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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.