What do we learn when we read Mark Twain alongside long-forgotten novels about giant robots and electric tanks?
That was my initial question when I started the project that became my book, Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America.
I knew that, to understand a protean literary figure like Mark Twain, often the context we place him in reveals new areas of significance. American literature survey classes, for example, often read Twain through the lens of American realism via his friend and frequent editor W.D. Howell’s exhortation for “truthful treatment of the material.” Such courses (quite fairly) emphasize Twain’s unsentimental honesty
But some of Twain’s best work was enormously conversant with a genre that, at first glance, had no investment in truth or realism — the inventor exploration stories that proliferated during the late-nineteenth century.
Surprisingly, when I began to research Twain within the framework of the burgeoning nineteenth-century American science fiction genre, what jumped out at me had little to do with imaginary machines or fantastic events. Instead, it immediately foregrounded moments when technocratic optimism overlapped with Twain’s career-long deliberation on religious faith and reason. It underscored trends throughout the subgenre’s American material.
Twain clearly enjoyed writing about would-be scientists and technologists, having Colonel Sellers tinker with phonographs in The American Claimant (1892) or David Wilson dabble in fingerprinting science in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). The preeminent character in this trend is Hank Morgan, narrator ofA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), who gets sent back in time to the 6th century and proceeds to fill Camelot with telegraphs, bicycles, newspapers, modern plumbing, and dynamite.
Some Twain scholars have seen A Connecticut Yankee as indicative of the author’s enthusiasm for technology, while others see it as an implicit critique of Western imperialism’s tendency to use technology to subjugate and exploit people in the world’s remote, underdeveloped regions. Both are fair points.
Twain’s novel, however, came after a decade of books featuring young inventors crisscrossing the globe in airships, submarines, and other vehicles of their own design. Like the novels of their French contemporary, Jules Verne, they celebrate exploration and technocracy, and they anticipate Twain’s approach in A Connecticut Yankee.
Some of the similarities are simply amusing coincidences. For example, artist Dan Beard famously illustrated a scene where Twain’s hero sallies forth in uncomfortable chain mail as “Ye Iron Dude.” Plainly, Beard understood the humor behind having a nineteenth-century businessman strutting around in medieval attire. Eight years earlier, the writers and illustrators behind the Frank Reade, Jr. series had pulled a similar stunt, featuring a cover with their boy-inventor hero at the prow of his Electric Boat in “bulletproof” chain mail, shooting at bootleggers with a revolver.
Other similarities are more significant, demonstrating nineteenth-century America’s intersecting technophilia and racial animosity. The first major “boy inventor” story, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S. Ellis, features a hero named Johnny Brainerd, who builds an enormous, steam-driven automaton to transport him to a gold-mining operation out West. Once there, he engages in multiple fights against Native Americans. Our technocrat hero views native peoples dismissively, as mere obstacles to his dream of frontier wealth. This mirrors Hank Morgan’s views in Camelot, where he likens Arthurians to “white Indians” or “savages” that he is destined to tame through technology. Moreover, both stories find militaristic inspiration in the real-life Colt Arms Factory, where Morgan works before his journey in time and Brainerd’s sidekick, “Yankee” Ethan Hopkins, visits before heading West.
But the most fascinating connections occur when the technocratic exploration narrative overlaps American religious concerns. Twain’s era saw Darwinian evolutionary theory undermine the Bible as an authoritative historical document.
While realist writers plumbed the effect of this shift on American psyches, science fiction offered an outlet for imagining different outcomes. Writers repeatedly had technocratic explorers make discoveries validating the Bible’s creation story. It was one of the first times (and far from the last) that American popular media promoted the notion that science would ultimately make new discoveries contradicting Darwin and proving the Bible’s veracity.
Some of the most elaborate dime-novel storylines from the 1880s and 1890s featured explorers finding lost Biblical tribes or evidence of giant races described in Genesis and Deuteronomy. By the end of the century, fiction writers as dissimilar as astronomy lecturer Garrett P. Serviss and Colored American Magazine editor Pauline Hopkins were imagining Americans using technology to explore unknown worlds and make discoveries that proved the Bible’s history as fact. Even Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, took an early stab at the subgenre in 1878, voicing his religious doubts in a now-lost “hollow earth” manuscript akin to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In letters, Twain warned his brother against mixing scientific exploration fiction and religious commentary.
Twain, however, couldn’t resist doing that very thing himself once technocratic exploration novels proliferated. He borrowed their template in two of his best novels, A Connecticut Yankee and the underappreciated Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). Both books find their heroes backing up their technological expertise with religious views. Morgan assumes that his technological improvements will frighten the Church and sees it as his mission to replace it with the pluralistic American Protestantism of his era. Tom Sawyer Abroad begins with Tom desiring to have a “crusade” to the Holy Land to liberate it from its Muslim inhabitants. When Tom, Huck, and Jim find themselves alone in a technologically marvelous airship, Tom commandeers it with the same patriotic hubris that fueled many “boy inventor” novels. They fly through Africa and the Middle East, but Tom is never quite able to see the native inhabitants as his equals.
Here is where Twain’s use of early science fiction really shows us what made him tick. Both novels challenge readers to critique their technocrats’ religious beliefs, to see places where unreflective faith causes blind spots in their worldview. Twain understood connections between exploration, expansion, and mainstream American Protestantism. At a time when strange technology tales with religious subtext flourished, Twain was there, mocking and critiquing, a skeptical voice among more earnest, religiously orthodox science-fiction pioneers.
For more on Twain’s role in the history of technocratic exploration novels, see Gears and God.
Nathaniel Williams is a lecturer in the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis. His essays have appeared in American Literature, Utopian Studies, and elsewhere. He serves on the advisory board of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction housed at his alma mater, The University of Kansas. He has also been a Quarry Farm Fellow and Trouble Begins lecturer.