Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
He is best known for his American classics Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but Hartford resident Samuel Clemens– alias Mark Twain– was also a staunch advocate and active participant in the growing US labor movement.
As a young man fresh from Hannibal, Missouri, Sam Clemens made his way to New York City in August of 1853 to work as a compositor. He was employed by John A. Gray’s publishing firm, setting type for books, magazines, and journals. It was here that young Clemens first joined the printers’ union. The union, primarily organized to help workers improve their economic conditions, also paid attention to their cultural needs by establishing a library for members. The collection introduced Clemens to literature that would someday have an impact on his own writing, including Jonathan Swift’s social satire Gulliver’s Travels.
Four years later, Sam Clemens was back on the Mississippi River learning his trade as a riverboat pilot. There he joined the Western Boatman’s Benevolent Association, a group organizing for better wages, health care, and unemployment protections. One of the union’s biggest concerns was the safety of pilots who faced dangerous working conditions– not from the river but from the gamblers and other notorious characters that riverboats carried.
By 1886, the Clemens family was well-established at Hartford’s Nook Farm. Mark Twain’s fame had been established across the country and was spreading to Europe. Clemens’ pro-labor views had also developed. He agitated for laws that would enforce writers’ control of their work on an international basis. He joined the Monday Evening Club, a Hartford group that gathered to discuss the political issues of the day.
It was at this gathering he gave a passionate speech about the plight of working people:
Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many, the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-headed and idle eat.
He went on to give stirring support for the Knights of Labor, whose membership in Connecticut alone had jumped to 20,000 over the past year.
By 1888, Clemens was struggling with the contradictions created by his desire to “strike it rich” with the invention of a new typesetting machine and its implications for displacing thousands of his former co-workers. Clemens maintained that the short-term job loss triggered by such a labor-saving device would ultimately be offset by the jobs that would be created as the publishing industry expanded. But he also recognized that workers would not necessarily appreciate the ultimate benefits of automation as long as they and their families faced the misery of unemployment.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889, may provide the clearest indication of Sam Clemens’ labor sympathies and class consciousness. Hank Morgan, the 19th century hero of the book, tells the fantastic tale of his adventures in medieval England. Morgan, who was “born and reared in Hartford,” is a blacksmith turned foreman at Colt’s firearms factory.
Throughout the story he views the political economy of King Arthur’s 6th century with eyes of a “modern” worker. The Connecticut Yankee criticizes the feudal order for forcing “freemen” to become the servants of a few powerful families, and he exposes the complicity of established religion to help keep the poor under control.
The novel details Hank Morgan’s vision of what life could be like when workers got tired of the inequities they suffered. In an echo of Clemens’ speech at the Monday Evening Club, Hank tells his companions of the future:
The masters are these: nobles, rich men, the prosperous generally. These few, who do no work, determine what pay that vast hive shall have who do work. You see? They’re a combine-a trade union to coin a new phrase-who band themselves together to force their lowly brother to take what they choose to give. Thirteen hundred years hence-so says the unwritten law-the ‘combine’ will be the other way, and then how these fine people’s posterity will fume and fret and grit their teeth over the insolent tyranny of the trade unions! All of a sudden the wage earner will consider that a couple of thousand years or so is enough of this one-sided sort of thing, and he will rise up…