Gloom and Doom in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, from Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur

By Bowden, Betsy | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Gloom and Doom in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, from Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur


Bowden, Betsy, Studies in American Fiction


Taylor Roberts' recovery of Mark Twain's own copy of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur rekindles questions concerning Twain's process of composing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.(1) As a specialist in medieval English literature, I wish to document more minutely than have Americanists Twain's use of his direct source, purchased in 1884. This article will compare Twain's experience of reading the unabridged Morte Darthur to his expectations primarily based on its condensation as The Boy's King Arthur, which he had owned since 1880.

This comparison can help circumscribe the impact on American literary culture of idealizing Europe's past--that is, of the phenomenon now termed "medievalism."(2) Connecticut Yankee retains evidence of one significant moment in diachronic literary change, which seems so often to lurch onward just out of sight, like Malory's "questynge beeste." Our glimpse of that moment occurs at the oft-discussed disjunction between the first and second paragraphs of chapter 21 of Connecticut Yankee. I suggest that in 1887-88, at some point in between the two summers when he wrote those two paragraphs, Twain finally faced up to amoral nihilism in the real Morte Darthur and therefore, according to the best information then available to him, in the real Middle Ages.

A time frame is well established for the composition of Connecticut Yankee. Early in 1886 Twain wrote the opening frame and chapters 1-4; during the summer of 1887 chapters 5-9, 11-20, and the beginning of 21; then one year later the remainder.(3) After the first paragraph of chapter 21, the novel's plot and comic tone collapse. Thereafter loosely linked episodes writhe with inconsistent characterization, vacillating objects of mockery, and gratuitous bloodshed.

Scholars have documented external events that could have affected what Twain wrote during the summer of 1888: family illness, financial problems (notably overinvestment in the Paige type-setting machine), national or international politics, and his musings about capitalist industrialization, a trip downriver in 1882, or a visit to Hannibal in 1885. Scholars document also Twain's relevant reading, including History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, other historical and scientific works, fantasy stories by Max Adeler, an attack on America by Matthew Arnold, a magazine series on Russian atrocities, and pseudo-medieval fiction, notably that by Miguel de Cervantes (beloved by Twain) and Walter Scott (detested).(4)

In addition to these other factors, I propose, Twain during 1887-88 finally found time to finish reading the whole of Morte Darthur, in the mass-marketed Globe edition he purchased December 6, 1884.(5) The course of composition of Connecticut Yankee reflects not only outside events and readings but also Twain's escalating disillusionment with his primary source text. As one result to be discussed, his novel's Last Battle feels horrific even to readers familiar with its far gorier prototype: the civil war that destroyed legendary Camelot.

In its entirety, Malory's very long book came to confirm what Twain began to suspect while reading its opening chapters, on Sundays and trains during a lecture tour. Le Morte Darthur stands solid witness against any Golden Age of childlike innocence. From Malory Twain learned that the alleged glory days of British chivalry provide no admirable heroes, no moral or ethical standards, no inspirational ideals. Contrary to medievalism's rose-colored reconstruction of the Middle Ages, contrary to the pure-hearted world created in meticulous excerpts for The Boy's King Arthur, contrary to the Globe edition's effusive introduction, Twain discovered for himself that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table lie and cheat and steal and make solemn vows intending to break them. They casually commit rape and adultery, betray friends and feudal lords, seek blood revenge contrary to law, shrug aside the slaughter of women, children, kin, innocent bystanders, and each other. …

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