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The fascination France and the United States have with each other is nothing new. America’s revolution inspired France to enact its own, while French cuisine and fashion have been effectively woven into the cultures of several different states.

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At one point, a cultural trade took place between one of the United States’ most legendary writers and one of France’s most legendary martyrs. American author Mark Twain fell desperately, and intellectually, in love with the fifteenth-century French soldier Joan of Arc. Many centuries and much geographical distance were between them, but that didn’t stop him from writing her an epic love letter in the form of a novel.

Mark Twain published his tribute to a childhood hero as Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in 1896. Perhaps to save face with the living and breathing love of his life, Twain dedicated the book to his wife, Olivia Langdon. While writing the novel, he focused on Joan of Arc’s participation in the 1428-1429 siege of Orléans and the instrumental role she played in Charles VII being crowned King of France. He crafted the story as a French-to-English “translation” of the memoirs of Joan’s page, Sieur Louis de Contes, who witnessed and remembered everything.

By not writing from Joan’s point of view, a female perspective with which he wouldn’t be overly familiar, Twain manages to maintain an air of historical accuracy while not introducing any artificiality. A page was an intimate male servant who followed and served their mistress or master everywhere; such a first-hand account was believable. And Joan’s mysteriousness as a semi-holy medieval figure and Catholic saint wasn’t compromised. Scholar Wilson Carey McWilliams, writing for a special literature and politics issue of The Review of Politics, comments on Twain’s success on achieving this balance, noting that

Twain praised Joan’s considerable aptitude for war, her even greater talent for the “subtle welfare of the forum,” and “perhaps greatest of all,” her “patient endurance, her steadfastness, her granite fortitude.” He lauded her, in other words, for two excellences women conventionally were not thought to possess-the military virtues and the gift for political speech but also for virtues that Twain’s narrator spoke of as specifically feminine: steadfastness, patience, and the courage to endure.

This book is nowhere close to being Twain’s most worshipped or even recollected novel. That honor probably belongs to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the time of its publication, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was barely praised or even acknowledged by critics, who seemed to agree that Twain had strayed too far from his trademark, comically cynical literary persona with this too-serious work of historical fiction.

“Most critics have found it puzzling, if not infuriating, since the tone of the book-idealistic, uplifting, and at least vaguely reverential-is at odds with the Twain they know,” McWilliams writes.

But Twain was proud of it and considered it one of his most accomplished and authentic completed projects. The message here to all writers in an age where creativity is becoming increasingly regulated and stifled: write what you love most. Write what speaks to you, as God (allegedly) spoke to Joan. Public opinion is irrelevant.

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The Review of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 3, Special Issue on Politics and Literature (Summer, 2007), pp. 329–352
Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics