The theme of the individual versus authority in the works of Mark Twain has relevance not only to the world Twain lived in, but to our own, and to human society generally. The particular Twain protagonists I’d like to focus on in this article are Huckleberry Finn (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and Hank Morgan (from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).
The central assertions I’d like to make are that Twain’s works have occasion to reflect the view that resistance to malignant authority in defiance of law and social convention is justified, and that lying, deception, escape, and direct resistance are morally imperative means to do so. Moreover, I’d like to assert that there are two motifs in each of the two Twain texts I will focus on which directly support this element of Twain’s writings. One is the connection between power relationships and moral clarity, which I see as especially relevant in Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s resistance to authority contains an element of surety that is high when he’s resisting an authority figure closer to himself in social status, but which plummets when he’s dealing with an authority figure that is much more powerful, essentially what he views as the Abrahamic God or his perceived representatives. The other motif, which I see as a major element of Connecticut Yankee, is what I call “the morally imperative lie”. That is, the protagonist lies because it is right and proper to do so.
All of this applies quite importantly to the question of what the relationship should be between the alienated individual and authority. This question, I would assert, is a timeless one, particularly as long as the institution of the state exists. It’s not a question I will presume to definitively answer. But I do plan to stick my neck out a bit and speculate as to what Twain would have thought about certain institutions that appeared in the decades after his death, such as the rise of totalitarianism, and how these might have modified his views.
A trip down the river with Huckleberry Finn
So first, let us take a trip down the river with Huckleberry Finn. If you had to make a list of the most morally conflicted, self-doubting Twain protagonists, Huckleberry Finn would be at or near the top. This is most famously illustrated in Huck’s decision to tear up the letter he had written to Miss Watson revealing the whereabouts of Jim, her escaped slave. A lot of commentary has been made over the years about this scene in the novel, but relatively few analyses explicitly place Huck’s dilemmas in the wider context of his relationship to various kinds of authority. So yes, Huck is resisting authority in the form of what he sees as a God-sanctioned slave system, and he does experience inner conflict over it. And this is very important. But this is not the only form of authority he deals with, so if we contrast his responses to different forms of authority, we see that he also sometimes resists authority without any qualms or hesitation at all. It depends on who it is and how Huck sees these authority figures as compared to himself. This is what I term moral clarity.
Leo Levy has accused Twain (as well as Twain’s critics on this issue) of “verbal quibbling” on the point of making a distinction between conscience and morality. In an attempt to approach this aspect of the novel as concisely as possible, by “moral clarity” I mean one’s level of conviction on how right or wrong a given action is, and in the case of Huck Finn this means action against authority.
Huck considers himself to be a person of little value, and in fact that’s what the term “huckleberry” was used for in 19th-century America, to describe a person of no account. That’s why when he believes he is resisting the will of God in assisting Jim, he is terrified. But a less intense example of this is when, upon hearing two different versions of Heaven from his guardians the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, he decides that there must be “two Providences”, and that he prefers the Widow’s, but seriously doubts that he could qualify to enter. Concluding that there are two Providences is the only way Huck can reconcile this contradiction without questioning the competence (and hence the authority) of at least one of the two adults. He doesn’t consider himself morally fit to do otherwise.
When Huck decides to escape from his abusive father Pap, faking his own death in the process, he has no qualms at all. Whatever parental authority Pap has is mitigated by the fact that he is, other than being a white adult male, essentially no higher than Huck in whatever social hierarchy may exist. Similarly, when dealing with the sham aristocrat con artists known as the King and Duke, Huck expresses not the slightest twinge of guilt when he steals and conceals the money the two men are attempting to swindle from the Wilks family while posing as relatives from England.
“these liars warn’t no kings, nor dukes, at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds”
The King and Duke have little power in society at large, but can act as conduits to bring the greater power of antebellum society to bear on Huck and Jim. As adults, they automatically have an implied authority over Huck. As white men, they carry the potential threat to turn Jim in, or sell him, which they do. As sham aristocrats, they use their false titles as a rationale for treating Huck and Jim like servants. Huck soon realises that “these liars warn’t no kings, nor dukes, at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds” (836). In an 1889 letter to Sylvester Baxter of the Boston Herald, Mark Twain condemns the institution of monarchy as “the grotesques swindle” ever devised by man. The King and Duke simply represent the starkest manifestation of such a swindle. Twain places the issue of royalty in the microcosm of the river, stripping it to its bare essence: Huck and Jim, representative members of the “lower” orders of society, are cruelly used for the benefit of the parasitical “royalty.” Huck sees through this particular version of it, and so experiences no dilemma regarding moral clarity. He quickly realises that other than being adults, the two men are no “better” than himself in the context of antebellum Southern society. So Huck experiences no sense of guilt when he steals and conceals the money the two men are attempting to swindle from an unsuspecting family. This is in sharp contrast to Huck’s actions regarding Jim and the slave system, which he sees as God-sanctioned, that is, he assumes he will go to hell if the takes any action to help Jim maintain his perceived fugitive status.
So Huck’s responses to pressure from authority are determined by moral clarity which is in turn determined by the relationships of power.
Lying and deception in Connecticut Yankee
On to Connecticut Yankee. Lying and deception figure greatly in this novel, and in fact I identify this recurring motif as the morally imperative lie.
In several of his essays, Twain postulates the lie as a natural underpinning of civilisation that spans all levels of human interaction, and by implication all of human history. Garden variety lies are nothing to fret over; we can’t avoid them in any case. But if lies per se are unavoidable, the “big lies” that aid the machinations of malignant authority are what one should condemn. Lies in and of themselves are not evil. The moral quality of a lie is defined by its objective. Connecticut Yankee serves as a fictive framework for these same assertions.
“he is a malign figure, at best a well-meaning fool, at worst a kind of incipient totalitarian dictator”
Since at least the 1960s, a common assertion about Hank Morgan, the 19th-century factory foreman who gets inexplicably transported to Arthurian England, is that he is a malign figure, at best a well-meaning fool, at worst a kind of incipient totalitarian dictator. One of the main pillars of this argument is that Hank lies and deceives in order to gain power. My argument here is that Hank has no other choice but to lie and deceive from the outset of his adventure up to the very end.
Soon after he appears in sixth-century England, Hank is captured by the knight Sir Kay the Seneschal. He is then accused of being a man-devouring ogre and sentenced to burning at the stake. Hank only saves himself by using a fortuitous solar eclipse to claim to be a wizard with the power to destroy the sun, convincing the King to release him and granting him the rank of first minister.
This event is pivotal in establishing the vital role of deception in Hank’s relationship to authority, and is consistently not mentioned in those analyses that try to paint Hank as an incipient Hitler who is on a morally equal footing with his antagonists.
Parallels between Twain’s non-fictional statements on the subject of monarchy and those of Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee strongly indicate that Hank served not as a cautionary example of a deranged dictator, but as a vehicle for Twain’s personal views on monarchy. In an 1888 notebook entry Twain states that “the institution of royalty in any form is an insult to the human race.” Hank Morgan virtually mirrors this when he says “any kind of royalty, however modified…is rightly an insult” (990). A notebook entry of Twain’s from the same year insists that if all the male monarchs of the earth were stripped naked and marched around a circus ring with 500 naked mechanics, the crowd would be unable to pick out the monarchs. This is essentially identical, in Connecticut Yankee, to Hank Morgan’s statement regarding a prisoner he had released from Morgan le Fay’s dungeons, whose crime had simply been to say that “if you were to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he couldn’t tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel clerk” (1039). Unless one wishes to simply ignore authorial intention altogether, any attempt to paint Hank Morgan as a megalomaniac must be reconciled with the parallels between these fictional and nonfictional statements. It seems clear that Hank Morgan was a character the author personally identified with, and thus whose deceptions were, in Twain’s eyes, morally imperative.
In conclusion, then: Huck Finn’s quest for freedom in lighting out for the Territory ultimately proved to be a transient ideal for Americans in real life (not to mention its implications for Native Americans). The frontier was rapidly disappearing in the period that Huckleberry Finn was written and published. As Twain was doubtless aware of this, perhaps a sense of poignant nostalgia was partly what prompted him to write the novel.
The hope that Connecticut Yankee served as a vehicle for, namely the erasure of Church-backed monarchies, has partially come true. The monarchies that now remain are largely stripped of power. But Twain would surely be disappointed to know that they were replaced in some cases by cruel secular dictatorships and totalitarian states rivaling or even surpassing their predecessors in inhumanity. He might also be surprised to see that some of the so-called “modified” monarchies he was skeptical of are now peaceful, prosperous, and free societies.
Yet considering Twain’s willingness to change his views over time (such as he did with slavery and women’s suffrage), it seems certain that he would have conceded that monarchy and religion per se are not automatically manifestations of tyranny.
Today, unlike Huck Finn, we are all registered, numbered and monitored in various ways, and daily face a ubiquitous, subtle, technology-armed authority that Huck would undoubtedly find confusing and perhaps frightening. This is less menacing in some states than in others, and may give us more “security.” Yet it can also make us wary or even fearful of a force which in its own way is even more powerful than the monarchies Twain railed against. This inspired certain writers in the generation following Twain’s death – notably Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell – to explore the individual’s relationship to authority in the dystopian novel. In Huckleberry Finn Huck escapes “sivilizing” and Jim is freed, but in the Orwellian nightmare we are all slaves and have no Territory to light out to. And Pap is sober, smart, and everywhere at once.
“Mark Twain was both optimist and rebel, and his was a rebellion of the pen.”
Yet Twain was ultimately an optimist. If he had not been, he would not have bothered to write such impassioned pleas to resistance as “The Czar’s Soliloquy” and “The New Dynasty.” He believed it was possible to make the world a place of more justice, of more moral right. Huckleberry Finn ends with Huck and Jim achieving different brands of freedom. Connecticut Yankee ends on a more poignant note, with the Church triumphant and the aged, dying Hank back in the 19th-century, yearning for his wife and child. But it is a tale of a thwarted utopian attempt rather than a dystopia. The novel as a whole carries an air of positive possibilities, especially as we know that the reinstated feudal system will eventually be displaced by a democracy. There’s not a glimmer of such hope when Winston Smith is tortured and brainwashed into submission in Orwell’s 1984, or when the citizens of OneState all have their imaginations surgically removed in Zamyatin’s We. As important and defining as the dystopian novel has been to 20th-century literature, it seems doubtful that Twain would have joined in its development had he lived to see the era of Stalinist pogroms and the dawn of Nazism. He tended to prefer happy endings, or at least endings in which the victory of “the bad guys” is not absolute.
Mark Twain was both optimist and rebel, and his was a rebellion of the pen. He doubtless outraged autocrats of all stripes in the uncompromising expression of his convictions. And he doubtless delighted in doing so.
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