Selected Sources for Connecticut Yankee

Selected Sources for Connecticut Yankee
As a fantasy of time travel, Connecticut Yankee may be MT's
most imaginatively original book. At the same time, as his sendup
of the Camelot legend and an attempt to re-present Europe's
feudal history, it is probably the most derived of his novels, the
one most dependent on other books. Anticipating British criticism
of his anti-romantic depiction of the Middle Ages, MT considered
adding an appendix that would supply documentation for specific
episodes in the novel, and toward that end he went through the
manuscript identifying specific works as sources for Hank's
various descriptions of and pronouncements about the life in the
sixth century. This section of the archive makes no claim to be
that thorough. Instead, below is simply a carefully chosen
sampling of the various texts that served MT as inspirations,
provocations or guidebooks. The design is to represent the range
of material on which his imagination fed, and to suggest how,
although his "Yankee" goes east to an aristocratic and slaveowning culture, in some respects MT was also using Old World
past as a scene on which to stage his own ambivalent feelings
about the South in which his own past took place.
Malory's Morte Darthur
Scott, the South, & Life on the Mississippi
Lecky's History of European Morals
Arnold's "Civilization in the United States"
Ball's Slavery in the United States
Writing Connecticut Yankee
The novel was written in three stints of composition: the first four chapters in the winter 18851886; fifteen more in the summer 1887; the rest (including an interpolated Chapter 10) from the
summer of 1888 through the spring of 1889. In the early stages MT told a number of people he
never intended to publish it, or any other book of his. At that point in his life he expected to get
very rich from his investments in both the Webster publishing company and the Paige typesetting
machine. When he went back to the manuscript in 1888, however, instead of fulfilling that
dream, both were costing him money. He knew he had to produce a popular book to improve his
own and the publishing company's cash flow.
In a way, Connecticut Yankee began with Huckleberry Finn. In 1884 MT decided to go back on
tour as a live performer to help publicize Huck's novel, Webster & Co.'s first title. To accompany
him on the tour he recruited George Washington Cable, the Southern novelist, and when in
December a sudden rain storm drove MT into a bookstore in Rochester, New York, it was Cable
who handed him a copy of Malory's Morte Darthur and suggested he try it.
MT soon fell under the spell of Malory's prose and the chivalric world it recreates. He ordered a
separate copy for Ozias Pond, traveling with them as tour manager, and on 4 February 1885 he
wrote Livy: "We have all used the quaint language of [Malory's] book in talk in the [railroad]
cars & hotels." From Indianapolis on 8 February he wrote Susy about it as "the quaintest and
sweetest of all books," and she transcribed the letter into the biography of her father she was
It was apparently sometime during this tour that MT made the following entry in his journal,
invariably cited as the seed from which Connecticut Yankee grew:
Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the middle ages. Have the notions & 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 & freezes me solid in winter. Suffer from lice & 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. See Morte Darthur.
MT had always been interested in history, especially British history. And the kind of humorous
sketch suggested in this entry -- a burlesque travesty of an aristocratic icon -- had long been a
staple of his. But it's interesting to associate Hank's experiences among Arthur's knights with
MT's career as an errant lecturer. Both are consummate and compulsive performers whose
identities -- MT as the great American humorist; Hank as Sir Boss, the mighty wizard -- are
defined by the shows they put on for their audiences. As a visitor from nineteenth century
America, Hank feels like a mysterious stranger in Camelot -- and perhaps in the story of Hank's
popularity and alienation MT is dramatizing his own mixed feeling as the great American
According to MT, "I began to make notes in my head for a book" almost at once, though he
doesn't seem to have begun writing it until the next winter.
By that time his mood about the distant past had changed
from satiric to nostalgic; at least, that's the tone of the next
set of notes he made in his journal about the book, which
included the following ideas:
Bring out as a holiday book. Title, "The Lost Land." . . . He
mourns his lost land -- has come to England & revisited it,
but it is all changed & become old, so old! -- & it was so
fresh & new, so virgin before. . . . Has lost all interest in life
-- is found dead next morning -- suicide.
A holiday book that ends with a suicide is a startling idea,
but typical of the many ambivalences MT brought to the
project. It was in fact published (on 10 December 1889) as a
holiday book. By then the book that began with a comic
"dream" had become a mix of slapstick comedy, irreverent
burlesque, sentimental pathos, political satire, moral
indignation, dark humor and high-tech violence that ends
with a nightmarish apocalypse and Hank's abrupt death.
The novel itself is the best record of those ambivalences: MT's complex and changing intentions
and feelings about the European past and the American present, about Hank's enactment of a
celebrity self and his own performance as a writer. Other aspects of the novel's composition can
be studied in the SOURCES AND PRE-TEXTS section of the archive. Another index of his intentions
is the public reading MT gave at Governor's Island in New York on 11 November 1886 (when
his central character's name was Robert Smith). On that occasion he read from the manuscript of
the opening chapters, and then summed up the rest of the story. The New York papers reported
his words in detail. Two of the stories are linked below. And reprintings of these stories must
have reached Mrs. Mary Fairbanks, MT's mentor from the beginning of his career, in Cincinnati,
because she apparently wrote him to express alarm about the mischief he might be up to with the
Camelot legend. Her letter no longer survives, but MT's reply to her does, and it offers yet
another (not necessarily more or less trustworthy) indication of his intentions.
"Great Scott!" -- Hank Morgan
King Arthur's Court in MT's America
When Clemens was growing up, the most popular version of Camelot
in America was Sir Walter Scott's, as expressed in romances like
Ivanhoe (1819). During MT's career, Tennyson's Idylls of the King
(1842-1885) was almost as widely read as a popular novel. In Chapters
40 and 46 of Life on the Mississippi (1883), MT condemned Scott as an
"enchanter"; Dan Beard, illustrator of Connecticut Yankee, was making
a similar point visually when he drew Merlin to look like Tennyson, as
you can see by comparing Beard's magician (right) with the picture of
the English poet laureate (left) taken from the frontispiece of an 1893
edition of the Idylls published in
A major goal of MT's novel, as the
work of a writer who thinks of himself as both a democrat and a
realist, is to use Hank's "unpoetic" observations of Arthurian England
to undo the spell he felt 19th-century medievalism had cast over
Europe's aristocratic past. This is the project Hank refers to when he
asserts that "none of us has been taught to see" the "unspeakably
bitter and awful Terror" that the feudal system inflicted on the vast
majority of people.
Camelot remains one of the fixed points of reference in the
imagination of Western culture, but it was an especially popular
subject at the time MT wrote his novel. This portion of the archive
presents a few images chosen to represent the way MT's times "saw"
King Arthur's Court. Like Hank Morgan, many of MT's
contemporaries traveled imaginatively back to Camelot; what they
tended to "see" is precisely what MT wanted them to re-view.
"The Disinherited Knight's Challenge" -- 1893 illustration for
"Sir Galahad" -- 1870 oil painting by Arthur Hughes
"Chivalry" -- 1885 oil painting by Frank Dicksee
The Louisiana State Capitol Building
"Elaine" -- 1874 oil painting by T.E. Rosenthal
"The Achievement of the Grail" -- 1890-1901 mural by E.A.
Abbey for the Boston Public Library
King Arthur -- Henry Irving's 1895 theatrical production
"if there wasn't any quick, new-fangled way to make
a thing, I could invent one" -- Hank Morgan
Industrializing the Sixth Century
In our time it's called "technology." The terms most often used in
MT's time were "machinery" and "inventions." In both eras
expectations ran high: many then felt about steam, electricity and
the internal combustion engine the way many now feel about
microcircuitry -- that a new world was imminent.
Hank Morgan, who lays telephone wires and telegraph wires across
Arthur's England, would have loved the internet. To him, inventors
like Watt, Whitney and Bell were "the creators of this world -- after
God." "The very first official thing [he] did" as the King's Minister
was to start a patent office. His program to resurrect the Dark Ages
through Man Factories and Soap Factories, electric lights and
printing presses represents the beliefs of both MT and his age.
The exhibits listed below are meant to suggest some of the
enthusiasm for new inventions and machines that linked Hank
Morgan to MT to their American contemporaries.
The Corliss Steam Engine
at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition(1876)
The Westinghouse Dynamo
and the Columbian Exposition (1893)
The Gatling Gun (1883)
MT and the Typewriter
MT and the Telephone
MT and the Paige Typsetting Machine
"for I was afraid of the church" -- Hank Morgan
Yankee Anti-Catholicism
"Irreverent" is one of the words his contemporaries used most
frequently to describe MT's work. He typically treats all religions
skeptically, ironically or satirically. But Connecticut Yankee is
surprisingly blunt in its many attacks on what Hank refers to as
"that awful power, the Roman Catholic Church." (To see how
often and how aggressively the novel attacks Catholicism, you
The particular Protestant tradition in which Samuel Clemens was
raised had a strong anti-Catholic bias, though his own relationship
with Catholicism was complex. Innocents Abroad displays a good
deal of contempt for the "superstitions" of Catholic cultures in the
Azores and Italy, and explicitly sets the Catholic Church apart
from "the only true religion, which is ours" -- i.e. Protestantism,
which was the predominant form of American Christianity
throughout the 19th century. On the other hand as owner of
Webster & Co, MT enthusiastically published The Life of Pope Leo XIII in 1887. His enthusiasm was
admittedly more commercial than ecclesiastical -- he apparently felt every Catholic household would feel
obliged to buy a copy, and was very disappointed with the book's weak sales.
Given MT's desire to be popular, religion was always a delicate subject: he instructed Fred Hall, his
agent at Webster & Co, to "be careful not to get any of the religious
matter in" to the sales prospectus for Connecticut Yankee. But there's
no evidence that he ever was tempted to delete or tone down Hank's
comments on the Church, and he seems not to have objected to any of
Beard's explicit illustrations of the novel's anti-Catholic theme.
Hank's story has several different antagonists -- Merlin and Morgan le
Fay, for example, and the titled aristocrats of the 6th century -- but
throughout the novel "the Church" is presented as the greatest enemy
of his project to enlighten the Dark Ages, and MT's emphasis on "the
Church" as the most sinister force in Arthurian England goes way
beyond the place it occupies in his medievalist sources -- Malory,
Scott, Tennyson and so on.
Indeed, MT ultimately makes "the Church" the evil that prevails over
Hank's Americanized Camelot, as the priests plot against him in
secret and then push their followers into war against his republic.
There's no Arthurian precedent for that plot development, but it does
mirror fears about Catholicism that were widely shared in MT's
America. Anti-Papism, of course, goes way back in American culture -- all the way to the Puritans who
founded the country on Plymouth Rock and a hatred of Romanism. During the 19th century there were
two great waves of anti-Catholic agitation: the Know Nothing era of the 1840s and 1850s was the first;
the second was just reaching its height when Connecticut Yankee appeared.
As in the ante bellum period, increased immigration from Catholic countries helped precipitate the antiCatholic crusade. Between 1860 and 1890, the Catholic population of the United States tripled (from
about 3,100,000 to about 8,900,000), and according to many estimates the Catholic Church was the
fastest growing demonination in the country. At bottom the motive of the bigots may have been
economic -- the country's weak economy, and especially the Panic of 1893, led to fears about losing jobs
to this new "foreign" element -- but their rhetoric stressed instead the idea that Catholicism was both
inherently unAmerican and, as one writer put it in 1889, "on the make." The idea that the priests were
plotting against the republic pre-existed MT's fantasy about Hank, and became stronger during the 1890s.
This section of the archive gathers selected examples of anti-Catholic rhetoric from the years
immediately before and after Connecticut Yankee came out. In the material linked below, you can hear
one side of the conversation that popular American culture was having about the relationship between
Catholicism and American values. The voices you'll hear are angrier, more hateful and hysterical than
Hank's, but they engage many of the same issues he raises in his critique of "the Church" as "an
established slave-pen." How the novel's attitude toward Catholicism influenced its popularity with
American readers is hard to say. MT himself asked one reviewer to avoid any mention of the book's
"slurs at the church." Only one reviewer of MT's novel, a hostile critic in Boston, notices this element in
its story, and he protests strongly, as a Protestant himself, against the "Protestant intolerance" he found in
the text and, especially, the illustrations. Whether America's larger silence on the issue implies consent to
Hank's fear of "the Church" remains an open question.
Our Country (1885 & 1891)
 Fifty Years in the Church of Rome (1886)
 The Fight With Rome (1889)
The American Protective Association (1887-1910)
Beard's Celebrities at King Arthur's Court
Beard annotated a copy of Connecticut Yankee to identify the originals of many of figures in his
illustrations. He used a number of personal acquaintances, but also based several major characters and a few
other figures on photographs of famous people. Readers in MT's times would certainly have recognized
these visual allusions. As a group, they conflict with the purpose MT puts in Hank Morgan's mouth, of
showing modern readers the middle ages as they really were, and blur the boundaries between the past and
present in complex ways. But it's not clear how this feature of the illustrations might have influenced
readings of the novel.
Teona Gneiting has identified Sarah Bernhardt (right, as she appeared in Le Passant) as the original for
As Beard noted, he based his drawings of Sandy on Annie Russell, a popular American actress (right, as she
appeared in Esmerelda [1881]).
In an interview with a reporter for The New York Times, MT himself identified Beard's original for the
figure of the slave driver in Chapter 36 as Jay Gould, the American financier and stock manipulator.
The picture of the most troublesome "lady" among the lot Hank rescues in Chapter 20 was based on a wellknown photograph of Queen Victoria.
To illustrate the Americanism "chuckleheads," Hank's term for "nobility," Beard used images of the Prince
of Wales, later Edward VII (top), his eldest son, and Kaiser Wilhelm II (bottom).
MT must have really enjoyed the fact that Beard based Merlin's character on the British poet, Alfred, Lord
Tennyson, whose Idylls of the King was one of the accounts of medieval England that MT was "re-writing."
You can see Merlin and Tennyson in MT, His Times, & Camelot.
-- Bernhardt and Gould: Beverly R. David, "The Unexpurgated Connecticut Yankee," Prospects
1 (1975); Russell: Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre (Philadelphia: Chilton
Company, 1960); Victoria: World Book Encyclopedia, Vol 17 (Chicago: Field Enterprises, 1958); Prince of
Wales and Kaiser Wilhelm: Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1962).