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  • “That Petrified Laugh”: Mark Twain’s Hoaxes in the West and Camelot
  • Jeffrey Bilbro (bio)

Critics often assess A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as an “extravagant failure” that is deeply contradictory and flawed (Cox 198).1 Yet, if readers thought “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson” or any of Twain’s other Western hoaxes were intended to be realistic stories, they might evaluate them similarly. These critical evaluations of Connecticut Yankee as a conflicted failure, therefore, reveal more about the critics’ misunderstandings of its genre than about the book itself. Without an understanding of Twain’s hoax genre, critics do not know how to read the complex layers of irony woven through Connecticut Yankee, and depending on how many levels they see, they either read the work as a satire of only the sixth century or as a satire of the common absurd beliefs held in both the sixth and nineteenth centuries.2 What these readings fail to recognize, however, is that at its most profound level, the hoax satirizes the individual reader’s complicity in Hank’s false assumptions, assumptions that lead Hank to believe he can civilize Camelot with the tools settlers used to tame the west: lariats, railroads, and dynamite.

Many genre labels have been applied to Connecticut Yankee, but their proliferation proves Howard Baetzhold’s point that “the book has defied attempts to fit it exactly into established genres” (77).3 Two scholars, in an attempt to provide a more cohesive reading of the work, have suggested Connecticut Yankee fits more definitive genres. Reuben Sanchez defines it [End Page 204] as a Menippean satire in the vein of Gulliver’s Travels. This identification generates a reading of the work superior to that produced by the typical, protean genre labels, and Twain would certainly have been familiar with other works of this genre, such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the writings of Rabelais. However, in seeing the book as a Menippean satire, Sanchez overlooks a genre both more familiar to Twain and one in which he had already demonstrated remarkable virtuosity: the hoax. Lawrence Berkove has argued that Connecticut Yankee should be read as “a serious hoax,” and while he identifies its genre correctly, his analysis fails to adequately examine the components and operations of Twain’s hoaxes (“A Connecticut Yankee: A Serious Hoax” 28). Berkove does not analyze any of Twain’s other hoaxes and offers no satisfactory definition of the hoax as a genre. Because of this deficiency, he fails to properly answer the crucial question regarding genre: how does the generic form of a work contribute to and, in a sense, determine the work’s meaning? Berkove’s answer is that Connecticut Yankee demonstrates Twain’s pessimistic determinism, his belief that all life was a hoax perpetrated on humanity by a Calvinistic God (“A Connecticut Yankee: A Serious Hoax” 41).4 This interpretation oversimplifies Twain’s complex view of life and the actual workings of his hoaxes, both the more simple ones from his days as a western newspaper reporter and his complex hoax in Connecticut Yankee.

In order to grasp the real significance of Berkove’s claim that Connecticut Yankee is a hoax, Twain’s 1889 work must be read in the context of his earlier hoaxes. An examination of Twain’s western hoaxes and some of his essays yields a four-part definition of the hoax genre as employed by Twain: 1) the hoax is initially plausible but is eventually self-falsifying; 2) the moral or nub of the hoax turns the entertaining story into a satire directed at the individual reader; 3) the success of the hoax depends on the hoaxer’s accurate perception of the silent-assertion lies believed by the reader; 4) although the hoax is a morally ambivalent form of satire, it can be a powerful tool for encouraging individuals to reform. With this understanding of its complex genre, Connecticut Yankee appears as a sophisticated hoax, one whose satire is directed not at any generalized society—whether sixth-century England, nineteenth-century England, or nineteenth-century America—but rather at its individual readers’ complicity [End Page 205] in silent-assertion lies regarding American democracy...


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pp. 204-234
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