Favorite Fictional Characters, #109: Hank Morgan
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court might be Mark Twain's master work. It's a deeply subversive black comedy, lampooning in equal measure the Catholic Church, industrialization, 19th-century cultural obsession with chivalry, and whatever else he can get his hands on. For his instrument, he creates Hank Morgan, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, and a small-time boss in a machine shop. Morgan is in some ways the stereotypical Yankee - industrious, resourceful, opposed to slavery and entrenched privilege. And yet while he is skilled and inventive, he is uneducated, ignorant of fundamental matters of human nature.
These two parts of his character - ignorance and inventiveness - get Hank the Yank in trouble when he finds himself in sixth-century England. He takes it upon himself to modernize and liberate the country, without regard for the powerful opposition of the Church and the durable superstition of the people. Able to bend the physical Arthurian world to his will, he is incapable of understanding the spiritual and intellectual capacity of the souls he would save. Hank's biggest flaws are that lack of intellectual nuance, as well as his penchant for self-aggrandizement. These shortcomings doom his impressive technological advances, and in the end he accomplishes nothing and is returned to his own time. Hank Morgan is Tom Sawyer grown up, a man of ability and drive but too concerned with spectacle, attention, and what's in it for him. In this he is very much a Connecticut Yankee, almost a New Yorker, as opposed to the hardier, more communitarian, less grasping northern variety of Yankee.
Twain's work comes in the vanguard of the earliest time-travel stories in science fiction, along with HG Wells' The Time Machine. It has overt themes that lionize democracy, yet it remains a scathing indictment of those who would pursue progress without regard for the human cost, and of those who would oppose it for the sake of their own power and status.