Monday, July 5, 2010

Mark Twain 100 Years Later

by Father Steven Reilly, LC

As Hemingway put it, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Even as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ death this year, the novels he wrote as Mark Twain still hold an envied place in the annals of literature.

A great writer, and also a complex personality, Twain was the premier humorist of his day — the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts gives an annual award for humor named after him. Yet the laughter often carried a tinge of cynicism. He viewed the world with a jaundiced eye. Life, after all, had dealt him heavy blows, particularly with the deaths of his beloved wife, Olivia, and two of his daughters in their 20s.

Love for Joan of Arc

As for faith, generally he believed in an afterlife, but often it was conflicted and frequently wavering (“Faith is believing in what you know ain’t so.”). Still, Catholics may be impressed to know that Twain said that he liked his 1896 Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc “best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.” Yes, the author of Huckleberry Finn, a book that frequently vies for “Great American Novel” status, held Joan of Arc in higher esteem. What was the source of this feeling?

Quite simply, Twain loved the medieval heroine and saint. In a separate essay in 1904, he wrote, “There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character. ... She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Twain originally published his novel serially in Harper’s Magazine under a different pseudonym, Louis de Conte. He feared the reactions of readers who had come to expect a certain kind of writing from him and so presented the book at first as the real memoir of Joan’s page and secretary recently translated to English. How long the ruse was maintained is hard to say, but the shining admiration of the fictional narrator, the elderly bachelor Louis de Conte, is pure Twain.
Read it all here.

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