While the works of Mark Twain are read and acclaimed by readers of all creeds and beliefs, it is often harder for Catholic readers to embrace him with the enthusiasm so remarkable in readers of different persuasions. In book after book, whether travel guide or novel, Mark Twain makes passing remarks upon the Catholic Church which may be true in some particular instances, but are nevertheless largely unfair when made upon the Church as a whole.
It would be useless, however, to accuse Twain of blind and unprincipled bigotry. In fact, Twain himself provided the best piece of evidence in the case for his appreciation of true goodness wherever it was found by writing Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. This historical novel, published in 1896, recounts the brief life and astonishing exploits of the French girl whom Catholics venerate as St. Joan of Arc. The book, ostensibly a translation of a memoir written by a childhood friend of Joan, will not surprise many readers in terms of plot, for although the narrator is a fictional character, the rest of the book remains firmly in line with accepted historical accounts of Joan’s life, words, and deeds.
What is truly astonishing and even rather moving is Twain’s unmistakable admiration and respect for Joan. Many commentators have pointed out the parallels between his portrait of the saint and his own beloved daughters; but rather than diluting the truth of his work, such a fact only makes the book even more unique in the canon of Twain’s fiction. Although the closing years of Twain’s life were marked by personal tragedy and an increasing concentration on the darkness of the human condition, his faith in the possibility of change through the efforts of truly extraordinary people is recorded in Joan of Arc, which he once declared to be his greatest achievement as well as his personal favorite among his writings.
It is significant that Twain’s clearest and strongest demonstration of the possibility of goodness in human form comes through his passion for Joan of Arc. While Twain’s bitter vision of human nature is clearly supported by his account of Joan’s persecutors, who constitute a historical proof of gross injustice and cruelty, Twain closes the book on a note of combined hope and awe. Twain’s love for Joan is not the admiration of a pessimistic and exhausted recluse who praises innocence and purity while affirming their ultimate futility; on the contrary, he honors the Maid of Orleans for her character as manifested in her deeds.
In Joan of Arc, Twain saw, perhaps for the first and last time, how innate goodness can impress itself upon history and show brief justice to a world chronically crippled by evil. For these reasons, Twain ends the novel by emphasizing Joan’s patriotism, describing it in terms which others may recognize as attributes of charity—he lauds its “purity from all alloy of self-seeking, self-interest, personal ambition.” In such disinterested and cosmic love, Twain finds the explanation of Joan’s success in her mission; nor is it unlikely to suppose that Twain would accept a definition of true patriotism as loyalty to mankind as a whole, since its particular manifestation in the life of Joan of Arc gave to all humankind the gift of so luminous and inspiring a figure.
A further point worth mentioning is Twain’s continued emphasis not only on Joan’s unusual courage and determination in the face of formidable obstacles, but also on the divine nature of her mission, despite the apparent unlikelihood of a peasant girl being chosen as a messenger of Heaven. When Joan’s captors question her, Twain writes, “She could have reminded these people that Our Lord, who is no respecter of persons, had chosen the lowly for his high purposes even oftener than he had chosen bishops and cardinals.” And perhaps this belief in the ability of the seemingly weak to work great deeds if they ally clarity of moral vision with innate goodness is the theme which unites Joan of Arc with Twain’s other works.
Yet the truest key to Twain’s admiration for Joan and his preference for the work written to honor her may lie in the fact that she was not his fictional creation, however charming and realistic; instead, she lived and died in the cold world of indisputable events, a reassurance that goodness is an inspiration for fiction rather than its invention. Thus it is impossible not to hear Twain’s own voice echoing the words of his fictional narrator when he declares that Joan of Arc was “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.”