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Samuel Clemens Interpretation Of The Literary Artist And Critical Views Of His Works Essay, Research Paper
“Heaven and Hell and sunset and rainbows and the aurora all fused into on divine harmony . . . ” It is by the goodness of God that in out country we have those three unspeakable precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them. Samuel Clemens’ profound response to beauty was immediately and untrammeled-the beauty of nature, for which no special training is necessary for appreciation. The quote above supports the idea that Samuel Clemens was a literary artist, possibly America’s greatest. Yet, he was definitely not just a writer. He wrote many novels that became American classics. Many of Clemens’ greatest works were based on his own personal experiences as a young man on the Mississippi River, and through theses writing he established a place for himself in the classics of American literature. To this day, Samuel Langhorne Clemens is, without a doubt, America’s most picturesque literary figure. Perhaps a part of his appeal to the mass imagination lies in the fact that he himself became the embodiment of literature throughout his and the rest of time. The mastery of his literary oeuvres has surpassed the conventional cascade of literature since the 1800’s. Samuel Clemens will be, forevermore, the epitome of the literary world.
Throughout his life, Samuel Clemens maintained an engaging and infectiously boyish enthusiasm that led his wife to nickname him “Youth.” Unlike most men, Samuel Clemens never did renounce his boyhood; he carried with him into maturity miraculously preserved and vibrant memories of his early and middle adolescence, and it was through these memories that he filtered his adult experience. At the age of fifty-five, he wrote to an unknown correspondent: “And yet I can’t go away from the boyhood period and write novels because capital is not sufficient by itself and I lack the other essential: interest in handling the men and experiences of later times,” (Bellamy, Mark Twain as a Literary Artist, 16). On this circumstance, he founded an enviable fame and fortune and an enduring artistic achievement. (Bellamy, 17)
Although the splendid moment of his fame is still prolonged and extends immeasurably far into the future, that fame was only a small part of his power. There was something about him that moves people who knew nothing of his renown, who did not even know who he was. Samuel Clemens’ personality was of a sort that compelled those about him so strongly that wherever he went, he seemed a being from another planet, a visitant from some remote star.
Born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, “Little Sam” was “a wild-headed, impetuous child of sudden ecstasies,” who was constantly running away in the direction of the river and, as he later wrote, was “drowned nine times in Bear Creek and was suspected of being a cat in disguise”; a vividly imaginative child, who loved the companionship of the good-natured slave and visited the Negro quarters beyond the orchard as a place of ineffable enchantment; a child whose sympathy included all inanimate things; a child who “pitied the dead leaf and the murmuring dried weed of November”(Bellamy, 4-7). In many, if not all, of his novels, short stories, and other works, Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ personal life experiences reflect heavily on his writing plots. Stories such as The Notorious Jumping From of Calaveras County, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, AConnecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finnhave all been closely related to some of the adventurous, dangerous, and childish experiences in Clemens’ own life. As a young man, he developed a troublesome cussedness that distinguished his as a child from his elder and younger brother, Orion and Henry. His mischievousness led to a series of escapades: several times nearly drowning, purposefully contracting measles, smoking, rolling rocks down a hill before church-bound carriages, and running away from home.
Clemens and his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River, when Samuel was four years old. There, he received a pubic school education. After the death of his father in 1847, Clemens was apprenticed to two Hannibal printers, and in 1851 he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal. He contributed reports, poems, and humorous sketches to the Journal for several years. (Baldanza, Mark Twain, Intro. & Interpretation, 2)
In 1857, at 22 years old, Clemens made plans to travel to South America, and in April of that year, he started down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. In a change of plans, instead of traveling to South America, he persuaded a riverboat pilot named Horace Bixby to teach him the skills of piloting. With a burning determination for adventure, by April of that year, Samuel had become a licensed riverboat pilot. But, the beginning of the Civil War abruptly closed commercial traffic of the Mississippi River. After serving for two weeks with a Confederate volunteer company, Clemens decided not to become involved in the war. With this decision, he travels west to Carson City, Nevada, with his brother Orion. Later, “Roughing It” humorously described his unsuccessful attempts at prospecting for gold and silver during this time and his eventual conclusions that he must support himself by newspaper journalism (Bellamy, 19-21). He joined the staff of the Virginia City, Nev., Territorial Enterprise in the summer of 1862 and in 1863, he began signing his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi River phrase meaning “two fathoms deep.” (Encarta 97, Mark Twain)
After gaining national recognition for the creation of The CelebratedJumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain was lecturing in New York City as well as traveling to Europe and the Holy Land. In his return, in 1870, his married to the love of his life, Olivia Langdon. In contribution of his happiness Twain characterizes love and marriage in a simple statement: Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. In August of 1870, Jervis Langdon dies of cancer, only three months prior to the birth of his new brother, Langdon. Soon after Langdon was born, the Clemens family moves to Hartford, Connecticut. Through the next ten years, many births and deaths occur within the Clemens family. In June of 1874, Clara Clemens, a second daughter, is born to Samuel and Olivia. And, in July of 1880, Jean Clemens is born – Twain’s fourth and last child.
After the publishing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s mother, Jane, dies at the age of ninety. Shortly after, The Clemens family closes their house in Hartford and moves to Europe hoping to economize, in which they live for the next nine years. But, alone in England in August of 1896, Twain learns that his daughter Susy had died of meningitis in Hartford. After he is able to pay off his debts in full, he returns to the States at the turn of the century. Just four years later, his wife, Olivia died of heart disease. And in the winter of 1910, Twain’s health begins to fall rapidly and dies of angina pectoris on April 21.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Twain prefaced A Connecticut Yankee with “A Word of Explanation” designed to account for the tale that he has yet to unfold. He tells us that, while touring Warwick Castle, he met a “curious stranger” who later gave to him a manuscript “yellow with age.” The reader learns that the stranger’s name is Hank Morgan, and the forty-four chapters that follow are presented as if they came directly from the manuscript he left with Twain.
The superintendent of a great arms factory in nineteenth-century Connecticut, Hank is hit over the head with a crowbar during a quarrel with one of the men under him. When he comes to, he finds himself transported back to sixth-century England, on the outskirts of Camelot. At first he thinks that he has stumbled into a lunatic asylum, but it gradually dawns on him that he may indeed have been magically transported into the past. He quickly determines upon a course of action, telling the reader, “if it was still the nineteenth century and I was among lunatics and couldn’t get away, I would presently boss that asylum or know the reason why; and if on the other hand it was really the sixth-century… I would boss the whole country inside of three months; for I judged I would have the start of the best-educated man in the kingdom by a matter of thirteen hundred years and upwards.”
Captured by one of the knights of the Round Table, Morgan is condemned as a “man-devouring ogre” and sentenced to be burned at the stake. But thanks to an “encyclopedic knowledge” (uncharacteristic of factory foremen), Hank recalls that an eclipse of the sun is close at hand. He proclaims himself a magician and announces that he will blot out the sun forevermore if he is harmed. Just as he is being chained to the stake, the eclipse conveniently begins, and the court is duly terrified. The king entreats Morgan to restore the sun, and Hank agrees on condition that the king appoint him “perpetual minister and executive” entitled to “one percent of such actual increases of revenue over and above its present amount” that he expects to create for the state. The king agrees to these terms; the eclipse comes to a timely end, and Morgan becomes “The Boss”- second in power only to King Arthur.
Determined to “civilized” Camelot by introducing modern industrial technology, Morgan establishes various factories in the countryside, allowing no one near them except by special permit. He fears the power of the Church and believes that he may be overthrown if he brings about change too quickly: “The people could not have stood it; and moreover I should have had the Established Roman Catholic Church on my back in a minute.” For the next four years, he prepares “the nuclei of future vast factories, the iron and steel missionaries of my future civilization,” but he does so in secret, consolidating his position as a great magician.
Because he finds it politically expedient to seem as if he shares the values of the people around him, Morgan eventually is forced to leave the court on a knightly quest. He travels into the country with the Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise- whom he promptly nicknames “Sandy”- in order to liberate forty-five “princesses” held captive in “a castle” by “three ogres.”
Safely back in Camelot, Hank decides that the time has now come to impose upon Britain the technology he had been nurturing over the years. He determines “to destroy knight-errantry or be its victim”- which hardly seems generous of him, since he now owes his life to the fidelity of te same knights he has vowed to destroy. He enters a tournament and shoots his knightly foe dead with a revolver. He thereupon dares “the chivalry of England to come against him- not by individual, but in mass!” Hundreds of knights promptly accept this challenge, but they break ranks and flee after Hank quickly shoots nine more men dead. Since this is many centuries before firearms were known in Europe, it looks as if Hank has triumphed through black magic.
Believing that he has “broke the back of knight-errantry,” Hank exposes his hidden schools and factories to public view, establish railroads and telephones, sets steamboats running on the Thames, and converts the Round Table into a stock board. For three full years, medieval England seems to flourish, thanks to the benefits of modern technology. By this time in the novel, Hank and Sandy have married and produced a daughter. When the child falls ill, doctors urge that she be taken to the French coast to recover. And while Hanks is abroad, his new civilization crumbles. A civil war erupts, and the Church imposes a banishment order. Upon his return to England, Hank finds that all of England is marching against him- all but fifty-two boys, who were the product of his special schools, and his chief lieutenant Clarence.
Hank leads this small band to a fortified cave. Protected by an electrified fence and armed with torpedoes and machine guns, Hank prepares to fight. When the enemy approaches, he throws a switch and electrifies some eleven thousand men. His machine guns “vomit death” into the ranks of those who make it past the fence, and within minutes, “armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended… Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.” After the battle is over, Hank leaves his fortress in order to aid his wounded. As he bends over a crippled knight, he is stabbed by the man he sought to help. His comrades bring him back to the cave, where they soon realize that they are trapped. They can defend themselves only from their cave, and it is surrounded by the putrefying flesh of twenty-five thousand corpses. Gradually, they all fall ill. Then Merlin makes his way into the cave, where he casts a spell over Hank Morgan so that he will sleep for thirteen centuries, enabling Hank to meek Mark Twain in late nineteenth- century England.
Robert Keith Miller
Our reading of this tale is to a large extent dependent upon how we feel about Hank Morgan. Is he “a good and trustworthy narrator… who usually carries the burden of authorial attitudes,” or is he the imaginary forerunner of a modern fascist dictator, leading his people to genocide from the confines of a sixth-century fuehrer-bunker?
One of the best descriptions of Hank Morgan is that which he himself provides:
I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the State of Connecticut-anyway, just over the river, in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees- and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose- or poetry, in other words, My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and earned my real trade; learned to make everthing; guns, revolvers, cannons, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why I could make anything a body wanted- anything in the world…
Set within an idyllic countryside, Hank sees no value in anything about him. The land about him is undeveloped; it would appeal to him only if filled with the signs of industry and commerce. Here is a man who can gaze upon the fruited plain and envision an asphalt parking lot. (Robert Keith Miller, Mark Twain, 115)
Hank’s inability to appreciate beauty is revealed even more clearly when, after establishing himself as the second most powerful man in Britain, he finds himself installed in “the choicest suite of apartments in the castle, after the king’s.” Like a tourist who goes dismayed that Camelot is so little like East Hartford. He compares a tapestry to a bed quilt and complains that the walls are decorated only with silken hangings, whereas back home “you couldn’t go into a room but you would find an insurance chromo, or at least a three-color God-Bless-Our Home over the door; and in the parlor we had nine.”
When he first approaches Camelot, Morgan observes that the men “look like animals,” and he later decides that they are “white Indians.” He scorns the occasional condescends to see the people as “a childlike and innocent lot,” he cannot take them seriously. Because their culture is completely unlike his own, because it is so “un-American,” it therefore follows that the country is not civilized. Hank tells us:
I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did- invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy. (Miller, 120)
In short, Hank is incapable of understanding vales that are alien to his own; a supreme egotist, he set out to remake the world in his own image.
As a nineteenth-century entrepreneur, Morgan is the representative within the novel of a seemingly more advanced society. But it soon becomes clear that Hank values nothing so much as making money, and his schemes for doing so reveals a distinctly unattractive side of his character. Hank’s language consistently reveals his true values. His is the diction of the marketplace. He tells us, for example, that “It is no use to throw away a good thing merely because the market isn’t ripe yet.” After he has destroyed Merlin’s Tower, he declares that “the account was square, the books balanced.” When another of his schemes fails to work out, he tells us that he “sold it short.” He mocks the knights because they all “took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then,” observing:
There were worlds of reputation in it, but no money, Why, they actually wanted me to put in! Well, I should smile.(Miller, 122)
After all, Hank is much too “practical” to waste time on anything that is not financially remunerative. It should not come then in any surprise that Hank wishes he could remake man without a conscience because conscience “cannot be said to pay.” Ironically, when Hank is enslaved, he criticizes his master for having a heart “solely for business.” Hank is completely unaware that the slave master is only a cruder version of himself; both see men in terms of their commercial value, and neither is apt to allow sentiment to interfere with business. That Twain himself saw a parallel between slave masters and financiers is establishes by an illustration in the first edition of A Connecticut Yankee, an illustration that Twain singled out for praise: The slave master was given the features of Jay Gould, the great robber baron. And it is worth nothing, at this point, that Hank is tied by his name to a capitalist of dubious reputation, the great American banker, J.P. Morgan. (Miller, 122)
In short, Hank Morgan never learns. He arrives in Camelot with all the prejudices of a nineteenth-century provincial. He encounters a civilization that is radically different from his own- a civilization that is, without question, far from perfect. But his understanding f that civilization never grows in either depth or complexity. He is, in Twain’s own words, “a perfect ignoramus,” and his opinions cannot be accepted at face value.
It would be a mistake, however, to read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a satire at Hank’s sole expense. Twain satirizes modern industrial society through Hank, whose faith in advertising and cost effectiveness is naive to say at least. But Twain is no simple romantic. Throughout the nineteenth century, many writers glorified the Middle Ages, finding withing the distant past a soothing contrast to the dark Satanic mills they saw before them. From Sir Walter Scott- who , as we know, Twain absolutely loathed- on a Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival in architecture, and a resurgence in Arthurian scholarship that continues to this day, post-industrial man has been fascinated by the Age of Chivalry and Faith. But A Connecticut Yankee is not a part of this tradition (Miller, 133). Hank’s condemnation of Camelot is excessive, and through it we discover many of his limitations. On the other hand, it must also be acknowledged that Twain was not trying to idealize the past.
Therefore, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court should not be read as an attack upon the Middle Ages per se, any more than as a satire of modern American values. It is, as Twain himself reminded us, a contrast. The contrast between the medieval and the modern is comic in so far as it is grotesque- neither the past nor the present is any more ideal than human nature itself. If humor seems eventually to disappear toward the end of the novel, it is because the apocalyptic conclusion denies us the possibility of hope. Presented with a vision of history in which corruption seems to triumph, a vision in which the present is but a logical extension of the past, we are ultimately left scorched by Twain’s anger at the perpetual stupidity of men. As Hank Morgan observes, almost certainly speaking for Twain: “I reckon we are all fools. Born so, no doubt.” (Miller, 135.)
1. Baldanza, Frank. Mark Twain: Introduction and Interpretation. (c) 1961 Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.
2. Bellamy, Gladys. Mark Twain as a Literary Artist. (c) 1950 Univ. Of Oklahoma Press.
3. Bloom, Harold. Mark Twain: Modern Critical Views. (c) 1986 Chelsea House Publishing.
4. McNeer, May / Ward, Lynd. America’s Mark Twain. (c) 1962 by May McNeer and Lynd Ward.
5. Miller, Robert Keith. Mark Twain. (c) 1983 Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
6. Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (c) 1889 by Charles L. Webster.
7. Information Finder. Mark Twain. (c) 1994 World Book, Inc.
8. Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. Mark Twain. (c) 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation.
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