Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, April 23, 2018

msgrliptak_halfMark Twain, who lived in Hartford for 17 years, from 1874 to 1891, died just 100 years ago this past April. His real name, as every student in America should know, was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Mark Twain was a nom de plume borrowed from his experience on a Mississippi steamboat; it was the traditional cry indicating a safe depth in the waters.

At one time, Twain was perhaps the best known American, not only here, but throughout the world. His first short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), catapulted him instantly into public fame. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) established him as a beloved humorist; it is still a standard read for every boy in America. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), often described as an artistic masterpiece, has been dubbed by some critics "the beginning of modern American literature" – or at least among the first pieces of authentic American literature.

Twain also wrote many other enduring pieces. One of the most fascinating is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

What was Mark Twain’s own favorite? Ironically, it is the only work he authored under the name of a fictional persona; specifically, Sieur Louis de Conte. The subject of the book (believe it or not) is St. Joan of Arc, and the formal title reads, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by The Sieur Louis de Conte (Her Page and Secretary). Published first in serial form by Harper’s Magazine, beginning in April 1895, it was dedicated to his beloved wife, Olivia, on the occasion of their 25 th weddinganniversary.

Joan of Arc,  Twain once explained, was written chiefly for love; royalties, he said, were of no concern. He simply assumed another persona lest his readers tend to dismiss it, since it was not a humorous work (as were his usual publications). Yet, as some reviewers have pointed out, Twain revered only three heroes; two appeared in his popular books, and the third was Joan of Arc – the only hero of the three who is part of world history.

Indeed, one critic has noted that Twain’s understanding of history and Joan’s involvement in it are worth "all his other books together." (cf. Andrew Tadie, in Mark Twain, Joan of Arc, San Francisco; Ignatius, 1989)

That Joan of Arc was one of the most extraordinary persons of all time is hardly debatable. In a famous essay, Twain defends this thesis; besides, he wrote, there was "no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character." Her very history, he adds, "sets her apart and leaves her without fellow or competitor." She is, of course, the only person, of either sex, who has ever taken supreme command of the military might of a nation at the age of 17 – as Louis Kossuth has pointed out. And this all came about because of a mission from God, made known by heavenly voices!

The persona cited by Twain as "The Translator" of Sieur Louis de Conte’s Personal Recollections, added a note regarding a special peculiarity of St. Joan’s history. It is, he suggests, "the only story of a human life which comes to us under oath, the only one which comes to us from the witness-stand." The reference here is to the Great Trial of 1431, together with the Process of Rehabilitation 25 years later – both recorded in documents preserved in the National Archives of France. (A fact check immediately indicates that "The Translator’s" verdict is hyperbole, but basically correct.)

There is no story in the lives of the saints comparable to that of the Maid of Orleans; this statement is not hyperbole. Joan’s chronicle is as complex as it is fascinating, so much so that it has attracted writers of various beliefs and nonbeliefs. The authors of Butler’s Lives take note of multiple "Joan-legends": "Joan the Protestant" (e.g., the play by George Bernard Shaw); "theatre St. Joan" (e.g., recent movies and TV depictions); "nationalist Joan"; and "feminist Joan." One of the most enduring studies is Hilaire Belloc’s 1930 work.

England’s role in Joan’s execution recalls Athens’s crime in executing Socrates; it is a chapter permanently infamous. Infamous, too, was the involvement of some Churchmen, both English and French, who were complicit in her death. The cry of John Tressart, one of King Henry’s aides, can be heard over the ages: "We are lost; we have burned a saint!"

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford