By Gianna Albaum

Art is a left-wing practice. There are, of course, the Ayn Rands and the Jorge Luis Borges‘ of the world, but generally speaking writers and artists tend to rally for human rights and freedom. Under the decades of dictatorship in Latin America, many prominent authors left the country in order to continue pursuing their work, and those that were left faced censorship of their work and possible arrest or execution. Ingeniously, some authors used the code of literature — allusions, analogy, extended metaphor, allegory — to avoid the censorship, knowing that those involved in the government were unlikely to be able to unravel the meaning embedded in the pages.

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Of course, this required a level of encoding far deeper than anything we’ve seen with classic American literature like To Kill a Mockingbird, and can only truly be unlocked through close readings of the text. However, Mark Twain — who practiced self-censorship throughout his career — effectively did this, intentionally or otherwise, in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Typically received as a critique of monarchy and the divine right of kings, this novel is set in Camelot during the time of King Arthur. In the preface, Twain notes that while his historical knowledge of that time period may be lacking, he drew on the barbaric practices discussed from ‘far later times.’

The ungentle laws and customs touched upon in this tale are historical, and the episodes which are used to illustrate them are also historical. It is not pretended that these laws and customs existed in England in the sixth century; no, it is only pretended that inasmuch as they existed in the English and other civilizations of far later times, it is safe to consider that it is no libel upon the sixth century to suppose them to have been in practice in that day also. (full text here)

There is deliberate ambiguity in his reference to the ‘far later times,’ but the countless critiques of slavery suggest that he may well be burying contemporary practices in Camelot (giving new meaning to the title A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) in order to disguise his critique. American censorship, of course, has always been more subtle than that practiced under dictatorship; Twain feared, as he says, “a diminution of [his] bread and butter” if his writing were to be perceived as polemical.

For the purposes of keeping this blog post relatively brief, I’m only going to quote one passage. While this section literally pertains to the “king and Church and nobility,” I believe there are certain words and phrases that would justify reading this as an allegory for power in Mark Twain’s United States — with the President standing for the King and the wealthy elite standing for the nobility.

“Well, it was a curious country! … It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him!

The repetition of “king and Church and noble” almost becomes a refrain throughout the section, indicating that it may be symbolic. In addition, the phrase “born in a wholesome free atmosphere” reeks of Twain’s typical use of overstatement as sarcasm.

Why, dear me, any kind of royalty, howsoever modified, any kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when somebody else tells you.

The italicization of ‘any,’ which is not typical in Mark Twain’s writing, and the phrase ‘howsoever pruned’ cannot be but a reference to at least the monarchies of Britain in Twain’s time, if not to the Republic of the United States. Comparing the President and the upper class — the 1 percent — to royalty and aristocracy is a common political analogy.

It is enough to make a body ashamed of his race to think of the sort of froth that has always occupied its thrones without shadow of right or reason…

The use of the ‘his race’ and ‘always’ force Twain’s hand on this point — this is no longer a discussion of King Arthur’s court, but a discussion of the late 1800’s.

The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them…

This is perhaps the most searing and radical critique of the passage; the insinuation here is that all the people in King Arthur’s kingdom, by virtue of being desperately poor in comparison to the court, merely work to boost the kingdom’s output — i.e. GDP — to better those at the top without being paid a fair wage, and are therefore no better than slaves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this is not intended as a critique of contemporary society.

In short, when discussing political critiques in literature, I think it is useful to think of literary devices as a sort of ‘code’ that can only be unlocked by those who have learned how to read closely and critically. Learn it; theory is wonderful, but close reading has its own sacred place in a literary critic’s repertoire.