Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Connecticut Bigot in King Arthur's Court

I have always loved Mark Twain since reading Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as a kid. At one point I had even memorized "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" as a seventh-grader in Catholic school. Twain has always held a sentimental place close to my heart, so when our book club chose to read and discuss A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I was all for it.

I had heard vaguely of Twain's atheist mindset and his antagonism toward religion in general. But until I read Connecticut Yankee, I had no idea how much irrational and unfounded antipathy Twain had for the Catholic Church in particular. The pervasive theme in Connecticut Yankee is that our modern enlightened world is far superior to that which went before and that the "bad old days" of slavery and oppression were almost completely the fault of the Catholic Church. This anti-Catholic sentiment can hardly be denied as Twain himself urged reviewers not to mention it when the book first came out. "Please don't let on that there are any slurs at the Church," he told a sympathetic reviewer in the Boston Herald. "I want to catch the reader unawares, and modify his views if I can." This quote may be found at a wonderful website devoted to Twain at the University of Virginia's site. Also at that site are some of the anti-Catholic illustrations that accompanied the original publication of the work.

So Twain engaged in what we know today as the "last acceptable prejudice." By way of a simple comparison, let us imagine that, instead of Catholics, Twain had chosen Jews, Mormons, or Evangelicals as the villains of Connecticut Yankee. Would it still occupy the exalted position it does as an American classic? Or would it be relegated to those dusty shelves where reside other scurrilous works or racist manifestos to be studied as a historical curiosity of a meaner age?

For me, the most annoying aspect of Connecticut Yankee was Twain's almost total ignorance of history--or, perhaps more accurately, his decision to turn history on its head to better fit his polemical aims of blaming all the ills of society on the Catholic Church. This is a classic example of what happens, I suppose, when a journalist with a wide breadth of knowledge but no depth attempts to novelize about a historical subject. To address some of Twain's errors:

1.) Slavery in antiquity was in no way the fault of the Church. That pernicious institution long predated Christianity and was endemic to classical pagan societies. Indeed, the Church has a long history of making the lot of slaves more tolerable and being among the premier abolitionist institutions in the world.

2.) The idea that the Church suppresses intellectual freedom is a fable made up during the Protestant rebellion, though it is heartily embraced by Twain. Far more erudite scholars than I have examined this fallacy, so rather than address this topic in detail here, I would point the reader to Tom Woods's excellent book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

3.) Twain writes glowingly and naively of democracy, putting in Hank Morgan's mouth the notion that "Where every man in a state has a vote, brutal laws are impossible." One wonders what Twain would have made of our modern America, where not only every man, but every woman has a vote, and yet the ghastly practice of abortion is not only legal, but enshrined as a human right. Democracy of itself does not ensure enlightened government. Without the temper of religion, democracy is as likely to produce brutal and repulsive laws as the worst monarchy. De Tocqueville understood this. It's a wonder that Twain did not.

There are many more, but this review is already more prolix that I had intended.

As always, Twain's writing sparkles in Connecticut Yankee and his lampooning of the style of Mallory is very funny. His characters, however, viewed 120 years later, are crudely drawn. Hank Morgan is an Alger-esque self-made man whose compendious knowledge of all subjects is just a little too convenient. The legendary Arthurians are all soulless pawns that Twain moves around to further his polemic. No insight is offered into their characters at all. They are all cruel and completely self-serving--as they must be in Twain's mind because they belong to the aristocracy. The story ends on a bizarrely depressing note for a tale that was predominantly a humorous satire for the first seven-eighths of its length.

In short, this is not a book I will be reading to my kids as a bedtime story. For me, it is to be considered a shameful period piece, written at a time when it was acceptable and even laudatory to be a Know-Nothing and make up slanders about the Catholic Church. That it is a cleverly-written slander is only another mark against it. Amusing slanders are pleasing to read but have the potential to do real harm both to the target and the reader.

2 comments:

Jeff Miller said...

I find it hard to believe that he wrote this book and also the book on St. Joan of Arc. Connecticut Yankee was a great idea ruined by his sneering looks at the Church and his smug modernist view.

Jamie Carin and Claudio Romano said...

You have a book club?! Where is this book club?