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Dear Kelsey,

Your decision to set aside A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has quite possibly been the most controversial decision of our blog. I’ve had several people implore me to “make Kelsey finish Connecticut Yankee!” and list all the reasons they love it. To which I agree, emphatically, and proceed to once more revise my post on Why I Think Connecticut Yankee Is Funny And That Kelsey Should Read It.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Oxford World's Classics) Mark Twain Cover

But the thing is, although I do think Connecticut Yankee is funny and I most definitely agree that Kelsey should read it, I don’t really have that much to say on the subject. Explaining humor is a funny business. (eh? Get it?) One of the hardest assignments in my entire academic career was an essay prompt for Art Leo’s Comedy class: Explain a Joke.

Humor is, of course, subjective, and explaining why I think something is funny is not only a tedious and usually humorless endeavor, but it takes all the fun out of the joke, still might not convince the other person that it’s funny, and also sort of condescends to the person you’re explaining to. Oh, you see, it’s ironic…you do know what irony is…don’t you?

No, thank you.

Team Moustache Dad MST3K Mystery Science Theater 3000 rifftrax Charlie Swan Twilight Breaking Dawn

Since we so are so often unable to explain humor, we seem to instead turn to describing it. I could tell you that the book is “uproarious; laugh-out-loud funny,” but that could refer just as easily to Mark Twain as to Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

But, since this was the kind of book that made me interrupt other people in order to share the latest clever thing Twain wrote, I will share two quick lines. These aren’t even the funniest ones in the book, they just happen to be the two I wrote down when I remembered I was supposed to be taking notes. So without further ado:

Hank Morgan on reliable narration: The masters of the castle were three stupendous brothers, each with four arms and one eye—the eye in the center of the forehead, and as big as a fruit. Sort of fruit was not mentioned; their usual slovenliness in statistics.

Hank Morgan on early advertising: There were no stoves yet, and so there could be nothing serious about stove-polish. All that the agent needed to do was to deftly and by degrees prepare the public for the great change, and have them established in predilections toward neatness against the time when the stove should appear upon the stage.

So, Kelsey, that’s all the coercion you’ll have to suffer from me. I’m going to talk about one more thing, but others, please feel free to add your favorite line or persuasion attempts in the comments below.

I think a lot of books work very hard to evoke a particular mood or feeling, making the reader “lost in a book.” There are exceptions, of course, and novels that have some shocking twist where everything after is different (Looking for Alaska, perhaps, is a good example), but in a lot of ways, I think we come to expect a consistent tone.  

Connecticut Yankee chucks all of that out the window.

Hank Morgan is man with many contradictory beliefs and opinions (and, let’s be real, absolutely ridiculous ones as well), which leads to a narrative that can swing wildly between comedy and pathos. I could never quite tell whether a scene would end with absurdism, tragedy, poignancy, or a punchline until it became abundantly clear that oh, no, now we’re crying not laughing.

One of the unexpected side effects to everyone telling me how much they loved the book was how unprepared I was for these shifts. I had heard so much about the hilarity and clever wittiness that, for most of the book, I saw only what I expected to see. There are many instances of Hank’s cruelty and callousness that I simply overlooked because the rest of the scenes were so funny. I would react strongly to a chilling anecdote and then a few minutes later get distracted by the burlesque.

When there was no humorous denouement to distract me from the bleak conclusion, I was deeply shocked. My advisor—no joke—received an email from her distraught post-grad begging for an explanation because I had no way to interpret what I’d just read. (And may I interject for a moment to say I have (had?? I think not.) the Best. Advisor. Ever. )

But while I’ve finally found a lens through which the narrative makes sense again*, I’m finding myself more and more curious about how everyone else accounts for these moments. Are you overlooking Hank’s paradoxical nature? Was I simply unprepared because of the hype? Or are you simply finding your own explanation to make sense of it all? …because if so, what is it??

I’m pretty sure this last section isn’t going to win you over, but I also know that if you do pick it back up, you don’t have my advisor’s email address. So I’ll finish my discussion on our first Classic Work of Literature by saying that all the cool kids like Connecticut Yankee 😉

Love,

Maggie

P.S. Not caving to peer pressure is also cool. As are bow ties.

P.P.S. Today, it seems, is Mark Twain’s 127th birthday. Yeah…I totally planned that.

Mark Twain reading a Book

Mark Twain in a color chromograph on December 21, 1908. Credit: Alvin Langdon Coburn

*if I had to come up with a thesis, I’d probably argue that Hank’s downfall was initiated by adopting the behaviors he swears to stamp out. Though he scorns the “superstitions” of the Camelot locals (especially in regards to Merlin), he still depends on it for his successes. Also, I’d argue that readers probably shouldn’t ignore half the book.

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