Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twain, the Curmudgeon

Illustration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain has always struck me as resembling that gruff, slightly off-putting uncle every family has. He's humorous but doesn't care whose feelings he hurts as he makes other people laugh. He agrees with other points of view as long as they coincide with his own. He believes he knows what is best for everyone, at every time. And, most importantly, he believes his solution to the problem is the only solution that should even be considered.

After reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I can't say my opinion of Mark Twain has changed.

To be fair, this is the first book of his I have read. I've had the specre of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hung over my head by all sorts of teachers since elementary school. I gave then the answer that because the stroeis weren't about anthropomorphic animals or part of the McGurk mystery series by E.W. Hildick, I wasn't parcitularly interested. Twain's writing style -- ,jumping out of the 19th century American frontier -- never much appealed to me either. But I'm growing older and wiser and trying to prise open my mind to different things.

Twain, as a satirist, is difficult to understand. How much of what he writes in A Connecticut Yankee is meant to take seriously, and how much is to be brushed aside? Do we really believe, through his protagonist Hank Morgan, that Twain believed an application of technology, starting with the establishment of a patent office, advertising in the form of sandwich boards, and modern journalism were to cure all of medieval England's ills, or any society's ills? Probably not. Maybe this was Twain's attempt to show that such application of what one society regards as normal and necessary is merely jingoism, especially in the light of the people's rebellion against the "Republic" at the end of the novel, through fear of and loyalty to the church, kith and kin. (All of which is a smashing allegory to the United States' current involvement in Iraq. No amoutn of application of Western values and culture there is going to cut through the cutlure that is already there.)

It is interesting toconsider that Twain's novel came out at about the same time as Edward Bellamy's utopic Looking Backward. Twain's novel could be considered his attempt at creating a utopic society in which Morgan is able to create a new nation out of the rough cloth of medieval England. If it was, it succumbed to the cynicism that is the hallmark of Twain's later years.

Anyway, I have Life on the Mississippi coming up soon on my reading list. I'll give Twain a second chance.

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