In a recent New York Times column heralding “The Collapse of American Identity,” Robert Jones notes that British writer G.K. Chesterton once observed that the United States was “a nation with the soul of a church.” According to Jones, Chesterton “wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding ‘sacred texts,’ like the Declaration of Independence.”
Jones uses Chesterton’s comment as a counterpoint to the “two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines” he claims are currently pulling the country apart. While this contrast between Chesterton’s impression of America in the 1920s and today’s situation underscores the column’s overall point, I believe a literary work that speaks more directly to the zeitgeist of our times is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Contrary to breezy movie adaptations of this familiar story (Bing Crosby’s musical romp comes to mind), Justin Kaplan describes Twain’s story as “one of the queerer and more disturbing exercises of the American literary imagination, a brilliant comic fantasy that turns savage and shakes itself to pieces.” More precisely relevant to Jones’s column is Henry Nash Smith’s view, which Kaplan quotes, that the original text’s disjointed narrative reveals “a loss of faith in the doctrine of progress that was central to the American sense of identity.” Hank Morgan, Connecticut Yankee’s narrator, is afflicted with a malady that poet C.K. Williams called “narrative dysfunction, or what happens when we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.”
As a late 19th-century American stranded in Arthurian England, Hank is the epitome of someone who has lost the story of himself. Not surprisingly, Twain worked on Hank’s story in the mid-1880s, a time when the American narrative was unraveling at the peak of a tumultuous era Twain had dubbed the Gilded Age. The country was wracked by rapid and disorienting industrialization, a widening chasm between wealth and poverty, intensifying class conflict, new waves of immigration, and ceaseless political scandals. (For a thorough, and unsettlingly familiar, analysis of this period, see Sean D. Cashman’s America in the Gilded Age.)
Hank embodies the conflicted narratives emerging from these fault lines fracturing the country’s story of itself. He espouses the virtues of republican democracy while supplanting Arthurian monarchy with an autocratic form of capitalism that transforms the Knights of the Round Table’s spiritual quest for the Grail into an elitist “stock board…that used the Round Table for business purposes.” Despite embracing rational Enlightenment principles, Hank’s supreme political status as “The Boss” rests on his cynical exploitation of science to manipulate the ignorance and superstition of the medieval populace to his advantage.
These irreconcilable contradictions culminate in a cataclysmic civil war that makes Hank’s “dream of a republic” a nightmarish graveyard, leaving him “muttering incoherently” and “sinking away toward death.” Twain’s America may have avoided such a catastrophic fate, but he tapped into the growing anxiety of an “Age of Nervousness” characterized by what Jackson Lears calls “hazy moral distinctions and vague spiritual commitments.” Under such conditions, Lears writes, “personal identity itself came to seem problematic.”
As we make our way through the fractious New Gilded Age with hints of another “Age of Nervousness,” perhaps Connecticut Yankee can serve as a cautionary tale provoking us to heed Robert Jones’s call to “take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.” At the very least, Twain’s disturbing tale might help us avoid Hank’s tragic fate of falling into what his assistant Clarence mused was “a trap, you see—a trap of our own making.”