This was the point of the whole exercise. The reason I bought the entire 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain was because I was planning to write a novel about the circumstances surrounding the composition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and I wanted to read Twain's entire body of work so I could see what sorts of resonances I could find.

I had been fascinated in college to learn, first, that Mark Twain had written a book about Joan of Arc, and then later, that he had in fact been quite obsessed with her and had written that "I like the Joan of Arc the best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well." When I later "learned" that Twain had written the book following the death of his daughter Susan — scare quotes here because this turns out not to be true — I thought I had the start of a great book: I'd cut back and forth between the real Joan of Arc and Twain in Europe, overcome by grief, writing his version of the same scenes... it would be all literary and postmodern and stuff! I would be on NPR and Terry Gross would say, "I didn't even know Mark Twain had written a book about Joan of Arc!" and I would say, "It's a very interesting story!"

Of course, the reason I found it such an interesting story was that it was also my story. Twain was a comedy writer who was also a depressed misanthrope. He'd gone bankrupt chasing a fortune by investing in a typesetter that never did work quite right, and his life of composing canonical works of literature and then reading them to his wife and daughters at their comfortable estates in Hartford and upstate New York was over: the girls were grown up, and Twain was stuck in Europe trying to dig himself out of debt. Always cynical, by the mid-1890s Twain's quips had become suicidal and he seemed to have had his fill of what he called "the damned human race." The only exception was Joan of Arc, whom he considered singularly miraculous: not only was she perfectly virtuous, but what she had accomplished could not be explained by any of the usual means.

I could relate. I wanted to write funny yet meaningful novels when I grew up, and I too was a depressed misanthrope. (Now I am a somewhat more cheerful one.) Having skipped a bunch of grades, I'd been out of the extracurricular social loop and had thus been oblivious to the more Dionysian aspects of high school; when I encountered them in college I was appalled. It was around this time that I watched Taxi Driver a lot. This was also when I became fixated on Joan of Arc, even though at the time I didn't actually know much about her. I knew that she was a virginal peasant girl who'd heard voices in her head telling her that she had to drive the English out of France — and had actually done so. That this was recent enough history that there was a load of contemporary documentation to support that things had actually happened as reported. That she'd been martyred before she'd turned twenty. In short, that she was a Christ figure for people who like teenage girls.

And even at my most puritanical, I was girl-crazy. By which I mean something beyond mere heterosexuality; there are plenty of guys who are interested in females as love interests, but prefer other men for general companionship. I, on the other hand, pretty much lack the male bonding gene. When I read a Bill Simmons column about getting together with the boys and doing Guy Stuff it is no more on my wavelength than is a tampon commercial. It's not that I don't associate with guys; I hang out on a MUD that is full of them, collaborate on projects with them, and so forth. But it is not just happenstance that my AIM buddy list is 100% female. Long before I hit puberty I sensed that there was something indefinably awesome about girls, and I am just plain more interested in spending time with them. Talking with them doesn't even feel like the same activity as talking with a guy; there should be a different verb or something. Take a question like, "So, what was it like to grow up in Duluth?" If the person I'm talking to is male, asking this question means I'm interested in (for whatever reason) learning about Duluth; if she's female, it means I'm interested in learning about her. So while even during my Travis Bickle period I couldn't bring myself to revere a 33-year-old male charismatic schizophrenic, I adored the 17-year-old female version.

Mark Twain was much the same way at the point in his life when he wrote Joan of Arc. Twain is so well-known as a writer of books about boys — Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Huck Finn — that people don't realize that his household was entirely female: his wife, his sister-in-law, his three daughters, a maid. These were his most immediate audience — the girls especially, where the all-ages books were concerned. They helped him decide which bits worked and which didn't. Even after his daughters were grown, he surrounded himself with a coterie of teenage girls to serve as surrogate granddaughters and listen to him read his last few stories; seeking the opinions of stand-in grandsons was not on the agenda. Many of Twain's works may have been about boys, but they were written to girls.

His daughters liked The Prince and the Pauper best, and not just because it was dedicated to them. Susie in particular thought it was the sort of thing her father should be writing: full of social purpose, low on comedy. "He should show himself the great writer that he is," she maintained, "not merely a funny man! Funny! That's all the people see in him — a maker of funny speeches!" Joan of Arc was at least in part Twain's attempt to rise to Susie's challenge. Susie helped to edit it. She also served as her father's model for the title character.

Twain was very attached to his eldest daughter, so much so that his wife was a bit concerned. He found all sorts of excuses to visit her at Bryn Mawr and was already in a sort of mourning for her even before she suddenly died at age 24 of cerebral menengitis: he later wrote of feeling "desolate" when his daughters had reached young womanhood and were "gone out of our lives forever" except in "vague dream-glimpses [...] playing and romping, with short frocks on, and hair-tails down their backs [...] but they were only dainty and darling specters, and they faded away and vanished". Writing Joan of Arc both gave Twain a reason to stay in constant contact with Susie and allowed him to spend his days conjuring her back into being in the form of the Maid of Orléans.

In the preface to Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, before yielding the floor to the simpering elderly narrator whose recollections are referred to in the title, Twain has his "translator" describe Joan as "ideally perfect" and a "noble child, the most innocent, the most lovely, the most adorable the ages have produced," and this translates into a really boring character. It's a shame, because a virtuous character doesn't necessarily have to be boring. There are all sorts of hooks you can hang onto a supremely virtuous character to make her stir the narrative up: she can be superlatively prissy, or scarily remote, or heartbroken at the state of the world... there are all sorts of interesting angles you can take. But Twain tried to make his Joan not just extraordinary but also highly ordinary: down-to-earth, able to laugh at a practical joke, and so forth. The results are not good.

If you're paying attention, your next question should be, "Wait — 'practical joke'? In a Joan of Arc book?" Sadly, yes. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is an upstairs/downstairs affair in which History Channel chapters detailing well-known events from Joan's life alternate with wholly invented chapters about her former playmates, now troops in her army, as they tell tall tales about their exploits in a manner that is supposed to be amusing. Susie said she wanted her father to stop being a funny man, and she got her wish — the jokes in Joan of Arc run along the lines of a really big guy being nicknamed the Dwarf. Joan may be boring, but she is a welcome relief from these clowns.

Unfortunately, these are the only bits in which Twain goes beyond the history books. His writing is better than that in, say, An Army of Angels, but doesn't offer much in the way of insight other than that Joan was perfect in all ways (as the narrator constantly reminds us). He does make one point that I thought was well-observed: that Joan, as a peasant, knew what Charles VII had to do to win over the support of the peasantry, a crucial contribution to the cause. Other than that, he doesn't seem to really get her. Much of what makes Joan of Arc Joan of Arc is downplayed or missing — there is little to suggest that this future Catholic saint is in fact Catholic, for instance. (Not too surprising from an author who listed Martin Luther as history's second-greatest figure and who wrote a novel in which the elimination of the Roman Catholic Church was the protagonist's ultimate goal.) Very few words are spent on the voices in Joan's head — in a marginal notation when he was doing research, Twain referred to the voices as "merely idiots." No, Twain's Joan is just Super-Susie, a sort of suffragette transplanted from the Progressive Era that was beginning at the time of Joan of Arc's publication.

But again, I can relate. I wrote a character pretty much exactly like Twain's Joan once — Molly, in one of the early drafts of Ready, Okay!, back before she had a personality. And it is how I would have written Joan had I been writing my Joan of Arc book back then: blandly angelic. Specific qualities just get in the way. The reason I wanted to write a book about Mark Twain and Joan of Arc is that Twain's conflation of Joan of Arc and his daughter seemed to speak to my own conflation, back in college, of Joan of Arc and my sister, who died in infancy — and had thus, you see, never done anything wrong. She was perfect by virtue of being blank.

In researching the actual Jehanne la Pucelle, however, I found that she was much more interesting than the cipher Joan of Arc. And while it was neat that both I and this great literary figure had had an attachment to the same cipher, that didn't make her interesting to anyone else. Time to retool the idea, I thought — and once I'd done so, there was no reason to put off reading the Twain books. It's no longer research; it's just for fun. Though I'm hoping the books to come will be more fun than this one.

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