A 13-year-old painter’s apprentice walked home from a day of work in Hannibal, Missouri when a loose page blowing in the wind caught his attention. Sitting on the side of the road he became engrossed by part of the story of a 17-year-old heroine he would come to refer to as “the wonder of the ages,” Joan of Arc. He ran home to his family to find out if this girl was real, to hear how the story ended.
This boy would grow up to be one of America’s greatest literary giants, Samuel Clemens, or more commonly, Mark Twain. And while many are familiar with the works that garnered his wide acclaim and success, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, few are aware of the book that biographers call his most puzzling, critics call his sappiest, and he himself called “my best work,” – Recollections of Joan of Arc.
Recollections is an enigma for several reasons. At the time Twain wrote this book he was strongly critical of organized religion and vehemently anti-Catholic, a sentiment rampant throughout America in the 1800’s, and well-supported by his Presbyterian family. Twain said he was “educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic.” He also considered himself “anti-French,” so for him to write a book about a French, Catholic martyr is nothing short of baffling.
Furthermore, her story was not the widely circulated one it is today. Twain wrote about her long before she was beatified (which happened in 1909), so resources about her weren’t widely circulated making his novel a laborious project. But he was compelled, as if on a personal mission, with 12 years of meticulous research, trips to Europe to accumulate resources, and two years devoted to writing the work.
Recollections follows a fictional Page and Secretary of Joan of Arc, Sieur Louis de Conte, as he recalls her life through his first-person account. The biggest literary nerds will be able to notice that he shares the same initials with Twain himself whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Biographers point to this fact to show that he, in some sense, wanted to accompany her on her journey, and considered her a vital spiritual companion.
When he published the book he made the interesting decision to do so anonymously. He had received poor reception for two previously published works of historical fiction as they were outside of the light, humorous voice that popularized him. This work was too beloved to be obscured by the audience’s expectations.
His publisher explains,“His request for anonymity clearly shows the magnitude of his admiration for the character of Joan, and his high regard for her life story.” In time it was discovered who the author of this book was, and the critics were ruthless. They called it “mawkish,” “sentimental,” and “his worst book.”
But it didn’t matter, because this was the first book that he wrote without the critics in mind. “Possibly the book may not sell,” Twain said, “but that is nothing - it was written for love.” And to read Recollections is to read the prose of a man whose scrawled pages were fueled by a reverence for the life story that not only halted him on the street as a boy, but inspired years of labor and even humiliation. The gentle maiden probed the salty man embittered by the hypocrisy of Christians, and as with hundreds of men before, he followed.
While there are times the book feels saccharine, you see behind it the elation of a converted scrooge, someone who just discovered that there just may be such a thing as virtue after all. It’s as if he found the hero in history, that he was longing for in his present day.
“When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages,” writes Twain, “we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such soil. She was perhaps the only entirely unselfish person whose name has a place in profane history.”
Growing up as a cradle Catholic you become desensitized to the sensational humility of St. Francis, the brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the valiant courage of St. Joan of Arc. It was seeing the droll voice of Twain mollified into an ennobled one of humility that reminded me, “Hey, we’ve got some pretty good stories in this Church.”
“Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her. She led it from victory to victory, she turned back the tide of the Hundred Years’ War, she fatally crippled the English power, and died with the earned title of Deliverer of France, which she bears to this day. And for all reward, the French King, whom she had crowned, stood supine and indifferent, while French priests took the noble child, the most innocent, the most lovely, the most adorable the ages have produced, and burned her alive at the stake.”
-Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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