Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Midterm Project: The Message and the Messenger - Analyzing Illustrations in Twain's A Connecticut Yankee...

When discussing the difference between the message and illustrations in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes, “The trick is to never mistake the message – for the messenger.” The illustrations in A Connecticut Yankee do not make the novel into a comic book, but McCloud’s commentary applies to the way in which Beard’s farcical illustrations offset Twain’s objectionable satires. In most literature concerning the Middle Ages, knighthood, and chivalry, there are rigid, simple sketches that decorate the beginning of the chapter or outline the text. Emotion is rarely depicted in these drawings and they often mimic the art of the Middle Ages. A 1949 edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court features this type of sketches by Honore Guilbeau.

Although his illustrations appeared sixty years earlier in the 1889 original edition, Daniel Beard’s work is quite revolutionary. Twain’s satire criticized some taboo issues, like slavery and the church. Beard’s illustrations featured emotions and provided some comic relief from the potentially offensive material, while simultaneously communicating Twain’s message. Twain utilized Beard’s illustrations, a specific type of technology, to communicate his narrative to as many readers as possible.

In order to support this thesis, I will analyze a certain number of illustrations in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and relate that sketch to the message of the relevant text. I already have four examples and I may search for one more to examine, specifically by thoroughly reviewing an edition that features a more illustrations. Originally, there were many more illustrations in thee novel and they were printed larger and in greater detail. The fact that Twain had commissioned Beard to create so many illustrations supports the idea that Twain wanted to use the technology of illustration to aide the message of his novel.

One of the four pictures that I would like to examine is featured on page 145 of our edition and has the caption, “This would undermine the church.” Hank’s efforts to strip the church of its power are well documented in the novel, and in this chapter his belief is that selling soap would undermine the church. Hank begins the business of selling soap in order to establish proper hygiene and then thinks, “This would undermine the church. I mean would be a step toward that. Next, education – next, freedom – and then she would begin to crumble.”

Hank’s formula for breaking down the church involves two elements – education and freedom – that are two potential threats to organized religion. Although Hank’s idea is a bit comical, his resolution to take away the churches power certainly is not. Beard’s depiction of the undermining exemplifies the former rather than the latter. In the illustration on page 145, Hank wears tight leggings and a cap with large feathers in it. This outfit mimics that of a jester instead of that of a person of high rank, like the Boss. Hank’s efforts to ‘undermine’ the church are also quite comical, as he is using a long piece of soap as a lever to slip underneath the thrown of a papal figure. Beard’s illustration evokes more laughter than anger and is more light hearted than the typical sketches featured in most medieval literature. This common illustration could have easily made Hank appear more threatening and dangerous, but Beard changed him into a jester while still communicating Twain’s general disapproval of the Church.

I will continue to analyze the illustrations in such a manner, particularly focusing on Beard’s work that depicts the church and its clergy. I think this is a good element of the satire to focus on because it was still quite taboo to cast Christianity in such a negative light in Twain’s time and because the illustrations concerning the clergy are the most entertaining. Tell me what you think!!!


Adam Johns said...

This is a good start. Let me propose a couple possibilities.

1) You could get very concerned with either why all of the illustrations aren't included in our edition, or with the reasons why there were other illustrated editions within a few decades (especially when Beard's are so good). Were the illustrations changed to tame Twain? To tone down the anti-catholic angle of the book?

2) At least some illustrations are available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/yankee/cyillhp.html

Check it out!

3) You are, to a certain degree, wordy here, which has the effect of de-emphasizing yoru thesis: that Beard's art is revolutionary.

4) In what sense is it revolutionary? Given Twain's positions, it's not crazy to imagine that maybe it is literally revolutionary - is that where you're going with this?

5) An excellent example of the kind of art (in a good and advanced form) which Beard _isn't_ doing is the work of Howard Pyle, who wrote and illustrated versions of the Robin Hood and Kind Arthur stories in the 1880s through early 1900s.

6) Strengthen your focus on your thesis, and worry less about _describing_ the pictures - you can refer to the page numbers, after all, and draw our attention just to the most critical points.

Charlie said...

As Dr. Johns said, I think your project can benefiting from expanding on the idea of why his work is revolutionary. Furthermore, I think it might also be interesting to explore why the "revolutionary" version actually came first. Revolution often seems to go in order; in other words, revolution almost always makes a concrete change that is never undone. Being as such, I think it could be worthwhile to discuss why this isn't the case with Twain's text.

To strengthen your argument, you may want to compare Twain's text to a text _without_ illustrations and contrast the two. Should that prove too troublesome (as you may need to read another book), you could perhaps just discuss further how the text would be weakened if it lacked the illustrations (as you've seemed to begin doing).

Another possibility for expanding your topic is exploring the applicability of illustrations in today's texts. Does/Can it have the same effect today as it did then? Can today's texts still utilize illustrations to offset the serious subject matter? Or is the world more open to thought today that it has been rendered somewhat ineffective?

I liked how you were connecting the illustrations to the text directly and showed how they intertwined with the dialogue. I think showing how these illustrations bring something to the table that others do not would greatly supplement your thesis.