From Stephen Railton’s Introduction to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court may be the world’s first novel about time travel. It certainly has the most fantastic plot of all Twain’s fictions. But the inspiration to send a modern American through time as well as space sprang directly out of Twain’s long-standing literary goals. The story of the story begins on a Saturday in December 1884, with Twain traveling around the country on a reading tour to promote Huck Finn. In a bookstore in Rochester, New York, George Washington Cable, his fellow novelist and partner on the tour, suggested that Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), Sir Thomas Malory’s classic romance about the knights of the Round Table, would make good reading matter for the trip. Twain bought the book, began reading it the next day, and shortly afterward made a note in his journal about an idea for a sketch:
Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the middle ages. Have the notions & habits of thought of the present day mixed with the necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage certain requirements of nature. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get a handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve.
The emphasis here is on the idea’s comic possibilities. The literary goal Twain’s audience always expected him to put first was making them laugh. As a professional humorist, one of the first tricks he learned is that people are much more likely to laugh when they’re nervous or uncomfortable. Sex, for example, that staple of modern stand-up, is not inherently funny, but it is a subject to which almost everyone attaches some degree of discomfort. The mores of Twain’s late-Victorian America ruled out sex as a subject; people laugh when they’re anxious, not when they’re offended or shocked. But the principle of making an audience uneasy enough to laugh applies to any subject in which they are emotionally over-invested, and his culture’s proprieties and evasions gave Twain many other opportunities to make his audience uneasy. One of his favorite strategies was treating something they considered sacred in a mocking or irreverent spirit. A knight in shining armor was a subject that you were supposed to approach on bended knees. If, while looking up at that knight, you notice his nose is running, the disequilibrium caused by this clash between the sacred and profane, between what a culture enshrines and what it represses, will probably seek to discharge itself through laughter. The movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail proves that Camelot is still a target-rich environment for comedy to attack; and in Mark Twain’s time, when the standard for depicting the days of knights was set by elegiac works like Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (finished in 1885), the territory Twain works in the novel was even more vulnerable to burlesque and parody.
Twain never forgot that the job his readers paid him for was making them laugh, but that was only one of his literary goals. In an autobiographical dictation made near the end of his life, he explains how his achievement differs from that of “mere humorists” by asserting that “I have always preached.” As a text for a sermon, that dream of being a knight whose body itches in places he can’t reach points toward Twain’s project as an American realist. To Twain as a humorist, texts like Malory’s book were good things to make fun of, the “straight” resources he could exploit. But Twain also belonged to the generation of nineteenth-century novelists who defined their work as a revolt against the romance tradition. Giving that archetype of romance heroism, the knight in armor, the common “requirements of nature” exposes the ideal world of books to the real world of such things as bodily “necessities.” Hank’s favorite expletive throughout Connecticut Yankee is “Great Scott!” This is Twain’s way of keeping his narrative in dialogue with the medieval novels of Walter Scott, the British writer who, for him, epitomized the factitiousness of literary romance. Twain talks about Scott directly in Life on the Mississippi, where he makes it clear that his quarrel is not simply aesthetic. Scott, according to Twain, did “more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any individual that ever wrote”; a book like Scott’s Ivanhoe was even “in great measure responsible” for the Civil War, because its unrealistic representations warped the minds of the white South away from “the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century” and toward “the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead.” (There is an echo of this charge in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, where we’re told that the horse on which Sutpen rides off to the war got its name from a Scott novel.) What Twain says in Life about history anticipates the argument he puts into Hank’s mouth: that the true Reign of Terror was not the violence of the French Revolution, but the ancien régime, the centuries of aristocratic privilege and abuse—Hank calls it “a thousand years of such villainy.” Because of enchanters like Malory, Scott, and Tennyson it is the past that “none of us has been taught to see . . . as it deserves.”
That is Hank’s job: to cure readers of what (in Life on the Mississippi) Twain calls “the Sir Walter disease” by teaching them to see the feudal realities left out of Scott’s account. At the start Hank tells us that he is “barren of sentiment” and “poetry.” Thus he can serve as an accurate reporter on the medieval world that Scott represents by chivalrous heroes like Ivanhoe and beautiful heroines like Rowena. Alongside the “noble cavalcade” of plumed knights in chapter 1, for instance, Hank also sees “the muck, and swine, and naked brats . . . and shabby huts,” the reality of life for the common people of Arthur’s realm, the poverty, ignorance, injustice, and slavery that never get described in the ideal world romance creates. Having brought Hank across 1,300 years Twain takes him on two more trips, both through Arthur’s realm: first with Sandy (chapters 11–20), then with the King (chapters 27–38). The sights Hank sees on these travels—the tortured prisoners in Morgan le Fay’s dungeon, the impoverished peasant family dying of smallpox—work to disenchant readers of any nostalgia they might have felt for the mythic past.