6/10/13 - the American "boss"

In today's selection -- the American as the "boss." In 1889, a point at which America had fully arrived as the world's leading economy, Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court gently lampooned the emerging American hubris. Twain's protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up in England in 528 AD, and, with the no-nonsense bravado typical of that era, promptly proceeds to take over and modernize the kingdom. In the process, however, "his tyranny dwarfs that of King Arthur, his violence surpasses that of the knights, his zeal to indoctrinate eclipses that of the church":

"The year is 1889, and the 'Yankee Pedlar' of Melville's time has given way to 'Yankee Know-How.' The Connecticut man, Hank Morgan by name, gets into a fight, takes a blow to the head, and awakes in unfamiliar surroundings. He is promptly captured by a mounted knight whom he takes to be a fugitive from an asylum or circus. The knight means to drive his prisoner to a fell fortress in the distance. '''Bridgeport?" said I, pointing. "Camelot," said he.' Informed the year is A.D. 528, and this is indeed King Arthur's court, the Yankee records, 'I made up my mind to two things; if it was still the nineteenth century and I was among lunatics and couldn't get away, I would presently boss that asylum or know the reason why; and if on the other hand it was really the sixth century, all right, I didn't want any softer thing: I would boss the whole country inside of three months.'

"Morgan's deliverance comes from his knowledge that a total eclipse of the sun occurred that very year. So he pronounces himself a wizard who will extinguish the sun unless he is made Arthur's prime minister. Still, Morgan must contest with the envious Merlin. But after 'calling down lightning' on Merlin's tower (dynamite, wire, and a lightning rod do the trick) he is given the run of the kingdom. Within a few years the Connecticut Yankee founds mines and factories, railroads and telegraphs, schools, hospitals, and a newspaper. The noblemen are given prestigious positions in the new economy to appease their vanity and keep them out of trouble. Sir Launcelot, for instance, becomes chairman of the stock exchange. But however much the Yankee despises feudalism, he needs a title himself to be accorded the respect he deserves. So he gives himself one: The Boss.

"Morgan is now the most powerful man who ever existed. But his beneficent goals are to prosper medieval England and liberate its superstitious minions from the grip of the church and nobility. First, he removes children to a secret Man Factory ... Next, he determines to overthrow a system in which 994 people out of a thousand slave on behalf of the remaining six: 'It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.' Finally, he dreams of deposing Arthur and teaching the people self-government. ...

"As Morgan works to collapse a millennium of progress into a few decades, the church awaits a chance to strike back. At length the clergy conjure a false emergency calling Morgan abroad, then take advantage of his absence to place all his works under interdict. Morgan returns to find England laid waste, ... Enraged, he calls for a revolution and holes up in a redoubt guarded by electric fences and minefields, Gatling guns, and a great moat he can flood at the turn of a lever. The flower of English chivalry, driven by king, church, and honor, defiantly charge the fort until all 25,000 are electrocuted, blown to bits, drowned, or riddled by bullets. Morgan and his boys feel nothing but pride until, the next morning, a mysterious intruder pronounces their doom. They cannot leave the fort since England outside is more hostile than ever. But they cannot remain without being poisoned by the rotting corpses around them. Pulling off his disguise the intruder cries: 'Ye were conquerors; ye are conquered! ... Ye shall all die in this place -- every one except him. He sleepeth now -- and shall sleep thirteen centuries. I am Merlin! ...

"Twain himself claimed his purpose in writing A Connecticut Yankee was to contrast medieval with modern civilization, 'to the advantage of the latter, of course.' ... Whatever the sub text, Twain had no illusions that wars designed to extinguish the past could usher in utopias or change human nature. The American hustler Morgan fairly boasts of his know-how, impatience, and lust for control. But no matter how godlike his powers, Morgan cannot win hearts and minds. His outward appeal (like that of his namesake sorceress Morgan le Fay) masks evils no different from those he longs to expunge. His tyranny dwarfs that of King Arthur, his violence surpasses that of the knights, his zeal to indoctrinate eclipses that of the church. We know Twain affirmed science and delighted in technology. But he discerned, as clearly as his contemporary Jules Verne did, the American potential for hubris."


Walter A. McDougall


Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2004 by Walter A. McDougall


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment