Twain & Time

Bud Foote, The Connecticut Yankee in the Twentieth Century: Travel to the Past in Science Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

The Epiphany

In 1991, Bud Foote , former professor at Georgia Tech [obituary], proved a remarkable thesis: before the 20th century, time travel — specifically time-travel to the past — had never not once been attempted in any work of western literature.  Ever.

That is, until 1889, the year Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  The idea of time travel to the past, we can suppose, had existed a bit longer than that; Twain had taken five years to write the CT Yankee.  But the miracle remains — no one had ever imagined a story in which a protagonist traveled back in time in order to change the past.  Such an idea somehow existed outside of the collective human imaginarium until the late nineteenth century.  To quote:

“Philosophers ancient and medieval, pagan and Christian, all agree that even God cannot change the past…Even Jesus, though He was able to raise the dead, apparently could not spare Lazarus the agony of having died; nor does the idea seem to have occurred to Him. While God could, without violating His own ground rules, create unicorns or centaurs, cause someone to sleep for a hundred years, or even temporarily and locally reverse entropy by raising someone from the dead, changing the past would seem to shake the very fabric of His universe.” (p.6-7)

Foote goes beyond the Bible of course to the realms of myth — “Folk Tradition, likewise, is full of assertions that the past is irrevocable. While a word is yet unspoken, you are master of it; when once it is spoken, it is master of you” (7).  Which is to say that, though the great Bard may may recount the tale of many hero, may send him to hell and speak him out of it, the Bard is nonetheless still accountable to a linear consistency: what came before must align with what follows.  At first the Bard tells a story, but at some point the story begins to tell itself.

What an astonishing notion.  The idea of it seems so simple, so obvious, even necessary–a critical facet of nostalgia (and mellagia) is travel to the past via the machine of dream or memory, and yet…

“And yet, it seems to us, they [pre-Industrialists] must have thought of it; surely, like us, did if-onlys…’If only I could go back and change it.’ But nobody seems to have thought that way, at least from the evidence of the literature. To assert that they did not, I realize, is to propose a change in the quality of human consciousness of the magnitude which Julian Janes thinks took place in the ninth or tenth century B.C….travel to the past and the change of that past seems to have been a sort of megafoolishness which nobody could think of or, if they could, could not take with sufficient seriousness even to make a fiction out of it.  Until the Yankee, Mark Twain, Hartford, 1889.”

I find this to be an astounding epiphany.  Julian Jaynes, mind you, believed/proposed the remarkable thesis that human beings did not have consciousness as we know it today until approximately the time Homer sang the Iliad. Even RadioLab recently took a stab at tackling the mystery of why the Ancient Greeks didn’t seem to perceive the sea (or sky) as blue.  Time-travel seems to have been similarly invisible to human consciousness.  Like a new word one learns for the first time, time-travel begins to appear everywhere soon after the CT Yankee was published.

Why Twain? Why 1889? Why America?

Bud Foote first points us to Twain’s tendency to see time spatially.  His first example comes from Twain’s autobiography, in which Twain describes how he once proportionally staked out in his backyard the reigns of all the Kings of England so that he could have a visual-spatial conception of their longevity and impact.  In this way he could walk among the stakes and spatially-imaginatively travel through time in his very own backyard.

The metaphor was prevalent in American too: the so-called “new world” born from the “old” one.  Americans could make the trip by steamer back to the “old world” and tour the ancient ruins of the past.  Travel back in time was a steamship away.

But foremost–as with all things Twainain–the inspiration came from the river and Twain’s time as a steamboat operator.  Rivers and temporality have been metaphorically linked for as long as philosophers have been thinking: the “flow” of time, the temporal river we travel down (see, for example, Thomas Cole’s four-part Voyage of Life, 1842).  One can’t fight the flow of time anymore than one can swim back upstream. That is, until the 19th century:

“…for not only did Twain grow up on the river, and work n the river, but he was the first generation to whom it was a matter of course that one might sail up the river as well as down it.”

So then.. Why Twain?

“Twain is the only major author in history to have been a steamboat pilot on a great river, to have steamed upstream as well as down as a matter of making a living.” (179)

Not only is the past physically there, it is mutable! The river changes, it winds its way, its tortuous coils ravel and unravel, wrap and relax, swell and skinny with the changing seasons.

Most people, however, travel through time without any awareness of it.  They rarely think of it.  Time happens to them.  They drift like Huck and Jim:

“Huck and Jim drift downstream on their river much as all of us drift in time, barely conscious of miles or days drifting away, passing crucial nexi all unknowing, as they pass Cairo, conscious of that passage only when Cairo are gone beyond reclaiming…. If the ending [of Huckleberry Finn] grates it is because the metaphor cannot continue — Huck and Jim would need to conitnue to drift, past New Orleans, through the delta, out onto the Gulf of Mexico, never again to be seen by mortal men.” (180)

How true is it that, as a rule, we so often don’t know what we’ve missed until it’s well and gone–as irrevocable as Cairo. Or, as Joni Mitchell put it:

♪ Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? 

T.S. Eliot: “In its beginning, it is not yet the River; in its end, it is no longer the River…At what point in its course does the Mississippi become what the Mississippi means?”

Once again we learn that, just as Melville is always about the whale, so too is Twain always about the river.


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