Gears & God: What Powered Twain’s Speculative Fiction?

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.

The Legacy of Lawrence I. Berkove (Courtesy of Mark Twain Journal)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We were saddened to learn this past weekend of the passing of Lawrence I. Berkove, a former Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and frequent guest of Elmira College and Friend of CMTS. With permission from the Mark Twain Journal, we are pleased to reprint this essay, written for the occasion of Prof. Berkove being named a Legacy Scholar in 2014 by his former student, colleague, and longtime collaborator, Joe Csicsila. They co-lectured as part of the 2010 Trouble Begins series, which you can hear here. In our Trouble Begins archives, you will also find Berkove’s lectures from 1993 and 1999.

My earliest memory of Larry Berkove as a student of his in the late 1980s is something he said to me once during a conversation in his office between classes. I had asked him how he selected the writers he had worked on over the course of his career, or something to that effect. He told me that he usually just watched which way everybody else was going and then would turn and go off in the other direction. I was probably looking for something a little more concrete that day, but I realized later that it was in fact a perfect depiction of his scholarly sensibility. Anyone who knows Larry and his work can appreciate, I think, just how spot-on that image of him quietly wandering off all by himself actually is. He is not, of course, a person who would self-describe as a nonconformist or a rebel, because for him it has nothing at all to do with the idea of simply being different. Rather, Larry has always held to the belief that critical trends have a tendency to leave some very good writers behind. Obscurity or neglect has never worried Larry when he happened upon something he thought was skillfully written. He has consistently trusted in his ability to distinguish good writing from bad, and that has fueled his pursuit of authors for whom many would never have risked the safety of the crowd.

He was born Lawrence Ivan Berkove in Rochester, NewYork, in January 1930. His father, Harry, had dreamed of becoming a doctor but the Depression put an end to those ambitions, at least temporarily. Larry’s mother, Sally, would later run across an ad for a podiatry school in Chicago and urged her husband to apply. The couple then moved their family to the south side of Chicago in 1936 where Larry’s father worked at a downtown department store during the day and attended classes at night. Sally also helped support the family as a bookkeeper until Harry graduated and would begin his long and successful career as a podiatrist.

As a young student in the Chicago Public School System, Larry developed an interest in agronomy, which quickly grew into a passion for ecology.  After graduating from high school in 1947, Larry enrolled at Montana State University to study forestry. But he quickly discovered that conservation was not exactly the field he had imagined, so after his first year he returned to the Midwest and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, at the time a two-year college. When Larry matriculated south to the main campus at Champagne to complete his undergraduate studies he had yet to settle on another field of study. Still unsure standing in line the first day of registration, fate intervened and Larry declared himself an English major. That moment had been the first time that he had ever seriously considered pursuing a degree in English.

He enjoyed the curriculum at Illinois and did well, but studying English in the late 1940s at an American university meant studying British writers almost exclusively. (Illinois at the time did offer one class on an American author: Henry James.) Looking to continue his studies at the graduate level, Larry applied to the University of Minnesota, because it was the most affordable school in the Big 10, and was accepted. Unbeknownst to him, however, he was entering one of the country’s finest programs in American literature. In 1951, the faculty at Minnesota featured such academic luminaries as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Theodore Hornberger, and Alan Tate. Larry would have his first exposure to Mark Twain studying under Marx, an experience of profound consequence that would ultimately shape the mainlines of his thinking about Twain as an artist. His time at Minnesota also laid the foundations for a lifetime of studying American writers.

In 1953, Larry enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 16 months serving the country during the Korean War.  Back from overseas and still on active duty, Larry began applying to Ph.D. programs. After his discharge he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1956. He studied under eighteenth-century British scholars Arthur Scouten and Maurice Johnson and Americanist Charles Boewe. Theodore Hornberger joined the faculty at Pennsylvania in 1960, and it was under him that Larry would write a dissertation on Ambrose Bierce. Early on in that process, Hornberger advised Larry to try combing through nineteenth-century newspaper archives to see if Bierce’s collected stories differed from their original versions. That suggestion would prove transformational. What Larry subsequently discovered was a rich source of material, some of it long-forgotten, not only by Bierce but numerous other authors that he would work on for much of the rest of his career. After graduating from Pennsylvania in 1962, he lectured briefly at schools in Chicago and Colorado. In 1964, he took an assistant professor position at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where he would teach for the next forty years.

As Larry embarked on his career as a scholar in the mid 1960s, he would briefly put aside his research on Bierce, so it would seem, to deal first with ideas about Mark Twain that he had been formulating since his time at Minnesota more than a decade before. Studying under Leo Marx had been an enormously fruitful experience, but Larry had gradually come to question his former mentor’s conclusions about Twain and Huckleberry Finn. But this, of course, was more than simply one student challenging a former professor’s teaching. Marx’s reading of Huckleberry Finn had become arguably the prevailing orthodoxy in Twain studies in the 1950s and 60s, largely the result of his widely influential essay, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” published in 1953. In that piece, Marx argued that Twain’s masterpiece ultimately disappoints as an affirmation of freedom and thus endures as a fatally flawed novel. Focusing on the last ten chapters of the book, the so-called “evasion” episode, Marx asserts that Twain, having lost his nerve, failed in his apparent purpose to carry through to completion the bold and mature conception of freedom he had steadily promoted earlier in the book.

Larry had worked on parts of his interpretation for some time, but not until after a conversation with a colleague at Michigan who taught American history did all the pieces finally fall into place. Their discussion about the “free man of color” or “f.m.c.” in nineteenth-century American culture struck Larry immediately as the key to making sense of the end of Twain’s novel. In 1967 Larry delivered a paper, his first as an academic, titled “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn and the following spring he published an expanded version of the presentation in The Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. Importantly, Larry’s argument was the first to read the novel’s evasion episode as pointed social criticism.  Moreover, Larry asserted that far from setting out to promote a conception of freedom in Huckleberry Finn, Twain actually presents freedom as an impossibility. None of the book’s characters in the final analysis are truly free, whether considered from a social, legal, or even cosmic perspective, Larry asserts, especially Jim who is, literally speaking, an f.m.c. as the novel comes to a close: a legal status far different from “free.” Twain demonstrates throughout Huckleberry Finn that human beings are allowed to yearn for freedom, to struggle for it, and even believe that they have achieved it, but it is an illusion. As such, Larry points out, the last ten chapters of the novel do not burlesque its themes, as Marx and others argued, but instead they perfect them. Although numerous scholars have since arrived at similar conclusions independently, Larry was the first to get there. Vic Doyno called “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn” groundbreaking in his landmark book Writing Huck Finn (1991).

Larry’s insights regarding the ending of Huckleberry Finn initiated nearly a half-century ago what is today considered to be a fairly established way to read Twain’s masterpiece. Larry spent much of the 1960s and 1970s pursuing lines of inquiry with Bierce he had opened while writing his dissertation. When Larry first began to work on Bierce under Hornberger at the University of Pennsylvania, Bierce studies, with a few notable exceptions, had languished for much of the twentieth century as a field marked by impressionistic, amateurish scholarship. Critics generally interpreted Bierce’s work as gratuitously bitter or misanthropic or even worse, as simply imitative of earlier writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. As a result, the portrait of Bierce that had emerged by the early 1960s was merely that of an eccentric personality and a literary dabbler who had written a few memorable stories.  Larry’s work on Bierce set out to correct the scholarly record by showing him to be an author of considerable depth and power.  Like Jonathan Swift, Bierce was a master satirist and ironist, Larry contended, who was eminently sensitive to human pain and suffering. Bierce loathed cruelty, incompetence, and injustice and consistently expressed compassion for innocent victims throughout his impressive body of work.

In 1981, Larry edited a collection of Bierce’s newspaper columns, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901, the first major presentation of new Bierce material since 1912, that re-established Bierce’s reputation as a highly distinguished and profoundly perceptive turn-of-the-century social critic. What these columns reveal, as Bierce takes on such subjects as the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, American expansionism, and freedom of speech, is, as Larry puts it, a master of language and logic and a man of supreme integrity who felt the truth was always worth fighting for no matter the personal cost.  In 2002, Larry developed the material he had first presented in his dissertation into a comprehensive analysis of Bierce’s fiction titled A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. In the end, Larry views Bierce’s journalism and fiction as ultimately informed by a single unified vision of morality taut between tragedy and Stoicism. Bierce believed that humanity was fatally pitted against overwhelming forces (Nature, other human beings, one’s own self) and that despite the seeming futility of it all, humanity should nevertheless place itself completely in the service of truth and justice. In addition to these two volumes, Larry produced nearly a dozen other articles and books on Bierce during the course of his career and is today recognized as among the two or three most prominent Bierce scholars of the last fifty years.

As Larry poured over nineteenth-century periodicals like the San Francisco Examiner in search of material by Bierce, he had developed the habit of also reading other parts of those newspapers and magazines in an effort to broaden his understanding of the age. Occasionally during those years he noticed articles and stories by a Nevada writer named Dan De Quille. Believing them to be fairly well written, he started a file and began collecting anything by De Qullie he happened to run across. By the early 1980s, Larry had amassed enough quality writing by De Quille to convince himself that he was working with a bona fide literary talent. In 1984, he gave his first paper on De Quille at a meeting of the Western Literature Association titled “The Literary Journalism of Dan De Quille.” Over the next three decades, Larry would go on to write and edit more than thirty papers, articles, and books on Dan De Quille, including six volumes of the author’s fiction and prose, single-handedly resurrecting the critical reputation of not just a significant American literary artist but also arguably the best informed writer of the nineteenth-century Old Western social milieu.

Larry’s work on De Quille would lead to other meaningful research discoveries for him in the 1980s and 1990s. Larry, for example, would drive to Iowa to meet De Quille’s great-grandson in the mid 1980s to learn more about the life of the forgotten Nevada writer.  During that first visit, the great-grandson unexpectedly produced a trove of previously unknown letters written to De Quille by none other than Mark Twain.  De Quille and Twain had worked together in the early 1860s as newspaper writers for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. During those years in Nevada the two developed a close friendship, even rooming together for a short time. De Quille and Twain corresponded with each other occasionally in the years after Twain returned east. Twain would offer advice to De Quille the latter put together his 1876 history of the Comstock Lode, The Big Bonanza. But Larry discovered that literary inspiration actually moved in both directions between the two writers in the 1870s. Larry’s research established, for instance, that De Quille’s work fundamentally influenced not just portions of Twain’s Roughting It (1872) but also quite possibly the very conception itself and subsequent composition of “Old Times on the Mississippi,” as serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875.

Curious about other Nevada influences on Twain, Larry widened his scope beyond De Quille in the late 1980s and began looking for other literary figures associated with the Comstock region. What he discovered was an entire school of writers, long forgotten, who together constituted one of the most vigorous and innovative literary movements in nineteenth-century American literary history. They were known as the Sagebrush School (1862-1909), a label given to them by nineteenth-century historian Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels, and in their own time they were regarded as some of the country’s finest writers. The movement included Twain and De Quille, of course, but also Rollin Daggett, Joseph Goodman, and Sam Davis as well as a dozen or so lesser-known authors. What these individuals shared and what would come to be regarded as the defining characteristics of the Sagebrush School itself were an intense ethical sensibility, a searing wit, and a deep affection for the literary hoax. Thesewere the most principled, moral men of the Old West, aggressively exposing corruption, particularly among the cultural elites, and regularly taking up for the common folk and oppressed.

The movement was also marked by revolutionary artistry.  Daggett and Goodman’s co-authored 1872 play The Psychoscope (which Larry recovered and edited for publication in 2006), to take one example, represents likely the earliest known example of American realistic drama with its raw language, portrayal of prostitutes, and frank depictions of Western brothels. As such, *The Psychoscope *was easily a generation ahead of its time. One scene from the play, in particular, presents four prostitutes entertaining a good-natured but hopelessly naive young man whom they get drunk, then drug, rob, and have dumped into the street. Over the last twenty-five years, Larry has presented numerous papers and published more than a dozen articles and notes in his effort to recover the work of the Sagebrush School of writers. In 2006, Larry published The Sagebrush Anthology: Literature from the Silver Age of the Old West. This collection is profound contribution to American literary history, to be sure, but it also represents the culmination of a life’s work and arguably
the crowning achievement of Larry’s career.

In addition to his early work on Huckleberry Finn, Larry has also made a number of significant contributions throughout his career to Mark Twain studies, particularly with regard to Roughing It (1872) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In 1984, he published the first of his four essays on Connecticut Yankee, which taken together assert fundamentally that Connecticut Yankee is close if not equal to Huckleberry Finn in depth, power, and artistry.  Larry’s considerable research on Roughing It, a book which he views as possessing all the features of a unified novel and exhibiting far more complexity than is typically acknowledged by scholars, has, as one might expect, intersected continuously over the last twenty-five years with his work on the writers Sagebrush School. In 2010, Larry brought together the entirety of his fifty years of thinking about Twain and his body of work in a book-length study, titled Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain.

Larry’s scholarship over the years has treated a wide spectrum of writers, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry James, Octave Thanet, Kate Chopin, Edward Bellamy, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, E. A. Robinson, Willa Cather, and Loren Eiseley.  In the early 1990s, Larry added Jack London his long list of research interests. Inspired by a 1980s revival in London studies, Larry’s work has uncovered the degree to which London’s writing, especially the later fiction, reflected the influence of Darwin, Spencer, and Jung. In just a little more than twenty years, Larry has made an outstanding contribution to London studies, publishing a book and no fewer than nine journal articles and chapters in collected editions.

It seems a little mundane, perhaps, to close by saying that Larry Berkove has put together an enviable academic career.  But that’s what it’s been. Entirely enviable. In all kinds of ways. Most of us, of course, would be eager to claim a body of work that includes 19 books, 71 articles, 26 chapters, 47 notes, 21 reviews, and 139 conference presentations. And that is to say nothing of the Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities awards or all of the international guest lectureships or the numerous presidencies and vice-presidencies his peers have elected him to or the dozens of other honors, big and small, Larry has received over the last fifty years.  As a former student and then a colleague and friend, I can offer up another credential, one that doesn’t appear on Larry’s vita: the absolute joy with which he has gone about his work.  I’ve seen it up close now for nearly thirty years. Larry has a fondness for saying that they just don’t pay us enough as teachers to not enjoy what we do.  More than the publications or the honors, this is what I have always admired most about him, the delight that informs everything he does as a scholar.  Larry Berkove, as he will tell you himself, has had a lot of fun in his career, and it is his love of the profession, at least in my book, that will stand in the end as his most lasting legacy.

 

Joe Csicsila is a Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and author of numerous works on American Literature and Mark Twain Studies. 

Twain and Chaucer Are Featured in Next “Trouble Begins” Lecture

The fall portion of the 2017-2018 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, October 18 at 7:00 p.m. in the Barn at Quarry Farm.

The lecture, “Mark Twain and the Narrative Magic of Medieval Literacy Spunk-Water Stumps” will be presented by Liam Purdon from Doane University. While much instructive scholarship has been published treating Mark Twain’s interest in and use of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur as predecessor text for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, his interest in and use of works from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as potential predecessor texts for The Prince and the Pauper and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc constitute a dimension of his medievalism that invites further inquiry.

We know Twain read Chaucer carefully since one of his Christmas presents to Livy in 1874, Thomas Tyrwhitt’s most recent edition of Chaucer’s poetical works, bears the impress of his imagination in thoughtful as well as humorous penciled marginalia in the Squire’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and the Friar’s Tale. We also know the narrative structuring device of the Canterbury Tales’s pilgrimage itself caught his attention given its incorporation in A Connecticut Yankee in chapter 21 when Hank Morgan and Sandy join a “company of pilgrims” who tell tales “that would have embarrassed ‘the best English society twelve centuries later.’” However, understanding how the Squire’s Tale’s emphasis upon the relationship between effective translation and character may offer a narrative structuring device for the Prince and the Pauper, as well as understanding how the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’s emphasis upon manipulation of differing world-conceptions may offer a narrative structuring device for Joan of Arc, provides an instructive perspective on narrative construction worthy of consideration since it sheds light on the imaginatively effective ways in which Chaucerian predecessor texts appear to help Twain align his later literary works and vision with great works identified as foundational to the establishment of English literary and cultural tradition.

Purdon, professor of English at Doane University, specializes in medieval British literature, which has enabled him over the years to publish and make presentations on a number of well-known works by Chaucer, the Pearl-Poet, and other medieval authors. Interest in the Wakefield Master’s “play doctoring,” a course of study encouraged by late-twentieth-century examinations of material culture in plays of the York and Chester Cycles, led in 2003 to publication of new “readings” of the Master’s play revisions in light of the late-medieval emphasis upon the morality of technology. Continuing interest in 19th and 20th century American authors in general and Mark Twain in particular has led to interest in examining Twain’s creative medievalism, as well as the relationship between contemporary American author Tom Robbins and Twain.

All lectures in “The Trouble Begins” Lecture Series are free and open to the public.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series

In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in Peterson Chapel, Cowles the Barn at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY.

The lectures, now titled The Trouble Begins, are held in the Fall and Spring of each year, in the barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

The Android & The Icon: Mark Twain’s Appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation

With the upcoming premier of Star Trek: Discovery (CBS) on September 24, we thought it might be fun to look back at Mark Twain’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe.

Since the original Star Trek aired in 1966, the series and its spinoffs have attempted to align themselves with high literature. Even as the women wore campy costumes and the series boasted primitive special effects, the series grounded itself in references to important authors from William Shakespeare to John Milton to Herman Melville. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation focused more sharply on literary influences. Episodes would often involve characters on the Enterprise-D dialoging with characters, or perhaps even embodying characters, from Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexander Dumas on the Holodeck. Nevertheless, Star Trek rarely made a literary figure a central piece in an episode until The Next Generation’s “Time’s Arrow,” which depicts both Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Jack London as key figures in the episode’s plot.[1]

“Time’s Arrow” was split as the finale of season five with the conclusion at the beginning of season six in 1992. The episode involves Data (Brent Spiner), the Enterprise’s android operations officer, accidentally traveling back in time to 1893 San Francisco while hunting the Devidians, an interdimensional alien race who pose a threat to past and present humanity. In San Francisco, Data meets Samuel Clemens (Jerry Hardin), better known as Mark Twain.[2] The appearance of Clemens as a character in the episode attempts to connect the show directly to the American literary tradition, but does it succeed in this endeavor? While the episode pays homage to Samuel Clemens as an American icon and captures Mark Twain’s skepticism of humanity, the episode primarily presents him as a two-dimensional icon, as he is too easily convinced of humanity’s evolution despite clear indications to the contrary. Thus, the episode privileges his iconic status over his literary work, which only serves to reinforce Star Trek’s optimistic view of the future rather than engage in the complexities of Mark Twain’s life and work.

The presence of Samuel Clemens in “Time’s Arrow” largely seems an avenue for the series to pit Mark Twain’s pessimistic view of humanity against Star Trek’s idealistic vision of the future. When Clemens meets Data, who serves as a symbol for striving after humanity throughout the series, he is automatically skeptical of what Data might be planning. Clemens eventually learns that Data is from the future, and he automatically assumes that Data is playing an analogous role to Hank Morgan from Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888). Clemens’s curiosity about Data’s plan leads him to discover that the rest of the Enterprise crew has arrived in the 19th century, which makes him suspect that a future invasion is underway. Seeing himself as the protector of humanity, Clemens stalks Data and the Enterprise crew, which eventually results in his being transported to the 24th century. There he discovers that humanity has progressed beyond the selfishness that defined the world during Clemens’s time. The episode ends with Clemens, as humanity’s satirical protector, accepting that “his business,” mankind, has fared well after all.

It is worth noting that very little scholarly analysis has been done on the implications of Mark Twain’s grand entrance into the Star Trek universe. Certainly, writers have remarked on the sense of adventure as the Enterprise crew meets Mark Twain, but it is mostly superficial praise. A few critics, such as Valerie Fulton, use the episode to illustrate Star Trek’s imperialistic overtones, especially The Next Generation. The episode’s rating on IMDb is a very respectable 8.2, which indicates that fans of the show enjoy it. For full disclosure, I have always enjoyed the episode. Indeed, “Time’s Arrow” was among the first episodes I watched in the entire Star Trek canon, and it is because of the episode that I became enamored with the Star Trek universe, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. When viewed uncritically, the episode embodies the spirit of adventure and fun that fans of the show appreciate, with an appearance of one of the most iconic, cherished writers in American literature to boot. However, upon further examination, especially after studying Mark Twain more closely, cracks begin to develop not only in its depiction of Mark Twain, but also in its depiction of the Enterprise crew.

These cracks can also be seen in how Star Trek programs, at least before the film series that began in 2009, have positioned themselves culturally, especially with their references to literary classics. Above all, Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for humanity’s future was utopian in the sense that class, race, and, to a certain extent, gender distinctions were eradicated. The original series and TNG both placed minorities and women in prominent social positions, such as scientists, ship captains, and doctors. As developed and inclusive as this society appears, Brian Ott and Eric Aoki argue that the 23rd and 24th centuries are culturally homogenous, with a clear preference for the traditional Western canon over more diverse sources of literature. A number of factors contribute to this homogeneous depiction of culture, but the elevation and celebration of classical, Western literature over other forms of expression is a primary tool. For example, in The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek, James F. Broderick notes Trek’s connection to Western literature more enthusiastically, “Star Trek draws from both the letter and the spirit of many canonical authors” (6). A running joke among Trek fans is that judging from the literary references on the programs, no great literary works were written after 1900 because the show references very few contemporary, world, or visual works from that time period. One of the few exceptions to this tendency occurs in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Spock refers to authors such as Harold Robbins as “the giants,” while virtually inviting the audiences to laugh derisively at such a thought. The joke in the scene is telling as it clearly privileges what one might call “traditional literature” over popular contemporary texts. Jim Collins notes that this kind of positioning is common in post-modern texts attempting to legitimize the value of their literary significance over those in their genres. Thus, Star Trek’s homogenous future under the influence of classical literature distinguishes it from the visions offered by other science fiction programs and film.

If we believe Broderick about the inclusion of canonical authors, the result of the synthesis between science-fiction and high literature is a new humanism, in which, “The Stories of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Italian Renaissance and subsequent literary periods reveal humanity at its best and point the way toward a future which endorses the values of the ‘humanities’—freedom, justice, equality” (8). If we believe Ott and Aoki, the literary allusions are indicative of a hegemonic 24th century, in which the Western ideal has obliterated all other sources of literature and tradition. However, we might more likely believe Kit McFarlane, who writes that “while the literary quotations and allusions scattered throughout the original Star Trek could make for fun viewing and even occasional authentic dramatic engagement, they’d completely lapsed into dull and passionless literary name-dropping by the time The Next Generation rolled around.” While one could certainly point to a few instances in the series that contradict McFarlane’s premise of meaningless literary engagement, he is largely accurate, especially in the case of Mark Twain’s appearance in “Time’s Arrow.”

As one of the giants of Western literature, Samuel Clemens is brought to life in “Time’s Arrow” by Jerry Hardin, a career character actor perhaps best known for his stints on L.A. Law and The X-Files. His still photo as Samuel Clemens, included here, is very likely the image that many Americans have of Mark Twain—complete with the white suit, unkempt hair, bushy mustache, and, of course, a cigar. One could hardly mistake Hardin’s visual appearance as anyone except Mark Twain. For his part, Jerry Hardin’s performance is quite good, even it is derivative of Hal Holbrook’s depictions of Mark Twain (to the point that many commenters on message boards believe that Holbrook starred in the episode). The major difference in Hardin’s portrayal lies in his dependence on exaggerated physical gesticulations and bombast as opposed to Holbrook’s more understated approach.

Nevertheless, the largest problem with the visual depiction of Clemens is over a decade before Mark Twain cultivates his image as the man in the white suit in 1906. Photographs of Clemens in the early 1890s, as this 1894 photograph of Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory, often show him in a dark suit with intermittent gray hairs. Furthermore, Mark Twain was most likely residing in Europe, not on tour in San Francisco, during the episode’s 1893 setting. Clemens did not return to the United States until September of 1893 to meet with Henry Rogers in the hopes of rebuilding his financial portfolio after his bankruptcy. The episode also features a glancing reference to Halley’s Comet, when Clemens asks Counselor Troi if the Enterprise has ever encountered it. The quick reference establishes the importance of Halley’s Comet in Mark Twain lore. While one might give leeway for creative license when depicting historical figures, especially in a science-fiction setting, the episode’s writers merely provide a collage of well-known details from Twain’s life rather than building the episode on a more informed and complicated depiction of it. If asked to compile what an average person would know of Mark Twain, a white suit, cigar, San Francisco, and Halley’s Comet would likely appear in the Top 10, which makes one suspect that this episode is guilty of the passionless name-dropping that Kit McFarlane mentions. While these inaccuracies may seem slight, they reveal the episode’s inability to move beyond a surface portrait of Mark Twain, just as other episodes tend to draw simplistic analogies to classical works of literature.

Mark Twain’s depiction on “Time’s Arrow” further represents an oddity in Star Trek’s use of literary reference because the focus is not so much on Mark Twain’s literary works as much as on the personality and aura of Mark Twain, with the little focus on his work being overly simplified. In most of Trek’s literary references, various plot devices and characters serve as analogies to classical literature. For example, most famously in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Khan is a clear analogy for Captain Ahab; in addition, Khan takes on aspects of Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost as he and his followers are marooned on a deserted planet. Even if the analogies are sometimes clumsy or heavy-handed, they often fit the theme of the episode. “Time’s Arrow” obliquely references two of Twain’s literary works, one well-known and the other more obscure. The first reference is to an essay called “Was the World Made for Man?” (1903), and it occurs in the introduction of his character to the plot.[3] The essay, which was published posthumously, is a brief response to Alfred Russell Wallace’s book Man’s Place in the Universe (1903), which argues that man, because of his reasoning faculty, is the focal point of the cosmos—that the world, the universe, was created for man. The scene takes place in a lecture hall, in which Enterprise bartender Guinan, an ancient, recurring alien bartender on the series portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, is holding a lecture, with Clemens in attendance as an eager participant. Data eventually interrupts the discussion because he believes that Guinan has also been thrown back in time and seeks her help. Though Clemens’s dialogue does not quote from Mark Twain’s essay on Russell verbatim, he does recount many of the points made in Twain’s essay.

The scene is meant to establish Twain’s skepticism of humanity, largely so that he can be convinced of its evolution later in the episode. After Clemens derides Wallace’s thesis and asserts that man becomes less significant if he is one among millions of intelligent species, Guinan asserts, “Some may argue that a diamond is still a diamond—even if it is one amongst millions.” Clemens’s response acerbically notes that in order to accept her analogy, one would have to believe that “the human race was akin to a precious jewel, but this increasingly hypothetical someone, would not be me.” The dialogue here perfectly sets up the image of Mark Twain as a cynic and misanthrope, especially concerning the ability of humanity to evolve beyond its crude state. The analogy also pits Clemens’s world-weary cynicism against Data’s innocence, though the episode does very little development of that particular motif. In making Clemens into such a cynic, the episode overplays its hand a bit in emphasizing this facet of Twain by ignoring the purpose of his satire. Clemens’s starting point is too close to nihilism to accurately portray Twain’s use of humor, and it especially undercuts Clemens’s self-proclaimed title, “Protector of Humanity,” after he learns that aliens and people from the future have arrived. If man is so insignificant, why does Clemens go through such great lengths to protect it in the episode?

To be sure, many of Twain’s writings display a lack of confidence in the human race, but Harold K. Bush also notes that “the moral aspect of his writings hinges upon both a desire for an unshakable faith in the possibility that things might change for the better and that his work would become an agent for such change” (224). Clemens’s opening scene and his dialogue with Guinan do not offer a glimpse into Twain’s love of humanity. The sole purpose of this construction of Clemens’s character is to set him on a journey from hopeless cynic to naïve acolyte by the episodes end. Thus, while the use of “Was the World Made for Man?” in Clemens’s opening scene does provide great potential in showing how he might interact with visitors from other worlds, that potential is eventually unfulfilled, since Clemens spends much of the remainder of the episode as merely an obstacle attempting to thwart Data’s plan to stop the meta-phasic aliens out of paranoia, which leads to the reference to one of Twain’s more well-known works.

The other reference to Mark Twain’s work clearly exemplifies the paranoia of Clemens. In the opening scene of Part 2 in “Time’s Arrow,” Clemens notes to a reporter that in one his novels, a time traveler goes back in time and destroys a civilization, and Clemens does not intend for some android from the future to mess with humanity. Of course, Clemens is referring to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In the episode, Clemens states, “I’ve long been interested in the notion of time travelers. In fact, I wrote a book about it. It chronicles the tale of a man from our era who fouls the sixth century by introducing newfangled gadgets and weapons, all in the name of progress.” On the surface, this synopsis of the novel is not wrong, but it is oversimplified. The passing reference to this episode seems clever on the surface, but other than time travel, the events in “Time’s Arrow” has very little in common with the novel. First, the writers of the episode err in having Clemens claim that the novel is a satire on Hank Morgan, the novel’s protagonist. In reality, the novel’s primary target is the romanticization of the Arthurian legends. Certainly, Twain does not leave the Gilded Age unscathed, and Twain castigates Morgan for his actions, but not more so than the primitive superstition displayed by nobility and Church of the medieval period. For the character of Clemens to say that Morgan “fouls up” Camelot is largely inaccurate because Twain emphasizes that Camelot is already fouled up throughout the entire novel. Moreover, that Clemens uses his own novel to suspect Data of foul play does not give Mark Twain credit for his openness to science, progress, and business. The episode might have been better served having Clemens assist Data because of his own technological curiosity rather than having him become a secondary antagonist.

Had the episode’s engagement with Mark Twain’s work and philosophy of humanity been more nuanced, the more superficial physical presentation and allusions to his work might be easier to overlook. Instead, the episode makes Clemens’s conversion too simplistic and unbelievable, without any of the skepticism exhibited by Mark Twain in his works, even though reasons for his skepticism are abundant in this particular episode. As Clemens tracks Data and the rest of the Enterprise crew, he finds them in a mining shaft, which is where the Devidians are transporting to 19th century earth. Clemens disrupts the meeting between the crew and the Devidians, which results in a portal being opened to 24th century Devidia II. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to visit the future, Clemens walks through the portal, where he is taken to the Enterprise while the crew determines the next course of action, since Captain Picard and an injured Guinan are left with an injured Devidian on 19th century earth. Picard learns from the dying Devidian that they have been targeting and killing elderly patients in 19th century earth because they are dependent on neural energy for a food source. When Picard asks if there might be some alternative food source, the Davidian protests that there is no other, and then promptly dies. Meanwhile in the 24th century, Clemens takes a tour of the Enterprise with counselor Deanna Troi, who explains to Clemens that the conflicts that defines his earth in the 19th century are no longer concerns in the 24th:

Troi: Poverty was eliminated on earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it—hopelessness, despair, cruelty…

Clemens: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace, and power is an end unto itself. And you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?

Troi: That’s right. [with a smug expression]

Clemens: Hmmm…well…maybe…it’s worth giving up cigars for, after all.

Clemens’s change of heart regarding the evolution of man is a nice sentiment, but it also runs counter to what is happening in the episode. In particular, the Enterprise is trying to ensure that an alien race will quit feeding on sick people in the 19th century. The aliens do not appear to be killing people out of malice, hatred, or cruelty, but because they are desperate for a food source. Rather than working to solve the aliens’ problem, the Enterprise destroys the portal through which the aliens travel to the 24th century, and ostensibly destroys them in the process. In previous episodes of the series, Picard has attempted to help much more dangerous foes before pursuing a violent course of action. In “Silicone Avatar” (5.4), and episode from the same season, he seeks to communicate with the Crystalline Entity (pictured here), which had already destroyed numerous planets, before seeking to destroy it because he understood that the creature needed a food source that they might be able to provide. In “Time’s Arrow,” Picard and his crew never attempt to find an alternative food source for the Devidians; instead, they destroy their portal and leave them for dead. Given Clemens’s early skepticism toward the Enterprise, it seems as though this action might raise a bushy eyebrow or two.

However, Clemens celebrates his newfound optimism, which is still problematic because many of his most pessimistic works are written after 1893. Certainly, the writers could have explained that Twain’s later works bordered on pessimism because humanity was so slow in progressing after he had seen the potential of mankind fulfilled, or he could have had his memory of the incident wiped, a ready stand-by in science-fiction, or they could have found some clever way to tie it to one of his works. But the writers do nothing of the sort. After returning to the 19th century so that Picard can return to the 24th in time to decimate the Devidians, Clemens continues his life with no apparent closure to his journey. This lack of closure largely occurs because Clemens’s purpose for the episode has been fulfilled: a misanthropic old man has come to endorse the future. A future manufactured by the show’s writers that reflect assumptions of Western cultural superiority. Indeed, Valerie Fulton explicates the implication of such assumptions, writing,

Clemens’s appearance on the show underscores the extent to which t.v. programs themselves may unintentionally reproduce ideological assumptions that we consume, store, and later regurgitate….Clemens’s appearance on the episode in question as an inquisitive and bothersome fixture of the western American frontier situates him firmly in a past where the imperial self was a fixture both dominant and heroic. This portrayal does more than belie the strong anti-imperialist tenor of Clemens’s later work. (Fulton)

Because the writers misunderstand and even ignore the works and philosophy of Mark Twain, they trade on his status as iconic American writer in order to project American norms onto Starfleet and the Federation. Essentially, the episode is a fairy tale in which the timeline is reset, and the assumption of Federation moral and cultural superiority are reinforced.

While Star Trek adapts many classical works of literature in episodes, “Time’s Arrow” inverts this model. Rather than engaging in Mark Twain’s work, they instead misuse his iconic image to reinforce their mythology of the future. The episode raises complications for both parties involved. For Star Trek, the episode illustrates the series’ struggles to engage with classical literature any further than a surface level interpretation. For Mark Twain, the episode illustrates the inability of the popular imagination, as seen both in this episode and various adaptations of Twain’s literature, to move beyond the more iconic, less nuanced image of Mark Twain as the domesticated satirist.

 

Kaine Ezell is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He recently published his first book, Humor & Satire on Contemporary American Television: Animation & The American Joke. A version of this paper was originally presented last month at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. 

 

[1] Jack London’s role in the episode would require a different kind of paper, but on balance, his depiction in the episode is smoother than Mark Twain’s, perhaps because London does not enjoy the same iconic status as Mark Twain.

[2] To avoid confusion, I will refer to the real life writer and historical figure as Mark Twain, and I will refer to the fictional character in “Time’s Arrow” as Samuel Clemens.

[3] Another anachronism, since this essay, and Wallace’s book, are written almost a decade after the episode’s setting.

 

Works Cited

Broderick, James F. The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek. McFarland and Co., 2006.

Bush, Harold K. Mark Twain and the Crisis of His Spiritual Age. U of Alabama P, 2007.

Fulton, Valerie. “An Other Frontier: Voyaging West with Mark Twain and Star Trek’s Imperial Subject.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 4, no. 3, 1995, ProjectMuse. Accessed 10 July 2017.

McFarlane, Kit. “Star Trek’s Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension.” Pop Matters, 21 May 2009, http://www.popmatters.com/feature/93291-treks-lost-legacy-of-literary-pretension/ Accessed 10 July 2017.

Ott, Brian L. and Eric Aoki. “Popular Imagination and Identity Politics: Reading the Future in Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 65, no. 4, 2001, pp. 392-415.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, performances by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley, Paramount, 1986.

“Time’s Arrow, Part 1.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller, directed by Les Landau, Paramount, 1992.

“Time’s Arrow, Part 2.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller, directed by Les Landau, Paramount, 1992.

Recalling “Epoch-Eclipse & Apocalypse” & Anticipating August 21 Eclipse

Editor’s Note: David Ketterer is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Liverpool and an Emeritus Professor of English at Concordia University. He has an extensive record of scholarship on American Literature and Science Fiction, notably New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, & American Literature (1974) and The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (1984)His most recent book, a literary biography of John Wyndham, is scheduled for publication in 2018. He has also edited several editions of Wyndham’s works. In anticipation of the August 21 eclipse, we asked Dr. Ketterer to return to one of his earliest articles, originally published in PMLA and later collected in the Norton Critical Edition of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  

When I wrote “Epoch-Eclipse and Apocalypse: Special ‘Effects’ in A Connecticut Yankee” (PMLA 88 [October 1973]: 1104-14), I was not able to google <solar eclipses in fiction> and learn, within minutes, that, to date, there have been at least 21 published novels or stories and 37 films (all listed chronologically) that include a solar eclipse which is of plot significance. I am excluding from these totals the first fictional work listed—Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885)—and the 1937 film based on that novel. The eclipse involved in Haggard’s novel is (as indeed the relevant Wikipedia “Solar eclipses in fiction” partly annotated list makes clear) not solar but lunar. Nevertheless, in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), the second fiction title listed in the Wikipedia entry, knowledge of the precise date of a solar eclipse turns out very much to be power as it does with regard to the lunar eclipse in Haggard’s work.

This is my abstract for the PMLA article: “Hank Morgan’s most notable ‘effect,’ the solar eclipse corresponds to the transposition of epochs experienced by himself and, subsequently, by the inhabitants of sixth-century Britain. The continuing ‘apocalyptic’ import of this hypothetical ‘transformation’ finds expression in the episodes and images involving qualities of the sun (fieriness, circularity, illumination, color), culminating in the battle of the solar-significant sand-belt. Just as Hank’s magic powers are more apparent than real, the differences between nineteenth-century America and sixth-century Britain are illusory. The recognition that pre-Civil War America is a mirror image of Arthur’s England and that all men [human beings!] are essentially the same finds its ultimate metaphoric statement in the implied equivalence between the human condition and the perambulating slave band. Given that to Sandy’s perception swine are princesses, a further analogy between the slaves and swine provides an extreme instance of the realization that the line between reality and unreality is narrow. Hank’s burlesque narration reflects on the similarly subjective and ‘unrealistic’ nature of his understanding; his ignorance about the nature of reality is on a par with his blindness to the significance of imagery and symbolism. Thus the reader is well prepared for the truly apocalyptic revelation which the eclipse and its related imagery signify: the sixth-century world and the nineteenth-century world are identical and possibly, identically unreal or equally only a dream reality.”

In my 1973 article (which was reprinted as Chapter 9 of my 1974 book New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, and in the 1982 Norton Critical Edition of A Connecticut Yankee), I do not specifically discuss that novel as science fiction and its influence on subsequent science fiction. That would await the publication of my Shoe String Press edition of The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (1984), a work re-published as the University of Nebraska Press edition of Mark Twain’s Tales of Wonder (2003). A Connecticut Yankee is a major contribution to the history of the time travel theme in science fiction but its more tenuous contribution to the not-very-frequent depiction of solar eclipses in science fiction (my focus here given the total eclipse of August 21, 2017) deserves notice.

Twain himself, of course, may well have been indebted to the use made of the knowledge of a lunar eclipse in King Solomon’s Mines. There does not, however, appear to be any hard evidence of his reading that adventure fantasy before 1889 or, indeed, before 1907 when the 1907 edition of King Solomon’s Mines became part of his personal library. In total, Mark Twain’s library finally included 47 Haggard titles. This of course does imply that Mark Twain probably would have read King Solomon’s Mines shortly after its first publication and well before embarking on A Connecticut Yankee. In that event, he would definitely have been indebted to Haggard for Hank’s solar eclipse ploy.

The Wikipedia “Solar eclipses in fiction” books and stories list includes two works of science fiction that would have been written with some awareness of the total solar eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee. Isaac Asimov’s 1941 modern classic “Nightfall” (which involves the implications of the total eclipse of an alien planet’s sixth sun) is the better known title. He and Robert Silverberg wrote a 1990 novel version of the same title. The other listed title is Robert J. Sawyer’s Illegal Alien (1997). This summary is provided: “Aliens visit Earth and observe a total solar eclipse [the historical eclipse of August 11, 1999]. Their scientist host speculates that Earth may be the only planet in the entire universe whose mass covers its sun perfectly (with only transits and occultations occurring in other planets).” Missing from Wikapedia’s “Solar eclipses in fiction” is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). For symbolic purposes that might reasonably be compared with Mark Twain’s, Wells’s narrator in the dying Earth’s far future observes an apparently total eclipse of the sun by the Moon or more probably Mercury. (See Chapter XI of the British Heinemann text or Chapter XIII of the American Holt text.)

In my 1973 article I do not explain how the total solar eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee relates to that novel being a classic of time travel fiction. Mark Twain’s astronomical interest in the mechanics and mathematics of our miniscule fraction of the Milky Way galaxy would have been sparked very early in his life by the coincidence of his birth date with a re-appearance of Halley’s Comet. And, as he came to longingly anticipate, he died in the year (75 years later) that that comet next appeared. (I had proposed in vain that the front jacket cover of The Science Fiction of Mark Twain include a portrait of Mark Twain as his Connecticut Yankee with Halley’s Comet in the background!)

Finally, it is because the sun is directly associated with our conception of time—the process of the seasons and the succession of Earth’s orbital years—that the appearance of a total solar eclipse is so relevant and central to the time travel core of A Connecticut Yankee. As it happens, thanks to 44 successive orbits since 1973, I am no longer the 31-year-old author of “Epoch-Eclipse and Apocalypse”; I am now Mark Twain’s age when he died.

Spring 2017 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series Concludes With Lecture From Hoi Na Kung

The spring portion of the 2016-2017 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes Wednesday, May 24, at 7:00 p.m., in the Barn at Quarry Farm.  The lecture is free and open to the public.

The lecture, “The Mechanical Woman in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” presented by Hoi Na Kung, a doctorate student at Indiana University.  Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court abounds with comical descriptions that liken its central female character, Sandy, to an industrial machine with infinite labor power. This lecture will suggest that this novel’s peculiar automatization of Sandy gestures towards a 19th century cultural ambivalence about technology. On one hand, technology promised a “rational” order of life with an emphasis on the maximization of productivity and profit. On the other hand, technology threatened a disturbance of social order: mechanization of the workplace allowed women to leave the household for the workplace en masse, generating anxiety about women exchanging biological reproduction for industrial reproduction of commodities. Departing from much of the literary criticism that interprets Twain’s technologized modernity as a tragedy, this lecture will argue that Twain’s novel employs the figure of the mechanical woman in order to foreground both the sense of increased freedom and unfreedom for both men and women opened up by a technologized modernity.

 

Hoi Na Kung is currently a third-year doctorate student in the English department at Indiana University, where she specializes in 19th and 20th century American literature with an emphasis on critical race studies and gender studies. She is currently working on a project exploring representations of sensory experiences in African American and Asian American literature written in the age of globalization.