The following review appeared 11 August 1994 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1994.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
University of Missouri - St Louis
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
I spent my childhood in a Carnegie library, one of those great brick endowments to learning. I would like to think that I read every book there, but I did not, there were too many. I spent a lot of time there touching the books, though, running them through my hands, feeling the pages, peering down the spines. So if most of the books there I didn't read, I touched them at least once. The library had three floors, a children's room in the basement, which I avoided once I was old enough to walk, the adult books on the main floor, and at the top, on the third level, they stored the older fiction, the novels that no one read anymore. Or it seemed no one read them. These were the classics, the books that last, and week after week the shelves stayed in perfect order, no leaning gaps where volumes here and there had been removed. A used room does not stay neat. This was a tidy place. The books pretty much stayed where they had been put. It was quiet, comfortable, darker than the other floors of the library. When I think of the literary canon, I remember places like this, where books go to be saved. I did not so much sit up there and read the books as learn what they were. Like preparation to what I should be reading later, the Dickens, the Melville, Twain, the impenetrable Joyce and Proust.
Some of these I did read, could not help reading. David Copperfield pulls you in even though he grows long winded as he ages. Moby Dick is not hard for a child until after the Pequod leaves the dock. Twain was certainly in the company. He is the recognizable author of childhood, the one man whose books can be read cover to cover.
Much of the best of Twain has already been published by the Library of America, starting with the Mississippi Writings, which contains in one volume all the Twain most people will ever read (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and Pudd'nhead Wilson), The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, the two most readable travel books, and finally the two volume set of Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays. Historical Romances, the latest volume, collects three of what might be called children's books, at least, I remember them most clearly from my own years on the third floor. It is a nice touch that two of Twain's most popular stories, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court are bound here with one of his least known, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.
Prince and the Pauper was a departure for Twain. The story is familiar now from the endless adaptations and retellings, but his voice is not. The voice of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is toned way down, perhaps so as not to interrupt the adventure. There is nothing that disturbs a child more than a joke in the middle of a chase or a swordfight. This is Twain written for fans of Sir Walter Scott, though the prose here is considerably leaner than any part of Ivanhoe. It is a wonderful thing, re-reading Prince and the Pauper again, to see how efficiently Twain gets from place to place. I kept expecting the book to be funnier, but the story moves quickly and there is no fat here.
Connecticut Yankee is something more like what you might expect from Twain writing an historical romance. Again, here is a book that has survived numerous adaptations, with everyone from Bing Crosby to Bugs Bunny in the Hank Morgan role, but it will not die. This is not so much a story as a collection of situations suggested by the title. One might call it Tom Sawyer goes to Camelot, though the humor here is considerably darker than in Twain's earlier books. In the battle between chivalric tradition and modern technology, there are no real winners. Each side comes up short.
The most interesting feature of this Library of America collection is the reappearance here of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain's one and only completely straight book. It has been reprinted occasionally in paperback, most recently in 1989 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, but has not been readily available in hardcover for decades. One cannot escape the image of Twain, at the height of his celebrity as white-suited humorist, itching to write this one serious literary project. It has an air of ambition about it, as if the man is starting to think about his place in posterity.
I remember reading this book as a child. There are some books one comes across in childhood that seem to need to be read, as if lonely, pleading on the shelf for a reader. I must have been impressed at the time by the book's determined tone of high seriousness. Coming back to this ground after twenty years I find I remember none of it. Let me say this: there is nothing like a joke in the entire book. There is not one breath of sarcasm in it. This has none of the vividness of Twain's best work, everything connected with Joan seems suffused with a golden light, which is pretty to look on at first, but dulls on repeated exposure. We never see below the surface of this puzzling girl; it seems obvious from the beginning that she is destined for sainthood. Everyone, other than her inquisitors at her final trial, keeps a respectful distance. I have a feeling that this is a book better written about than read. What, for instance, is the significance of such hagiography so near the end of Twain's career? Is this book indicative of Twain's general attitude toward women in his life or, more specifically, his daughters? This new edition of Joan of Arc will make the text much more available to be written about.
This volume is edited by Susan K. Harris, whose 1982 study, Mark Twain's Escape from Time, considered these three novels. It also included a chapter on Twain's Mysterious Stranger, which might have just fit into the present volume, though it already tops out at over a thousand pages. The arrangement of Historical Romances is as fine as one would expect from the Library of America. The texts of Prince and the Pauper and Connecticut Yankee are those established by the Mark Twain Project and previously published by the University of California Press. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is reprinted from the first American edition, originally published by Harper in 1896. The forty-eight page chronology of Twain's life is the same as published in the earlier Library of America edition of Twain's Collected Tales, still a helpful and wonderfully detailed improvement on the shorter chronology published in Mississippi Writings.
There are very few notes here provided to the text. Dr Harris provides only four pages to cover all three books. There is the familiar disclaimer Library of America always prints that, "no note is made for material included in standard desk-reference books...," which strikes rather a sour chord. If one really wanted to go looking things up, the California editions are still the definitive choice and it is not to be expected that Library of America would supplant those. Still, a few more notes would make this volume an invaluable carryall. The glory of this edition, as with other Library of America volumes, is having so much text in such a neat little package.
It must be said, at least, that this is the first time Joan of Arc has been reprinted authoritatively with any notes at all. There are two small, but helpful maps of Orleans and 15th Century France reprinted from Vita Sackville-West's Joan of Arc (1936). It is a shame there are not more historical notes, but this is probably the closest thing to an authoritative edition scholars will have before the Mark Twain Project publishes its version.