A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court

By Mark Twain. Adapted by Seymour Chwast.

(Bloomsbury USA, $22, !44 pages)

Who is this author?

Seymour Chwast is an artist and author and a master of graphic design.  He is a founding partner of the celebrated Push Pin Studios, now the Pushpin Group, whose style changed  visual communications. His work includes illustrating more than 30 children’s books and three other graphic adaptations of classic works: Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, and The Odyssey. He lives, of course, in New York City.

What is this book about?

Seymour Chwast knows a good book when he sees one, and while it takes considerable chutzpah (a word Mark Twain didn’t know, but I am betting would have loved) to adapt classics by Homer, Dante and Chaucer, he has the smarts and arts to do it, and do it well.

Now he gives us a somewhat streamlined but still hilarious and powerful retelling of Twain’s popular novel about a practical-minded Yankee appalled by the mess he finds when he wakes up one day in 6th century England, and the clever ways he goes about sprucing things up. The idea of applying contemporary technology to ancient times was funny when Twain wrote his novel in 1889, and it’s still amusing but in new ways, when given the graphic treatment by an artist who really “gets” the author.

Why you’ll like it:                 

Chwast’s sensibility blends wonderfully with Twain’s, and the reader gets the benefit of combining the talents of a classic and a current master. Chwast has a clean, striking and often delightfully witty  visual style that is unusually well-suited to Twain’s prose. We can’t know, of course, what Twain would have thought of this book, but it seems a safe bet that he would have been flattered, intrigued and challenged by Chwast’s re-imagining of his classic tale. Here’s hoping that you are, too.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Adapting Twain is a dangerous thing: too often the old master’s pretend-ramshackle style and tall-tale sensibility gets taken straight, no chaser. Fortunately, Chwast (who previously adapted The Divine Comedy and The Odyssey ) brings just the right puckish tone to Twain’s comedy. Hank Morgan, a 19th-century jack-of-all-trades, is mysteriously transported to 6th century England. Instead of being impressed by the Arthurian pomp and ceremony, the efficiency-minded Protestant Yankee is offended by the superstition, filth, cruelty, and antidemocratic oppression. As the “stranger in a strange England” sets about modernizing the place, forces of reaction (Merlin the magician, the church, knights who don’t like his turning them into advertising billboards) rise up. It’s a tale told more briskly than in the original, with great blocks of plot and background sliced out. But Chwast’s squiggly art, flattened perspectives, and purposeful misspellings bring a curiously innocent and childlike perspective to this complex satire, which, if anything, further highlights Twain’s dark view of human progress.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Design veteran Chwast delivers another streamlined, graphic adaptation of classic literature, this time Mark Twain’s caustic, inventive satire of feudal England. Chwast (Tall City, Wide Country, 2013, etc.) has made hay anachronistically adapting classic texts, whether adding motorcycles to The Canterbury Tales (2011) or rocket ships to The Odyssey (2012), so Twain’s tale of a modern-day (well, 19th-century) engineer dominating medieval times via technology–besting Merlin with blasting powder–is a fastball down the center. (The source material already had knights riding bicycles!) In Chwast’s rendering, bespectacled hero Hank Morgan looks irresistible, plated in armor everywhere except from his bow tie to the top of his bowler hat, sword cocked behind head and pipe clenched in square jaw. Inexplicably sent to sixth-century England by a crowbar to the head, Morgan quickly ascends nothing less than the court of Camelot, initially by drawing on an uncanny knowledge of historical eclipses to present himself as a powerful magician. Knowing the exact date of a celestial event from more than a millennium ago is a stretch, but the charm of Chwast’s minimalistic adaption is that there are soon much better things to dwell on, such as the going views on the church, politics and society, expressed as a chart of literal back-stabbing and including a note that while the upper class may murder without consequence, it’s kill and be killed for commoners and slaves. Morgan uses his new station as “The Boss” to better the primitive populace via telegraph lines, newspapers and steamboats, but it’s the deplorably savage civility of the status quo that he can’t overcome, even with land mines, Gatling guns and an electric fence. The subject of class manipulation–and the power of passion over reason–is achingly relevant, and Chwast’s simple, expressive illustrations resonate with a childlike earnestness, while his brief, pointed annotations add a sly acerbity. His playful mixing of perspectives within single panels gives the work an aesthetic somewhere between medieval tapestry and Colorforms. Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.”

When is it available?

The Chwast-Twain collaboration is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.