To most readers of his works in the 21st century, Mark Twain is probably best known as a humorist. He is someone who, by the deft use of language, entertainingly offbeat characters and the more-than-occasional plot twist can keep us reading and laughing to the end. But of course he was in fact far more than simply a humorist. His work - from short stories like "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" to novels like Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - was as much social commentary and an attempt to right the wrongs of the world that he saw around him as it was any attempt to make people laugh. This paper examines the ways in which Twain used wit, repartee and an engaging cast of characters in Connecticut Yankee to make a strong statement against imperialism.
While some of Twain's work is still recognized as containing an element of social commentary to it - such as the clearly anti-slavery tone of Huckleberry Finn or the anti-imperialist tenor of Connecticut Yankee - much of it is not. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that history has to some extent made Twain's protests seem less like protests and more like the simple truth.
When we read now in "As Regards Patriotism" his warnings against the ways in which calls to protect "homeland security" can take one very far from democracy or we read in Huckleberry Finn the plea that Twain made not simply against slavery (which had, after all ended 20 years before this book was published) but more importantly for the treatment of black Americans as just as important as anyone else, we accept such statements as being what any ordinarily decent person should believe rather than as any sort of radicalism.
The social causes that Twain championed in his writings - which all came down one way or another to a universal respect for people's individual and civil rights - are now today the causes of much of the civilized world and so we fail to give him enough credit for speaking out at time when far fewer would have agreed with him. A Connecticut Yankee no longer surprises us with its message that colonialization (in this novel of the past by the future, in the real world of the Philippines by Spain and the United States) can have unintended and terrible consequences.
Twain's novel suggests that when different people come together the one with the simpler weapons will always lose: It only takes a handful of imperialists (and indeed in the novel it takes only one) to lay waste to the structure of an entire culture. The message of the novel is that meddling is bound to lead to terrible consequences. (Although a secondary reading of the novel might well be that such imperialist meddling is also inevitable.)
The novel, published in 1889, tells the story of a superintendent of a Hartford arms factory who receives a blow on the head that somehow transports him back in time to King Arthur's Court. He uses his modern know-how and Yankee ingenuity to thwart the superstitious inhabitants of the medieval world - and especially the practice of chivalry and the institution of the church. He is eventually returned to the present by another blow to the head - but the world that he leaves behind is already irrevocably changed.
Anti-Imperialist in Concept
The entire concept of Connecticut Yankee is anti-imperialist, which is why we can still hear Twain's original tone in the work - unlike in so many other pieces that he wrote. If Twain's work in general does not sound anti-imperialist to readers nearly a century after Twain's death it is because the degree of social criticism in his work that he intended his readers to hear simply isn't there. It was excised by Albert Bigelow Paine, his official biographer and first literary executor and a man who wished Twain to be remembered as a gently witty American folk humorist - and not a raging anti-imperialist (Foner 140-42).
This anti-imperialism ran strongly through many of Twain's works - twinned almost always with sharp criticism of war itself. We see it embedded in Connecticut Yankee - as in Chapter 39 in which he tells of the joust between the knights and the yanks in a way that makes all such ceremonial displays of violence - including imperialist wars - absurd, as Zwick (1992) argues.
Twain understands that imperialism can never be a winning proposition - because it leads to an endless series of aggressive steps, as he tells us in Chapter 19, comparing imperialist to shaky trading in the future's market.
Well, well, well, -- now who would ever have thought it? One whole duke and six dukelets; why, Sandy, it was an elegant haul. Knight-errantry is a most chuckle-headed trade, and it is tedious hard work, too, but I begin to see that there IS money in it, after all, if you have luck. Not that I would ever engage in it as a business, for I wouldn't. No sound and legitimate business can be established on a basis of speculation. A successful whirl in the knight-errantry line -- now what is it when you blow away the nonsense and come down to the cold facts? It's just a corner in pork, that's all, and you can't make anything else out of it. You're rich -- yes, -- suddenly rich -- for about a day, maybe a week; then somebody corners the market on YOU, and down goes your bucketshop; ain't that so, Sandy?"
Paine worried about such openly political statements, fearing that Twain would become much less marketable if people viewed him as a political writer rather than simply as a humorist. For all that Twain's writings - and diatribes - seem almost tame to us today, when we look to contemporary criticism of Twain and his work we get a good sense of how seriously his anti-imperialist writings were taken as Hoffman (viz. pp. 90-2) argues.
Paine's editions of Twain's writings were relied upon as authentic texts by both scholars and general readers alike, but they were products of an effort to reshape Twain's image. Passages that did not fit the image Paine wanted to promote were censored before publication. In a 1926 letter, Paine suggested to an editor at Harper & Brothers that no one else should be allowed to write about Mark Twain "as long as we can prevent it." He argued that if others were allowed to write about him, "the Mark Twain that we have 'preserved' -- the Mark Twain that we knew, the traditional Mark Twain -- will begin to fade and change, and with that process the Harper Mark Twain property will depreciate." (http://www.boondocksnet.com/twainwww/essays/uncensored020114.html)
From Humorist to Political Commentator
In fact, Twain had begun his writing career as almost a purebred humorist; his shift to a more overtly political stance only came during the 1890s and early 1900s. That shift in his writings was noted at the time. Essayist William Dean Howells wrote a piece titled "Mark Twain: An Inquiry" in the North American Review in February 1901 made a plea to preserve in the public imagination the Mark Twain who was only a humorist:
What we all should wish to do is to keep Mark Twain what he has always been: a comic force unique in the power of charming us out of our cares and troubles, united with as potent an ethic sense of the duties, public and private, which no man denies in himself without being false to other men. I think we may hope for the best he can do to help us deserve our self-respect, without forming Mark Twain societies to read philanthropic meanings into his jokes, or studying the Jumping Frog as the allegory of an imperializing republic. I trust the time may be far distant when the Meditation at the Tomb of Adam shall be memorized and declaimed by ingenuous Youth as a mystical appeal for human solidarity.
But there were far too many cares and troubles in the world as far as Twain concerned to remain a humorist. He was especially incensed that those who were colonized were often if not exactly eager to lose their liberty far too accepting of their secondary status. While - as we see in an essay like "As Regards Patriotism" - that Twain holds in highest contempt those who are the aggressors, he has little sympathy for those who do not continue to fight for their freedom. We see in this description in Chapter 13 his pity but also his contempt for the freemen who have been effectively colonized by the nobles but respectful rather than radical:
These poor ostensible freemen who were sharing their breakfast and their talk with me, were as full of humble reverence for their king and Church and nobility as their worst enemy could desire. There was something pitifully…