Adam Sonstegard, a professor at Cleveland State University, spoke to an audience at Pittsburg State University during the Victor J. Emmett Memorial Lecture. He talked to his audience about the Mark Twain novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.
Sonstegard holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. He chose to analyze “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain because of its use of images and drawings.
“This was one of the most extensively illustrated Twain novels,” Sonstegard said. “I’ve done previous work on ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and on ‘Pudding Head Wilson,’ so I’ve done previous work with Twain’s illustrated books, but this is such a lavishly illustrated one and it’s so often reproduced today, just as prose or just as a movie. It’s about time people be reminded that the first edition was also quite heavily visual.”
He continued to emphasize the importance of Mark Twain and illustrator Daniel Carter Beard’s collaboration in the book and how they complemented each other.
“The Twain novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is a graphic novel, or (a book) that kind of presages or looks forward to a graphic novel,” Sonstegard said. “The book fights back and forth between one medium like the verbal medium, invoking the visual one and one medium eclipsing or getting in the way of or interrupting the other medium instead. This was just a part of a larger piece coming out in the magazine soon, but I think the favor went in the direction of favoring each other. (The book) looks forward to almost predicting the graphic novels-wise a couple decades later.”
Sonstegard drew a correlation between Mark Twain’s novel and the rise of comic books and other visual media in the 20th century. “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was published in 1881 while the rise of comic books and graphic novels began in the late 1930s. He hopes that his audience was able to see the connection between Mark Twain’s novel writing and his illustrator’s ability to translate his words into a visual image.
“Well, I mentioned history of the book as kind of a whole scholarly endeavor that tries to recreate the experience of readers over the years and the way that experience changes with the new format,” Sonstegard said. “If that got (listeners) thinking about that, then all the better. And if I got them thinking about the author of the artist working in tandem, but also sometimes kind of getting each other. Way in ways that the audience hadn’t thought about before then. I’ll call that a modest success if at evening for the talk.”
Sonstegard summarized his findings on the book and the impact it had on graphic novels that came after it.
“The original author and his illustrator collaborated so well when they could, they predicted, or they unwittingly came up with a work that predicts the graphic novel rise not even three or four decades later,” Sonstegard said.
Adam Sonstegard will continue to teach at Cleveland State, teaching American literature, literature surveys, advanced composition, and technical writing courses.