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.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain & Europe by Takeshi Omiya

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. 

Mark Twain and Europe. By Takeshi Omiya. Osaka Kyoiku Tosho, 2015. Pp. 417. Hardcover. $58.00. ISBN 978-4-271-21040-5.

For Mark Twain scholars, the subject and title, Mark Twain and Europe, will not conjure any reaction resembling surprise. After all, Twain spent a significant portion of his adult life visiting and living in Europe. From the beginning of his rise to celebrity status, European countries would be the inspiration for travelogues and fiction, including The Innocents Abroad (1869), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and The Pauper (1882), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896). Several studies have been published with a focus on particular venues in Twain’s European sojourns including Howard Baetzhold’s Mark Twain & John Bull: The British Connection (1970); Carl Dolmetsch’s Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna (1992); Andreas Austilat’s Mark Twain in Berlin: Newly Discovered Stories (2013); and the most recent addition to this genre, Mark Twain and France: The Making of a New American Identity, by Paula Harrington and Ronald Jenn (2017). Twain’s travels in other more-or-less circumscribed regions of the globe have also attracted focused energies like Miriam Jones Shillingsburg’s At Home Abroad: Mark Twain in Australasia (1988).

In Mark Twain and Europe Takeshi Omiya, an independent Mark Twain scholar from Fukuoka City, Japan, with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Hiroshima University “aims to examine the influence that Europe, at that time, had on Mark Twain and his works, that is, the significance of Europe to Twain” (p. 2). The book is divided into two major sections with the first devoted to Darwin’s influence on Twain. The second section discusses the interactions and influences of Robert Louis Stevenson, Matthew Arnold and Shakespeare on Twain and his writings, particularly A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Innocents Abroad. This selection of topics and subjects hardly justifies the book’s wide-ranging title, a misnomer that could have been rectified by the more apt or more accurate, Mark Twain and the Four Englishmen. Further compounding this misnomer are discussions, well-researched and interesting, but tangential, such as the exposition of imperialism, China, and Twain’s “The Fable of the Yellow Terror” (1904-05) and Ah Sin (1876). Such digressions are not without merit, of course, but serve to underscore the conclusion that this book would have benefited from a more appropriate title to underscore its actual focus. Another criticism is the pronounced didactic approach taken by Omiya, with the phrase “First, I will show . . .” cropping up with a regularity that begs a rejoinder of the writer’s creed, “Show, don’t tell.”

The discussion of Twain’s developing determinism and its Darwinian roots has been the subject of numerous studies such as Tom Quirk’s classic Mark Twain and Human Nature(2007). Omiya’s expressed intention is “to provide a thorough examination of this subject,” asserting that prior attempts have not been “comprehensive” (p. 2). His book does include a more than adequate introduction to Darwinism and social Darwinism as a predicate to analyzing the impact of their ideas and conclusions on many of Twain’s writings, especially during the latter years of his career. Omiya traces Twain’s determinism through his notebook entries and many of his published writings, including The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, “The Turning Point of My Life,” What Is Man?, “Corn-Pone Opinions,” “The Victims,” and “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.” Omiya asserts that “Twain maintains a duality inconsistent with determinism” (p. 79) because Twain considers “each human being to have an important, unchangeable, stable part within himself or herself that is never influenced by heredity and circumstances . . .” (p. 79). He seems to suggest that Twain’s concept of determinism, sufficiently broad to include the Lamarckian idea of inherited characteristics, such as morals, allows Twain to maintain a belief in God and Darwinism simultaneously. However, Omiya’s arguments in service of this thesis are not entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this discussion is undoubtedly one of the most extensive tracings of Darwin’s influences in Twain’s thought and writings and well worth the consideration of scholars who have long ago jettisoned the idea of Twain as a “mere humorist.”

Omiya’s chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson focuses on ideas relevant to psychology in the latter half of the nineteenth century which he traces to the duality theme of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Omiya attempts to make the case that Twain, who read and enjoyed Stevenson’s book, shared Stevenson’s fascination with the notion of “double personality” (p. 173) and the influence of dreams on writing. Omiya discusses a short piece by Twain titled “The Art of Authorship” (1890) as an example of Twain’s thinking with respect to the role of the unconscious in his writing (p. 175) and cites examples in works such as A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur. He also notes the limitations of the idea that Stevenson influenced Twain, particularly with respect to the role of the conscience, which, according to Omiya’s analysis did not constitute “another distinct self” (p. 178). This chapter includes subsections devoted to the work of Jean Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, and Mark Twain’s friend, William James. According to Omiya, Twain “obtained the idea of unconsciousness” from Charcot and Janet (p. 179). Twain’s friendship with William James and their mutual interests in psychical research and, later, in the anti-imperialist movement in the United States, is cited by Omiya for James’s influence on Twain’s writing on dreams, including “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.” Twain, according to Omiya’s argument, “owes much of his notion of ‘the Dream Self’ to James’s notion of the subliminal self” (p. 184). Citing Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z (1995), Omiya repeats the unproven, and likely fake news, that Twain met Sigmund Freud in 1898, when no documentation exists from either party to support the claim, but correctly notes evidence of the one-way influence based on the later references to Twain in the writings of Freud.

Continue Reading Martin Zehr’s Review…

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.


In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco.

The lectures are now 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 Spring series is, as follows:

Wednesday, April 26 in Cowles Hall at Elmira College 7 p.m.
“These Hideous Times:” Mark Twain’s Bankruptcy and the Panic of 1893”
Joseph Csicsila,  Eastern Michigan University

An old standby of Twain biography is that Mark Twain was a bad businessman, plain and simple. Critics routinely cast him as a reckless speculator, a foolish investor, a failed entrepreneur as they advance the notion that Twain was hopelessly irresponsible with his wealth, making poor financial decisions one after another throughout much of his adult life, and that this led inevitably to his well-publicized and personally humiliating bankruptcy in April 1894. Twain studies, however, has yet to consider in any detailed fashion the context of the Panic of 1893 and the considerable role that it played in Twain’s financial ruin. The country’s first major industrial collapse, what many historians regard as America’s first full-scale economic depression, the Panic of 1893 took down thousands of businesses and ruined millions of Americans in truly historic fashion. As it turns out, Mark Twain’s bankruptcy may have had less to do with his financial decision-making than the times in which those decisions were made.
Joseph Csicsila is Professor of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University. His writings include Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies (2004); Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (2009), co-edited with Chad Rohman; and Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain (2010), co-authored with Lawrence Berkove. Csicsila is also editor of the Modern Library edition of Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age (2005) and the Broadview Press teaching volume of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Forthcoming 2017). He is currently at work on a full-scale study of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which will appear in 2018.


Wednesday, May 3 in The Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.

“Roughing It: Twain’s Take on Brigham Young, Polygamy, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre”
Barbara Jones Brown,  Independent Scholar

In 1861, young Samuel Clemens gave up his job as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and departed St. Louis to venture west. He traveled with his older brother, Orion, the new secretary of the recently created Nevada Territory. Samuel sought his fortune in the West through mining, but discovered his future instead through his writing, under the pen name Mark Twain. In his 1871, travel narrative Roughing It, Twain famously wrote of his passing through Utah, including his observations of Brigham Young, Mormon polygamy, and the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in southern Utah. This presentation looks at the circumstances that led to Twain’s writing Roughing It at Quarry Farm and compares his humorous reminiscences with what actually happened on his 1861 journey, based on historical sources.

Barbara Jones Brown is an independent historian of the American West. She is currently at work on a volume about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormon militiamen slaughtered a California-bound wagon train of Arkansas emigrants in southern Utah. This forthcoming volume, published by Oxford University Press, will include research Brown conducted, as a Quarry Farm Fellow, on Twain’s 1861 visit to Utah and his observations on the massacre. Brown holds an M.A. in American History from the University of Utah. She lives in Park City, Utah.

Wednesday, May 17 in the Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.

“Mark Twain, Unchaining the American Eagle”
David E.E. Sloane, New Haven University

Twain’s predecessor Artemus Ward claimed he could live in Canada in the capacity of a Duke, if a vacancy occurred, but Mark Twain unchained Ward’s eagle in the four main components of his humor which fulfilled Ward’s comic promise. Relying on entrepreneurialism, egalitarianism, egregiousness, and empathy, Twain stated the American vision through humor as no other American has before or since. Jokes from the humor of the Old Northeast and Twain’s own writings demonstrate his vision and how he presented it to the world.

David E.E. Sloane is Professor of English at the University of New Haven. He earned his Ph.D. degree from Duke University in 1970 and has been incorrigible ever since. His books include Mark Twain As A Literary Comedian; The Literary Humor of The Urban Northeast, 1830-1890; American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: American Comic Vision; and Mark Twain’s Humor: Critical Essays, among other works. He was the first Henry Nash Smith Fellow named by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College in 1987 or thereabouts.

Wednesday, May 24 in the Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.

“The Mechanical Woman in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”
Hoi Na Kung, Indiana University

Mark 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.

The Spring 2017 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series is sponsored by the Michael J. Kiskis Memorial Fund. The sole purpose of this fund is to support scholars and scholarship at Quarry Farm. If you are interested in contributing to this fund, please contact Dr. Joseph Lemak at [email protected]

The “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series is also made possible by the support of the Mark Twain Foundation and the Friends of the Center.