Linda A. Morris on “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?”

Linda A. Morris is a Professor of Emeritus at UC Davis. Her current research is on gender play in the works of Mark Twain. Her earlier published work focused primarily on women’s humor in nineteenth-century America. Her teaching and research areas were late nineteenth-century American literature, Mark Twain, American humor, and African-American literature with an emphasis on women’s fiction. She recently shared her thoughts on “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?” from an issue of American Literary Realism.

My article, “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?” was the culmination of my thinking and writing about Twain’s Joan of Arc over time for close to two decades.  My first paper, written for a conference, puzzled over the fact that the physical Joan was never described by Twain (or by the primary historical sources), yet he claimed he modeled her physical likeness on his daughter Susy. I’m not sure I ever satisfactorily answered that question, but Personal Recollections stuck in my mind.

The next time I turned to Twain’s Joan was much more concentrated, for I was writing Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross Dressing and Transgression. The historical Joan of Arc was the most famous cross-dresser of all times, and Twain was clearly fascinated by her for many years. It turns out that the fact that Joan cross-dressed as a male, even while imprisoned, was highly significant in her trial and subsequent martyrdom. In the end, the only crime the church was able to convict her on was putting on her male clothing after she had agreed, under duress, to renounce it. Once she put an “x” on a piece of paper denouncing her male attire, as Twain called it, her prison guards stole her female clothing while she slept and she had no choice but to once again cross-dress.  She was almost immediately burned at the stake.

At the same time I was writing a chapter on Personal Recollections for my book, I began to question, as many scholars have done, why Mark Twain believed it to be the “best” work he ever wrote, and his favorite. Many Twain critics have rather vehemently disagreed with that judgment, but I thought it deserved attention. The answer took me in several directions. For instance, scholars had dismissed the claim as Twain’s sentimental association of the book with his daughter Susy, who died shortly after the book was published. (I cover that topic, in part, in my article in American Literary Realism, but briefly I concluded there are a number of compelling reasons why he judged the book so highly, including the extraordinary amount of research he devoted to the work.)

Several years after the publication of Gender Play, I was invited by a French colleague, Ronald Jenn, to apply together for a France-Berkeley grant to study Twain’s own marginalia in a number of texts Twain studied in preparation for writing his Joan of Arc (all located in the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley). We received the grant, which proved to be a marvelous opportunity to “read” the original French and English sources over Twain’s shoulder, so to speak. We watched him teach himself about Joan’s life, her success in battles to liberate France from the English, to marvel at Joan’s resilience in the face of her cruel treatment in prison while she was on trial, and to see Twain begin to challenge the accuracy of some of his historical sources. We then wrote and published an article about our discoveries about the marginalia. (“The Sources of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 55, Spring/Fall, 2017,55-74.)

Our work together in the Mark Twain papers in turn resulted in my receiving an invitation to present a paper about Twain’s Joan at the Joan of Arc historical society in Rouen, France, where the audience was steeped in knowledge about the historical Joan but knew virtually nothing about Twain’s Joan of Arc. In anticipation of that talk, Ronald Jenn and another French colleague took the lead in producing a film about Twain’s work, which we previewed in Rouen, and which won a prize at the 1st Anstia film festival in Paris in 2018 for the best documentary. (“Jeanne d’Arc, l’histoire d’une passion.”)

The articles that appear in the special issue of American Literary Realism also grew out of our France-Berkeley project and a panel of papers presented at the Elmira College Quadrennial conference on Mark Twain, chaired by Delphine Louis-Dimitrov. There is yet another project to follow—a special issue on Joan of Arc in America, to be published by the French journal Revue Francaise d’Estudes Americaines. I look forward to reading that issue, as well, eager to hear what the writers have to say on this topic.

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