The Deconstruction of the Enlightenment in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

By Morris, Christopher | Journal of Narrative Theory, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Deconstruction of the Enlightenment in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)


Morris, Christopher, Journal of Narrative Theory


Criticism of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has always rec- ognized some insoluble contradiction in its theme. For example, Lee Clark Mitchell sees "clashes of large binary oppositions" that arise from "incon- sistencies in the narrative strategy" (232); Derek Parker Royal sees a di- alectic between democracy and capitalism that "refuses a synthesis" (15). These studies are hermeneutic in their attribution of a contradiction to the novel's author, Clemens or Twain; their readings discover different forms of authorial incoherence as that is measured by the formalist criteria each brings to bear - for example, that oppositions should have syntheses or narrative strategies should be consistent. Such condescensions to the writer have been characteristic of Twain studies from the beginning, gain- ing impetus from the controversy surrounding the ending of Huckleberry Finn. The aim of all hermeneutic criticism, whether derived from formal- ism or cultural studies, is to find and place the author; the incessant efforts of Twain's critics are especially striking, pressing as they do on questions of whether he "belongs" in the canon or in libraries, or whether his books can be made to "work" in the classroom.1 Still, readers of Twain's earliest stories might be forgiven for wondering whether these continuing quests to fix might have been anticipated and allegorized in Twain's fiction all along - for example, in the frustration of the unnamed listener/narrator of "Jumping Frog" at being suckered by the elusive tale-teller Simon Wheeler. Recognizing his credulity - his "being sold," Twain calls it on other occasions - the narrator finally refuses to hear another tale about being suckered, but it's too late: he can do so only after having been suckered. This exposure of delusion in listening or reading can be written off as laughable until readers see that we, too, couldn't have grasped our blindness unless we had first been suckered. It does not take Paul de Man to understand Twain's work as allegorizing hermeneutic self-deception in reading and writing: the invention of Mark Twain, as of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, announces an irrevocable rupture between the "I" that narrates and any historical, biographical, empirical entity that might be fixed or placed by readers.2 And if such a dilemma is truly irrevocable, then every new work could only repeat it, each time under some new guise; the presumed original author, Samuel Clemens, trapped in unrepresentability, would be helpless to enlighten us further without initiating still more pseudonymous allegories. (The persistent re-fictionahzation of Twain's "life" is what actually occurs in the "autobiographical" writings.) And by this logic, criticism, too, will find itself depicted in advance as belated, helpless, and committing the same error it discovers. The effort to fix Twain or Clemens will founder on texts that allegorize its impossibility.

In the case of A Connecticut Yankee this dynamic can be read in the way hermeneutic critics have followed its frame's account of Mark Twain as a tourist who meets a purported author and promptly believes his strange story. Bernard L. Stein says the action is Morgan's dream; Lawrence Berkove thinks Morgan must have died in the crowbar fight and returned as a kind of ghost.3 So far no one has thought this fictional Twain might have been deceived and Morgan the narrator might be a con-artist like Simon Wheeler or any of Twain's earlier narrators, including Huckleberry Finn. A partial exception is James S. Leonard, who invokes Derrida in understanding Morgan as a "representative of the (inevitably) frustrated need for definitive interpretation" (114).4 Leonard's essay breaks new ground in showing that Morgan's palimpsestic manuscript calls representation itself into question. But in the end even Leonard returns to the hermeneutic premise that the critical problem is to determine the relations "among text, intertext, and authorial intention" (119). …

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