Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Re-reading A Connecticut Yankee: Twain, Defoe, Conrad, and Vonnegut

It's been a while since I last posted any comment.  The mid point of the semester is always hectic:  this year seems unusually stained. I am not sure why.  But I hope to get back into some small swing of my own work, even if I am still in the midst of reading student papers and navigating committee demands.  I guess it's more of the juggling I wrote about a few months ago. 

Anyway.  Last night I started to re-read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  I will teach the first 8 chapters to my freshman class this morning.  Coming back to the novel has presented an interesting challenge.  At first, I was going to be content reviewing the passages I had highlighted and emphasized in earlier readings.  As I started to read, though, I was drawn into the story and the style of Twain's telling.  So I read through these first chapters with an eye toward tying the novel to the other reading in the class, especially Robinson Crusoe and, just completed, The Heart of Darkness.  As a side trip, I also thought about my recent classes on Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. 

Hank Morgan (the protagonist in CY) is intimately related to his fellow adventurers Robinson, Marlowe, and Billy Pilgrim.  If we consider the novels within the larger tradition of realism, we can see how each is faced with the very real dangers of life.  What I find compelling this morning is the kinship at work among these creations.  Each faces a deep aloneness and has his world view fully challenged.  Robinson's isolation pushes him towards God and an ultimate evaluation of his place within a threatening European society that is often torn by religious competition.  His isolated island becomes the frontier of the empire as he works both to populate it and to assure a community's existence.  Marlowe faces a similar isolation, though his is a good deal more lethal.  His ultimate interest is in the affect of the work of imperialism, and he comes to a rather limiting understanding of the error of exploitation.  For Marlowe, and perhaps for Conrad, the European exploitation of Africa is bound with his notion of the danger to the white sensibility.  I think, in the end, Chinua Achebe is right to criticize our romanticizing of Conrad.  The focus is not on the crimes committed against aboriginals but about the impact on the white imperialist.  Kurtz and Marlowe are irrevocably changed by their African experience.  And the point seems to be that whites have it worse than the rebel or criminal or simply natural Africans who are run over by the imperial activity.

Twain is also, it seems to me, finds the hubris of the invader as a primary interest.  The realism of Hank's growing sense of exceptionalism and his increasing condescension and strong willed exploitation of all of Arthur's England is telling.  Hank has been dropped into an undeveloped land and has the professional and managerial skills to become "the Boss."  And he gloats in the easy victory.  It is so easy that he comes to think of himself as invincible and ultimately takes on the role of savior, a savior who is not embraced by a people (or ultimately by a church bent on maintaining power).  For me, though, Hank's opening chapters are telling in his repeated reference to an asylum.  I have written elsewhere about Morgan's insanity, and as I read these opening chapters, I am more convinced that I am right.  The aloneness that Hank feels is not the isolation of the ship wrecked or the first wave of the imperial machine.  It is the aloneness of the loss of family (this becomes clear at the end of the novel, but you see a good many hints of its inevitability along the way).

So.  What ties the characters and their creators together is a search for the redemption within human ties.  Robinson finds this is Friday.  Marlowe finds a perversion of it in his promise to Kurtz.  Billy (a post for another day) struggles to maintain some connection to a belief in charity and a human potential for redemption.  And Hank forces a whole world into being to come back to his connection with a wife and child.  The psychological realism in these texts is deep and abiding.  Masterful work.  And perhaps too often overlooked for quick interpretation of colonial excess.

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