The Shocking Truth About Mark Twain’s Fascination With Electricity

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, Jennifer L. Lieberman, Assistant Professor of English at University of North Florida, was part of the “Twain, Technology, & Industry” panel at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Her first book, Power Lines, was published by MIT Press in July. A cultural history of electricity in the U.S. from 1882 to 1952, Power Lines provides an important prologue to 21st-century debates about the social, ethical, and conceptual consequences of technological innovation and scientific progress. Currently available in hardcover ($30) and ebook ($21). Check it out! 

Samuel Clemens was fascinated with electricity for much of his professional life. Shortly after he adopted the moniker “Mark Twain,” he described one of his influences, the Reverend Edwin Hubble Chapin, as a human powerhouse: “There is an invisible wire leading from every auditor’s soul straight to a battery hidden away somewhere in that preacher’s head, and down those wires travels in ceaseless flow the living spirit of words that might fall cold and empty and meaningless from other lips.” For the rest of his career, Twain aspired to a similarly electrifying form of showmanship.

If the above passage from the San Francisco Alta California demonstrates one of the ways that Twain used electricity as a metaphor, his notebooks and journals reveal his more utilitarian understanding of this energy. He demanded that the city of Hartford provide electrical lights in his Nook Farm neighborhood for safety reasons; he hoped that electrical medicine might heal his wife, Olivia; he asked his acquaintance Thomas A. Edison to make an electrical device for a stage production of Colonel Sellers as a Scientist—a play Twain co-authored with William Dean Howells, but which was never staged during his lifetime; he swooned after visiting the laboratory of Edison’s competitor, Nikola Tesla, where he saw plans for the alternating current distribution system and correctly anticipated that the invention “will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world.” The picture Tesla took of Twain during that visit became famous in 1895, when Tesla included it in an article for The Century magazine.

Throughout his body of work, Twain consistently represented electrical power in both ways: as a supple symbol and as a useful energy that men could control. This was especially true in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), a novel in which he discusses lightning, batteries, electric buttons, electric lights, blackouts, electro-medical treatments, electric death, and a host of metaphors that were associated with each of these inventions. Electricity was so central to Twain’s vision for the novel that its illustrator, Dan Beard, depicted the erection of power lines as an integral part of the “Beginnings of Civilization” chapter.

This pattern of electrical allurement can raise a number of questions for Twain scholars: why was Twain so attracted to electricity as a symbol and a tool? Were Twain’s descriptions of electricity exceptional, or was he expressing widely agreed upon beliefs? What does this preoccupation mean for our understanding of Twain and his legacy? These are a few of the questions that I address in my book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952, which was published by MIT Press in July 2017.

My book begins by exploring why authors, like Twain, who were primarily concerned with humanistic questions, would discuss electrification so intently. I propose, in part, that they were drawn to electricity because they understood it to be fundamentally plural: it was naturally occurring, but it also was a symbol of scientific prowess and industry; it could kill, but it also was associated with vitality and life itself. That fact made electricity exceptional.

I suggest that this multifariousness allured Twain to electrical power. As a writer who wanted to express the capacious and sometimes contradictory experiences of human life, Twain believed that metaphors drawn from electricity would enable him to signify multiple ideas simultaneously. In my first book chapter, I trace his depictions of electrical energy from his earliest germane journal entries through the published version of the novel. In every case, he depicts electricity as uniquely enthralling for its polysemy. I argue that we can best understand Twain’s distinctive depictions of electricity if we disentangle them from his representations of other inventions—including the electrically powered telephone and telegraph. Crucially, I suggest that this focus on electricity can help us to explain why Twain’s contemporaries saw A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) as an affirmative depiction of democracy and war, although critics came to read this novel more cynically after 1960.

My book does not focus on a single author. In addition to my chapter on Mark Twain and my discussion of him in my Introduction, Power Lines includes a chapter on the electric chair, which compares novels by Theodore Dreiser and Gertrude Atherton to periodical coverage of electric executions; a chapter on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and electric medicine; a chapter on Jack London and long-distance electrical power transmission; a chapter on Ralph Ellison, Lewis Mumford, and changing ideas about humanism; and, finally, a conclusion that discusses how this archive comprises a usable past that we can learn from today. Still, as the focus of my first chapter, Twain is a touchstone I return to throughout the book. I carefully trace how the rhetorical strategies he uses to describe electricity—or to describe other aspects of human life by drawing analogies to electricity—inspire the techniques of the writers who succeed him. In addition to analyzing Twain and chronicling his role in the history of technology, my chapter also includes a literary historiography that traces how criticism of A Connecticut Yankee evolved over the years. While I focus on electricity in this novel, in particular, I hope that my framework will also be useful for understanding other elements of his fun and fascinating body of work.