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  • Now is the Time for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • Sandy Feinstein (bio)

The very idea of a favorite anything has been mutating in me from the time the so-called novel coronavirus appeared in the United States. For years, I would not have had to think, automatically identifying Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "my" book, which, according to its bookplate in Penn State University's main library, it is: after receiving tenure, faculty select books for this honor, and that's the one I chose. And when given the opportunity to choose another book after my promotion, I didn't—my book was already chosen. Still, I did not reread or assign Alice over a strange year that began as usual but ended quite other than expected, with all courses required to go remote after spring break—that is, at exactly the time we are expected to order our books for the following semester, a task I kept deferring.

It being unclear what modes of teaching would be allowed in the fall, I anxiously returned to my tentative list of required reading for my courses. In particular, I struggled with my honors Arthurian course that typically begins with readings from the early Middle Ages, introducing historical contexts, traditions, characters, tropes. The conventions, I felt, would not be enough in light of the circumstances, so I found myself scouring early and late Arthurian works for what had become newly urgent: disease, plague, masking. Were school to allow in-person teaching, and it did for those who, like myself, chose that mode, masks and social distancing would be required. Among the works I retained from past iterations of the course was the late nineteenth-century American novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, partly because of the poignant chapter "The Small-Pox Hut."

As usual, I reread Twain's Connecticut Yankee at the same time the students did, and, in the immediate context, I found myself seeing it in a new light. In one way, the light was literal: I taught the course outside every day (except one, when flooding made the venue inaccessible); even when the temperature plummeted into the 40's, the students chose to bundle up and stay outside. After standard time returned and darkness fell on our late afternoon class, we moved from an open air amphitheater [End Page 65] to a rooved pavilion with lights until all courses reverted to Zoom after Thanksgiving break.

In Twain's novel, the eponymous Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, contentiously states:

Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training. We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all the rest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a procession of ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clam or grasshopper or monkey from whom our race has been so tediously and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed.1

Education still "trains" students by setting up certain expectations: to be passive receptacles, "told" or "shown" what they should know and become, wherever it takes place, inside classrooms or out. Twain had thrown the gauntlet. The students picked it up when they opted to test the boundaries, not just of the educational space, but of the now conventional wisdom from our latest "trainers": that literature has no relevance or place in this age of engineering, science, business interests, and technology. The guerdon would be in discovering that familiar issues of our own time, both personal and professional, would figure in the literature: a female author's medieval French poem featuring a "lady" who seduces a male knight without being judged or punished for acting on her desires juxtaposed to Arthur's queen who later questions the sexuality of that same knight when he refuses her offer...


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pp. 65-69
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