Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Ubermensch in the Attic: The Connecticut Yankee and Hank Morgan's Nietzschean "Will to Power"

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Ubermensch in the Attic: The Connecticut Yankee and Hank Morgan's Nietzschean "Will to Power"

Article excerpt

The relevance of Friedrich Nietzsche to nineteenth-century American culture--and judging by American excess in the early twenty-first century, I would argue the relevance of Nietzsche to modern American life as well--was apparently appreciated by Mark Twain before any of his contemporaries as we can conclude from the quote above and from the character of Hank Morgan, the protagonist of Twain's Connecticut Yankee. With uncanny vision, Twain feared Nietzsche not because of his exaggerations, but because Twain realized that America could find itself on the dark side of its own will to power should the disastrous potential of Nietzsche's philosophy--and perhaps America's--be ignored.

Written by Twain in 1907, (1) the introductory quotation carries the haunting quality of a warning ignored and shows that Twain was well acquainted with Nietzsche's dream of domination, yet dreaded lest it might be America's. (2) Twain seems to suggest that Nietzsche's Dream of Omnipotent Egotism (Will to Power) was devoured by those who unconsciously yearned to fulfill that dream while pretending to denounce it. Twain, as it were, exposes the dark side of the American Dream by creating, in Hank Morgan, a Yankee embodying features of Nietzschean heroism. In the Connecticut Yankee, Twain projects and analyzes the archetypal shadow in his culture's fantasy of redemption by comparing and contrasting Hank's consciously un-Nietzschean but unconsciously Nietzschean yearnings. In the above passage, Twain suggests that Nietzsche is not taken seriously by the very people who "believed exactly as Nietzsche believed but concealed the fact." Nietzsche is direct and brutal in his demands for the elimination of a Christian cultural superego that must, he believes, be replaced with a pagan id. Nineteenth-century America, by contrast, approached its demands for a cultural revolution through a more conservative and measured means, confining and concealing its demonic ego drives behind masks of Puritan inhibition. (3)

There seems to be a relationship between the American Dream, the Nietzschean Dream, and Twain's own variation of both that appears in the Connecticut Yankee. Looked at in a certain light, part of Nietzsche's philosophy or dream bears a decided resemblance to America's and perhaps Twain's own beliefs.

Indeed, Nietzsche's ideology of self-transcendence in Will to Power (464) corresponds grimly to America's ideology as set forth in Emerson's "Self-Reliance": cutting loose from the past and privileging the future (34-35). In the American mind, the child of the future would be superior in moral perfection to the shrunken, diseased victims of the past. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian Hero of the future would be superior in power and able to break through all moral fictions, able to betray and destroy the moral slaves of the past and the present. Thus, Nietzsche's text celebrates the will to destruction immanent in Dionysian man's will to power.

As interpreter of his contemporaries' cultural dream, Twain projects a double-layered text. The manifest layer, carried out by the Yankee, endorses a characteristically American style of power. That is, Hank Morgan rises from rags to riches and to a great position of authority through his entrepreneurial skills. (4) However, the unspoken layer of the same text projects the dream of the destructive and self-destructive Superman, Friedrich Nietzsche style. In the Connecticut Yankee, Twain examines both dreams and their interrelationship and warns against the dangers he finds in them.

The last half of the nineteenth century--an age of decadence according to Nietzschean philosophy, an age of human savagery according to Twain's novels--was a period of transition both in Europe and America. Twain tempered his historical pessimism with American yearning for the birth of democracy from the ruins of European feudalism. (5) Both of these phenomena are evident in the Connecticut Yankee: Hank's experiment in entrepreneurial democracy impinges on Arthurian Society, while Twain's historical pessimism manifests itself in the novel's conclusion. …

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