Mark Twain and Joan of Arc

Why did the author write about the saint, whose beliefs seemed so contrary to his own?

More than a century after his death, Mark Twain (1835-1910), pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemons, remains a controversial figure. Some schools, for example, removed his American classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from required reading lists for its racial language.

Twain’s religious skepticism, directed particularly towards Christianity, also made his reputation a battleground between believers and atheists. Both in his public speeches and in his writings, Twain satirized Christians, the Bible, and religion in general, although during his life he proceeded with caution in order to avoid alienating himself. the readers. It wasn’t until several years after his death that his daughter Clara and others published some of his most controversial attacks on faith, such as “The Mysterious Stranger” and “Letters from the Earth.”

Twain was particularly fierce in his disdain for Catholicism. He grew up in an anti-papist culture – he once said he had been “educated to enmity towards all things Catholic”. And his antipathy towards Rome appears in particular in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.

Twain could be equally vitriolic towards the French. In midlife, sometimes moved by negative Gallic criticism of his work, he frequently made fun of the French people he met abroad, making fun of their morals and their high regard for their culture.

So how is it that this American writer, best known for his books on the Mississippi River and his childhood, was fascinated by a young French girl devoted to her church and her Catholic faith, who claimed to speak with saints and angels, and who died a martyr? What prompted this man who scoffed at organized religion to write what he considered his best novel about someone whose aspirations and beliefs seemed so contrary to his own?

A bit of context

Joan of Arc, 1865, by John Everett Millais. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (Public domain)

Most of us know the story of Joan of Arc, or as we call her in the English-speaking world, Joan of Arc.

Born around 1412 in the village of Domrémy in northeastern France, Jeanne grew up in a poor peasant family, illiterate but with a deep devotion to her Catholic faith. In her early teens, she began to hear voices, which she considered a godsend, telling her that it was her mission to drive the English from French soil – the Hundred Years’ War had already lasted for decades. – and to help restore Charles of Valois to his rightful place on the throne of France.

At 16, after convincing a local court that she should not be forced into an arranged marriage by her father, Joan left to gain access to Charles and his court. After miraculously doing so and meeting him, Joan promised Charles that he would soon be crowned king at the former site of the coronation in Reims. Within a year, she kept that promise after driving the English forces out of Orléans and accompanying Charles through enemy territory to Reims.

In May 1430, enemy forces captured Joan and sold her to the English, who tried her as a witch and heretic, and burned her at the stake. For centuries she remained an iconic French heroine, and in 1920 the Church declared her a saint. Dozens of books and dozens of films, including the silent film classic “Jeanne D’Arc” (1928), brought her exploits to a wide audience.

An unlikely champion

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The second panel of the “Life of Joan of Arc” frieze in the Pantheon in France, by Jules-Eugène, date unknown. In this panel, the people of France are shown greeting Joan of Arc and kissing her hands and feet. (Public domain)

“She was the Wonder of the Ages. And when we consider her origin, her early circumstances, her sex, and that she did all the things on which her fame rests while she was still a young girl, we recognize that so long as our race will continue, she will also be the riddle of the ages. .”

This is what Mark Twain wrote in his essay “Saint Joan of Arc”. Throughout this essay, he praises this charismatic girl, not only writing about the miracle of winning Charles’ ear and her achievements on the battlefield, but also speculating about her personality, conjectures derived years of study and reading. about her. “She was,” he writes, “sweet, seductive and affectionate; she loved her home and her friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion…” Without an ounce of irony, this longtime skeptic nun notes that Joan “spoke daily with the angels” and that “she had a childlike faith in the celestial origin of her apparitions and her Voice, not the threat of any form of death was able to scare him out of his loyal heart. He ends by stating, “She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

And in his novel “Personal Memories of Joan of Arc by Sieur Louis de Conte (his page and secretary)”, published before Joan’s beatification, Twain paints a marvelous portrait of this saint.

A riddle for readers and critics

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Lithograph poster for “Joan of Arc” by Mark Twain, 1894, by Eugène Grasset. Library of Congress. (Public domain)

When this book first appeared in serialized form in Harper’s Magazine from 1895, Twain kept his name out of publication, and many readers assumed that de Conte, and the fictional translator, Jean Francois Alden, were indeed the real authors of Joan’s story. In his “Introduction” to my copy of “Jeanne d’Arc” (Ignatius Press, 1989, 452 pages), Andrew Tadie suggests that Twain engaged in this underhanded deception to “keep some psychological distance from his subject”. Tadie also assumes, correctly, that audiences who reveled in Twain’s humor would be perplexed by this straightforward attempt at historical fiction.

Regarding this last consideration, Twain had correctly assessed his fans. Readers familiar with “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” or even with “Life on the Mississippi” or “A Connecticut Yankee,” were left baffled by Twain’s latest novel. It is the same today. Students who delve into Huck’s adventures find themselves exploring an entirely different world in “Joan of Arc.”

Critics past and present have faulted Twain for devoting so much time and energy to this story, considering it an aberration or a waste of time. As Tadie reports, an early critic, William Peterfield, said of “Joan of Arc” that Twain should write “simply and truly about what he is most full of and understands best”. Bernard DeVoto, editor, historian, and for a time director of the Mark Twain estate, considered the novel mediocre and accused the author of a “cult of muliebrity, a belief in the sanctity of womanhood.”

Having decided to investigate Twain’s madness a bit more, I found “Joan of Arc” largely ignored. A Publisher’s Weekly article that lists and briefly describes his top ten books makes no mention of this novel. Visits to my public library and the nearby Christendom College library rewarded me with many books on Mark Twain, both biographies and literary analyses, but the entries in their indexes completely ignored “Joan of Arc”. or offered little information.

Motivational research

Epoch Times Photo
The third panel of the “Life of Joan of Arc” frieze in the Pantheon in France, by Jules-Eugène, date unknown. In this panel, Burgundian soldiers, allies of England, capture Joan. (Public domain)

Whether “Joan of Arc” is not of the same literary caliber as “Roughing It” or the Mississippi works of Twain is beyond debate. If another author with less name recognition had written that same book, it’s possible the novel has now disappeared down the forgotten book hole. That would be a shame, because “Joan of Arc” is lively and well-written, appeals to our modern sensibilities, offers insight into 15th-century history and culture, and gives us an excellent portrait of the young girl who has become warrior and Saint.

However, our original question remains unanswered: why did Mark Twain devote so much effort and time to this subject? What was the enchantment that kept him in this work?

Critics have long advanced the reasons for Twain’s high regard for “Joan of Arc.” Some have argued that the aging author was simply looking for a subject. Others cite Twain’s long battles with organized religion, saying that in this young French girl he had finally found the religious purity he felt most Christians lacked.

In “The Riddle of Mark Twain’s Passion for Joan of Arc”, Daniel Crown examines several other theories, including a bizarre one, for example, about cross-dressing. Twain had asked Huck to dress up as a girl at one point in this novel, and Joan had dressed as a soldier while leading the French – one of the main charges against her in her trial was that she wore male clothes. This guess has raised a smile, as it seems highly unlikely that a man could devote more than a decade to research simply because his subject wore panties and cut his hair short.

I am not a trained literary critic and certainly not a Mark Twain expert, although I have read and taught “The Personal Memories of Joan of Arc” twice. But after revisiting the novel and re-reading Twain’s essay on Joan in particular, I have my own theory about his infatuation with her.

A matter of the heart

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Illustrated plate entitled “Joan’s Vision” from “Personal Memories of Joan of Arc”, by Mark Twain in 1895. (Public domain)

I think Mark Twain fell in love with Joan of Arc. I think the man in the white suit was seduced by this flower from France. Although not as profound a misanthrope as his contemporary Ambrose Bierce of the famous “Devil’s Dictionary”, Twain was pessimistic about human nature, deriving much of his humor from drawing attention to our quirks and our disagreements. He was probably heartbroken by what he saw around him and treated it, as a sharp wit would, with satire. Then this pure soul appeared, so opposed to others he knew and even to himself, and he discovered hope after all.

I think in this teenage heroine he found that flame of purity, kindness and fervor that he had sought all his life. This “slender girl in her first young bloom” who, as a teenager, had inspired an army to victory and crowned a king, “this wondrous child, this sublime personality, this spirit which…has had no equal and none will have none,” had, quite simply, stolen Twain’s grieving heart.

This passion only deepened as he immersed himself in the story of this remarkable human being. Consequently, towards the end of his life, he would write: “I love Joan of Arc the best of all my books: and this is the best; I know it perfectly. Besides, he gave me seven times the pleasure that all the others gave me; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and had none.

“The heart has its reasons that reason can ignore”, wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. This is often the case with love, and it explains better than any literary theory the ardor and devotion that Mark Twain devoted to the Maid of France.

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