- Making a Mill of a Mouth More Productive: Efficiency and Linguistic Management in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee
Scholars often foreground the critique of industrialization in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Henry Nash Smith, among the earliest in this tradition, reads in Connecticut Yankee resistance to the mechanization and rationalization of American labor, claiming that the novel emblematizes a “conflict in Twain’s mind between a conscious endorsement of progress and a latent revulsion against the non-human imperatives of the machine and all it stood for in the way of discipline and organization.”1 More recent studies complicate this account by pointing out that industrial discourses influenced Connecticut Yankee in spite of Twain’s “latent revulsion” against the machine. Cindy Weinstein recalls that Twain often supported the “efficiency techniques” managers introduced to factories in the fin-de-siècle. However, she adds, Twain struggled to represent efficiency in Connecticut Yankee because rendering its characters productive workers turned them into “mechanical” personalities that made for digressive storytelling and forced Twain to expose his artistic labor. Thus Twain used the novel to allegorize the flattening of individual identity that factory workers experienced with the advent of productivity policies; moreover, he sought to “interrogate traditional relations between efficiency and inefficiency in order to suggest that literary labor,” especially humor, “is subject to different notions of efficiency” than factory work.2
Studies like these nicely describe industrialization’s impact on fin-de-siècle literature, and they rightly point out Twain’s sensitivity to changes in factory labor, especially with the development of “efficiency techniques.” Nevertheless, scholars have only begun to assess the complexity of Twain’s thinking [End Page 55] about technological progress because they have yet to examine Connecticut Yankee’s fraught relationship to the rhetoric of industrial reform. A more complicated understanding of the novel’s industrial critique emerges when we read it alongside concomitant changes in the concept of machine efficiency. During the 1880s, engineers like Frederick Winslow Taylor popularized factory concerns about productivity and mechanical performance, introducing them to the rhetoric of uplift and transforming the idea of machine efficiency into a discourse of societal management, one that would culminate in the efficiency politics of the Progressive Era. Fiction helped to articulate this conceptual shift. As Cecelia Tichi points out, works like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888) effected a “cunning linguistic change” to the idea of efficiency by claiming that social engineers could redesign society and, in turn, eliminate the “waste” of socioeconomic inequality.3 But while scholars readily associate Looking Backward with the dissemination of efficiency discourse, and while Yankee appeared within a year of Bellamy’s book, critics have been reluctant to read Twain’s work in this context. Nevertheless, Connecticut Yankee reflects the reformist rhetoric of efficiency and reading the novel alongside this discourse demonstrates that Twain keenly sensed efficiency’s movement into other cultural discussions, particularly in debates about optimizing human behavior and social interaction. Moreover, situating Yankee in efficiency discourse reveals that, rather than reviling the “non-human imperatives of the machine,” as Smith suggests, Twain embraced as much as he mistrusted the machine’s potential as a model for social reform.
Connecticut Yankee both enacts and deconstructs an ideology of machine efficiency. When a bar-fight head wound sends factory manager Hank Morgan from nineteenth-century Hartford to medieval Camelot, he spots problematic inefficiencies in everything from the time knights spend donning armor to the costliness of crafting coins for the treasury of Arthur. To curb such wastes, Morgan designs labor-saving machinery and becomes boss—Sir Boss—of Camelot. Morgan goes further than most managers, however, because he regulates the Arthurians’ activities outside the workplace, especially their comically inefficient speech. He reinvents telegraphs and telephones, and he teaches the Arthurians to rationalize their linguistic production, promoting the value of a well-managed mouth to initiate an ideology of productivity. These measures succeed, for even the most garrulous characters learn to speak and act economically. Yet these policies so strongly privilege productivity that they threaten to extinguish communication. The Yankee also takes rational planning and linguistic efficiency to illogical extremes...