Mark Twain’s Sympathies Lay With the Working Class

At the height of his fame, Mark Twain schmoozed with robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But he remained sharply critical of the unequal system they presided over.

Author Mark Twain photographed in 1907. (Library of Congress)

In the early twentieth century, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was required reading at union meetings. While it lacked the social and moral clarity of an Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck novel, it’s not hard to see the connection. At one point in Twain’s folksy time-travel novel, which follows the adventures of modern man Hank Morgan after he’s transported to Arthurian England, Morgan predicts that the lowly Medieval peasant “will rise up and take a hand at fixing his wage himself.”

Twain’s massive body of work and legendary status in American cultural history makes it difficult to parse truth from myth. For example, the quote “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” is often attributed to Twain, though he never actually said it. But a few things are certain about Twain. We know that he was an uncannily sharp wit, a keen social observer, and an influential presence in American culture and politics during his lifetime. More overlooked but no less certain is that, while no revolutionary himself, Twain held strong pro-labor views, which are particularly evident in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

“And now here I was,” Hank Morgan observes, standing before toiling Medieval laborers he meets in Camelot, where 99 percent of people “furnished all the money and did all the work,” and the rest “elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends.” To Morgan, Twain’s stand-in, “what these dupes needed was a new deal.” Indeed, the novel’s critique of Gilded Age (a term Twain coined) excess was so recognizable that this line inspired the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The King and The Boss

One day, Hank Morgan receives a severe blow to the head. He awakens in England during the reign of King Arthur, where he’s immediately captured and sentenced to the gallows. Morgan narrowly escapes persecution when, using modern scientific knowledge, he predicts an eclipse, suggesting an oracular power that rivals the magic of Merlin the Wizard. Consequently, Morgan is able to carve out a special niche in the political hierarchy of Arthur’s court, below the king and above Merlin. He nicknames himself “The Boss.”

The Boss proceeds to create a deep-state network of progressive initiatives to improve the lives of the oppressed in Arthur’s kingdom, to free them from the “nonsense of knight errantry” and the domination of the Catholic Church. Morgan begins his progressive reform with the introduction of soap. “That was a little idea of my own,” he says as he comes across one of his traveling salesmen:

I had started a number of these people out — the bravest knights I could get — each sandwiched between bulletin-boards bearing one device or another . . . these missionaries would gradually, and without creating suspicion or exciting alarm, introduce a rudimentary cleanliness among the nobility, and from them it would work down to the people, if the priests could be kept quiet. This would undermine the Church. I mean would be a step toward that. Next, education — next, freedom — and then she would begin to crumble.

Throughout the the novel, Twain’s time traveler encounters the peasants and slaves at the bottom of Arthurian society. Farmers are taxed for all their yield, or bound in chains and compelled to work. In considering what it would take to secure their freedom, Morgan muses on the French Revolution, “which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood.” He observes:

There were two “Reigns of Terror”: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death up on ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold insult, cruelty, and heartbreak?

However revolutionary Morgan sounds in these passages, The Boss is conflicted, caught between his Jacobin impulses and his enjoyment of his special status. In one scene, Morgan and the king disguise themselves as commoners so that Morgan can show him the social issues plaguing Arthur’s reign. But The Boss’s paternalism surfaces as he attempts to explain economic theory to a village. The villagers want better wages, but a frustrated Morgan explains that wages are only important if the cost of goods is low.

“What those people valued was high wages,” he complains, not “whether the high wages would buy anything or not.” Having lost the argument in the eyes of his commoner audience, he laments:

And to think of the circumstances! The first statesman of the age, the capablest man, the best-informed man in the entire world, the loftiest uncrowned head that had moved through the clouds of any political firmament for centuries, sitting here apparently defeated in argument by an ignorant country blacksmith!

The end of A Connecticut Yankee is famously dour and chaotic. Morgan witnesses a woman burned at the stake during a snowstorm as her two daughters huddle with the shivering slaves who warm themselves by the fire. A young nursing mother is hanged for stealing a small bit of cloth. Arthur endures rancid conditions inside an English prison. All of these vignettes portray social ills with parallels in Twain’s present.

The Boss invents bicycles, pistols, a printing press, and railroads, until eventually Camelot is wired with electricity. At last, The Boss declares the abolition of the monarchy, the nobility, and the Church, and proclaims a new secular democratic republic. But Morgan discovers he has miscalculated, and ends up barricaded in a cave, hunted by the still-powerful political establishment.

Illustration from a nineteenth century edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Project Gutenberg)

With enemy knights attacking the cave, Morgan goes out in a blaze of glory behind arranged Gatling guns — an apocalyptic premonition of World War I. The Boss is gunned down and buried with the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The novel is a bizarre story, but even amid its madcap adventures of knights on bicycles and zany plots against church and state, its critique of the decadence of modern society is unmistakable.

Bricklayers and Shopgirls

Like the fictional time traveler, in his later career Twain found himself an influential outsider in the chambers of power, frustrated in his desire to improve the lives of the common people he’d lived among, whose language and life stories had helped make him famous.

At the peak of Twain’s influence, the famous wit lunched with the executive board of Standard Oil, and could manipulate newspaper headlines with a few words to reporters while boarding a train. But Twain, whose given name was Samuel Clemens, was always an outsider, granted an audience among elites to the extent that he performed a specific role for the upper classes.

“He was playing a character,” Matt Seybold, resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies, told me. “He was someone who came from the soil of the Mississippi River Valley. Or even more so, for a longer period of his career, from the mining encampments of the West. The ‘Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope’ is how his initial career took off.”

Wealth followed from the success of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Twain was held up as the ideal of a Western ruffian writer. “There was a working-class aspect to that,” Seybold noted, “but also a sense that people who were from West of the Mississippi didn’t have it all together. They were sources of humor because the frontier had broken them in some way.”

Like a stand-up comedian, Twain played this character in banquet halls and on stage during lectures. He also played it before the salons of Gilded Age robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But privately, his sympathies lay more with the exploited masses.

A Connecticut Yankee came at a particular high point of Twain’s political zeal, buoyed by his faith in the then-ascendant Knights of Labor, which he greatly admired. In 1886, he read a speech titled “The New Dynasty” to the Monday Evening Club of Harford, Maryland. In it, Twain extolled the Knights’ commitment to fair treatment of all workers, regardless of race or gender. He also said:

When all the bricklayers, and all the machinists, and all the miners, and blacksmiths, and printers, and hod-carriers, and stevedores, and house painters, and brakemen, and engineers . . . and factory hands, and all the shopgirls, and all the sewing machine women, and all the telegraph operators, in a word, all the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power . . . when these rise, call the vast spectacle by any deluding name that will please your ear, but the fact remains that a Nation has risen.

“Twain’s leftist tendencies got papered over in the interwar period,” Seybold said, “particularly in the Cold War period. But they’re very evident throughout the most famous portion of his life.”

Illustration from a nineteenth century edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Project Gutenberg)

Seybold observed that parts of Twain’s massive catalog can be selected to support all kinds of opinions, and that he was cautious to never strongly endorse revolutionary movements that sometimes made targets out of his friends. Still, “Capitalism was churning people out wherever he went,” Seybold said. “It was happening in the plantation South, and in the mining communities out West. He was witnessing people get chewed up knowing that their labor created these enormous fortunes.”

Back east, at the height of his fame, Twain witnessed the runaway results of that wealth extraction, and the order of power that kept working people gullible and disorganized.

Somebody Else’s Revolution

Creatively, A Connecticut Yankee strikes out as a new kind of American science fiction to rival Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Politically, scholars point to it as a transitionary document between the steam-powered Gilded Age and the new technological democratism of the Progressive Era.

In the Soviet Union, as Seybold documents, Twain became one of the most famous writers outside the USSR. “His work captured the hypocrisy of capitalism, and gave voice to anti-imperialist notions,” Seybold said. The USSR produced film versions of Huckleberry Finn starring expatriated black US citizens in a scathing critique of American slavery and the limits of emancipation.

Twain is best described as a left-liberal. “While he absolutely lionized the impulses of labor unions,” Seybold said, “and forms of collectivity and organization, he didn’t seem to have a lot of hope for their long-term success.” Seybold continues, “I see no evidence that Twain had any capacity for organization himself. He was very much a lone wolf figure. He might express some sympathy with collectivity, but he didn’t get very involved himself. And certainly, wouldn’t get involved in some way that would put some burden on him.”

To that end, The Boss in A Connecticut Yankee appears to speak in Twain’s own voice:

No people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being an immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward. If history teaches anything, it teaches that. What this folk needed then, was a Reign of Terror and a guillotine and I was the wrong man for them.