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My Mark Twain
Joan of Arc
by Howells, William Dean


(From Harper's Weekly, 1896)

The historical novel is one of those flexible inventions which can he fitted to the mood or genius of any writer, and can be either story or history in the proportion he prefers. Walter Scott, who contrived it, tested its elasticity as fully as any of the long line of romancers who have followed him in every land and language. It has been a favorite form with readers from the first, and it will be to the last, because it gives them the feeling that to read so much about people who once lived and figured in human events is not such a waste of time as to read of people who never lived at all, or figured in anything but the author's fancy. With a race like ours, which always desires a reason, or at least an excuse, for enjoying itself, this feeling no doubt availed much for fiction, and helped to decide the fate of the novel favorably when its popularity was threatened by the good, stupid Anglo-Saxon conscience. Probably it had the largest share in establishing fiction as a respectable literary form, and in giving it the primacy which it now enjoys. Without the success of the monstrous fables which the gentle Sir Walter palmed off upon his generation in the shape of historical fiction, we should hardly have revered as masters in a beautiful art the writers who have since swayed our emotions. Jane Austen, Miss Edgeworth, Hawthorne, Thackeray, George Eliot, Mr. Henry James, might have sought a hearing from serious persons in vain for the truth that was in them if the historical novel had not established fiction in the respect of our race as a pleasure which might be enjoyed without self-reproach, or as the sugar of a pill which would be none the less powerful in its effects upon the system because it was agreeable to take.

It would be interesting to know, but not very pertinent to inquire, how far our great humorist's use of the historical form in fiction was prompted by love of it, or by an instinctive perception that it was the only form in which he could hope to deliver a message of serious import without being taken altogether in jest. But, at any rate, we can be sure that in each of Mark Twain's attempts of this sort, in the Prince and the Pauper, in the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and in the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, he was taken with the imaginative -- that is to say, the true -- nature of his theme, and that he made this the channel of the rich vein of poetry which runs through all his humor and keeps it sound whether it is grotesque or whether it is pathetic in effect.

The first of these three books is addressed to children, but it is not children who can get the most out of it; the last is offered to the sympathy and intelligence of men and women, and yet I should not be surprised if it made its deepest and most lasting appeal to the generous heart of youth. But I think that the second will remain the enduring consolation of old and young alike, and will be ranged in this respect and as a masterpiece of humor beside the great work of Cervantes. Since the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha there is nothing to compare with the Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, and I shall be very much disappointed in posterity if it does not agree with me. In that colossally amusing scheme, that infinitely suggestive situation, the author was hampered by no such distinct records as he has had to grapple with in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. He could launch himself into a realm of fable and turn it into fact by virtue of his own strong and vivid reality while in a scene whose figures and events are all ascertained by history his fancy has had to work reversely, and transmute the substance into the airy fabric of romance. The result will not be accepted without difficulty by two sorts of critics: the sort who would have had him stick closer to the conventional ideal of the past, as it has been derived from other romancers, and the sort who would have had him throw that altogether away and trust to his own divinations of its life and spirit from the events as set down and from his abundant knowledge of human nature through himself.

I confess that I am of these, and I have the least to complain of, I think. It would be impossible for any one who was not a prig to keep to the archaic attitude and parlance which the author attempts here and there; and I wish he had frankly refused to attempt it at all. I wish his personal recollections of Joan could have been written by some Southwestern American, translated to Domremy by some such mighty magic of imagination as launched the Connecticut Yankee into the streets of many-towered Camelot; but I make the most of the moments when the Sieur Louis de Conte forgets himself into much the sort of witness I could wish him to be. I am not at all troubled when he comes out with a bit of good, strong, downright modern American feeling; my suffering begins when he does the supposed mediaeval thing. Then I suspect that his armor is of tin, that the castles and rocks are pasteboard, that the mob of citizens and soldiers who fill the air with the clash of their two-up-and-two-down combats, and the well-known muffled roar of their voices have been hired in at so much a night, and that Joan is sometimes in an awful temper behind the scenes; and I am thankful when the brave Sieur Louis forgets himself again. I have my little theory that human nature is elementally much the same always and everywhere, and that if the man of intelligence will study this in his own heart he will know pretty well what all other men have been in essentials. As to manners, I think that a man who knew the Southwest in the days of slavery, when the primitive distinctions between high and low, bond and free, lord and villein, were enforced with the violence of passions stronger than the laws, could make a shrewd guess at mediaeval life; and I am inclined to accept Mark Twain's feudal ruffians, gentle and simple, as like enough, or as much like as one can get them at this late day. At least, they are like something, and the trouble with the more romantic reproductions is that they are like nothing.

A jolly thing about it, and a true thing, is the fun that his people get out of the affair. It is a vast frolic, in certain aspects, that mystical mission of the inspired Maid, and Joan herself is not above having her laugh at times. Her men-at-arms, who drive the English before them under her miraculous lead, are "the boys" who like to drink deep and to talk tall; to get the joke on one another, and the dead wood. Without this sort of relief I own that I should find their campaigns rather trying, and, without the hope of overhearing some of their lusty drollery, I should not care to follow them in all their hard fighting. I fancy it is the chance of this that gives the author himself so much stomach for battle; it seems worth while to lay a lot of fellows in plate-armor low if you can have them clatter down to the music of a burly jest and a roaring laugh. He is not at the trouble to maintain the solemnity of the dominant strain throughout; and he has made his Sieur de Conte not only a devout believer in the divine authority of Joan, but a delicately tender sympathizer with her when she suffers as a poor, simple shepherd-girl for the deeds of the prophetess. De Conte is a very human and lovable character, and is rather apt to speak with the generous feeling and the righteous love and hate of Mark Twain, whose humor has never been sullied with anything mean or cruel. The minor note is heard mostly through De Conte's story of the trial and martyrdom of Joan, which is studied faithfully from the histories, and which I think is the best part of the book. It is extremely pathetic at moments, and as one reads the heart swells with pity for the victim of one of the cruelest wrongs ever done, as if the suffering from it were not over four hundred years ago.

It would not be easy to convey a sense of the reverent tenderness with which the character of Joan is developed in this fiction, and she is made a "sensible warm motion" from the myth that she seems in history. The wonder of her career is something that grows upon the reader to the end, and remains with him while he is left tingling with compassion for the hapless child who lived so gloriously and died so piteously.

What can we say, in this age of science, that will explain away the miracle of that age of faith? For these things really happened. There was actually this peasant maid who believed she heard voices from Heaven bidding her take command of the French armies and drive the English out of her country; who took command of them without other authority than such as the belief of her prince and his people gave her; who prophesied of the victories she should win, and won them; who broke the power of the invaders; and who then, as if God thought she had given proofs enough of her divine commission, fell into their power and was burned for a heretic and an idolater. It reads like a wild and foolish invention, but it is every word most serious truth. It is preposterous, it is impossible, but it is all undeniable.

What can we say to it in the last year of this incredulous old century, nodding to its close? We cannot deny it. What was it all? Was Joan's power the force dormant in the people which her claim of inspiration awoke to mighty deeds? If it was merely that, how came this poor, ignorant girl by the skill to lead armies, to take towns, to advise councils, and to change the fate of a whole nation? It was she who recreated France, and changed her from a province of England to the great monarchy she became. Could a dream, an illusion, a superstition, do this? What, then, are dreams and illusions and superstitions, that our wisdom should be so eager to get rid of them?

We know that for the present the force which could remove mountains is pretty much gone out of the world. Faith has ceased to be, but we have some lively hopes of electricity. We now employ it to exanimate people; perhaps we shall yet find it valuable to reanimate them. Or will faith come back again, and will the future ages be some of them religious?

I shall not attempt to answer these questions, which have, with a good number of others, been suggested by this curious book of the arch-humorist of the century. I fancy they will occur to most other readers, who will share my interest in the devout, the mystical, the knightly treatment of the story of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain. Voltaire tried to make her a laughingstock and a by-word. He was a very great wit, but he failed to defame her, for the facts were against him. It is our humorist's fortune to have the facts with him, and whatever we think Joan of Arc, inspired or deluded, we shall feel the wonder of them the more for the light his imagination has thrown upon them. I dare say there are a good many faults in the book. It is unequal; its archaism is often superficially a failure; if you look at it merely on the technical side, the outbursts of the nineteenth-century American in the armor of the fifteenth-century Frenchman are solecisms. But, in spite of all this, the book has a vitalizing force. Joan lives in it again, and dies, and then lives on in the love and pity and wonder of the reader.



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