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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 471-503
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Philology, Performance, and Technology in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee
A nation's language is a very large matter.
Mark Twain, "Concerning the American Language"
A great author may, by his single authority, turn the trembling scale in favour of the admission to good usage of some popular word or phrase, born of an original corruption or blunder, which had hitherto been frowned upon and banned; nay, even his mannerisms and conceits may perhaps become the law of the language.
William Dwight Whitney, Language and the Study of Language
With its witty blend of social satire and literary criticism, its associations of historical romance and political intrigue, and its prescient reflections on those late-nineteenth-century technologies that Mark Twain knew would make his own world seem, to future readers, as remote as Arthur's Britain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) synthesizes what many critics have come to see as the central project of its author's late career. 1 Much has been made, for example, of the novel's place in Twain's medievalist preoccupations and, more broadly, in the larger fascination with the medieval art, architecture, literature, and politics that shaped the later nineteenth century's social historiography. 2 The novel, too, has stood as a centerpiece in recent critical accounts of Twain's conception of a culture of performance—a response to the dramatic and political arenas of role-playing, literary authorship, and social impersonation characteristic of the last [End Page 471] third of his century. 3 And it has long been seen as brimming with Twain's fascination with technology and science. Indeed, Twain has come to be understood as a technologist of the imagination, a writer prepossessed by just how the inventions of verbal dissemination—the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone—challenge the author's social function. Machines fill Twain's world, to the point where, at times, Twain imagines (as Walter Benn Michaels has persuasively put it) "persons as machines, independent because essentially inflexible—mechanical as opposed to social" (73). 4
I come to Connecticut Yankee as a medievalist and a philologist, and these two professions fascinated Twain. We know that heread widely in medieval literature, especially the Arthurian legends as contained in both Sir Thomas Malory's late-fifteenth-century Morte D'Arthure and in the popularized abridgment of Sidney Lanier's Boy's King Arthur (1880). We know, too, that he had speculated broadly on relationships of medieval social structures to late-nineteenth-century American ones. Works such as The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895), and many other letters, sketches, and essays are filled with what appears to be Twain's governing contempt, not just for medieval culture (the narrowness and piety of its beliefs, the childishness of its dynastic conflicts, the filth of its landscapes) but for the cult of medievalism that arose in nineteenth-century letters largely through the influence of Sir Walter Scott. 5
We also know Twain as a student of the English language, and his perceptive commentaries on regional dialect, linguistic change, and the discipline of philology itself fill his writings, from occasional ephemera to major fictions. 6 His concern with the relationships of speech and nationhood place him along a philological trajectory running from Noah Webster to William Dwight Whitney, and along a literary lineage stretching from Washington Irving (whose famous formulation in his Salmagundi  called the United States "a pure unadulterated LOGOCRACY or government of words" ) to William Dean Howells. 7 Twain's linguistic preoccupations are familiar to most readers from the idioms of Roughing It (1891) or the dialects of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and he often ran up against the limitations of contemporary lexicography when trying to record the usages he thought specific to American identity. 8 Philologists may relish the anecdote that when Twain came to visit Sir James A.H. Murray's Oxford English Dictionary office in 1900, he did so (in the...