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Art and Advertising in A Connecticut Yankee: The "Robber Baron" Revisited ANN DOUGLAS A Connecticut Yankee in KingArthur's Court, which Henry Nash Smith rightly sees as representing "the crucial problem in Mark Twain's career as a writer," 1 is Twain 1 s major attempt to understand the spirit of capitalism which conspicuously dominated his society and inevitably affected his craft. Hank Morgan, the hero, is many things. He is an American abroad, a reformer, a mechanic, but Hank is also a businessman, in a special sense a "Robber Baron," and Twain has explored in this story the role of the entrepreneur and his complex significance for industry and for art. 2 It should never be forgotten that Twain began his career as a reporter, although as a very unusual one. His most wide-ranging and apparently fanciful works were always based on shrewd and socially telling observation. In depicting a "Robber Baron" in A Connecticut Yankee, Twain was drawing on life as surely as he had been when he collaborated with Charles Warner on The GildedAge overa decade earlier. Twain's continuing concern and connection with the business tycoon are not hard to document. In 1869, he published an 11 open letter' of half-admiring protest to the gruff and violent "Commodore 1 ' Vanderbilt. Years later, he attacked Jay Gould and John Rockefeller, Jr. in print. 3 At the turn ofthe century, he was hobnobbing uneasily with millionaires like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, Sr. During the last period of his life, he found in Henry Rogers, the ruthless but charming Standard Oil magnate, a benefactor and his closest friend. 4 Twain had unusual opportunities to study financiers of his time at close range but he was hardly alone in his interest. As so often in his career, he was drawn to a subject which preoccupied the American public. One historian has recently pointed out that the most successful and colorful of the first generations of millionaires, men like Astor, Vanderbilt, Fisk, Morgan, Gould, and Carnegie, were widely known to their contemporaries in a way almost unimaginable today. They had the celebrity status now reserved for movie stars and sports heroes.5 They were a prime attraction for the press and provided subject matter for countless novels and biographies. They were the stuff of myth. As such their careers suggested to many of their observers, Twain among them, a pattern which later historians have not always verified but which Twain may well have had in mind when he created his 11 Connecticut Yankee." 6 It was a pattern of self-evasion amid energetic self-exploitation, of failure amid success, a pattern THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 2, FALL 1975 deriving from a monumentally boastful but not altogether successful effort at self-articulation and self-approbation. Only a few of these legendary financiers were known as big livers, only a few as big spenders, but all were recognized as big money-makers, emblems of what oneoftheir earliest official biographers exultantly labelled" divine greed. "7 They engrossed gluttonous portions of America's resources, land, furs, oil, coal. In 1884,when the younger Vanderbilt died, dyspeptic but fabulously rich, one newspaper editor commented in a tone that laced pride with disgust: Neverwas such a last testament known of mortal. Kings have died with full treasunes, Europeans have fled their realms with bursting coffers, great financiers have played with millions ... but never before was such a spectacle presented of a plain, ordinary man dispensing ... in bulk and magnitude that the mind wholly fails to comprehend, tangible millionsupon millions of palpable money. It is simply grotesque. 8 This reporter's point is precisely his recorded inability to imagine Vanderbilt's empire. Magnates like Vanderbilt were plainly monstrous as well as mythic in the eyes of contemporary commentators. They existed in a state of overachievement and under-realization that both pricked and deadened the imagination . Their wealth was, magnificently and pitifully, their only self-expression. Thecomparison the New York Sun implied between Vanderbilt's achievements and those of royalty was hardly original. The early biographers of the "Robber Barons" habitually described their subjects in such terms. 9 The public pretension...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 182-195
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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