Mark Twain's Favorite Novel

Arts Letters: Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ Love of St. Joan of Arc

(photo: Wikipedia)

As Hemingway put it, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Even as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ death this year, the novels he wrote as Mark Twain still hold an envied place in the annals of literature.

A great writer, and also a complex personality, Twain was the premier humorist of his day — the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts gives an annual award for humor named after him. Yet the laughter often carried a tinge of cynicism. He viewed the world with a jaundiced eye. Life, after all, had dealt him heavy blows, particularly with the deaths of his beloved wife, Olivia, and two of his daughters in their 20s.

Love for Joan of Arc
As for faith, generally he believed in an afterlife, but often it was conflicted and frequently wavering (“Faith is believing in what you know ain’t so.”). Still, Catholics may be impressed to know that Twain said that he liked his 1896 Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc “best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.” Yes, the author of Huckleberry Finn, a book that frequently vies for “Great American Novel” status, held Joan of Arc in higher esteem. What was the source of this feeling?

Quite simply, Twain loved the medieval heroine and saint. In a separate essay in 1904, he wrote, “There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character. ... She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Twain originally published his novel serially in Harper’s Magazine under a different pseudonym, Louis de Conte. He feared the reactions of readers who had come to expect a certain kind of writing from him and so presented the book at first as the real memoir of Joan’s page and secretary recently translated to English. How long the ruse was maintained is hard to say, but the shining admiration of the fictional narrator, the elderly bachelor Louis de Conte, is pure Twain.

15th-Century Maelstrom
His novel is set in the time of the Hundred Years’ War, the long and exhausting struggle between England and France. It was a time of vast complexity and confusion, as the papacy was contested by various claimants during the Great Western Schism. And if it was hard to say who was really the pope, the intertwined dynastic politics of the time made it no less difficult to say who should be ruling France. The disastrous defeat of Agincourt (told from the other side by Shakespeare in “Henry V”) was just one of the many signs that the French nation was close to entering its death throes.

Into this 15th-century maelstrom stepped Joan, a 16-year-old girl who confronted this complexity with the simplicity and determination of one who was certain of a mission from God.

Joan of Arc is one of the best-documented lives in history, her various trials having generated reams of well-recorded eyewitness testimony. Twain follows the historic events closely, telling the story through the reflections of the younger Louis, who was brought to Domremy to be brought up by the priest after his family perished in the war.

Twain Touches
There are certainly flashes of great humor in the book, which perhaps were a clue to early readers that authorship lay with someone other than an old French nobleman. Anyone who has studied some medieval philosophy will immediately recognize great satire in one of the early scenes of the book taken from Joan’s childhood in Domremy.

A hungry refugee makes it to the D’Arc family home. He’s looking for food, and the ever-kind Joan immediately offers him her own bowl of porridge. Her father, Jacques, is furious; they are being eaten out of house and home by these rascals. Joan insists.  After all, if he’s done any evil, his head was the author of it. Why should his poor, hungry stomach be punished for what his head has done? Hearing this, the town orator takes her aside and promptly launches into a philosophical tract of distinction-making that would have rivaled Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor”).

“Now, then, friends and neighbors, a stomach which cannot plan a crime cannot be a principal in the commission of it — that is plain, as you see. … Then what do we arrive at as our verdict? Clearly this: that there is no such thing in this world as a guilty stomach; that in the body of the veriest rascal resides a pure and innocent stomach; … It should be, and is, our privilege, as well as our duty, not only to feed the hungry stomach that resides in a rascal, having pity for its sorrow and its need, but to do it gladly, gratefully, in recognition of its sturdy and loyal maintenance of its purity and innocence in the midst of temptation and in company so repugnant to its better feelings.”

A Mission From God
Twain’s masterful writing takes us through the whole story of Joan from the divine commission delivered by her “Voices,” to her convincing the Dauphin (the uncrowned king, Charles VII) that she was sent from God to lead the army of France, to the stirring and wholly improbable lifting of the siege of Orleans, to the pinnacle of triumph with the coronation of Charles at Rheims through her subsequent capture, her abandonment by the French and her burning at the stake under the English-supporting Archbishop Cauchon.

Through it all, Twain’s awe and reverence for Joan are palpable. He makes more understandable how she could have been so successful. She was pure confidence — that is, in God; he had, through her voices, assured her victory. Believing is half the battle. In that department, she was a total winner. And that’s what the troops wanted: someone who believed. After years of defeats, defensive maneuvering and constant reaffirmations of their inferiority before the English, they finally had someone who said, “We will win!” Her rousing presence kept them charging always forward. She also had these rough soldiers on their knees going to confession and receiving Communion. Yet through it all, she never got used to the blood. She never killed anyone herself, and she was frequently seen comforting the dying, whether they be friend or foe.

The English could not deny the effectiveness of Joan. Their spin, however, was that such powers could only be preternatural — she had to be a witch. Thus, the outcome of her trial was preordained. And yet it took almost six months for them to be able to convict her. Twain and the Catholic Catechism share the admiration for Joan at trial: They both offer the same quote that astounded her judges, who asked her if she was in the state of grace.

“Joan looked out upon these hungering faces with innocent, untroubled eyes, and then humbly and gently she brought out that immortal answer which brushed the formidable snare away
as if it had been but a cobweb:

“‘If I be not in a state of grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.’

“Ah, you will never see an effect like that; no, not while you live. For a space there was the silence of the grave. Men looked wondering into each other’s faces, and some were awed and crossed themselves.”

Faithful to the End
As she mounts the scaffolding before her execution by burning, he has Louis looking away, unable to watch. Like his fictional narrator, one can almost feel the tears welling up in his own eyes as this determined soul pays the price for fidelity to her calling.

Mark Twain, yes, the one and the same, loved St. Joan of Arc and wrote a wonderful novel about her … not a bad item to bring up at Judgment time!

Legionary Father Steven Reilly writes from Washington, D.C.