Monday, February 21, 2022

How Educated 19th Century Popular Writers Were

I just finished reading Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in a collection of time travel classics on Kindle.  (It was $0.99.)

I at first thought that I must have read it before, but the deeper I read, the more certain I became that I was conflating the movie version with a play I watched last year in which my daughter's Danish exchange student performed.

Being an historian is often a nuisance when reading historical fiction, because all the anachronisms and historical errors stand out so severely.   But I tolerate it in Twain's story because the framing story makes it the ravings of an employee of the Hartford Colt plant.  (Remember that once very rich Twain built an extravagant house in Hartford that soon impoverished him.)

So the steel plate armor in 6th century England, a High Middle Ages feudal structure of knights, and men impressed into a Royal Navy not formed until King Alfred the Great grates on what is otherwise a pretty entertaining story of late 19th century science and republicanism encountering medieval ignorance and peasants utterly trapped in respect of a system well satirized in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What struck me, as the title suggests, is how astonishing Twain's vocabulary was, and that expected his readers to not find it off-putting.  I often found myself using the dictionary feature of Kindle and not just for words specific to the imagined medieval world and words now archaic but not so when Twain wrote.  I had a similar experience reading Winston Churchill's The Second World War (in which he could claim some expertise) and T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

We seem to have lost a lot as a culture.


  1. Twain knew perfectly well that "King Arthur" and "Camelot" were late medieval historical fantasy with no connection to real history.

    Setting the story in historic Dark Ages Britain would have been silly.

  2. Writing skills have definitely declined. The breadth and depth of education has also changed. With the great increase of things to learn and the realities of the expectations on a student I suppose this state is unavoidable. At least we have the old writings if we can find and invest the time.