Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 21. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 21. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

The last certified claimant for a position in the front rank of the novels is Joan of Arc (1896), a romance containing as its core the ascertained facts concerning one of the most problematic figures in secular history, and as its important imaginative expansion Mark Twain’s conception of her familiar charm and his pictures of the battles and scenes of state and trials through which she passed. As in the somewhat similar case of the supernatural powers of Jesus, of which he was certainly sceptical, he says nothing to raise a doubt of the Maid’s divine assistance; he neither explained nor attempted to explain away Joan’s mystery. Her character, her Voices, and her mission he presents throughout with an air of absolute reverence and indeed at times with almost breathless adoration. For the reader in whom illusion is not destroyed by constant involuntary attention to the line where fact meets fiction the total impression is doubtless both beautiful and deeply moving. In the last section, at least, which deals with the trial and martyrdom, the most impatient reader of historical romance can hardly escape the pang of actuality; he is too near the facts. Recognizing that the book was quite out of his customary vein, Mark Twain published it first anonymously; yet in 1908 he wrote: “I like the 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; 12 years of preparation & 2 years of writing. The others needed no preparation, & got none.” This much we must admit: we are glad to have Joan of Arc on the shelf beside A Connecticut Yankee to complete our conception of that versatile and representative American whom we call Mark Twain. Without it, and its little companion-piece, In Defence of Harriet Shelley (1894), we should have a harder task to prove, against those that take him for a hard unsanctified philistine, his invincible chivalry and fineness in relation to womankind, feelings precious in a free society, and fostered, as we like to think, by a thoroughly established American tradition.

But if we value a book in proportion to its saturation with its author’s most distinctive qualities and in proportion to its power, exerted or latent, to affect the general literary current, we shall hardly rate Joan of Arc among Mark Twain’s most interesting or significant books. In its utterly reverent treatment of the traditional and the supernatural it impresses one as a counterpoise obviously unequal to the task of making a balance with the great burden of naturalistic and radically iconoclastic writing in the other scale.