drowne’s Wooden Image.” Here the artist is a sculpture tasked with created a figure-head for a ship. Much like Owen, the watchmaker, Drowne is a masterful craftsman and even draws the attention of Copley, the famous early American painter. What shocks Copley and other observers is that he wasters his talent on a mere figure-head for a ship (and not even a British warship). Like Owen, Drowne has abandoned wealth for the purity of the art, and his fame grows without padding his wallet. As with Owen’s butterfly the figure-head comes alive at the end, convincing the obsevrers that Drowne has sold himself to the devil. This is part of the Romantic era spirit of art for Art’s sake. Like Schubert, who died unable to pay his burial costs, Hawthorne was at a point of his life where he was kicked out of the Old Manse in 1845, with 12 dollars to his name and had to move in with his parents. (Note to college graduates, there is nothing wrong with moving back in with your parents, but you also no longer have an excuse not to create something wonderful.) The rejection of wealth for art may become more silly in the art world proper, where most production is for the private collections of the .1%, but as we see in the proliferation of blogging, there are millions (and yes most of us suck) who are still striving to create without hoping for financial rewards. I am glad this spirit lives on, proving that not everything can be bought.

The third in this series of stories on artistic creation is “The Snow-Image.” Again we see an artistic creation come alive. Akin to Frosty the Snowman, two children produce a “snow-image” that is so life-life the children’s parents deem it a real child. It plays with the girls. The parents insist on allowing this girl to come inside to warm up, despite the sister’s protest she is made of snow. Of course, when brought inside, she quickly melts near the stove. Here, creation is perhaps the most purposeless in any practical terms. Owen used his butterfly for courtship. Drowne at least got fame and prestige for his labors. These two girls created only a playmate. We are not surprised when it is the parents’ stringent rationality that destroyed the perfect creation.

Before I put a close to this series of Hawthorne tales (we still have the novels and the children’s stories to cover), it would be improper not to five some passing mention to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” simply because it is so often seen as one of his great stories. Like “The Birth-Mark” it is one of those stories that appears in science-fiction anthologies as an early American example of the genre. Beatrice is a young woman, locked up in a garden with some poisonous flowers. As a result she becomes poisonous herself while also gaining an immunity to the flowers. The young student Giovanni Guasconti lusts after Beatrice from afar. As Beatrice’s professor (really mad scientist) father explains: “This lovely woman had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element in life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison.” (996) Eventually, another scientist, Pietro Baglioni, attempts an antidote, which, of course, kills her, proving that the scientific experiment had fully transformed Beatrice’s being into poison. This story works as a polemic against scientific progress that might transform our nature, the reformist effort to transform nature, and the authoritarian power of parents over their children.

At the close of these nine posts on 92 Hawthorne stories, I am unable to provide for you a summary that would be adequate. I only suggest perusing my musings of the past two weeks and look forward to another week of Hawthorne as I look into the novels he wrote in his last decade. It seems to me that there is a true value in sitting down and enjoying the completeness of an artist’s work, with all its ups and downs. This breaks us away from the authority of the canon and the anthologies, which would have you read only 5 or 6 of these tales. I have done this with composers before to great personal benefit. Yes, it may mean you stop focusing on work for a while (maybe even a year or two) but there is nothing wrong with that. There is plenty of work being done already. You will not be missed.

Here is a movie based on some of Hawthorne’s works. Despite its title, only one of the stories in this anthology film was from Twice-told Tales. It includes a depiction of “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” I did not watch them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1843-1844)

“Fight for your hearths? There will be done throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that I may shatter the abomination all the pieces.” (“Fire-Worship,” 848)

New household technology: the stove

New household technology: the stove

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his most important stories after he quit his job at the Boston Custom House, married, and moved into the “Old Manse” of Concord. This move drew him into the transcendentalist circles. Freed from work and enjoying domestic bliss (we assume), Hawthorne exploded with creativity. He is still working almost exclusively with short stories and A Scarlett Letter is still five years in the future.

I suspect Hawthorne was happily married from the stories of this era, because only someone who is content can be so openly hostile to the institution. I suspect that those who are the most miserable create stories of happy marriage, either through faking it or through dreaming of an alternative situation. The brutal honesty Hawthorne shows in his writing, I guess, was part of his relationship with Sophia Peabody and made for a happy time of it. In any case, marriage is a strong theme of the stories from the Old Manse period. I would also like to touch on the question of technology, which Hawthorne presents with great ambivalence in these stories. In this way, Hawthorne is taking on two of the pillars of civilization itself.

These stories were mostly written at the "Old Manse," and appeared in this collection in 1852

These stories were mostly written at the “Old Manse,” and appeared in this collection in 1852

This set of stories includes: “The Birth-mark,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” “The Procession of Life,” “The Celestial Rail-road,” “Buds and Bird-Voices,” “Little Daffydowndilly,” “Fire-Worship,” “The Christmas Banquet,” “A Good Man’s Miracle,” “The Intelligence Office,” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” Almost all of these stories are allegorical, touching on various aspects of human nature. However, they also speak to the social and the trauma of civilization. In this way, I think we can approach an optimistic reading of these tales, suggesting that the human heart is not so fallen as struggling in a fallen world. The fact that so many seem to speak to the inevitable failure of reform movements suggest that much of the darkness in these stories rests on the influence of society.

“The Birth-mark” is a well-known and often anthologized tale about a scientist who marries the beautiful Georginia, who after the marriage becomes obsessed with her one imperfection, a small red mark on her cheek. Like the social reformers of Hawthorne’s time, he simply cannot accept even one corruption from the ideal. He then sets out to apply his scientific knowledge to eradicating that imperfection. He achieves this, but it comes at the cost of Geroginia’s death. “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband took its heavenward flight.” (780) One reading of this that I find interesting is about the near sociopathic obsessions within a married couple. As soon as the scientist married, he became obsessed with this singular defect in his wife. At the same time, she becomes so willing to become perfect that she sacrifices her life. Overtime, rather than becoming accustomed to each other, the birthmark drives both deeper into obsession. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (767) If we read the story as an allegory for reform movements, the chilling aspect of the story is that human knowledge indeed makes it possible to create a perfection. Georgina, as the subject of Utopian experimentation, is in awe of her husband’s technical and scientific knowledge and surrenders her will to his efforts. At the moment of her death, she praises her husband’s quest for perfection through science, embracing his Prometheanism. “You have aimed loftily! —  you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” (780)

This is also what takes place in “Fire-Worship” but with a more open hostility to the destructive side of the technological spirit. Interestingly, the main focus of “Fire-Worship” is the domestic hearth, again connecting marriage and technology as companions in the process of civilization. It opens: “It is a great revolution in social and domestic life — and no less so in the life of the secluded student — this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove.” (841) It is not an anti-technological message in itself. Fire has a place in the home, but it is the stove that destroys a form of community, a certain vernacular spirit that lived on in the ashes and fireplaces of thousands of homes. “The easy gossip–the merry, yet unambitious jest–the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word–will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with fatal frost.” (847) The stove suggests the same type of technological progress condemned in “The Birth-Mark”

Clearly, fire makes a dramatic appearance in “Earth’s Holocaust” as well. In this story, fire takes the form of a massive crucible with the power to cleanse society of its old to prepare the world for a new age. Old music, old knowledge, money, liquor, law, weapons, and clothing all get thrown into the massive bonfire. In previous stories, Hawthorne cast the occasional dispersion on the old and ancient, pointing out the dangers of living permanently in the past and forgetting the child-like spirit of recreation. In “Earth’s Holocaust” it is clear that Hawthorne is reconsidering some of this, seeing some value in the preservation of old knowledge, but his main purpose here is to again warn against putting too much hope in technology (symbolized in the fire) as a solution to our problems. The throwing in of liquor and Hawthorne’s repeated use of “reformer” in the text shows that he was again considering the bold schemes of nineteenth-century social reformers. The conclusion of the story warns that a new age cannot be born without the cleansing of the human heart as well, but I wonder to what degree the human heart exists without the civilization that was tossed into the fire. Here he exposes a (in my view) unfortunate Puritanism, emphasizing the totally fallen human.

In the space I have left, I was to touch on a story that attempt a taxonomy of human civilization. “The Procession of Life” shows unambiguously that the human heart is not singularly evil or good. If anything unites humanity it is Love, but that feeling is constrained by the harsh boundaries between groups. “We have summoned this various multitude — and, to the credit of our nature, it is a large one — on the principle of Love. It is singular, nevertheless, to remark the shyness that exists among many members of the present class, all of whom we might expect to recognize one another by the free-masonry of mutual goodness, and to embrace like brethren, giving God thanks for such various specimens of human excellence. But it is far otherwise. Each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns.” (803) It is thus our social categories that divide us, not our hearts.

Take what you want from that. I need to run.


Aldo Leopold: The Last Decade

A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Aldo Leopold’s career in professional wildlife management and conservation. Much of his career was spent in the United States Forest Service. He was thus an agent of state-directed conservation and “management.” As his life spanned from the Progressive era to the height of the New Deal project, it is not surprising that he looked to the state for answers. As my last post tried to map out in broad terms, over the course of the 1930s, Leopold lost faith in “civilization” and the state as agents of conservation. By the end of the 1930s, he was looking to the “farmer as conservationist” instead. If A Sand County Almanac was Leopold’s last words, it is striking that the state is almost absent. Surely it has a place in the background and he probably never thought that it had no role in rectifying the relationship between humans and the land, but Leopold was largely thinking in terms of an ethical transformation led by various vernacular forces. I even can see Leopold moving toward an idea that there is an utter disconnect between all aspects of “civilization” and the land.


In 1941, in a then-unpublished manuscript “Yet Come June,” Leopold wrote: “Empires spread over the continents, destroying the soils, the floras and faunas, and each other. Yet the trees grow. Philosophies spread over the empires, teaching the good life with tank and bomb. Machines crawl over the empires hauling goods. Goods are plowed under, or burned. Goods are hawked over the ether, and along lanes where Whitman smelled locusts blossoms morning and evening. Quarrels over godos are planted think as trees along all the rivers of America. . . . Trucks carrying goods race the railroads. Cars carrying consumers of goods race the trucks. Yet the trees grow. . . . Chemists and physicists harness power, biology harnesses plants and animals, all for goods. Politics is the redistribution of goods. Literature and the arts portray the drama of the haves and have-nots. Research is not to decipher the universe, but the step up production. Yet the trees grow.” (457)

Leopold tackled education in a 1942 conference talk called “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education,” which worried that the place of the land in education rested on economic utility: career preparation or policy formulation. As a result wildlife education was largely rooted in the uses of the science. Of course, by this point, Leopold was done with such concerns. Instead he view that wildlife education should aim “to teach citizens the function of wildlife in the land organism.” (466) He even foreshadows the growing influence of ecology in other disciplines. Of course now, scholars in fields as far afield from biology as history and philosophy have discovered that their work is enriched by incorporating the ecological. Leopold juxtaposes wildlife education (what we may now call ecology) with “conservation education,” which is concerned with the preservation of one small part of nature for human use, often at the expense of others. “The basic fallacy in this kind of ‘conservation’ is that it seeks to conserve one resource by destroying another. These ‘conservationists’ are unable to see the land as a whole.” (528) In other words, these conservationists are unable to “think like a mountain.”

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Leopold’s turn away from the state as an agent of conservation can be seen in another essay, “Land-Use and Democracy,” published in 1942. At this point he is able to look back at the entire New Deal project and its role in conservation. What he sees are the accoutrements of conservation with little meaningful movement toward a revision of our relationship with the land. “Just so we deal with bureaus, policies, laws, and programs, which are the symbols of our problem, instead of with resources, products, and land-ises, which are the problem. Thus we assuage our ego without exposing ourselves to contact with reality.” (476) This should certainly be familiar to us. As we are driving off the cliff of climate change and extinction it would be hard to find a government that does not claim to be moving toward responsible resource use (or sustainability or whatever euphemism is popular now). And what of the concerned public. Most, Leopold points out, are content voting for politicians who promise to back conservation or sending money to groups engaged in good work. That is, laying responsibility on “bigger and better laps.” (477) Democracy seems ill-suited to change the use of the land. As individuals our ecological decisions are often horrifying (putting a dead tree with many years of life ahead of it in our homes for the holidays or eating wheat produced through the destruction of the prairie), even if our sentiments are with the land. If the public cannot be trusted, it is up for government (technocracy) to mitigate our worst tendencies. Yet, government makes a hash of it. Either government simply has no power over what is most necessary to pay attention to (such as the day to day use of land involved in agriculture) or taking well-meaning and even beneficial actions that simply do not help much (artificial reforestation, regulating game fish populations, or rodent control.

For Leopold, the conclusion is that meaningful conservation must come from the bottom up: “collective self-renewal and collective self-maintenance.” (482) For this to happen, perhaps we need to accept that moral or cultural change is a prerequisite.

While most people will likely only read A Sand County Almanac as a record of Aldo Leopold’s vision, I think there is an important lesson that comes from looking at the evolution of his thought from the beginning of his career until the publication of that monumental text. In Leopold we have a state conservation worker who learned that the state looks at wildlife with one set of eyes (to use James Scott’s phrase, conservationists tended to “see like a state”). These days we still tend to look to governments (or now transnational governing institutions) to act to fight climate change. This is precisely what Leopold was warning against when he argued that conservation must come from the bottom up.