4: America: Technophobia
Edgar Allan Poe: The Visionary Tradition
The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
America’s romance with technology has produced remarkably diverse symbols ranging from the Promethean figure of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite during a thunderstorm and thus capturing celestial fire for humanity’s benefit to the apocalyptic image of a mushroom cloud towering over Hiroshima as a foretaste, perhaps, of humanity’s end. Between these sublime extremes equally varied and sometimes even ridiculous artifacts have also been prominent in and outside literature as emblems of America’s utopian, dystopian, and merely quotidian applications of technology: Hawk-eye’s deadly long rifle; the Bowie knife; the Colt revolver; the iron horse displacing alike buffalo and Indians; the Pequod’s harpoons, whale boats, and rendering vats; the Monitor and the Merrimack; the telephone; Theodore Page 102 | Top of ArticleRoosevelt’s Great White Fleet; the Golden Gate; the Empire State Building; Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; the flying fortress; the Mickey Mouse watch; Neil Armstrong’s moon walk; the Star Ship Enterprise; the space shuttle Enterprise; and William Gibson’s cyberspace. Much of America’s history, including many of its best and worst moments, is encapsulated in such images of its technological artifacts and dreams. Every reader can add to the list. At striking variance from it is Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-49) most memorable contribution to our imagery of technology, in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
The horrifying razor-sharp pendulum inexorably descending to slice apart a man condemned by the Spanish Inquisition is described by its intended victim as “this machine.”1 It is Poe’s archetypal emblem of human relationship to machinery. Its bleak meaning is unmistakable: the machines are our tormentors, not our saviors. It turns attention to the European past, not the American future. It is unforgettable. Its closest rival among Poe’s tales is the even more primitive technology of trowel, mortar, and building stone used to bury Fortunato alive in “The Cask of Amontillado.” His final despairing cry (“For the love of God, Montressor!”) only serves to make more chilling the narrator’s matter-of-fact concluding description of ancient technology applied to yet another sadistic new use: “I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up” (Tales, 518). The technology of these stories is so old-fashioned that on a casual first reading it hardly registers as technology, serving instead to create an unconscious aversion by association with its misapplication. The aversion is all the more powerful for being subliminal. Poe’s more explicit science fictional encounters with machinery have nothing like the evocative force of the murderous technology at the heart of his best tales of pure horror. There is in common, however, a negative attitude.
The features of ballooning described with convincing verisimilitude in “The Balloon Hoax” serve no more positive purpose than to set up contemporary readers for the pratfall of discovering that they have been duped: no such transatlantic aerial voyage as is described in this phony news item had yet taken place. Their eagerness for a technological triumph has only made them foolishly gullible. Such faith in technology is exposed as a departure from reason and reality. Poe’s implausible account of a Page 103 | Top of Articlebizarre lunar voyage via balloon in “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” is framed in such farcical tones as to undercut serious appreciation of its nicely elaborated concern with views of the earth from outer space. Despite some attention to details of twenty-ninth-century dirigible construction and use in “Mellonta Tauta,” the balloon Skylark on which the narrator travels remains a rather vague, unappealing object, as do the other balloons that share its unfriendly sky. One of them passing dangerously close above trailing a line that collides with the Skylark ominously seems to Poe’s narrator “like an immense bird of prey about to pounce upon us and carry us off in its claws.”2 In Poe’s future of sluggish technological advance his Skylark and its sister ships, although made of sturdier material than the silk of early balloons and capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour, still feature as standard equipment the drag rope familiar to nineteenth-century balloonists. By starting “Mellonta Tauta” (whose title is a Greek phrase from Sophocles’s Antigone meaning “these things are in the future”) with the date 1 April 2848, Poe invites more attention to the mood of April Fool’s Day with its expectation of hoaxes than to the possibilities of serious forecast. Insofar as the tone shifts from comedy to thoughtful extrapolation it is also a shift toward association of advanced aerial technology with a dystopian future, thus criticizing nineteenth-century optimism about the moral benefits of mechanical progress.
When the Skylark’s drag rope accidentally knocks overboard a passenger “from one of the small magnetic propellers that swarm in ocean below” the man “of course, was not permitted to get on board again, and was soon out of sight, he and his life-preserver” (PSF, 312). In response to this callous abandonment Poe’s twenty-ninth-century female narrator merely rejoices to “live in an age so enlightened that no such a thing as an individual is supposed to exist. It is the mass for which the true Humanity cares” (PSF, 311). Musing later with amazement at the centuries during which war and pestilence were thought calamities, Poe’s narrator wonders how primitive people could be “so blind as not to perceive that the destruction of a myriad of individuals is only so much positive advantage to the mass!” (PSF, 312). Moreover the narrator, who professes to write “altogether” for her own “amusement” heedless of whether anyone will actually Page 104 | Top of Articleread her account although it takes the form of a letter to a friend, is equally indifferent to her own imminent destruction, finally noting without emotion that she must close because—for no apparent reason—“the balloon has collapsed, and we shall have a tumble into the sea” (PSF, 322). Here unreliable technology is the sign of an ethically unreliable society. Poe’s derisive emblem of the future is a collapsing balloon.
In several other works Poe takes up material that we now think of as science fictional but usually without either discarding his penchant for Gothic horror or transmuting it effectively into other modes. “Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe” is precisely what its title proclaims: an essay in speculative science. As such it is, like many another in the nineteenth century, of considerable interest. But the pleasures of story are absent. It is science without fiction except in the abstract sense in which all theories may be considered (nonnarrative) fictions. The aesthetics of such fictionalizing are those of science itself, not science fiction. Poe employs the science of mesmerism—but mingled ambiguously with the supernatural—as a focus of speculation, narrative suspense, and horrific effects in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The latter two finally rivet attention more on corpses than concepts. In “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” Poe is more concerned with the psychology of fear than with either a puzzling natural phenomenon of the ocean or ways in which it might be used (as Verne went on to do) as a trope for larger issues. “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” describes from a fantastic postmortem perspective, and in under six pages, a comet strike that ends human life on earth. This topic demands a wider canvas: apocalypse is not the best subject for a miniaturist. Here Poe’s genius for compression falters.
“Some Words with a Mummy” takes up Jane Webb’s idea of galvanic resurrection in so farcical a manner as to make this story more a weak parody of its own genre than an effective vehicle for Poe’s message—conveyed here by a resurrected mummy dubiously named “Allamistakeo”—that the nineteenth century is in no way an improvement over life in the age of the Pharaohs. The most impressive feats of modern technology, Allamistakeo insists, were anticipated or exceeded in ancient Egypt. Given Page 105 | Top of Articlesome chapters from the transcendentalist quarterly Dial (edited by Emerson and others) on “something which is not very clear, but which the Bostonians call the Great Movement or Progress,” the mummy retorts “that Great Movements were awfully common things in his day, and as for Progress it was at one time quite a nuisance, but it never progressed” (PSF, 168-69). Allamistakeo’s most dismaying news is that the ancient world saw a declaration of independence by thirteen Egyptian provinces determined “to be free, and so set a magnificent example to the rest of mankind” but whose experiment in democracy ended “in the consolidation of the thirteen states, with some fifteen or twenty others, in the most odious and insupportable despotism that ever was heard of upon the face of the earth”—a tyranny ruled by “Mob” (PSF, 169). After hearing the mummy’s report Poe’s narrator, who is “heartily sick of this life and of the nineteenth century in general,” resolves to emulate Allamistakeo by getting “embalmed for a couple of hundred years” (PSF, 170). The death wish so prominent in Poe’s fiction is here presented comically, as is his aversion to technology. Less amusing is Poe’s satiric association of democracy and technology as equally contemptible features of the modern world.
Bruce Franklin is right to brand Poe’s outlook as “essentially anti-scientific and downright escapist” because “despite all his dabbling with scientific and technologial speculation ... he preferred to look away from physical and social reality—the actual wonders and dangers of nineteenth-century experimental science and the actual horrors and perversions of the slave system he supported—toward his own illusory theories, unworkable inventions, and imagined terrors.”3 In the first half of the twentieth century Poe was widely accepted as of equal status with Verne and Wells as a founder of science fiction, thanks especially to Hugo Gernsback’s promotional efforts on Poe’s behalf in Amazing Stories, to his popularity in France, and to the ascendancy of short stories. But commentators after 1950 with an eye on later developments have been less inclined to give him so much credit while nevertheless unable to brick him up safely out of sight in a tomb reserved for the genres of horror.
Kingsley Amis found “some mention of Poe ... sadly difficult to avoid” but locates his significance mainly in the fact “that Verne learnt more from Poe than from any other writer.”4 This Page 106 | Top of Articleexaggerates Verne’s debt. Although he was certainly inspired by Poe among others to focus on the psychology of bizarre situations (including balloon flights) in strange locales, Verne’s fiction has closer affinities with writing more centered on realism and rationalism. If we must have a single archetype for him, we do better to accept Darko Suvin’s perceptive choice of Defoe because of Verne’s penchant for the plot structure of the Robinsonade and because “as in Robinson Crusoe, Verne’s great model, his characters are constantly menaced by the doom of dehumanizing solitude on their individual psychic islands.”5 Brian Aldiss concedes Poe’s importance as a source of techniques for enhancing awe and wonder by hinting at unknowable, irrational facts lurking behind the apparently comprehensible phenomena of nature described by science, but he insists too that “far from being the Father of Science Fiction, this genius bodged it when he confronted its themes directly. Yet he brought off some of its best effects, more or less when looking the other way.”6 Aldiss suggests that Poe’s ultimate contribution was perfection of the short story as an effective medium because shorter forms are most congenial to science fiction. This truth has been at once confirmed and obscured since the 1960s by commercial market pressures that have given long science fiction novels (often with interminable sequels) economic though seldom aesthetic ascendancy over short story anthologies.7 In the last part of the twentieth century science fiction’s chronic (but not hereditary) disease has been elephantiasis. From this at least Poe did not suffer.
Bruce Franklin relegates Poe to a juvenile library appealing to the perennially immature: “Poe, then, may be the father not of science fiction but rather of what is so often associated with the term science fiction—fiction which popularizes science for boys and girls of all ages while giving them the creeps” (FP, 98). David Ketterer concludes that although “no single work of Poe’s qualifies as what is generally understood as ‘straight’ science fiction” everything Poe wrote “can be regarded as marginally science-fictional” because “in providing a visionary reality out of space and time with a science-fictional rationale, Poe inaugurated that visionary tradition of science fiction that owes nothing to Jules Verne but that includes many of the masterpieces of the genre.”8 This rightly links Poe to writers perceived as within, if sometimes Page 107 | Top of Articlejust barely within, the now blurring boundaries separating science fiction from fantasy, but it fails to acknowledge sufficiently the visionary qualities of Verne’s fiction in which science is so often enlisted in the service of romantic symbolism. Darko Suvin comes closer to identifying Poe’s affinity with Vernian as well as other modes of science fiction by noting somewhat regretfully that “Poe’s influence has been immense in both Anglo-American and French SF (the latter has yet to recover from it)” because “though his ideology and time-horizon tend to horror-fantasy, the pioneering incompleteness of his work provided SF too with a wealth of hints for fusing the rational with the symbolical” (Suvin, 143). The irony of Poe’s strong technophobia is that it impelled him to experiment with forms of fantasy that taught his successors how to enhance the suggestive power of all science fiction, whether employed to advocate or attack technology. And for a century after Poe’s death in 1849 technology found more advocates than enemies in America.
Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Nowhere in nineteenth-century science fiction is America’s infatuation with technology more influentially expressed than in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). By 1900 this sketch of Boston in the year 2000 had sold by the millions, been translated into more than twenty languages, and had achieved an impact on social thought that has often been ranked as second only to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867). Bellamy indeed touched a similar chord in giving narrative shape to the Marxist dream of a society governed by the principle, “From everyone according to his faculties, to everyone according to his needs.” Bellamy clubs were formed throughout America to discuss his ideas, which led also to formation of a political party, the Nationalists, to push for their implementation. In response to Looking Backward more than fifty related utopias were written by 1900, some in agreement, many in opposition to its millennial vision of a future America purged by the year 2000 of all the poverty, disease, and wasted lives caused, Bellamy suggests in Looking Backward, by private capitalism with “its tendency toward monopolies”; yet paradoxically his ideal America is Page 108 | Top of Article“organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed ... the one capitalist in place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up.”9 The most famous of the counterutopias written in immediate response to Looking Backward is William Morris’s News from Nowhere, published in England in 1890. Its cloying pastoral vision of a less centralized and mechanized future is offered as an alternative to what Morris found most appalling in Looking Backward: “a machine life is the best which Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then that his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery.”10
This frequently echoed complaint distorts Bellamy’s emphasis on machines. But Morris’s readiness to misread Looking Backward on this topic epitomizes a striking difference between preponderant American belief in the utopian possibilities of technology and a prevailing English suspicion of its dangers. Within science fiction that distrust was most memorably expressed by H. G. Wells’s vivid account of Martian war machines destroying human civilization.11 A telling American response to The War of the Worlds is Garrett P. Serviss’s unauthorized sequel, Edison’s Conquest of Mars. In this classic exemplar of science fiction’s worst strain of xenophobic jingoism, serialized in the January and February, 1898, issues of the New York Evening Journal just before outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April of that year, Thomas Alva Edison’s legendary status as archetypal American scientific genius becomes the foundation of a tale in which Edison first invents antigravity spaceships and disintegrator weapons and then organizes and leads an expedition to defeat the Martians on their planet while also liberating a beautiful captive Earthwoman named Aina and pausing to explore the moon en route. Like Villiers de I’Isle-Adam, Serviss fastens on the technological possibilities symbolized by Edison, but he does so in ways that point neither toward the philosophical concerns of Tomorrow’s Eve nor toward serious consideration of what present and future technology may actually import for humanity. Instead Serviss paves the way for space opera of the kind most widely popularized by the Martian fantasies that Edgar Rice Burroughs initiated in 1917 with his best-seller A Princess of Mars. Page 109 | Top of ArticleFar from appropriating Edison for the mythology of science fiction to interrogate the cogito, as Villiers had done in the best Cartesian tradition, Edison’s Conquest of Mars proceeds in the worst American vein of extroversion to abolish introspection by exploiting and expanding Edison’s legend for what has been well described as “mindless glorification of the cults of progress, empire, individualism, and technology.”12
Though Serviss represents the most hawkish wing of American technophilia, Bellamy must be counted among its doves. Despite his affirmation of advanced technology as the sine qua non of utopia, Looking Backward envisions a world whose vital force is not technology itself, nor empire, nor what Bellamy denounces as “excessive individualism,” but “the brotherhood of man” fostered by a state capitalism that has eliminated warfare and armies along with political parties, lawyers, taxation, money (replaced by “credit cards”), serious crime, jails, and the need for a large police force (LB, 57, 83, 111). The role of technology in Bellamy’s future, though crucial, is in fact much less dominating or sinister than hostile critics of Looking Backward like William Morris suggest.
The ultimate purpose of Bellamy’s twenty-first-century gadgetry is to liberate people for retirement at age 45 so they can, as that century’s spokesman Doctor Leete explains, fully devote themselves “to the higher exercise of our faculties, the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits, which alone mean life” (LB, 148). Morris was right to see that Looking Backward is no paean to the dignity of labor. Doctor Leete dismisses work necessary to secure “the means of a comfortable physical existence” as “by no means ... the most important, the most interesting, or the most dignified employment of our powers” (LB, 148). Bellamy’s denigration of labor was aimed, however, neither at intellectual pursuits—authorship, for example, is encouraged in his future—nor at the idealized work of artisans so dear to Morris and those who in his pre-Raphaelite vein romanticize the cultivation of arts and crafts. Bellamy only targets those who applied social Darwinism to justify the actual horrors of industrialized sweatshops serving mainly to enrich a handful of capitalists and managers. Unlike the heartless industrialism whose social consequences are portrayed so well in the novels of Dickens, which are alluded to in Looking Backward (no less than in News from Page 110 | Top of ArticleNowhere) as the best account of nineteenth-century deficiencies, the technology of Bellamy’s future is applied to make life both easier and more spiritually rewarding even before retirement.
There are public kitchens and laundries to eliminate major items of household drudgery. Public shops make and mend clothing so no one has to do this at home. Bellamy plugs in nineteenth-century science fiction’s unfailing source of futuristic power: “Electricity, of course, takes the place of all fires and lighting” (LB, 102). Anticipating the dictum that less is more, houses are scaled down to the needs of their inhabitants. A telephone broadcasting system provides a wide selection of music for private listening 24 hours per day, thus bringing culture to everyone, not just (as in the nineteenth century) those with enough leisure and money to attend concerts. On Sundays there is a choice among broadcast sermons (of which a sample is provided to edify readers). But all this has been not been achieved merely as an inevitable consequence or extension of what Bellamy describes as “an age of steam and telegraphs and the gigantic scale of its enterprises” (LB, 65). It is the other way around. Technological innovation liberating individuals to pursue their personal development has been spurred by prior social reform equalizing all citizens as fellow workers for the nation’s benefit, thus eliminating the “boundless supply of serfs on whom you could impose all sorts of painful and disagreeable tasks. . . . This fact has given a prodigious impulse to labor-saving inventions in all sorts of industry” (LB, 102). The age of steam and telegraphs has made leveling social reform more possible as well as more desirable than ever before. The grand result is a “an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable” (LB, 128).
Bellamy’s characterization of this prodigious artistic no less than technological and scientific progress as a development “of which the outburst of the medieval Renaissance offers a suggestion but faint indeed” (LB, 128) doubtless further annoyed Morris, who proposed for humanity’s model no such future as Bellamy’s but an idealized fourteenth century that as a result of deliberate scaling back has even less advanced technology than the real fourteenth century, except for incongruous “force barges” plying the Thames. Bellamy’s vision differs most significantly Page 111 | Top of Articlein explicitly putting art, music, and literature on the same plane with science and “mechanical invention.” In Looking Backward there is no debilitating subordination of the arts to technology—or vice versa.
Their equality in Bellamy’s scheme must be understood to appreciate why Looking Backward figures so prominently among those 25 “technological utopias” identified by Howard P. Segal as published between 1880 and 1930 in the United States offering pictures of a utopian future in which “domestication of both technology and nature would lead to a resolution of the allegedly permanent tension between the industrial and the agrarian order, or the machine and the garden, which Leo Marx has said lies at the heart of the American experience.” Segal notes that these technological utopias are marked not only by “the introduction of new tools and machines” but equally by modeling on them of “institutions, values, and culture.”13 In Looking Backward, however, Bellamy’s future America is not modeled directly on any one machine or group of machines, but on a social entity described (in a familiar Enlightenment metaphor) as machinelike: the army. There is an “industrial army” in which all the citizens of Bellamy’s twenty-first century are enlisted to do the country’s work. As in the combat armies on which it is modeled there are ranks. Its discipline is severe: “A man able to duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water till he consents” (LB, 107). As a step toward equality of the sexes there is a women’s army, an “allied force” with its own female general (LB, 185). Bellamy gives women not the modest room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf later proposed but, more grandiosely, “a world of their own” where they can have the satisfactions of a career on their terms without any “unnatural rivalry with men” (LB, 186). Maternity leave is available. Doctor Leete enthusiastically compares this core institution of his age with “such a fighting machine, for example, as the German army in the time of Von Moltke” (LB, 177). In a comparison probably a good deal more appealing for Bellamy’s American readers then and certainly now, his protagonist Julian West imagines a Union regiment on parade as a “tremendous engine” and wonders how people of his day could “fail to compare the scientific manner in which the nation went to war with the unscientific manner in which it went to work” (LB, 225). Page 112 | Top of ArticleLooking Backward proposes mobilizing for peace with the same machinelike efficiency used to mobilize Northern armies for combat in the 1860s.
Haunting Bellamy’s utopia are memories of the Civil War, surely for all the nobility of its success in saving the Union and emancipating slaves also a paradigm of modern technology’s unprecedented ferocity. But Bellamy focuses on the Union army’s constructive achievements, using the machine metaphor as a further source of positive connotations for his industrial army and its world on the assumption that readers will be favorably disposed to whatever may be compared in point of efficiency with modern machinery—if applied solely to beneficent purposes. It is an irony of history that those who now look back from a post-Hiroshima perspective are often far more strongly impelled than William Morris ever was to literalize what Bellamy intended merely as a familiar organizing trope comparing society with machinery, and therefore to see in Looking Backward only what David Ketterer dismisses as “a dystopian society in which the citizens have evolved, or rather devolved, into machines” (Ketterer, 113).
Bellamy’s failure to achieve a consensus among readers about whether his future is desirable or undesirable, utopian or dystopian, truly human or merely mechanistic, is to some extent a feature of utopias as a genre from the slyly satiric ambiguities of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia to the explicitly ambiguous utopias of the twentieth century such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed (1974). All utopias invite readers to take stock of their own attitudes toward both their actual world and the one depicted. The best utopias, arguably, are those which provoke the most intense reaction, whether positive or negative, by way of a heuristic for action in the real world.14 Insofar as the debates over Looking Backward reflect such intensity of response, whether in agreement or disagreement, they are another measure of its success in stimulating engagement with the question of how technology does or should shape our lives. But much of the persistent misunderstanding of its proposals on the role of technology stems from Bellamy’s inability to show vividly the superiority or even the existence of that art, music, and literature that we are assured abound alongside mechanical inventions in his twenty-first century. Such abstract assurances have little persuasive force. They quickly fade out of the reader’s memory.
It is a measure of Bellamy’s contribution to science fiction that what stays in mind alongside his sketch of a future America is Julian West’s Crusoe-like problem of being stranded in that distant time. His difficulties are dramatic surrogates for those of readers struggling to come to terms with Bellamy’s vision. West achieves a solution (denied to readers though enhancing their interest in his story) that is both erotic and ideological, as he falls in love with an inhabitant of the future while also coming to accept, not without difficulty, its social philosophy. After being accidentally left in a mesmeric trance for 113 years for reasons that are given a sufficient if rather strained degree of plausibility according to prevailing fictive conventions, he is aroused and must adjust to life in what for him (as for readers) is the strange world of Boston in the year 2000.
Bellamy follows the tedious pattern of traditional utopias by providing conversation after conversation between his protagonist and an older resident of the utopian community (Doctor Leete) who describes in excruciating detail its social arrangements and virtues. By placing his utopia in imaginary future time but in a real place Bellamy imitates with more success the model of uchronic utopia provided in 1771 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440, although reversing one aspect of this model by giving Julian West at the end a nightmare of returning to the ghastly nineteenth century from which he wakes with relief to find that he really and permanently is in the twenty-first century. Within the fiction his trip ahead is given a solidity denied to those which are dismissed at the end as mere dreams from which the narrator is finally aroused, like Mercier, to the bitter realities of his own era. The use of mesmerism as an agent of time travel instead of dream vision in the manner of Mercier or slumber in the manner of Rip Van Winkle brings Looking Backward away from fantasy into the realm of science fiction, as does to an even greater degree Bellamy’s attempt to extrapolate from nineteenth-century technological and social realities a possible if unlikely future that can serve as an invitation for readers to reassess the nature and directions of their present society. Bellamy makes his future seem more real than Mercier’s by virtue of West’s permanent residence in it as the reader’s surrogate, and of course more provocative of cognitive estrangement than Rip Van Winkle’s by virtue of more significant differences from the past. Bellamy’s greatest departure from utopian precedent Page 114 | Top of Articleis in the amount of text devoted to elaborating Julian West’s psychological response to what for him is the jarring experience and for readers the intriguing one of going to sleep in one world and waking “with no sense of any lapse of time” into another (LB, 79).
West first suffers a complete dissolution of identity during which he is unable to distinguish himself “from pure being.” After struggling back to awareness of selfhood as a distinct personality there follows an interval in which he feels himself to be somehow “two persons” at once living with a “double” identity, and a more protracted interval in which as he walks around the twenty-first-century city images of the old and new Boston clash in a kind of unstable psychological palimpsest “so that it was first one and then the other which seemed the more unreal” (LB, 77-79). Such passages now seem less an echo of Poe than anticipations of Philip K. Dick. There accumulates for West “a horror of strangeness” so acute “as to produce actual nausea” (LB, 80). Here Bellamy anticipates with almost equivalent emotional though not philosophical force that existential nausea experienced farther in the future by H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller. By so often taking readers into West’s tormented mind, Bellamy points to ways in which the ideological concerns of science fiction can be effectively merged with the compelling dramatic interests of the psychological novel.
Darko Suvin stresses Bellamy’s integration of ideology and psychology in Looking Backward by noting (without dwelling upon the preponderance of lectures by Doctor Leete) that “its plot is, in fact, Julian’s change of identity” from nineteenth- to twenty-first-century citizen: “the construction of a social system for the reader is also the reconstruction of the hero” (Suvin, 174). This is true. A problem, however, is that the inner and outer drama of Bellamy’s plot is overshadowed by one-sided dialogue as Doctor Leete relentlessly explains every facet of twenty-first-century life. Readers will too often feel that they are locked in a sociology lecture hall where the bell never rings. Bellamy’s considerable novelization of utopia nevertheless provides what Peter Fitting describes as “a significant transformation in the construction of the reader: from the addressee in a philosophic dialogue who is persuaded through reasoned presentation, as in Thomas More’s Utopia, to an emotional and experiential involvement Page 115 | Top of Articlewith a fictional character whose changing attitudes and feelings are designed to increase the reader’s own interest and concern.”15 As a milestone in American science fiction Looking Backward, despite its longueurs, is finally notable not only for its eloquent affirmation that technology may serve instead of subverting humane purposes, but also for its attempt to combine the stasis of utopia with the action of story.
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Mark Twain filled A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) with enough action for several stories, and surrounded it with story. Its action centers on the adventures of Hank Morgan, superintendent of the Colt arms-factory in Hartford, who finds himself transported to Arthurian England, which he unsuccessfully attempts to industrialize and democratize, and then back again to the nineteenth century. On arrival in Camelot, Morgan is imprisoned and nearly burnt at the stake as a suspicious stranger, but uses foreknowledge of an eclipse to save himself by persuading the natives that he is a great magician who controls the sun. This feat earns him promotion (as “Sir Boss”) over his rival Merlin, who is further humiliated when his tower is blown up during a thunderstorm by a charge of blasting powder that Morgan secretly concocts and wires up to a lightning rod after announcing that he will again demonstrate his superiority as a magician. Later, by using his engineering expertise to restore a defective well venerated by monks in the Valley of Holiness (while also impressing the locals and visiting pilgrims with a fireworks display), Morgan yet again bests Merlin at what is taken for magic but is actually another application of nineteenth-century technological know-how. After his initial triumphs Morgan exuberantly (but prematurely) concludes that “every time the magic of fol-de-rol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of fol-de-rol got left.”16 Having thus secured a position second only to the king himself, Morgan then sets about introducing into Arthur’s realm what the title of chapter 10 calls the “Beginnings of Civilization”: such (then) futuristic novelties as printed books, newspapers, bicycles, railroads, steamships, “the Page 116 | Top of Articletelegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the type-writer, the sewing machine, and all the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity” (CY, 397). To complement these technological advances Morgan manages (for a while) to abolish slavery and render all men equal before the law as a prelude to what he hopes will be eventual replacement of monarchy by a democratically elected government and replacement of England’s established Roman Catholic Church by religious toleration in an American-style system of competing Protestant sects whose number will prevent any one of them from hindering religious freedom or achieving political control, “it being my conviction,” he explains, “that any Established church is an established crime, an established slave-pen ... an enemy to human liberty” (CY, 139, 161). He also introduces schools, colleges, military academies, a patent office, American-style currency, a stock exchange, factories, advertising campaigns to popularize what the factories produce (especially soap and toothpaste), and as a crowning touch for his new civilization, baseball teams.
While masterminding all this, Morgan is involved too in tournaments that he wins by arming himself with a lasso and revolvers instead of lance, sword, and shield. He plays the game by his own rules, seeing himself as “the champion of hard, unsentimental common-sense and reason ... entering the lists to either destroy knight-errantry or be its victim” (CY, 384). He wants eventually to bring down the aristocracy along with monarchy and the Church. Meanwhile, partly to get to know the country and partly to humor court customs, he takes time off for an old-style excursion of knight-errantry (in full and uncomfortable armor) to help a damsel in distress, Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, whom he nicknames Sandy and later marries. The object of their quest is to rescue some imprisoned nobility, who turn out to be a herd of swine—victims of enchantment, Sandy insists. Twain’s symbolism in this part makes up in effective comedy what it lacks in subtlety (augmented, as throughout, by Daniel Carter Beard’s brilliant illustrations, here most prominently a delicious picture of Queen Victoria metamorphosed into a pig, “the troublesomest old Sow of the lot”). Morgan and King Arthur make an incognito inspection trip around Britain that nearly ends in disaster when they are mistaken for dangerous commoners, enslaved, mistreated, condemned to death for trying Page 117 | Top of Articleto escape, and rescued just in the nick of time at the foot of the gallows by Sir Launcelot leading a cavalry charge of “five hundred mailed and belted knights on bicycles” (CY, 379). Each of these episodes provides almost enough material for a novel. Strung together they parody medieval romances and modern adventure stories while also providing many of their excitements and giving A Connecticut Yankee some of the nostalgic appeal of picaresque fiction. Twain’s mixture of high adventure, low comedy, fierce satire, and anachronistic utopian tinkering with medieval society ends on a tragic note when all Morgan’s efforts to use technology as a basis for democracy collapse in a final hideous battle against forces of the old order, where the Yankee’s nineteenth-century weapons bring no victory for reason or democracy but only appalling slaughter.
The story that surrounds Hank Morgan’s activities—and Twain’s text—is Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, published in 1485 by William Caxton using England’s first printing press. This magnificent collaboration of a writer and a technician who was also on occasion a writer is in turn surrounded by all the Matter of Britain: the myriad tellings and retellings throughout the Middle Ages of how Camelot rose and fell. Malory, like Twain after him, could fit his tale to the template of a familiar basic plot that starts with comedy as young Arthur becomes king and ends with tragedy as moral blindness on all sides destroys the noble Order of the Round Table that he tries to establish as a civilizing force. It was also possible to draw on a familiar cast of characters who were expected to turn up with interesting variations as well as familiar features in particular versions: Arthur, Guenever, Mordred, Morgan le Fay, Merlin, Launcelot, Gawain, Galahad, and the rest. The many-faceted Arthurian myth so fundamental not only to English and French literature but to the articulation of ethical aspirations in Western civilization, and so rich in meanings, is above all—as it is also in Twain’s version—the story of a failed attempt to create a perfect society. It is a tale of utopia thrice lost: lost because always out of reach in the past, lost because never fully achieved, and lost too outside time because Arthur’s reign is placed back in a legendary past that never was. We couldn’t get there from here even if we had a time machine.
Camelot has always been in mythic, not historical, time. Even according to the vague standards of historicity accepted by Page 118 | Top of Articlemedieval writers of Arthurian romance, King Arthur is supposed to have existed not in any chronologically verifiable relationship to their own present but back in some indeterminate good old days, a “once upon a time” long ago if not far away, a golden age that somehow turned into our leaden present after the end of Camelot. Medieval historians are hardly more precise. Thus Twain’s Connecticut Yankee does not simply travel backward in time from his starting point in 1879 to a destination in our past, even though Twain’s text specifies Hank Morgan’s temporal terminus ad quem as June A.D. 528. He travels from history to myth. He is sent altogether outside calendric time into an imaginary universe that partly resembles ours and whose chronology can be assigned dates running parallel to those in the calendar of real time, but that is free from the constraints of actual history. Twain sends his (imaginary) Yankee not from his (real) readers’ present to a medieval past like the one that historians describe, but from the world of nineteenth-century fiction to a world inspired by Malory’s Morte Darthur. These home truths are worth laboring because to overlook them, as too many of Twain’s critics do, is to misunderstand the remarkable originality of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, its genre, its degree of coherence, and its extraordinary vitality as an archetype for science fiction’s subgenre of time travel stories.
Only recently has it been recognized that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first story of travel to and from the past. This motif does not occur in previous literature or folklore. Nor do attempts like the Yankee’s to meddle with the past in order to change it. Before Twain the present only encounters an immutable past in the form of ruins, relics, monuments, histories, and magical manifestations of earlier days as when Doctor Faustus conjures up Helen of Troy.17 The past may tamper with the present as in Gothic tales of ghosts clamoring for or enacting retribution—and it is indeed a main purpose of Gothic fiction to dramatize various ways in which the past maintains an icy grip on the present.18 But no one before Twain imagined a figure from the present going back to alter the past.
By the late nineteenth century, as I have noted in previous chapters, there was ample precedent for tales set in future time and for one-way travel to the future in the manner of Julian West or Rip Van Winkle. The latter had folkloristic antecedents in such Page 119 | Top of Articlelegends as the tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and even in accounts of the enchanted sleep from which Arthur, whom Malory calls Rex quondam Rex que futurus (the once and future king), will one day awake to rule again. The ancient device of dream vision provided a form that could be adapted to futuristic fiction as Mercier did in L’An 2440 without greatly disrupting verisimilitude because narrated future experiences turn out to have been only a dream (and in a dream anything can happen). Hank Morgan’s journey to the past, like Julian West’s one-way trip to the future, is presented as no dream but something that really happened to him. The closest approach to tales of travel to the past were historical novels of the kind popularized by Sir Walter Scott and alternative histories of the kind inaugurated by Louis Geoffroy, but neither of these forms makes an explicit leap to projection of a fictive character from the reader’s present into the depicted actual or alternative past. In them it is only readers who are brought close to the past, though merely as external spectators seeing it from outside without any power to influence the (fictive) ancient events of which they read. It is unlikely that Geoffroy’s seldom-imitated Napoleon and the Conquest of the World was known to Twain, although certainly historical novels were a stimulus to his imagination, as they were in other ways to those who wrote futuristic fiction. One purpose of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is to debunk romanticized accounts of an idealized past. Morgan finds himself in an age whose few appealing moments of chivalric pageantry and genuine heroism are overshadowed by squalor, brutality, ignorance, and superstition.
It does not diminish Twain’s originality to remark that it is Robinson Crusoe even more than Arthurian legend that serves as structural archetype for A Connecticut Yankee. When Hank Morgan first grasps that he has been transported from the comforts of his nineteenth-century United States to a disagreeably primitive place and time without electricity, gaslight, candles, window glass, newspapers, books, pens, paper, ink, or even sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco, he recalls the great precedent for both his predicament and its amelioration: “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 brains and hand to work, and Page 120 | Top of Articlekeep them busy” (CY, 54). Morgan is tragically mistaken to think so patronizingly of the earlier people as tame or at least tamable but inferior creatures, “just like so many children” as he puts it elsewhere (CY, 30). He underestimates both the attractions and the dangers of the past. But he is right to compare himself with Crusoe (who also misunderstood the dangers of his primitive environment), and in so doing he provides a hint (from Twain) about how to read his story, how to locate it generically. Bud Foote comments that “All tales of temporal stranding are robinsonades.. . . Just as Defoe created a whole new subspecies of fiction with Robinson Crusoe, a hymn to rugged individualism and the processes of technology, so among Twain’s many accomplishments must be numbered the adaptation of that subspecies to the temporal sphere.”19 In his excellent analysis of A Connecticut Yankee as a paradigm for understanding later varieties of time travel stories of which it is the progenitor, Foote also addresses the difficult questions of why the idea of travel to the past should have occurred first in late-nineteenth-century America, and why such an impossibility as time travel is so much a staple of science fiction from Twain forward rather than a hallmark of fantasy.
Americans, Foote reminds us, were and are more likely than Europeans to equate geography with time, and thus spatial with temporal travel, because in the New World, especially during America’s expansionist nineteenth century, the western frontier stands for the future whereas eastern states and Europe (“the old country”) stand for the past. To travel west is to go toward a cultural future. To travel east is to go toward the cultural past. The further east one goes, the more one encounters old buildings and monuments and the greater their antiquity. Americans crossing the Atlantic eastward to Europe (as in Twain’s Innocents Abroad, 1869) are also in effect visiting their collective past. In Europe, where past and present structures more often coexist rather evenly distributed despite local pockets more densely crowded with antiquities or altogether without them, there is no such pronounced sensation of temporal travel accompanying geographic movement. The nineteenth century was also marked by an expansion of tourism facilitated by new modes of rapid transport such as railroads and steamships. Imperialistic rather than touristic travel from developed to undeveloped lands for purposes of Page 121 | Top of Articleexploitation of technologically primitive natives was also a kind of trip from present to past and back again. Accompanying all these developments in nineteenth-century America with its rapid growth, westward movement of population, and expanding industrialization that outpaced that of Europe, where the industrial revolution had started in the eighteenth century, there was an acute awareness of technological change that could be experienced geographically in movement from countryside to city, and especially from the agrarian South to a far more urban and industrialized North. To look out of a train window or stand contemplating the shore from the deck of a riverboat on such a trip was in effect to see past give way to present or vice versa depending on the direction of one’s journey. And as Foote also reminds us, Twain not only worked as a steamboat pilot traveling north and south on the Mississippi but had gone from brief service in the Confederacy (from which he deserted after two weeks) to live eventually in the Northeast after adventures in the far West. His life exemplifies American mobility. Dramatic industrialization during his lifetime also accentuated differences between the agrarian America of his childhood and the more urbanized America of his later years, that is, between past and present, thereby creating a sensation of having lived in two distinct eras. Foote suggests that the new ease as well as the very reversibility of trips through spaces representing strikingly different layers of cultural time led to Twain’s conceit in A Connecticut Yankee of going backward and forward in time. There is no way of being sure what brings about such literary innovation, which usually involves multiple causes. But Foote’s suggestion is bolstered by the fact that Hank Morgan also goes from Connecticut to England, so that his time travel, unlike Julian West’s purely temporal movement from the Boston of 1887 to that of 2000, is displacement from west to east as well as from present to past. Certainly American equation of geographic space with cultural time, however it influenced Twain, would help prepare his readers for works like A Connecticut Yankee.
Twain’s cavalier disregard of verisimilitude in accounting for Hank Morgan’s time travel makes even more problematic the question of why A Connecticut Yankee stands as the archetype of an important branch of science fiction rather than fantasy. Morgan explains that after being bashed over the head with a Page 122 | Top of Articlecrowbar during a fight at the Colt arms-factory he lost consciousness and came to in what he discovered to be Arthurian England, where he was quickly captured by a mounted knight in full armor, who turned out to be Arthur’s Seneschal Sir Kay, and brought to Camelot. After the eventual disastrous collapse of Morgan’s effort to industrialize and democratize the sixth-century England in which he is stuck, Merlin puts him into an enchanted sleep from which he wakes again in the nineteenth century, though still in England. Here he meets “M.T.” during a tour of Warwick Castle, falls into conversation, and later gives M.T. a written autobiographical narrative, which forms A Connecticut Yankee except for its “Preface” signed Mark Twain and dated “Hartford, July 21, 1889”; a preliminary chapter entitled “A Word of Explanation” evidently by Twain describing the encounter in Warwick Castle; a “Postscript by Clarence” explaining Merlin’s enchantment of Morgan; and a “Final P.S. by M.T.” recounting Morgan’s death. None of the framing material attempts any scientific explanation of his time travel, or even scientific patter of the kind H. G. Wells later supplied to augment the verisimilitude created by his idea of a machine that could (somehow) travel through time as others traveled through space. There is only Morgan’s vague question to M.T., “You know about transmigration of souls, do you know about transposition of epochs—and bodies?” (CY, 2).
If one does not know about such temporal transpositions—and no one would since they were not a familiar theme of previous fiction or folklore—the enigma of Morgan’s trip to the past is only made less susceptible to natural explanation by his question, which invites readers to fall back on prescientific notions of magic and hazy ideas about transmigration that do not quite fit, as there was no body waiting in the past to receive Morgan’s spirit: he wakes up outside Camelot not only in his own person but (much to the amusement of locals) in his own nineteenth-century clothing. He has traveled physically, not just in mind or spirit. From a late-twentieth-century perspective informed by all the time travel stories of which A Connecticut Yankee is the ancestor, and especially in comparison with Wells’s concern to put a veneer of scientific plausibility over the impossibility of time travel by invoking a machine, what stands out in Twain’s pioneering effort is his almost belligerent toying with the issue of Page 123 | Top of Articleverisimilitude on this point. He provides only enough speculation to make sure readers notice that an explanation is desirable, although no satisfactory one is available. He then drops the matter to proceed with his story and expects readers to follow suit. A Connecticut Yankee is nevertheless within the boundaries of science fiction, Foote rightly suggests, because it is so concerned to juxtapose past and future: “If the central tension of science fiction may be described as past pulling against future (or rural against urban; agricultural against industrial; the village against the metropolis ...), then the literature of time travel to the past has a place in science fiction, not because of any intrinsic plausibility, but because its central tensions are the same tensions—and more nakedly expressed—which generate the central energies of science fiction” (Foote, 83). It is the narrative presence of time travel, not the means of achieving it, which is central to the emerging new genre of science fiction.
Because we are so used to machines that do all manner of things without external evidence of how exactly they do them, Wells’s device of a time machine provides an explanation of time travel that is no more scientifically valid than the idea of bashing someone over the head with a crowbar to initiate departure from the present but that is nevertheless now far more acceptable as a literary convention precisely because its spurious technological air serves as a satisfactory substitute for valid explanations. Wells, in turning to the future as an arena for speculation, brilliantly established a convention that largely eliminated distracting questions about the actual possibility of time travel (although many fine stories have dealt with this issue and its paradoxes). Twain in turning to the past as an arena for exploring the consequences of industrialization provided a new setting allowing better engagement of science fiction with history. At their best subsequent tales of time travel in either direction, no less than tales set entirely in the future, force connections to real history presented with some degree of cognitive estrangement rather than allowing as fantasies do the contemplation of worlds altogether disconnected from our own timestream.
In A Connecticut Yankee’s preface Mark Twain paradoxically stresses both its close connection with history and its freedom from the constraints of chronology by insisting that the “ungentle” laws and customs mentioned in his story along with the Page 124 | Top of Articleepisodes illustrating them are historical although “it is not pretended that these laws and customs existed in England in the sixth century.” Because they certainly existed later, Twain says, it is “no libel” to impute them to the sixth century, and anyhow “one is quite justified in inferring that wherever one of these laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one” (CY, “Preface.” For Twain’s sources, see the explanatory notes in CY, 455-75). Though Twain does not finally subscribe to any doctrine of unlimited progress, neither does he display nostalgia for the past. He draws on Arthurian lore as mediated by Malory’s Morte Darthur to create an imaginary sixth century that although mythic is a receptacle for the anachronistic Yankee representing nineteenth-century American attitudes and technological capacities. It is also a receptacle for other anachronisms in the form of what Twain regarded on the basis of his reading in history books as actual laws and customs from later periods, most conspicuously ancien régime France and the antebellum American South, standing here for much of the cruelty, injustice, and fanaticism (as well as some of the absurdities) that stain all the pages of human history. Arthur’s England, as experienced by the Connecticut Yankee and his readers, thus becomes a synecdoche for everything that is worst about the past: slavery; arbitrary imprisonment without trial; inequality before the law; rigid hierarchies in church and state that stifle intellectual as well as political freedom; absence of democracy; wanton unpunished killing of the defenseless by the powerful; exploitation of the poor by the rich; intolerance; superstition; ignorance; and sheer hardship of daily life for most people. Nor of course are these evils all safely confined to some remote past symbolized by the Yankee’s sixth century, a point that Twain makes in various ways culminating in the final battle, which puts an end to Morgan’s utopian schemes. The horrible past encountered by Twain’s Connecticut Yankee is also an emblem of what still too often exists in our present, and of what despite technological and political progress may be humanity’s bleak future.
Twain’s indictment of human folly achieves great and in places truly Swiftian satiric power from such vividly narrated episodes as the visit to Morgan le Fay’s castle and dungeons with their pitiful collection of unjustly imprisoned people who have Page 125 | Top of Articlewasted their lives chained in darkness; accounts of innocents burnt at the stake or (like Hank) almost burnt; the superstitious absurdities of the Valley of Holiness; Morgan and Arthur’s visit to cottagers dying of smallpox while denied any help or comfort by their neighbors and clergy; and especially the callous mistreatment of slaves observed and then experienced by the Yankee and King Arthur (incidents modeled on accounts of slavery in the American South). What gives A Connecticut Yankee its distinctive force, however, is not merely Twain’s very considerable narrative skill in presenting such episodes while modulating their tone back and forth from comedy through biting satire, pathos, and even tragedy. They also gain impact from his use of time travel to juxtapose fiction with reality. More precisely, he uses an intrusion of present (the Yankee) into past (Arthurian England) as a device for juxtaposing earlier with later modes of fictional narration, and fictional with factual modes of writing in order to suggest new ways of reading each in dialogue with the others.
For example, after describing the oppressions endured by freemen like those he and Sandy encounter “assembled in the early morning to work on their lord the bishop’s road three days each—gratis,” Morgan remarks that seeing this group “was like reading about France and the French, before the ever-memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood” (CY, 111). For the Yankee his experience in Arthur’s England is “like reading.” It is like a history book brought to life. Our encounter with the freemen via his narrative is reading, but of a novel not history. Moreover, Twain implies that from this fictional moment resembling a history book we may learn how to interpret properly those history texts that present the French Revolution as centered on what to our eyes may (Twain fears) seem excessive use of the guillotine. Morgan, speaking here as so often for Twain, concludes from his encounter with the freemen that there were really
two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood, the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years... A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Page 126 | Top of ArticleTerror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves. (CY, 111-12).
Here is one of Twain’s eloquent passages of savage indignation whose effectiveness is enhanced by a temporal setting that allows us to grasp something of the past’s true immensity in terms of social rather than impersonal geological time.
One purpose of A Connecticut Yankee’s mythic sixth century filled with real horrors taken from many later periods is to readjust our emotional as well as intellectual response to accounts of the French Revolution by enlarging our temporal perspective on its events. And not just its events. Looking forward from the Yankee’s curious vantage point earlier in time but outside real history is intended to widen every reader’s temporal horizons, thereby allowing, Twain implies, a more accurate interpretation of any historical narrative dealing with one particular moment. Twain provides a lesson in reading history so that we may understand the urgency of revolution and its justification.
The most important dialogue in A Connecticut Yankee is between Twain’s text and Malory’s Morte Darthur. By weaving five extended quotations from what he first describes as “old Sir Thomas Malory’s enchanting book” (CY, 2) into A Connecticut Yankee, Twain invites readers to weigh the claims of two styles, Malory’s and his own, that stand for ancient and modern outlooks. Neither style alone, however, could produce Twain’s new kind of story, which is more than the sum of its stylistic components and as much based on collaboration as on opposition between old and new ways of writing. Its emblem is the manuscript journal that “M.T.” receives from Hank Morgan after they meet during their tour of Warwick Castle: “The first part of it—the great bulk of it—was parchment, and yellow with age ... a palimpsest. Under the old dim writing of the Yankee historian appeared traces of a penmanship which was older and dimmer still—Latin words and sentences, fragments from old monkish legends” (CY, 7). A Connecticut Yankee too is a kind of palimpsest overwriting Malory, who in turn overwrote others, even as it gains animation from echoing what Twain calls the Mort Page 127 | Top of ArticleDarthur’s “rich feast of prodigies and adventures . . . the fragrance of its obsolete names” that steep him “in a dream of the olden time” (CY, 2) as he sits at night by his fire at the Warwick Arms Inn after his tour of the Castle and reads Malory’s chapter, reprinted on pages 2 and 3 of A Connecticut Yankee, telling “how Sir Launcelot slew two giants, and made a castle free.” Malory’s words become a prelude to the Yankee’s account. They arouse expectations of something similar while inviting too the question of whether we really want a narrative that is exactly like Malory’s.
A Connecticut Yankee’s first chapter reveals the book’s immediate formal origins. Whereas Mary Shelley had started Frankenstein after her dream of a grotesque scientific creation while trying to write a ghost story and winding up with something very different, Twain inaugurated the time travel tale after a dream of the past inspired by reading Malory led him to attempt a version of romance. Like Mary Shelley, Twain records an actual dream, although unlike her he does not mention it in his book:
Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the middle ages. Have the notions and habits of thought of the present day mixed with the necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage certain requirements of nature. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get at handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve. Iron gets red hot in the sun—leaks in the rain, gets white with frost and freezes me solid in winter. Suffer from lice and fleas. Make disagreeable clatter when I enter church. Can’t dress or undress myself. Always getting struck by lightning. Fall down, can’t get up.20
This dream, like the book to which it eventually gave rise, achieves its satiric rejection of past lifestyles—and writing styles—by what amounts to an amusing clash between romance conventions and those of the now more acceptable realistic novel with its emphasis on quotidian details.21 Unburdened by the conventions of realism, Malory and his predecessors could present images of knights-errant in armor without pausing to consider any difficulties of actually wearing it, much less of wearing it for a long time. In A Connecticut Yankee as in the dream, Twain achieves comedy by retaining the heroic premise of romance—adventures Page 128 | Top of Articlein the good old days of King Arthur—while intruding other styles as well as later attitudes.
Hank Morgan travels to a mythic past by way of being sent first into the pages of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Episodes and passages from it, mostly without attribution, become part of what he experiences. Instead of reading Malory, he hears people speak words that we may recognize as coming from the Morte Darthur, and he is sometimes placed in the midst of episodes from its pages. But he has never read it. Twain invites us to notice his insertion into what becomes a kind of belated variant of Malory’s text. But Morgan, no reader of the Morte Darthur or its predecessors, and indeed no reader of much beyond newspapers, neither recognizes nor comments on this aspect of his adventure. For him the leap is simply from present to past. For us it is from nineteenth-century fiction to a fifteenth-century romance that quickly becomes something else by virtue of Morgan’s disruptive presence. Awareness of various relationships between A Connecticut Yankee and the Morte Darthur, of which Morgan is oblivious, compels readers to stand back and judge his actions from a vantage point outside the more limited framework of his own values and his own partial understanding of his whereabouts. Although Morgan is most often Twain’s mouthpiece, it is finally necessary to distinguish between them in order to understand the complex meaning of A Connecticut Yankee. Malory’s book is also Twain’s device for getting there from here and taking readers with him. But just as later time travelers have to venture away from the machines that bring them to their destinations, so Twain sends his readers beyond the confines of the style that transports them to another era.
Soon after Morgan’s arrival at Camelot he is charmed to hear, for the first time, Merlin narrate to the assembled courtiers of the Round Table—in words taken from the Morte Darthur, Book 1, chapter 25 but not identified as such by Morgan—how Arthur got his sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. All the others at court, however (even the dogs), fall asleep because they have heard Merlin tell this tale again and again: “the droning voice droned on. . . . Some heads were bowed upon folded arms, some lay back, with open mouths that issued unconscious music; the flies buzzed and bit, unmolested, the rats swarmed softly out from a hundred holes, and pattered about, and made themselves Page 129 | Top of Articleat home everywhere; and one of them sat up like a squirrel on the king’s head and held a bit of cheese in its hands and nibbled it, and dribbled the crumbs in the king’s face with naive and impudent irreverence. It was a tranquil scene, and restful to the weary eye and the jaded spirit” (CY, 25-26). So much for Malory’s ability to hold an audience after the novelty wears off. So much too for the romantic appeal of Arthur’s court, the good old days, and those (like Tennyson) who view them with nostalgia. Morgan later quotes an article by of one of his fledgling newspaper reporters, actually an account of a tournament taken from the Morte Darthur. He commends its “antique wording” as “quaint and sweet and simple, and full of the fragrances and flavors of the time” but objects that it lacks the “whoop and crash and lurid description” of modern journalism (CY, 75). Although this criticism cuts both ways, it mainly serves to distance Malory’s style from viable modern modes, including that of Morgan’s narration and thus of A Connecticut Yankee as a whole. The more tedious older style becomes another symbol of outmoded attitudes.
During Hank’s excursion of knight-errantry with Sandy she talks in the style of Malory, skillfully parodied by Twain, and also weaves into her conversation a long, rambling, seemingly pointless tale that we (but not she or Morgan) may recognize as taken verbatim from Book 4, chapters 16-18 of the Morte Darthur. When Morgan asks her a question in his (our) idiom about some knights in her tale, she requires a translation and then meditates on Hank’s explanation that he wants to know where the knights live: “’Hang they out—hang they out—where hang—where do they hang out, ah, right so; where do they hang out. Of a truth the phrase hath a fair and winsome grace, and is prettily worded withal. I will repeat it anon and anon in mine idlesse, whereby I may peradventure learn it. Where do they hang out. Even so! already it falleth trippingly from my tongue; and forasmuch as—” (CY, 126-27). Less accepting, Hank unfairly but hilariously remarks, “If you’ve got a fault in the world, Sandy, it is that you are a shade too archaic” (CY, 130). Undaunted, she pushes on with her story, whose shapelessness moves Hank to observe in his journal that “she generally began without a preface, and finished without a result” (CY, 127). His major objection to her narration is that its “archaics are a little too simple; the vocabulary is Page 130 | Top of Articletoo limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough to picturesque detail. . . . the fights are all alike . . . just ghosts scuffling in a fog” (CY, 130-31). Twain’s bill of complaint against what even for Malory’s day was deliberately old-fashioned writing in the Morte Darthur becomes by inversion a prescription for properly telling and judging a tale: highest marks are given for vividness, variety, and brisk movement to an ending that makes a difference.
Toward the conclusion of A Connecticut Yankee, Malory’s account of King Arthur’s final battle with Sir Mordred is quoted (again without attribution) as another bit of reportage for one of Morgan’s newspapers and praised by him as “a good piece of war correspondence” (CY, 417). The tragic denouement of Malory’s Morte Darthur—whose conclusion, far from being without a result, suggests the gravest consequences of Arthur’s last war—is thus juxtaposed with and incorporated into the parallel events that destroy the Yankee’s utopian project. Here by including as a lauded part of A Connecticut Yankee’s exposition this last quote from Malory, Twain again narrows (without closing) the stylistic gap between his book and its fifteenth-century analogue. This reconvergence of styles is part of a larger movement in which the past reasserts itself against Morgan’s attempt to displace it by introducing modern attitudes and artifacts.
Morgan’s marriage to Sandy, and their child, symbolize in a positive way the past’s inescapable claims. It is a marriage of convenience that becomes true love and (improbably) ideal companionship: “She was a flawless wife and mother; and yet I had married her for no particular reason, except that by the customs of chivalry she was my property until some knight should win her from me in the field. . . . Within the twelvemonth I became her worshiper; and ours was the dearest and perfectest comradeship that ever was” (CY, 406-7). Other aspects of the past intrude in less pleasant ways that doom the promise of this marriage between nineteenth- and sixth-century outlooks. After traveling to France with Sandy because their ailing child needs a better climate for a while, Hank is called back to England to find that all his efforts at progress have suddenly collapsed in the wake of Arthur’s war with Mordred (as described in Malory and other Arthurian romances). Moreover (and this along with some Page 131 | Top of Articlebits about stock exchange manipulation helping to precipitate the civil war is Twain’s addition to the romance versions of the Round Table’s end), the Church has placed an interdict on the country to alienate its inhabitants from Morgan’s modernizing efforts. Trains no longer run. Telegraphs and telephones no longer work. Electricity no longer illuminates Camelot: “the Church laid a ban upon the electric light!” (CY, 419). Twain stresses the symbolism of this renewed darkness: “From being the best electric-lighted town in the kingdom, and most like a recumbent sun of anything you ever saw, it was become simply a blot. ... it made me feel as if maybe it was symbolical—a sort of sign that the Church was going to keep the upper hand, now, and snuff out all my beautiful civilization just like that” (CY, 410). With his only remaining followers, 52 boys educated under the Yankee’s new Enlightenment regime and therefore unswayed by old prejudices or loyalties, Morgan retreats to Merlin’s cave, where earlier he had secretly installed a large electrical generator while “projecting a miracle” in case another (technological) one should be necessary (CY, 420), and which he now fortifies for a last stand against the reactionary forces of chivalry and the Church.
That Morgan can find no more suitable refuge than the old magician’s haunt remodeled with electric lights and modern weaponry is another ominous sign of human inability to break away from the past. So is the absence among Morgan’s followers at this penultimate moment of any women who might help propagate a new society. Sandy and the child remain in France. There are only young soldiers doomed to perish along with Morgan’s hopes for a better world. From Merlin’s cave Morgan proclaims a republic, but it attracts no adherents among a population raised under the old regime. They are afraid to defy the interdict. Their incapacity for democracy and their subservience to the Church become Twain’s final proof of Morgan’s earlier observation (apropos Morgan le Fay’s cruelty) that “training is everything; training is all there is to a person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training” (CY, 162). The irony of this assumption about the plasticity of human nature is that it is at once a warrant for optimistic Enlightenment belief like Morgan’s that society can be newly modeled on some Page 132 | Top of Articleutopian plan if only everybody is properly educated or reeducated, and warrant too for pessimistic conviction that long-standing deplorable attitudes can never be replaced by better ones. It may be a less intentional irony of A Connecticut Yankee’s conclusion, which shows an incipient technological utopia destroyed, that Twain’s ferociously anticlerical dramatization of how ancient superstitions mobilized by the Church overwhelm the modernizing champions of reason can be read as illustrating with equal clarity the inescapable presence of original sin.
The apocalyptic Battle of the Sand-Belt fought outside Merlin’s cave is nineteenth-century science fiction’s most disturbing image of industrialized warfare, inevitably read now as a grim forewarning of the horrors that were to unfold in the trenches of World War I and as a forewarning too of the even greater horrors possible after Hiroshima. Twain’s intention was less prophecy than diagnosis of industrial civilization’s darkest potentialities for self-destruction. That self-destruction, moreover, is also portrayed by him as peculiarly dehumanizing because advanced technology replaces individual encounters of warrior against warrior at close range with alienated forms of death that reach out at long distance and strike down people who never know exactly what or who has killed them.
Twain invites attention to this eerie feature of modern warfare—in turn emblematic of alienation in modern life—by including for purposes of contrast at the end of that last quotation from the Morte Darthur presented as “a good piece of war correspondence” Malory’s gruesome—and remarkably vivid—account of Mordred and Arthur exchanging deathblows:
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Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying, Traitor, now is thy death day come. And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And then king Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear throughout the body more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound, he thrust himself, with the might that he had, up to the bur of king Arthur’s spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur with his sword holden in both his hands, on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan, and therewithal Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth. And the noble Arthur fell in a swoon to the earth, and there he swooned oft-times. (CY, 417)
This father and son locked in deadly close combat with one impaled on the other’s spear are no pale ghosts scuffling in a fog. It is an unforgettable image. Twain’s last reprise of Malory allows a glimpse of that master writer at his best, to underscore the even more horrific conditions of war after the industrial revolution had created a class of technicians like Twain’s Yankee who (as he boasts early in the narrative) learned his trade at “the great Colt arms-factory . . . learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery” (CY, 4). As the Battle of the Sand-Belt unfolds Twain ironically invests the notion of labor-saving machinery (the foundation of technological utopias like Bellamy’s Looking Backward) with a sinister new range of meaning.
For the Yankee’s side at least, the side of industrialized society, combat need not involve anything like the face-to-face exertions of Arthur and Mordred. The first wave of massed chivalry attacking Merlin’s cave—“Innumerable banners fluttering . . . horsemen—plumed knights in armor” (CY, 430)—hits a belt of dynamite land mines whose explosion creates a large ditch while blasting the knights into forms no longer recognizably human: “Of course we could not count the dead, because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons” (CY, 432). Such modern war may not even leave corpses, just an anonymous residue of organic and inorganic substance scrambled together.
Since Hiroshima, America’s symbol of ultimate horror has been the image of one commander hidden away in some bunker pushing a button that unleashes Armageddon simultaneously from hundreds of bombers, missile silos, and warships that send weapons to destroy an enemy whose last act is to retaliate in kind. Fear of such mutually assured destruction (with its appropriate acronym MAD) has been taken by some theorists as in fact the major deterrent to an all-out atomic exchange. Whatever the validity of this theory, A Connecticut Yankee’s conclusion remarkably resonates with twentieth-century nightmares centering on that convenient labor-saving button by which a technologically advanced civilization commits suicide. Twain’s push-button warfare extends from the battlefield to the cities as Morgan (after humanely warning people away) eliminates all the factories that he has built but also mined and equipped with underground Page 134 | Top of Articlewires leading to a detonator at his headquarters in Merlin’s cave: “I touched a button and shook the bones of England loose from her spine! In that explosion all our noble civilization-factories went up in the air, and disappeared from the earth. It was a pity, but it was necessary. We could not afford to let the enemy turn our own weapons against us” (CY, 430-32). Only by destroying their advanced technology—and with it their advanced civilization—are its creators made safe from its abuse. The Yankee describes how electrified fences just outside Merlin’s cave have—at the flick of a switch on his part—electrocuted most of the enemy who next attempt a night attack: “Our camp was enclosed with a solid wall of the dead—a bulwark, a breastwork, of corpses. . . . One terrible thing about this thing was the absence of human voices; there were no cheers, no war cries: being intent upon a surprise, these men moved as noiselessly as they could; and always when the front rank was near enough to their goal to make it proper for them to begin to get a shout ready, of course they struck the fatal line and went down without testifying” (CY, 439). Here not only the pageantry but the very sounds of war are replaced by a haunting silence as men die unseen and unseeing without even the satisfaction of confronting those whom they fight and articulating as Malory’s Arthur can the reason why they fight.
Morgan reports that he touched yet another “button and set fifty electric suns aflame on the top of our precipice” (CY, 439). Their baleful artificial glare discloses the defenders “enclosed in three walls of dead men” while rendering the remaining attackers “paralyzed . . . petrified . . . with astonishment” (CY, 439). Before they can recover from their surprise at the appearance of Morgan’s miniature suns (an ironic echo of his more welcome “miracle” in seeming to abolish the eclipse), he closes another switch that “shot the current through all the fences and struck the whole host dead in their tracks! There was a groan you could hear! It voiced the death-pang of eleven thousand men” (CY, 440). As for the rest, “The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand,” who mostly drown upon retreating to the encircling ditch (created by the initial explosion of land mines), into which Morgan’s young soldiers at his signal divert water from a mountain brook, thus making a new “river a hundred feet wide and twenty-five deep” (CY, 440). Here is technology’s landscape gardening of death.
The Yankee has won: “we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us” (CY, 440). But the victory is also defeat, as Clarence observes, because it is impossible to remain healthy in the presence of so many decaying bodies breeding disease and stench: “We were in a trap, you see—a trap of our own making. If we stayed where we were, our dead would kill us; if we moved out of our defences, we should no longer be invincible” (CY, 443). Morgan is stabbed while trying to help one of the enemy’s wounded—a romantic chivalrous gesture at odds with both the modern warfare he has introduced and the realities of medieval warfare that he has elsewhere noted but failed to understand, and another sign of the past’s fatal attraction for the Yankee despite all his efforts to abolish its influence even while surrounded by it. Merlin then reappears in disguise and succeeds in weaving a spell that sends the Yankee back to his own period via thirteen centuries of enchanted sleep. Morgan’s utopian efforts have culminated in push-button warfare that reestablishes the Dark Ages. In resorting to magic as a means of winding up the plot by returning Morgan to the nineteenth century in the most stylistically old-fashioned way possible, A Connecticut Yankee’s narrative has reverted to one of the conventional devices of Arthurian romance, thus again making its style a mirror of its paradoxical message that the past for all its absurdity and dangers cannot be evaded but may have valuable aesthetic if not ideological uses.
Critics have deplored what is usually seen as Twain’s inartistically abrupt shift from optimism to pessimism in A Connecticut Yankee’s last section, while remarking too the inconsistencies of Morgan’s character as he wavers between Yankee huckster and passionate advocate of democracy and scientific enlightenment.22 Other contradictions abound, most notably between the Yankee’s pretensions to technological know-how and the little that he actually accomplishes via technology before the final battle. As Boss, he proves remarkably ineffectual. He has no real grasp of the political situation around him, its potential for undoing all his efforts, or the actual consequences for those whose lot he attempts to improve. Twain does little to prepare readers to accept Sandy at the end as Morgan’s ideal but forever-lost love after they first encounter her at such length as little more than an amusing object of satire, including some lamentably chauvinist strokes on Morgan’s part, if not Twain’s, aimed at what is presented Page 136 | Top of Articleas female, not just medieval, verbosity, gullibility, and illogic. The Catholic Church as antagonist is also sketched in outlines more suitable to caricature drawn by a village atheist than serious portrayal of the competing claims of reason and faith, democracy and hierarchy. Except for Arthur’s genuinely touching moment of sublime courage in helping the cottagers stricken with smallpox, and his almost equally but more comically sublime inability to understand how most of those he governs actually live, none of the familiar characters from Arthurian romance comes to life. They remain more ghostly than their counterparts in the Morte Darthur, whose presentation Twain finds inadequate.
Another charge against A Connecticut Yankee is Justin Kaplan’s assertion that it is “a book which, as far as it preaches anything, preaches irreverence, the guillotine, a reign of terror, and a kind of generalized despair” (Kaplan, 296). Darko Suvin properly situates Twain among science fiction’s pioneers, but finds that because of contradictions between A Connecticut Yankee’s initial affirmation of “the progressive theory of history” and “Twain’s increasing alienation from the effects of the industrial revolution” his “book was left without a moral and political core—which is fatal equally for satire and utopia” (Suvin, 196). Such disappointment will certainly await those expecting A Connecticut Yankee to provide the usual satisfactions of satires, utopias, sermons with uplifting preachments, or even realistic novels with consistent characterization and uniformity of style.
Bud Foote is closer to the mark in noting affinities to “the more deliberately contrived breaks in credibility” in Brechtian epic theater while placing A Connecticut Yankee less in relationship to prior forms than to all those later time travel stories of which it is the archetype (Foote, 133). A Connecticut Yankee’s dialogue with the Morte Darthur also creates self-reflexive invitations to consider not just plot events and ideas but the book we are reading in relation to other books. Almost as much as time travel, such literary self-consciousness has become a hallmark of science fiction. As a genre it often resorts to methods that invite not suspension of disbelief or total immersion in plot and ideas, but a mental stepping back to answer the aesthetic question put explicitly by Wells’s Time Traveller: “Taking it as a story, what do you think of it?”
One of A Connecticut Yankee’s greatest strengths is its dynamic movement from utopian beginning to anti-utopian conclusion. Twain avoids the tedium of works that fall entirely into one or another category. I doubt books are necessarily better for remaining generically stable or having a coherent and positive political philosophy as, for example, Looking Backward does. To preach irreverence as a permanent attitude always relevant under any government is far from despair, and it may lead in the end to more intelligent political action than proposing some plausible theory. It will certainly go further to sustain that comic spirit which A Connecticut Yankee as a whole advocates as a solution to the existential problem, more pressing than any political issue, that human life is perhaps nothing more than what Morgan, and through him Twain, describes as “this plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities” (CY, 162). His praise of the guillotine and France’s revolutionary reign of terror are not calls to similar action but are intended for shock value as one means of keeping alive sensitivity to oppression and its remedy, insofar as there is a political remedy: removal of the oppressors. Despite its apparent volte-face at the end, A Connecticut Yankee retains an altogether sufficient moral and political core because of the way it centers on the values, surely related, of laughter and democracy.
The sheer fun of its earlier parts, to which analysis like mine can hardly do justice, but that every reader will experience, is not canceled out by the final turn toward tragedy. The wreck of Morgan’s utopian dreams in the cataclysmic Battle of the Sand-Belt would be much less forceful, for all of Twain’s prescient diagnosis of modern warfare, if it were not for our impression, created by the preceding chapters, that something of inestimable value has been lost when the Yankee’s republic dies at birth. The absurdist pathos of Morgan’s death as recounted in the “Final P.S. by M.T.” also invites nostalgia for the laughter of earlier portions, whose comedy is recalled to mind by Twain’s wry description of the Yankee’s delirious dying words as an attempt at “getting up his last ‘effect’” (CY, 447). Something like the complementarity principle of physics is at work because, just as in that theory light must be taken as both waves and particles although these seem mutually exclusive states, A Connecticut Yankee’s pessimistic ending coexists with its optimistic beginning Page 138 | Top of Articlerather than erasing it. Twain not only introduced time travel, which in itself is a major accomplishment indispensable to viable science fiction. He also used it to convey with great comic vigor and moral force the inescapable paradox of living in an age of science: reason allied with technology offers humanity’s best hope, even though it may tragically prove a vain hope, of escaping the tyrannies spawned by ignorance; but technology also poses the threat of placing us permanently in a new dark age.