Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

"I Am an American": The Political Consequences of Hank Morgan's Lack of Identity

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

"I Am an American": The Political Consequences of Hank Morgan's Lack of Identity

Article excerpt

Mark Twain is widely held up as the quintessential author of the American experience. His novels and other writings serve to illuminate the unique experiences of the American individual. What must not be forgotten, however, is how fundamentally political this American experience is. The democratic nature of American government means that politics touches every individual in some way. By tapping into this political experience Twain is able to transcend the medium of the novel and develop a complex, subtle conception of American politics. Most notably he does this in relation to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court {1889), the most overtly political of Twain's longer works.

One of the earliest and most influential political understandings of Connecticut Yankee is Catherine and Michael Zuckerts landmark 1972 article, "And In His Wake We Followed." They validly argue that The Connecticut Yankee is an allegory; Twain hints as much in his preface where he declares that he is not taking up the question of the divine right of kings, implying that there is some other more important question that he is seeking to answer. The Zuckerts justifiably claim that this question relates to progress. A Connecticut Yankee is indeed a "fable of progress" as Henry Nash Smith has pointed out. Many understand this novel as embodying the conflict between East and West; between the nineteenth-century modern of Hank Morgan and the backwards-looking contemporary English society represented by the sixth-century society that Hank travels to. The Zuckerts do an admirable job of outlining the political aspects of this novel, but this also plays to their disadvantage. The broad scope of their work misses some of its more subtle aspects. This present essay aims to link the main schools of literature and politics while avoiding the pitfalls of the Zuckerts's work. I aim to examine how Twain's literary prowess influences the political goals of the novel. By looking at the purposeful lack of identity created for Hank Morgan we can understand him as a political representation, bridging the gap from a literary character to a political allegory.

Until relatively recently, the common understanding of Connecticut Yankee was that it was a philosophical failure. Twain was seen as being unable to resolve his dilemmas and resorting to a clumsy ending to rescue himself from his own writing. That perspective is demonstrated by a review written by Alan Trachtenberg where he claims that "the ending is the real problem of the book." This points towards a theme in the early interpretation of Connecticut Yankee, namely the fundamental association ofTwain with Hank. Trachtenberg claims that "Mark Twain came to see .. . that the trouble with Hank Morgan is precisely that he is too much a 'capitalist hero.'" The complication of this view is that it becomes nearly impossible to take the novel as a serious work of politics when the implication is that Twain did not purposefully develop its ending. Luckily this is not the only interpretation of the novel. Catherine and Michael Zuckert's work develops an understanding of A Connecticut Yankee as a fully crafted book and makes strides to remove Twain from Hank, seeing Hank more as a tool for Twain's political argument and using Hank's fundamental flaws as a demonstration of the flaws in American society. The Zuckerts use what they identify as Twain's "symmetry" in the novel to develop this understanding. They point to the parallelism of events as proof that the entire novel was planned as a whole with a specific purpose and was not a futile or failed attempt to conclude a story that Twain did not know how to end. The Zuckerts's perspective is now gaining traction and is leaving Smith's interpretation behind. There is, for example, Joel Johnson's "A Connecticut Yankee in Saddam's Court: Mark Twain on Benevolent Imperialism" (2007). For a divergent but related view, one may turn to Darryl Baskin's "Boss Morgan: Mark Twain and American Political Culture" (2013). …

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