Mark Twain is often thought of as the most cynical writer in American literature. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is perhaps one of greatest works. In this amusing story, Twain takes an American entrepreneur from his own day and age, and thrusts him back to the age of King Arthur. The novel is therefore about how a nineteenth-century American industrialist might act if he found himself in medieval England. Mark Twain sees the Industrial Age in which he lived as a rabid attempt to exploit everyone and everything. And, that’s exactly what Hank Morgan, also known as the “Boss”, does when he gets to Camelot.
Hank uses science and technology to exploit Camelot. Threatened with execution, Hank remembers that an eclipse is supposed to occur in the near future, and he uses this knowledge to convince King Arthur and the rest of Camelot that Hank is a stronger magician than Merlin. Once Hank gains King Arthurs trust, he is able to do whatever he wants with Camelot and its people. Hank quickly goes about “improving” Camelot with industries and technologies that are common to nineteenth-century America. One of his schemes is to “invent” soap and making it available to all of the people of Camelot (since the people didn’t bathe as frequently in the third-century as they did in the nineteenth). Hank is appalled at how much power that the Established Church has over the people. So he decides that the people need to be educated, which will, naturally, weaken the church’s hold.
Of course, being an entrepreneur at heart, Hank can’t help but look on Camelot as an opportunity for exploiting people with his superior knowledge. In a very memorable scene, Hank describes the religious devotions of many of the monks of the time as, a monk who expresses his devotion to God by bowing over and over again, all day long, without stopping. Rather than being impressed by the monk’s passionate display of faith, Hank notes the astounding amount of energy the monk puts out every day. Not to see this wasted, he hooks up a sewing machine to the monk, using his bowing motions to run the machine. In this manner Hank manufactures and sells garments as religious souvenirs, and tells the reader–with not a little satisfaction–about the wild success of these garments.
Beyond Twain’s customary critiques on slavery and religion, the book also offers a somewhat different brand of cynicism Twain’s critique of science and progress. When Hank Morgan arrives in Camelot, it is a fairy-tale city that has long represented both nobility and weaknesses. Then, in his quest to “improve” the city, he destroys it. Everything that defines the time from the smelly, unwashed people to their superstitions and religious fervor is exploited in the name of progress. Here, then, we see Hank Morgan as an expression of Twain’s dislike with the value of modern progress.
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