Monday, April 09, 2012

Twain and the Maid

The Awl has an interesting if somewhat odd article on Mark Twain's interest in St. Joan of Arc. It's informative, and says some interesting things, but it is indeed odd. One of the oddities, which takes front and center in the article, is the claim that Twain's interest in the Maid was obsessive. But there's no reason to think it more obsessive than any number of other interests a person may have (it pales besides Sandberg's interest in Lincoln, for instance), and Twain is hardly the only person (and was hardly the only person in his own day) who had an intense longstanding interest in her. There is, as the article says, a sort of riddle in Twain's interest, since he was anti-Catholic and anti-French, and Joan was very, very Catholic and very, very French. The article suggests that it was because Joan met his conflicting ideals of womanhood, but I'm not sure this really explains anything (and it fails to give us any reason for thinking the direction of causation must go this way rather than the other -- given the longstanding interest, there's a good argument to be made that Twain's ideal of womanhood is heavily drawn from the Maid, not vice versa).

The two authorities to which Daniel Crown appeals in the article make some odd comments. For instance, commenting on the contention of some Catholics that Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a religious work (in whatever sense that means, since it is not explained), Crown says,

According to Morris, however, the religious angle doesn’t add up. “He really doesn’t emphasize the piety or the voices [in Recollections]. He kind of keeps his hands off the spiritual side of things.”

But, of course, it's not as if it's any big secret, or needs to be emphasized, that the Maid was a Catholic martyr; it's obvious on the face of it. And to say that Twain "keeps his hands off the spiritual side of things" requires, I think, that one be operating on a conception of spirituality that is not shared by either Twain -- who makes no secret of the importance of Joan's spirituality (Cf. Twain's sarcastic comments, later in the article, on common artistic representations of her) -- or many religious believers.

Likewise, the article, following Morris, makes a big deal of cross-dressing. This may, indeed, have been something that attracted Twain to the potential of the story, but the article goes out of its way to make a big deal out of something that (1) Twain did not make up and could not have been eliminated from the story; (2) plays a relatively secondary role, although it does come up at important moments; and (3) is a pretty common literary trope. Likewise, the article tries to make a big deal out of Twain's interpretation of Joan's wearing of men's clothes: "It’s no accident that Twain chose to spin Joan’s cross-dressing as an exercise in modesty." But this is not a "spin"; it is explicitly in the primary sources, because (1) it's Joan's own explicit claim, (2) it's the interpretation of the men who fought beside her, and (3) it was, besides, not an uncommon practice in the period, despite the English attempt to make use of it to reflect badly on her character.

A further issue arises when discussing the Maid and feminism:

“The way he constructs her, Joan is not a feminist,” Harris said. “What she does is a very conventional female act: she sacrifices herself for men, God, and her king and country. In the book she says, ‘I would far rather be home, a simple peasant girl, spinning with my mother.’ Instead she puts on male clothes and goes out and fights battles. But she doesn’t want to. I think that’s key for Twain.”

This is a somewhat mind-boggling comment. Sacrificing oneself for one's men, for God, for one's king, and for one's country is not "a very conventional female act"; it's a very conventional male act. It is men who have traditionally been expected to sacrifice themselves for Kirk and King and God and country, particularly in the way that Joan does it. There is simply no possible way to read Joan's story, in any version, and conclude, "Ah, yes, I see, she was just doing what was ordinarily expected of a woman." What Joan did was what is expected of a soldier, and being a soldier is a conventional male act. And the reluctance fits with this, too; the notion of the soldier who would rather be at home is a common literary trope, and is certainly what Twain is adapting here -- the only thing that's conventionally female in any of this is Joan's idea of what being at home would be like.

This is why the emphasis on the cross-dressing is somewhat misguided, particularly in the context of Twain's representation of Joan. There's a straightforward sense in which Joan is not feminist -- she's not doing anything she is doing 'for women'. But precisely what Twain is showing in this work -- and it is a strength -- is that Joan is very much a girl. She is a teenaged girl, with a teenaged girl's focus, a teenaged girl's generosity, and, when exasperated or sure that she's right and everyone else is wrong, a teenaged girl's saucy impudence, and what Twain draws out is that these are part of what makes Joan rise above everything. Twain's Joan does not go out and fight wars, throw back the English, raise French morale, and face her death bravely because she is masculine or butch; she does it because she's a girl. She's courageous, undaunted, and resolute, and she is all these things because she is a girl. She is uncorrupted by the world, unafraid of men, and does what needs to be done regardless of danger; and Twain's whole point is that every single one of these is connected with Joan's girlishness. In Twain's world a girl, even a very girly girl, a girl as girlish as she can be, can, given the right circumstances and the right cause, put grown men to shame on their own field.

We also get this comment:

As Harris told me, “If you just read Recollections for Joan, it’s not a very interesting book at all. But if you read it for De Conte, the narrator, you realize that he basically becomes a voice for the book’s author.”

But the article had previously shown that this is not true: while it's by no means Twain's most popular work, there are plenty of people who think the Recollections are an interesting book when read for Joan.

There are other oddities, not dealing with Joan in particular -- for instance, the author clearly has misunderstood Twain's comments on women and suffrage, which are really about the evils of electioneering, and the author's take on the Angelfish overlooks the fact that (1) Twain was actively encouraging the girls in literary and artistic endeavors; (2) Twain never gives any indication of its being anything more than chatty and humorous; and (3) Twain was in his seventies at the time, and most of the correspondence occurred in 1908 and 1909. Here is a better discussion of this phase in Twain's life.

At the same time, though, it's good to see someone discussing it, and the article is, as I said, fairly informative. As I've mentioned before, I suspect that history might prove Twain right about its being his best book, in literary terms. Huck and Tom loom large mostly because they are fun and funny, and we don't really get that with Twain's Joan. But we do get a carefully crafted story, the craft of which has never quite been given its due.

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