Writingsexpand
 
 
Print Friendly and PDF
 
Download Free!

Popular Texts

Mark Twain's New Book: a Satirical Attack on English Institutions

W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, Vol. I, February, 1890) pp. 144-156

In selecting as the Novel of the Month Mark Twain's new story, "A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur," I am aware that I expose myself to many remonstrances. There is a certain profanation in the subject, and withal a certain dulness in its treatment. It is not a novel; it is a ponderous political pamphlet, and so forth and so forth. Nevertheless, to those who endeavour to understand what the mass of men who speak English are thinking, as opposed to those who merely care about what they think they ought to be thinking, this book of Mark Twain's is one of the most significant of our time. It is notable for its faults quite as much as for its virtues, and for the irreverent audacity of its original conception as much as for the cumbrous and strenuous moralising which makes it at times more like one of Jonathan Edwards' sermons than a mere buoyant and farcical bubbling up of American humour.

Mark Twain is one of the few American authors whose writings are popular throughout the English-speaking world. Our superfine literary men of culture who pooh-pooh the rough rude vigour of the American humorist represent a small clique. Mark Twain gets "directlier at the heart" of the masses than any of the blue-china set of nimminy-pimminy criticasters. In his own country, if we may judge from the remarks in the January Harper, "A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur" has been received with an enthusiasm which it has hitherto failed to evoke on this side of the Atlantic. We read there that "the delicious satire, the marvellous wit, the wild, free, fantastic humour, are the colours of the tapestry, while the texture is a humanity that lives in every fibre. We can give no proper notion of the measureless play of an imagination which has a gigantic jollity in its feats, together with the tenderest sympathy. The humour of the conception and of the performance is simply immense; but more than ever Mr. Clemens's humour seems the sunny break of his intense conviction." What a contrast this to the frigid condemnation of the Speaker: "In his last book Mr. Clemens fails to make us laugh by any method, even the worst. He is not only dull when he is offensive, but perhaps even more dull when he is didactic." Yet I make free to say that the vote of the mass of English people would be on the side of the American and against the English critic. For what our critical class has failed to appreciate is that the Education Act has turned out and is turning out millions of readers who are much more like the Americans in their tastes, their ideas, and their sympathies than they are to the English of the cultured, pampered, and privileged classes. The average English speaking man is the product of the common school in America, of the public elementary school in Britain and Australia. His literary taste is not classical but popular. He prefers Longfellow to Browning, and as a humorist he enjoys Mark Twain more than all the dainty wits whose delicately flavoured quips and cranks delight the boudoir and the drawing-room. This may be most deplorable from the point of view of the supercilious æsthetes, but the fact in all its brutality cannot be too frankly recognised.

Another circumstance which gives significance to the book is the fact that it is the latest among the volumes whereby Americans are revolutionising the old country. The two books which have given the greatest impetus to the social-democratic movement in recent years have both come to us from America. Henry George's land nationalisation theories were scouted by the superfine, but they have gained a firm hold of the public mind. His book has circulated everywhere, and is still circulating. Of another kind, but operating in the same direction, is Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backwards," which has supplied our people with a clearly written-out apocalypse of the new heaven and the new earth that are to come after the acceptance of the Evangel of Socialism. Mark Twain's book is a third contribution in the same direction. His Yankee is a fierce and furious propagandist of anti-monarchical and aristocratic ideas. Under the veil of sarcasms levelled at King Arthur we see a genial mockery of the British monarchy of to-day, with its Royal grants and all its semi-feudal paraphernalia. Nor is it only at British abuses Mark Twain levels his burly jests. He thwacks the protectionist American as readily as the aristocratic Briton. There is something infinitely significant in the very form of his satire. If there is nothing sacred to a sapper, neither can there be anything sacred to a descendant of the men of the Mayflower, who has all the fervour of Mr. Zeal-for-the-Lord-Busy and the confident, complacent assurance of Sam Slick, who dismissed unceremoniously the authority of Plato or Aristotle with the observation that we need not heed what they said as there were no railways in their times. Here is the New England Democrat and Puritan as passionately sympathetic with the common man as the nobles and knights whom he scourges were sympathetic with men of their order, determined to avenge the injustice of centuries and by holding the mirror up to fact to punish the chivalric age by showing how it treated the common man. It is not longer enough to judge systems of today by the effect which they have upon Hodge the ploughman and Bottom the weaver; the war must be carried into the enemy's camp, the verdict of history must be reversed, and all our ideals of the past transformed in the light of this new and imperious interrogation - The labouring man, what did that age or that institution make of him?

Tennyson sang the idyls of the King, and as long as the world lasts Sir Thomas Malory's marvellous old Romance will fill the hearts and imaginations of men with some far-off reflection of the splendours and the glories of that child-like age. But truly he sang "the old order changeth, giving place to the new," of which can we have a more notable and even brutal illustration than the apparition of this vulgar Yankee realist, with his telephones and his dynamite, his insufferable slang and his infinite self-conceit, in the midst of King Arthur's Court applying to all the knighthood of the Round Table the measure of his yard-stick, - the welfare of the common man? It is the supreme assertion of the law of numbers, of the application of the patent arithmetical proposition that ten is more than one, to the problems of politics and of history. Tennyson himself, in the "Last Tournament," supplied a vivid picture, which may well serve as a frontispiece of Mark Twain's vision:

Into the hall swaggered, his visage ribbed
From ear to ear with dog whip-weals, his nose
Bridge-broken, one eye out and one hand off,
And one with shattered fingers dangling, lame;
A churl, to whom indignantly the king,
My churl, for whom Christ died; what evil beast
Hath drawn his claws athwart thy face? or fiend,
Man, was it who marr'd heaven's image in thee thus?

The churl for whom Christ died is the centre of Mark Twain's story, which is a long and a passionate attempt to suggest that the evil beast who marred the visage of the poor wretch was the three-headed chimera of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Church. There is much strange misreading of history caused by the extent to which Mark Twain has allowed the abuses of institutions to obscure their use.

[See errors in this document? Please Flag it up here.Thanks!]