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.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Splittin’ The Raft by Scott Kaiser

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Splittin’ the Raft. By Scott Kaiser. CreateSpace, 2017. Pp. 110. Paperback. $11.99. ISBN 978-1-981954162.

The genre of plays is one of the least-explored offshoots of Twain’s legacy, perhaps with good reason. He did have one unqualified success in the format, “Colonel Sellers,” based on characters from The Gilded Age (1873), co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. It had a run of over ten years and earned Twain more in royalties than Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enticing Twain to make at least two more attempts to repeat its success. The first, Ah Sin (1877), co-written with Bret Harte, had a run lasting a month, and Is He Dead? (1898), titled after the repeated joke line in The Innocents Abroad (Twain likely “borrowed” the line from Artemus Ward), was unpublished until 2003. There are also snippets of other plays in Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques (University of California Press, 1967), suggesting that, whether for lucre or “littery” reasons, Twain had as much difficulty relinquishing a self-perception of a writer adept at all literary forms as he did giving up any presumptions regarding his investing prowess.

There have been many sound film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dating from a 1931 version starring Jackie Coogan, largely devoid of any hints of Twain’s crafted clash between a “sound heart and a deformed conscience.” More notable is the 1985 musical, Big River, with songs and music by Roger Miller, a surprisingly entertaining, insightful and serious treatment of Twain’s work. In a more literary vein, Jon Clinch’s Finn (2007), shows what an imaginative writer is capable of when he tackles some of the same themes of racism and violence, with a completely different focus, in this case, Pap Finn. As Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen noted in his Mark Twain Forum review of Finn in 2007, “Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with.” Scott Kaiser, in his play, Splittin’ the Raft, dares to tamper with scripture in what he describes as an “entertaining whirligig of a play,” which “melds Mark Twain’s humor, Frederick Douglass’ brilliant language, traditional spirituals and provocative ideas about race relations in America . . .”

This distilled two-act version of the Huck Finn saga features scenes from Huck’s tribulations under Widow Douglas, Pap’s abuse and Huck’s escape, meeting Jim on Jackson’s Island, the rattlesnake incident, the Huck-in-drag meeting with Mr. Loftus, an introduction to the King and Duke, the “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” declaration, meeting Jim and Tom Sawyer at Phelps’s farm and the convoluted “freeing” of Jim. Even in this truncated version, this is a lot to tackle in a 110-page play which takes about two hours to perform. WorldCat database entries indicate at least one film production of the play was made in 2005 running 116 minutes.

Omitted are many of the book’s episodes such as the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, the mob confrontation with Colonel Sherburn and the attempted swindle of the Wilks family. The unique twist in Kaiser’s play is the appearance of historical spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and a personal friend of Mark Twain who “tries to set the record straight” about Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Kaiser attempts to do this by scripting portions of Douglass’s own published works into the play as asides and short lectures to the audience. The book features no bibliography but Douglass scholars will likely recognize these passages such as this one from an 1852 speech on the subject of religion and slavery:

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. Many of its most eloquent Divines have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity (17).

Douglass’s frequent interjections are certainly relevant and informative with respect to slavery and racism, but this technique, which at first glance seems ingenious–a grafting together of two famous writers–quickly becomes ponderous in the reading of the script. If a reader stitched all of the Frederick Douglass asides together, one would have a brief lecture on the history of American slavery. However, what appears to be most lacking is a dramatic depiction of slavery that allows the audience to extract its own emotionally-laden conclusions that are more likely to endure.

…continue reading Martin Zehr’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

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2015 Mark Twain Annual

The most recent issue of the Mark Twain Annual, the official publication of The Mark Twain Circle of America, is dense with connections to Elmira College. At the center of the issue is a special section, “Reflections: Life at Quarry Farm Today,” featuring three short essays by former Quarry Farm Fellows, recounting their experiences as guests of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and another, by caretaker Steve Webb, addressing persistent rumors of ghosts on the property once frequented by Twain and his family. Webb admits, “there seems to be a presence,” but contends, “the ‘presence’ I feel when I’m in the house is not that of Twain – I can’t smell even the faintest hint of cigar smoke.” Instead, Webb postulates that the house in haunted by the friendly ghost of Twain’s sister-in-law, longtime Elmira resident and benefactor, Susan Crane.

The Quarry Farm essay by former Elmira faculty member, Kerry Driscoll, is inspired by a quote from Barbara Snedecor, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, who calls Quarry Farm “the quietest of all quiet places.” Dr. Snedecor also contributes to the 2015 Annual a review of the recently-published compilation of Twain’s writings about domestic life, A Family Sketch, and Other Private Writings, edited by Benjamin Griffin. Central to the collection are several writings about Elmira by Twain and his family, including a “Quarry Farm Diary” by Twain’s wife and Elmira College alumnus, Olivia Clemens.

Another Elmira faculty member, Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of English, contributes one of the issue’s feature articles, “The Neoclassical Twain: The Zombie Economics of Colonel Sellers.” This essay “tracks the tendency of Twain to be appropriated as a commentator on economic theory, history, and policy.” Dr. Seybold examines the validity of these appropriations as well as the evolving figure of Colonel Sellers, a character who appears in The Gilded Age and two sequels.

Finally, the issue also includes a review of Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn’s America. Dr. Levy, who is the Edna Cooper Professor of English at Butler University, will be lecturing at Elmira College on November 30th at 7 PM, as part of the Center for Mark Twain Studies celebration of Twain’s 180th birthday. In her review, Ann Ryan calls Dr. Levy’s book “less a scholarly text than an extended reflection on American culture and history.”

The Mark Twain Annual is available for perusal at Gannett-Tripp Library, online through JSTOR and ProjectMuse, and by subscription from The Mark Twain Circle of America.