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A Chicago architect in King Arthur's court: Mark Twain, Daniel Burnham, and the modernity of gilded-age imperialism

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date02/2014
JournalJournal of American Studies
Journal number1
Volume48
Number of pages28
Pages99-126
Early online date23/04/13
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

This essay examines works of novelist Mark Twain and architect Daniel Burnham in terms of their contrasting productions of the sense of modernity in late nineteenth century US culture. It explores the consequences of their very different conceptions of the way that the term ‘modernity’ is constructed against and eclipses an imagined past that is also given a geographical location. It is thus a comparative study of the production of the sense of modernity as both a temporal and a spatial concept. Twain’s 1888 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888) ostensibly presents its readers with a defense of the nineteenth century via a deeply unflattering comparison with a fictionalized medieval England. The essay shows, however, that Twain’s lead character, Hank Morgan, is thoroughly unreliable in his description of the Britons as savages, which demands that we think critically about Hank’s assertion of the superiority of late-nineteenth century America to the ‘savage other’ more broadly. This engagement prefigures and helps us to understand Twain’s later activism in the American Anti-Imperialist League after the Spanish American War.

Daniel Burnham, chief designer of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition had a much different view. His work celebrated late-nineteenth century America, often through its juxtaposition with other ‘backward’ cultures. Burnham’s evocation of the modern as a comparative, spatio-temporal category, and of urban design as education, led to a much different response to American Imperialism after the Spanish American War. Burnham served as the chief city planner for the redevelopment of Manila (1904)—a city whose design was intended to educate the Filipinos in civic democracy, thus bringing them ‘up to date’ and fulfilling the demands of the ‘benevolent’ imperialism championed by Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley and others in the Republican Party leadership. This essay is based on original research in the Burnham Archive at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bibliographic note

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=AMS The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Journal of American Studies, 48 (1), pp 99-126 2014, © 2014 Cambridge University Press.

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