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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CLXXI. "A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|From every point of view it seemed necessary to make the 'Yankee in King
Arthur's Court' an important and pretentious publication. It was Mark
Twain's first book after a silence of five years; it was a book badly
needed by his publishing business with which to maintain its prestige and
profit; it was a book which was to come out of his maturity and present
his deductions, as to humanity at large and kings in particular, to a
waiting public. It was determined to spare no expense on the
manufacture, also that its illustrations must be of a sort to illuminate
and, indeed, to elaborate the text. Clemens had admired some pictures
made by Daniel Carter ("Dan") Beard for a Chinese story in the
Cosmopolitan, and made up his mind that Beard was the man for the Yankee.
The manuscript was sent to Beard, who met Clemens a little later in the
office of Webster & Co. to discuss the matter. Clemens said:
"Mr. Beard, I do not want to subject you to any undue suffering, but I
wish you would read the book before you make the pictures."
Beard replied that he had already read it twice.
"Very good," Clemens said; "but I wasn't led to suppose that that was the
usual custom among illustrators, judging from some results I have seen.
You know," he went on, "this Yankee of mine has neither the refinement
nor the weakness of a college education; he is a perfect ignoramus; he is
boss of a machine shop; he can build a locomotive or a Colt's revolver,
he can put up and run a telegraph line, but he's an ignoramus,
nevertheless. I am not going to tell you what to draw. If a man comes
to me and says, 'Mr. Clemens, I want you to write me a story,' I'll write
it for him; but if he undertakes to tell me what to write I'll say, 'Go
hire a typewriter.'"
To Hall a few days later he wrote:
Tell Beard to obey his own inspirations, and when he sees a picture
in his mind put that picture on paper, be it humorous or be it
serious. I want his genius to be wholly unhampered. I sha'n't have
any fear as to results.
Without going further it is proper to say here that the pictures in the
first edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court justified
the author's faith in the artist of his selection. They are far and away
Dan Beard's best work. The socialism of the text strongly appealed to
him. Beard himself had socialistic tendencies, and the work inspired him
to his highest flights of fancy and to the acme of his technic. Clemens
examined the pictures from time to time, and once was moved to write:
My pleasure in them is as strong and as fresh as ever. I do not
know of any quality they lack. Grace, dignity, poetry, spirit,
imagination, these enrich them and make them charming and beautiful;
and wherever humor appears it is high and fine--easy, unforced, kept
under, masterly, and delicious.
He went on to describe his appreciation in detail, and when the drawings
were complete he wrote again:
Hold me under permanent obligations. What luck it was to find you!
There are hundreds of artists who could illustrate any other book of
mine, but there was only one who could illustrate this one. Yes, it
was a fortunate hour that I went netting for lightning-bugs and
caught a meteor. Live forever!
This was not too much praise. Beard realized the last shade of the
author's allegorical intent and portrayed it with a hundred accents which
the average reader would otherwise be likely to miss.
Clemens submitted his manuscript to Howells and to Stedman, and he read
portions of it, at least, to Mrs. Clemens, whose eyes were troubling her
so that she could not read for herself. Stedman suggested certain
eliminations, but, on the whole, would seem to have approved of the book.
Howells was enthusiastic. It appealed to him as it had appealed to
Beard. Its sociology and its socialism seemed to him the final word that
could be said on those subjects. When he had partly finished it he
It's a mighty great book and it makes my heart, burn with wrath. It
seems that God didn't forget to put a soul in you. He shuts most
literary men off with a brain, merely.
A few days later he wrote again:
The book is glorious-simply noble. What masses of virgin truth
never touched in print before!
And when he had finished it:
Last night I read your last chapter. As Stedman says of the whole
book, it's titanic.
Clemens declared, in one of his replies to Howells:
I'm not writing for those parties who miscall themselves critics,
and I don't care to have them paw the book at all. It's my swan
song, my retirement from literature permanently, and I wish to pass
to the cemetery unclodded . . . . Well, my book is written--let
it go, but if it were only to write over again there wouldn't be so
many things left out. They burn in me; they keep multiplying and
multiplying, but now they can't ever be said; and besides they would
require a library--and a pen warmed up in hell.
In another letter of this time to Sylvester Baxter, apropos of the
tumbling Brazilian throne, he wrote:
When our great brethren, the disenslaved Brazilians, frame their
declaration of independence I hope they will insert this missing
link: "We hold these truths to be self-evident--that all monarchs
are usurpers and descendants of usurpers, for the reason that no
throne was ever set up in this world by the will, freely exercised,
of the only body possessing the legitimate right to set it up--the
numerical mass of the nation."
He was full of it, as he had been all along, and 'A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur's Court' is nothing less than a brief for human rights and
human privileges. That is what it is, and it is a pity that it should be
more than that. It is a pity that he should have been beset by his old
demon of the burlesque, and that no one should have had the wisdom or the
strength to bring it under control.
There is nothing more charming in any of Mark Twain's work than his
introductory chapter, nothing more delightful than the armoring of the
Yankee and the outset and the wandering with Alisande. There is nothing
more powerful or inspiring than his splendid panoramic picture--of the
King learning mercy through his own degradation, his daily intercourse
with a band of manacled slaves; nothing more fiercely moving than that
fearful incident of the woman burned to warm those freezing chattels, or
than the great gallows scene, where the priest speaks for the young
mother about to pay the death penalty for having stolen a halfpenny's
worth, that her baby might have bread. Such things as these must save
the book from oblivion; but alas! its greater appeal is marred almost to
ruin by coarse and extravagant burlesque, which destroys illusion and
antagonizes the reader often at the very moment when the tale should fill
him with a holy fire of a righteous wrath against wrong. As an example
of Mark Twain at his literary worst and best the Yankee ranks supreme.
It is unnecessary to quote examples; one cannot pick up the volume and
read ten pages of it, or five pages, without finding them. In the midst
of some exalted passage, some towering sublimity, you are brought
suddenly to earth with a phrase which wholly destroys the illusion and
the diviner purpose. Howells must have observed these things, or was he
so dazzled by the splendor of its intent, its righteous charge upon the
ranks of oppression, that he regarded its offenses against art as
unimportant. This is hard to explain, for the very thing that would
sustain such a great message and make it permanent would be the care, the
restraint, the artistic worthiness of its construction. One must believe
in a story like that to be convinced of its logic. To lose faith in it--
in its narrative--is absolutely fatal to its purpose. The Yankee in King
Arthur's Court not only offended the English nation, but much of it
offended the better taste of Mark Twain's own countrymen, and in time it
must have offended even Mark Twain himself. Reading it, one can
visualize the author as a careering charger, with a bit in his teeth,
trampling the poetry and the tradition of the romantic days, the very
things which he himself in his happier moods cared for most. Howells
likened him to Cervantes, laughing Spain's chivalry away. The comparison
was hardly justified. It was proper enough to laugh chivalry out of
court when it was a reality; but Mark Twain, who loved Sir Thomas Malory
to the end of his days, the beauty and poetry of his chronicles; who had
written 'The Prince and the Pauper', and would one day write that divine
tale of the 'Maid of Orleans'; who was himself no more nor less than a
knight always ready to redress wrong, would seem to have been the last
person to wish to laugh it out of romance.
And yet, when all is said, one may still agree with Howells in ranking
the Yankee among Mark Twain's highest achievements in the way of "a
greatly imagined and symmetrically developed tale." It is of that class,
beyond doubt. Howells goes further:
Of all the fanciful schemes in fiction it pleases me most, and I
give myself with absolute delight to its notion of a keen East
Hartford Yankee finding himself, by a retroactionary spell, at the
court of King Arthur of Britain, and becoming part of the sixth
century with all the customs and ideas of the nineteenth in him and
about him. The field for humanizing satire which this scheme opens
Colossal it certainly is, as Howells and Stedman agreed: colossal in its
grotesqueness as in its sublimity. Howells, summarizing Mark Twain's
gifts (1901), has written:
He is apt to burlesque the lighter colloquiality, and it is only in
the more serious and most tragical junctures that his people utter
themselves with veracious simplicity and dignity. That great, burly
fancy of his is always tempting him to the exaggeration which is the
condition of so much of his personal humor, but which when it
invades the drama spoils the illusion. The illusion renews itself
in the great moments, but I wish it could be kept intact in the
small, and I blame him that he does not rule his fancy better.
All of which applies precisely to the writing of the Yankee in King
Arthur's Court. Intended as a fierce heart-cry against human injustice--
man's inhumanity to man--as such it will live and find readers; but, more
than any other of Mark Twain's pretentious works, it needs editing--
trimming by a fond but relentless hard.