Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Labor and Revolt in Mark Twain and William Morris

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Labor and Revolt in Mark Twain and William Morris

Article excerpt

While Mark Twain enjoyed reading William Morris's poem "Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast" and Morris was labeled by George Bernard Shaw "an incurable Huckfinomaniac," these men, when their names are mentioned together, are presented in opposition to one another primarily on account of Twain's seeming distaste for Arthurian England (perhaps Morris's favorite era) as presented in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). This essay, however, looks closely at Connecticut Yankee and Morris's A Dream of John Ball (published serially 1886-1887) as well as Twain's speech "The New Dynasty" and some of Morris's essays in Commonweal to argue that these two men shared much in their thoughts regarding labor. Twain's using "The New Dynasty" as a subtext for Chapter 13 of Connecticut Yankee resembles Morris's own putting into A Dream of John Ball the ideas expressed in his non-fiction essays in Commonweal on labor under capitalism. Morris and Twain, then, address a similar issue in a similar way at a similar time. In their fiction they expose the exploitive tendency of consumerism, thus complementing ideas expressed in their non-fiction speeches and essays. The two novels diverge sharply in the end, however. Morris's dreamer is renewed and cautiously optimistic about the future. Twain's Hank Morgan dies after annihilating 25,000 knights. These conclusions, however, are not necessarily contradictory. Instead, Twain depicts through Hank the frightening ease with which a laborer himself becomes the oppressor. In this light, Connecticut Yankee is a novel far more sympathetic than antagonistic to Morris's ideas.

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In his Autobiography, Mark Twain records a "curious story" that he hears from Rev. Mr. Goodwin (279). Goodwin has been constructing his father's mansion, and Twain, walking by, decides to stop in to see how far along the project is. Upon entering the house, Twain learns from Goodwin that the room in which Twain now stands has been unfinished for quite some time because Goodwin had run out of wallpaper and could not find another roll to finish the job. He tells Twain, "This is Morris paper, and it didn't hold out.... I sent to New York and ordered some more of the paper--it couldn't be furnished. I applied in Philadelphia and in Boston, with the same result. There was not a bolt of that paper left in America, so far as any of these people knew" (279). So, Goodwin sought the paper in London only to find out it is an out-of-print design. There was nothing to be done but to strip the walls and start over with a new pattern. Goodwin then tells Twain that just before he was going to begin stripping the paper, "a farmer-looking man" had approached and asked Goodwin if he could take a look around. "[T]his being the first room on the route," Goodwin explains, "he naturally glanced in. He saw the paper on the wall and remarked casually 'I am acquainted with that pattern. I've got a bolt of it at home down on my farm in Glastonbury'" (279). The two men quickly negotiated a trade for the bolt of paper, and Goodwin hired a paperhanger. They happened to be finishing that room as Twain walked in. In concluding this story, Twain writes, "It was only a coincidence, but I think it was a very curious and interesting one" (279).

In Twain's "curious story" we have one of only a few instances in which Twain and Morris are mentioned together, and this instance, like most others, is brief and seemingly inconsequential. Twain is simply curious about a man's progress in constructing his father's house, and Morris happens to have produced the wallpaper Goodwin hangs in that house. From other sources that connect these two men, we learn that George Bernard Shaw called Morris "an incurable Huckfinomaniac" (1) (qtd. in Hearn 36) and, according to William Dean Howells, that Twain favored Morris's "Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast" and "especially exulted in the lines which tell of the supposed speaker's joy in slaying the murderer of his brother" (16). …

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