Progressivism in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, published in 1889, is an often anachronistic portrayal of the middle ages through the eyes of a 19th century engineer. The engineer, Hank Morgan, suffers a blow to the head by a man named Hercules and awakens from his stupor in the 6th century. What ensues is essentially the triumph of modern 19th century knowledge and technology over the comparable barbarism and backwardness of 6th century (anachronistic) chivalry, infrastructure, and rule. Morgan proceeds to superimpose 19th century inventions onto the 6th century King Arthur’s court.

Morgan introduces 19th century political infrastructure, economics, and technology. As a result, much of King Arthur’s land is transformed into a reflection of 19th century ideals. According to Morgan, the medieval land that he is thrust into is backward and wrong because of its utter lack of 19th century qualities. He states that men look like animals because of their uncombed beards and he refers to them as “simple hearted creatures,” noting, “there did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery…to bait a fishhook with” (Twain 14). To Morgan, the 6th century is filled with people who are barely more than animals, sardonically saying that he is the best-educated man by a margin of over thirteen hundred years, and that he would be the “boss [of] the whole country inside of three months” (Twain 11). Morgan seems to believe that the backwardness he perceives could be easily fixed with the proper application of technology, bringing the 6th century closer to his own time. This is a stance, called Progressivism, which strongly reflects the time in which A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written.

Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court at the very beginning of the Progressive movement, which took place roughly between 1890 and 1920. Progressivism was a political and social movement that focused on modernizing and championed the exact same things that Morgan focuses on when he reforms the 6th century: education, efficiency, and technology. Just as Morgan creates schools to teach the uneducated masses to read, so too were schools an important focus of the Progressive era. During this time the investment in schooling expanded dramatically, resulting in more ordinary people making it all the way through to a high school diploma.

Morgan also creates factories and introduces electricity and other inventions that he believed would result in a better future for the people of the 6th century. Likewise, Progressives believed that technology was the answer to all social problems. Just as Morgan improves the equality and supposed backwardness of the 6th century with 19th century infrastructure, Progressives believed that they could fix the social problems of their time with the same sort of infrastructure, economic, and technological advancement.

I will add, however, that Twain creates an interesting twist to his argument late in the book. The plot ends on an incredible achievement for Progressivism, but also in its defeat. Morgan, a single man, is capable of recreating—through hard work, and cleverness—complex parts of 19th century society in the 6th century including electricity, Gatling guns, and advanced infrastructure. The Church is leery of Morgan, who is wary around it to begin with. Eventually the church manages to push Morgan out of the country, during which time all of his advancement falls apart—with a civil war between Lancelot and Arthur resulting in the death of Arthur. When Morgan returns, he shelters in a cave and, with the help of only a few trusty boys, holds off and decimates legions of men bent on eradicating them by using bombs, electric fences, and Gatling guns. However, in the end Morgan is defeated, stabbed by a wounded man he was trying to help and cursed by Merlin to thirteen centuries of sleep.

This twist is an interesting facet to the novel. When Morgan’s 19th century microcosm collapses and the 6th century is made itself once more, Twain is almost warning against too much progress too swiftly. His message here seems to be that technology and progress are all important, but they must be continued endlessly for them to stay in effect—lest the world return to its previous state. In short, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court at once champions Progressivism, while also cautioning its swift and unregulated implementation. As such this is a clear factor of this book being a product of its own time, a time when Progressivism was rapidly coming into political ideologies and perhaps causing some anxiety along the way.

Works cited

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

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