Meantime certain publishing events had occurred. During his long voyage a number of Mark Twain’s articles had appeared in the magazines, among them “Mental Telegraphy Again,” in Harpers, and in the North American Review that scorching reply to Paul Bourget’s reflections upon America. Clemens could criticize his own nation freely enough, but he would hardly be patient under the strictures of a Frenchman, especially upon American women.
There had been book publication also during this period. The Harpers had issued an edition of ‘Tom Sawyer Abroad’, which included another Tom and Huck story ‘Tom Sawyer, Detective’, written in Paris, and the contents of the old White Elephant book.
But there had been a much more important book event. The chapters of his story of Joan having run their course in Harper’s Magazine had been issued as a volume.
As already mentioned, Joan had been early recognized as Mark Twain’s work, and it was now formally acknowledged as such on the title-page. It is not certain now that the anonymous beginning had been a good thing. Those who began reading it for its lofty charm, with the first hint of Mark Twain as the author became fearful of some joke or burlesque. Some who now promptly hastened to read it as Mark Twain’s, were inclined to be disappointed at the very lack of these features. When the book itself appeared the general public, still doubtful as to its merits, gave it a somewhat dubious reception. The early sales were disappointing.
Nor were the reviewers enthusiastic, as a rule. Perhaps they did not read it over-carefully, or perhaps they were swayed a good deal by a sort of general verdict that, in attempting ‘Joan of Arc’, Mark Twain had gone out of his proper field. Furthermore, there were a number of Joan books published just then, mainly sober, somber books, in which Joan was pictured properly enough as a saint, and never as anything else — never being permitted to smile or enjoy the lighter side of life, to be a human being, in fact, at all.
But this is just the very wonder of Mark Twain’s Joan. She is a saint; she is rare, she is exquisite, she is all that is lovely, and she is a human being besides. Considered from every point of view, Joan of Arc is Mark Twain’s supreme literary expression, the loftiest, the most delicate, the most luminous example of his work. It is so from the first word of its beginning, that wonderful “Translator’s Preface,” to the last word of the last chapter, where he declares that the figure of Joan with the martyr’s crown upon her head shall stand for patriotism through all time.
The idyllic picture of Joan’s childhood with her playmates around the fairy tree is so rare in its delicacy and reality that any attempt to recall it here would disturb its bloom. The little poem, “L’Arbre fee de Bourlemont,” Mark Twain’s own composition, is a perfect note, and that curiously enough, for in versification he was not likely to be strong. Joan’s girlhood, the picture of her father’s humble cottage, the singing there by the wandering soldier of the great song of Roland which stirred her deepest soul with the love of France, Joan’s heroism among her playmates, her wisdom, her spiritual ideals-are not these all reverently and nobly told, and with that touch of tenderness which only Mark Twain could give? And the story of her voices, and her march, and of her first appearance before the wavering king. And then the great coronation scene at Rheims, and the dramatic moment when Joan commands the march on Paris — the dragging of the hopeless trial, and that last, fearful day of execution, what can surpass these? Nor must we forget those charming, brighter moments where Joan is shown just as a human being, laughing until the tears run at the absurdities of the paladin or the simple home prattle of her aged father and uncle. Only here and there does one find a touch — and it is never more than that — of the forbidden thing, the burlesque note which was so likely to be Mark Twain’s undoing.
It seems incredible to-day that any reader, whatever his preconceived notions of the writer might have been, could have followed these chapters without realizing their majesty, and that this tale of Joan was a book such as had not before been written. Let any one who read it then and doubted, go back and consider it now. A surprise will await him, and it will be worth while. He will know the true personality of Joan of Arc more truly than ever before, and he will love her as the author loved her, for “the most innocent, the most lovely, the most adorable child the ages have produced.”
The tale is matchless in its workmanship. The quaint phrasing of the old Sieur de Conte is perfectly adapted to the subject-matter, and the lovely character of the old narrator himself is so perfectly maintained that we find ourselves all the time as in an atmosphere of consecration, and feel that somehow we are helping him to weave a garland to lay on Joan’s tomb. Whatever the tale he tells, he is never more than a step away. We are within sound of his voice, we can touch his presence; we ride with him into battle; we laugh with him in the by-play and humors of warfare; we sit hushed at his side through the long, fearful days of the deadly trial, and when it is all ended it is to him that we turn to weep for Joan — with him only would we mingle our tears. It is all bathed in the atmosphere of romance, but it is the ultimate of realism, too; not hard, sordid, ugly realism, but noble, spiritual, divine realism, belonging to no particular class or school — a creation apart. Not all of Mark Twain’s tales have been convincing, but there is no chapter of his Joan that we doubt. We believe it all happened — we know that it must have happened, for our faith in the Sieur de Conte never for an instant wavers.
Aside from the personality of the book — though, in truth, one never is aside from it — the tale is a marvel in its pageantry, its splendid panorama and succession of stirring and stately scenes. The fight before Orleans, the taking of the Tourelles and of Jargeau, all the movement of that splendid march to Rheims, there are few better battle-pictures than these. Howells, always interested mainly in the realism of to-day, in his review hints at staginess in the action and setting and even in Joan herself. But Howells himself did not accept his earlier judgment as final. Five years later he wrote:
“She is indeed realized to the modern sense as few figures of the past have been realized in fiction.”
As for the action, suppose we consider a brief bit of Joan’s warfare. It is from the attack on the Tourelles:
Joan mounted her horse now with her staff about her, and when our people saw us coming they raised a great shout, and were at once eager for another assault on the boulevard. Joan rode straight to the foss where she had received her wound, and, standing there in the rain of bolts and arrows, she ordered the paladin to let her long standard blow free, and to note when its fringes should touch the fortress. Presently he said:
“Now, then,” said Joan to the waiting battalions, “the place is yours — enter in! Bugles, sound the assault! Now, then — all together — go!”
And go it was. You never saw anything like it. We swarmed up the ladders and over the battlements like a wave — and the place was our property. Why, one might live a thousand years and never see so gorgeous a thing as that again. . . .
We were busy and never heard the five cannon-shots fired, but they were fired a moment after Joan had ordered the assault; and so, while we were hammering and being hammered in the smaller fortress, the reserve on the Orleans side poured across the bridge and attacked the Tourelles from that side. A fireboat was brought down and moored under the drawbridge which connected the Tourelles with our boulevard; wherefore, when at last we drove our English ahead of us, and they tried to cross that drawbridge and join their friends in the Tourelles, the burning timbers gave way under them and emptied them in a mass into the river in their heavy armor — and a pitiful sight it was to see brave men die such a death as that.
“God pity them!” said Joan, and wept to see that sorrowful spectacle. She said those gentle words and wept those compassionate tears, although one of those perishing men had grossly insulted her with a coarse name three days before when she had sent him a message asking him to surrender. That was their leader, Sir William Glasdale, a most valorous knight. He was clothed all in steel; so he plunged under the water like a lance, and of course came up no more.
We soon patched a sort of bridge together and threw ourselves against the last stronghold of the English power that barred Orleans from friends and supplies. Before the sun was quite down Joan’s forever memorable day’s work was finished, her banner floated from the fortress of the Tourelles, her promise was fulfilled, she had raised the siege of Orleans!
England had resented the Yankee, but it welcomed Joan. Andrew Lang adored it, and some years later contemplated dedicating his own book, ‘The Maid of France’, to Mark Twain.’140
140 [His letter proposing this dedication, received in 1909, appears to have been put aside and forgotten by Mr. Clemens, whose memory had not improved with failing health.]
Brander Matthews ranks Huck Finn before Joan of Arc, but that is understandable. His literary culture and research enable him, in some measure, to comprehend the production of Joan; whereas to him Huck is pure magic. Huck is not altogether magic to those who know the West — the character of that section and the Mississippi River, especially of an older time — it is rather inspiration resulting from these existing things. Joan is a truer literary magic — the reconstruction of a far-vanished life and time. To reincarnate, as in a living body of the present, that marvelous child whose life was all that was pure and exalted and holy, is veritable necromancy and something more. It is the apotheosis of history.
Throughout his life Joan of Arc had been Mark Twain’s favorite character in the world’s history. His love for her was a beautiful and a sacred thing. He adored young maidenhood always and nobility of character, and he was always the champion of the weak and the oppressed. The combination of these characteristics made him the ideal historian of an individuality and of a career like hers. It is fitting that in his old age (he was nearing sixty when it was finished) he should have written this marvelously beautiful thing. He could not have written it at an earlier time. It had taken him all these years to prepare for it; to become softened, to acquire the delicacy of expression, the refinement of feeling, necessary to the achievement.
It was the only book of all he had written that Mark Twain considered worthy of this dedication:
1870 To MY WIFE 1895 OLIVIA LANGDON CLEMENS THIS BOOK
is tendered on our wedding anniversary in grateful recognition of her twenty-five years of valued service as my literary adviser and editor.
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was a book not understood in the beginning, but to-day the public, that always renders justice in the end, has reversed its earlier verdict. The demand for Joan has multiplied many fold and it continues to multiply with every year. Its author lived long enough to see this change and to be comforted by it, for though the creative enthusiasm in his other books soon passed, his glory in the tale of Joan never died. On his seventy-third birthday, when all of his important books were far behind him, and he could judge them without prejudice, he wrote as his final verdict:
Nov. 30, 1908
I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books; & 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 & a years of writing. The others needed no preparation, & got none.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00