Promethean Revolutionaries in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

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Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, the two greatest American satirists

Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan portray models of the totalitarian revolutionary through the characters of Hank Morgan and Winston Niles Rumfoord, respectively. As totalitarian revolutionaries, they attempt radical change in the social and political aspects of a culture. By using technology, Hank Morgan imposes his worldview of materialistic, nineteenth century republicanism onto medieval England. Winston Niles Rumfoord attempts a similar operation, manufacturing a mass trauma event and changing the religion of Earth. Both Morgan and Rumfoord echo the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind. The two characters are archetypal revolutionaries who attempt fundamental transformation of their society for utopian ends, yet their plans backfire upon them. The two characters behave as creator figures within their worlds, shaping them like an author would a text.

Hank Morgan uses his scientific knowledge, interpreted as magic by the medieval characters, to establish himself as a powerful figure. Morgan pretends to control the eclipse, making the onlookers believe he is a kind of magician like Merlin (Yankee 46-47). Charles Beard’s illustration places Hank and a monk in a very suggestive pose (Yankee 47). Both the scene in the novel and the illustration has a clear message. Morgan is a Promethean figure who must enlighten medieval England. The nobility and the Church are the “tyrannical gods” (Nash 39). In the following chapter, Morgan applies his technical skill—a kind of magic—to unseat Merlin and prove his power to the Arthurian English (Yankee 58-59).  Winston Niles Rumfoord, like Hank Morgan, uses the abilities granted to him from the “chrono-synclastic infandibula” (Vonnegut 32) to accomplish his revolutionary goals. He stages a war between Earth and Mars. The Martian army made up of soldiers controlled whose minds are remotely controlled, with a few hundred leaders with actual free will (Vonnegut 114-115). The Army has “the chance of a snowball in hell” against Earth (Vonnegut 128). Earth decimates the Martian Army and all of the Martians; the fictional “Pocket History of Mars” recounts, “not a soul was left on Mars” (168). Rumfoord uses this mass trauma to induct Earth into his cult. For Vonnegut, reality itself is a text that an authorial presence, Rumfoord, can manipulate (Clare 62). Revolutionary figures like Rumfoord and Twain’s Yankee must be creators to shape the world to their utopian standard.

The Sirens of Titan

The lowbrow original cover of Sirens masked the serious satire of both science fiction and the Promethean revolutionary

The chief irony of both Morgan and Rumfoord is that despite their repudiation of conventional authority, they seek out power under the pretext their leadership of society is legitimate. Hank Morgan takes the title of “the Boss.” Despite Morgan’s fervent anti-monarchical attitude, Twain explains through Morgan: “if you spoke of The King or The Queen or The Boss, it was different” (Yankee 69). The Boss wields the same kind of authority as the monarch, yet Morgan in this role has no responsibility to anyone but himself, and his imperialist attitude toward the sixth century gives him a false sense of superiority. Morgan becomes increasingly unhinged as the novel progresses. Hank Morgan may be anti-aristocratic, but he is a “capitalist hero” (Smith 4). Even though the Yankee appears as a radical anti-authoritarian, he represents a Gilded Age industrial baron. Later in life, Twain warned about a “coming American monarchy,” based on the American obsession in his time with the wealthy (Twain in Eruption 61, 64). based on the capitalist money power. Despite Mark Twain’s repudiation of money power, story of the Boss counters his assumption that democracy will solve issues of abusive political power. The Yankee uses declarations of rights in order to subvert the Arthurian court and increase his control over Camelot. Unlike the King, Morgan feels no responsibility to anyone other than himself. The capitalist hero liberates himself from authority only to become a new version of tyrant.

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“The Boss” as capitalist royalty

Religion is one of the other ways Morgan and Rumfoord alter society. The Yankee has an adversarial view of the Church from the very beginning of Connecticut Yankee; Morgan narrates, “Yes, in power I was equal to the king. At the same time there was another power that was a trifle stronger than both of us put together. That was the Church” (Connecticut Yankee 63). While Morgan is rigorously opposed to the Church, he does not attempt to subvert or destroy it. Winston Niles Rumfoord, however, uses religion as a means of controlling the population through his “Church of God, the Indifferent” (Vonnegut 219). Rumfoord is the head of this nihilistic church, the prophet who will eventually reveal the name of the “space wanderer” to the faithful (Vonnegut 222). The depiction of the church demonstrates Vonnegut’s view of organized religions as a dangerous force in society. He was “uneasy with conventional Christianity,” and at one time drew a parallel between the faith and the kind of fanaticism he saw in German soldiers during WWII (Farrell 141, 144). Sirens of Titan is not so much an attack on religion itself. The narrator reveals at the beginning of chapter one “everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself” (Vonnegut 1), a view similar to the ancient Gnostic Christians.  Vonnegut aims his critique in Sirens at the use of faith by Rumfoord, a “utopian stiver” (Farrell 150) who Vonnegut admires, yet is doomed to failure for seeking meaning outward, rather than inward in the human soul.

Both authors portray the conclusion of utopian striving as a disaster in one way or another. The Yankee becomes increasingly unhinged as his power in Camelot increases. Just before the Battle of the Sandbelt, Morgan bombs and kills a group of knights, calling it “a neat thing, very neat and pretty to see,” comparing it to a steamboat explosion (Connecticut Yankee 272). While this appear to be yet another episode in the novel’s larger anti-feudal narrative, the comparison informs us that Morgan is losing his conscience. Mark Twain would not believe a steamship explosion was “pretty” given that he lost his brother to one. Morgan is shown to be totally unhinged during the last chapters of the novel. The Yankee devises a republic with a vestigial cat monarch, where the problems of “royal butchers” will go away (Yankee 399). The Yankee, however, proves that he is no better than the monarchs he loathes when he massacres thirty thousand knights at the Sand Belt. He calls his soldiers “champions of human liberty and equality” (Connecticut Yankee 432). Yet the Boss and his champions end up trapped inside their fortress by a wall of corpses (Connecticut Yankee 439). Morgan reaches the problem that revolutionaries encounter; their quest for earthly utopia requires radical, violent change. Twain demonstrates through the Yankee that society and people are not machines someone can tinker with and alter without serious repercussions. Hank Morgan becomes the tyranny he wanted to stop.

Vonnegut’s Rumfoord demonstrates the use of agitprop and scapegoating by revolutionary leaders to gain support. The term agitprop, or agitation propaganda, comes out of the Bolshevik Revolution, although the basic idea of art and performances for political

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Bolshevik propaganda train

manipulation has existed for much longer. Vonnegut explores a version of it in Sirens; in a public speech, Rumfoord rails against Malachi Constant/Unk, explaining that he used his wealth in such a way to prove “that man is a pig” (256). While Malachi’s hedonism is real in the beginning of the novel, Rumfoord does not direct his agitation at Malachi’s questionable morality, but at his belief in any kind of interventionist God (Vonnegut 257). Malachi Constant/Unk is not just an example of political agitprop, but also a scapegoat so that Rumfoord can promote his disordered, nihilistic theology. He cannot have people believe in an active conception of God because it would limit his ability to control the narrative of reality. His desire to manipulate and control reality manifests in other scenes of the novel; the Martian calendar has the months “Niles…Winston…Rumfoord…Newport, and Infandiublum” (Vonnegut 138) and geographical features of Titan have Rumfoord’s name. Rumfoord demonstrates his power over reality he believes he can control by putting his name to things.  Vonnegut’s work tries to determine what man’s position is in an often confusing and seemingly random world, and that “absolutist religion” is not the answer (Klinkowitz 40).  Rumfoord’s utopian striving is one reaction to the issues Vonnegut explores, yet he believes that it is an incorrect response because Rumfoord ultimately fails. Sirens of Titan reduces human history to a “sci-fi footnote” (Pinsker 88).

Both Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain critique social and political issues through their revolutionary characters. Connecticut Yankee examines issues of nobility and monarchy, yet Twain’s attack on an exaggerated version of the feudal system places the blame on hierarchy itself, rather than the misuse of authority by individuals. The Yankee never institutes his perfect democracy, and becomes a dictator in place of the king (Connecticut Yankee 422). Hank Morgan achieves the logical conclusion of his plan to alter society radically, where he must renege on his own principles of liberty and equality to achieve his goals. Morgan’s reforms and changes to society are temporary, as he wonders where his “great commerce” (Connecticut Yankee 409) has gone—the Church quickly took power in his absence, which shows that the people of England trust the Church over the Boss. Vonnegut builds on this theme with Winston Niles Rumfoord; all of his attempts at reform to society are meaningless because human history is a build up to the Tralfamadorian message. The “extended joke” of Sirens is that the outward search for meaning in the universe is meaningless (Philmus 153). Neither author presents a clear solution. Twain’s Yankee gains a Pyrrhic victory and falls into a magical sleep, while Vonnegut imagines a kind of future Gnosticism where everyone can find “the truths that lie within every human being” (Vonnegut 1). While neither Twain nor Vonnegut has easy remedies for the social issues they explore, the conclusion of both characters shows that their radical alterations to society do not  work, ultimately.

Works Cited

Clare, Ralph. “Worlds of Wordcraft: the Metafiction of Kurt Vonnegut.” Critical Insights: Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Robert T. Tally Jr., Salem Press, 2013

Farrell, Susan E. “Vonnegut and Religion: Daydreaming about God.” Critical Insights: Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Robert Tally Jr., Salem Press, 2013

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Literary Disruptions: the Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction. University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Philmus, Robert M. “Kurt Vonnegut, Historiographer of the Absurd: The Sirens of Titan.” Visions and Revisions: (Re)Constructing Science Fiction, 1st ed., vol. 32, Liverpool University Press, 2005, pp. 150–172, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjc8j.13.

Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee.” Rutgers University Press, 1964.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 1889. University of California Press, 1983.

—. Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages about Men and Events. Edited by Bernard de Voto. Harper and Brothers, 1940.

Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. 1959. Dial Press, 2009.

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