Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Little Background, Part I: Joan of Arc

The portico entrance to Quarry Farm
     Twain didn't start out as a France-basherFor starters, the young Sam Clemens fell in love with Joan of Arc I read about his infatuation during a snow-bound January at Quarry Farm, Twain's summer home in Elmira, New York. It still sits on a hill overlooking  the Chemung Valley, about two hours south of  Syracuse.  Although the area has long been in decline, the view from the house's portico remains sweeping and inspiring.  Here, Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and much of his other best work in an octagonal study his sister-in-law Sue Crane--the actual owner of the house--had built for him in the woods nearby. He'd get up--at what he called the crack of 11--eat breakfast in a sunny kitchen, then head up a path to the study through a small door in the kitchen wall. 
     Quarry Farm has become hallowed ground for the  unconventional bunch of academics informally known as  TwainiacsI also like to count myself among them, and I was lucky enough stay there as a visiting scholar.  There's an intimidating library on the ground floor that still holds many books owned by Twain's family, and makes an embarrassing reminder of how much and how widely people read in those days. (Books that Twain read and annotated, along with his famous study, have been moved down the hill to the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.)  In a small sitting room upstairs there's another collection, of books about Twain's work, life, and family.  There I discovered that Twain took an interest in France before he actually went there.
    Twain's first biographer was a man named Albert Bigelow Paine, notorious in Twainiac circles for being literally too close to his subjectIn his last years, Twain took to dictating his version of his life to Paine while lying in an elaborately carved bed he and his late wife Livy had imported from Europe long before.  Anybody who's read even a paragraph of Twain can guess what's wrong with this scenario. Twain was not always inclined toward facts and Paine was always inclined toward kissing-up.  So it can be hard to tell truth from tall tale or sycophantry in the three-volume work that came out two years after Twain's death with the grand title: Mark Twain, A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of  Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  
     Even so, Paine's "biography" is a mother lode for Twainiacs.  Even if Twain made things up and Paine exaggerated them, it still shows what Twain had on his mind in his last decade.  And veins of truth run throughout, including, I think, through a fanciful passage about Sam and Joan.  It describes the moment he first fell for her, an infatuation that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
     As Paine tells it, young Sam suffered his coup de foudre on the street in Hanibal, Missouri, when he was about 13His father has died, and he's gone to work as work as a printer's apprentice.  Sam happens across a page from a book about Joan as it is blowing  down the sidewalkIt describes her "in the cage at Rouen, in the fortress, and two ruffian soldiers had stolen her clothes."  Our hero is a gonerAs Paine put its, Sam
     had never read any history…Now, however, there arose within him a deep compassion for   
     the  gentle Maid of Orleans, a burning resentment for her captors, a powerful and indestructible
     interest in her sad history. It was an interest that would grow steadily for more than half a
     lifetime and culminate in that crowning work, Personal Recollections…”
    Paine calls this moment a "turning point" in Twain's life.  In full dramatic mode, he writes that "the incident…meant the awakening of his interest in all history—the world’s story in its many phases—a passion which became the largest feature of his intellectual life and remained with him till his very last day on earth." 
     So Twain fell for Joan across a sea of time, place, and--French-- culture. According to Paine, he “read hungrily now everything he could find relating to the French Wars, and to Joan in particular.” 
     Setting aside any fanciful parts of this story, Twain did  develop somewhat of an obsession with Joan and went on to spend 12 years studying her life for his book, which today is little read (and for good reason). 
     The point I want to make, though, is that he, our most "American" of writers, first imagined a real world beyond America’s borders through a fascination with an iconic figure of French history.

The keep of Rouen Castle, now known as the Tour Jeanne d'Arc, where she is said to have been shown instruments of torture and resisted.  About an hour-and-and-half northwest of Paris, Rouen also lies on the Seine and was a large, thriving city in medieval Europe.  In 1431, Joan was executed there; today it is the capital of Haute Normandie.

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