Sunday, August 22, 2010

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc ~ A deist's homage to a fascinating Catholic saint

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In the year 1889, Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a humorous novel with an undercurrent of vicious, anti-historical slurs at the Catholic Church. A well-known abuser of Christianity, it is perhaps not surprising that Twain would write such a work.

What is surprising is that such a persistent and nasty critic of Christianity would subsequently write Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Published in 1896--just a few years after Connecticut Yankee--Joan of Arc is a beautifully written homage to a uniquely Catholic heroine. Twain handles his subject with a delicacy bordering on reverence. The work is little more than an eloquent retelling of Joan's history, from her humble upbringing in Domrémy, to her glorious exploits on the field of battle, to the grotesque and awful mockery of a trial which condemned her as a heretic. The story is told through the eyes of Joan's page, Louis de Contes. It is alternately profound, humorous, inspiring, and shatteringly sad. Twain called it his best and favorite work and based on my limited knowledge of his other writings, I certainly agree.

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Though he had plenty of opportunities to inflate the schemings of a few odious Catholic prelates into slaps at the greater Church, Twain never does so. His attitude toward the Catholic Church is as fair and sympathetic in Joan of Arc as it is unfair and antagonistic in Connecticut Yankee. His famous vitriol is reserved for the traitors, scoundrels, and hypocrites who surrounded Joan and ultimately condemned her to death at the stake. Though Twain claimed to be a deist during his lifetime and put no faith in divine revelations, he apparently did not consider Joan to be insane or unbalanced though she was one of the most famous and remarkable visionaries of history. Instead, he was fascinated by her. In an essay on the subject, which is included as an appendix in this book, Twain called Joan. "easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced."

It almost seems that Twain wrote Joan of Arc as a penance for his prior scurrilous attacks on the Catholic Church. Having done some further research on Twain's religious feelings, I discovered that he seems to have developed a strange affinity for the Catholic Church later in his life. In one letter to his wife concerning their youngest daughter, he wrote: "I am very, very glad that Jean is in a convent....And away deep down in my heart I feel that if they make a good strong unshakable Catholic of her I shan't be the least little bit sorry....If I ever change my religion I shall change to that."

Though he never became a Catholic, it is obvious that Twain developed a deep respect for the Church in his later life, even if he retained the right to attack those aspects of the institution he found objectionable. I'd say his soul is then fair game for those who wish to pray for it. I imagine he had at least one staunch advocate at the Throne of Almighty God at his judgment. And as advocates go, Joan of Arc, saint of the Roman Catholic Church, certainly isn't to be despised.

Obviously, I highly recommend Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I now count it among my favorite books.

1 comment:

Jeff Miller said...

When I read Twain's Joan of Arc I was very surprised at how good it was and written in such a way that it reminded me of Chesterton at times. Such a solid book.

A couple of years later I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and could hardly believe they were by the same author. Though the anti-Catholic theme was certainly more in mode with Twain's repeated philosophy. I bet H.G. Wells loved this book.