Time, lately, has not been on my side. Neither have a lot of other things but I feel the time pressure more acutely, perhaps because I am ever more aware of what remains undone. None of which has anything to do with our subject today, which is a Library of America collection of Mark Twain’s historical fiction.
Someone wiser than me once noted that, having written the first modern American novel, Twain proceeded to fall in love with the idea of telling stories set in the Middle Ages. This volume is testimony to that fact. Three novels have been collected here. Two I knew as movies without ever having read them. The third was unknown to me. All sport a lot of antiquated sounding language. And to me all three moved at a glacial pace. Even the Mississippi, gurgling along at three miles-per-hour, moves faster than any of these.
The Prince and the Pauper is the shortest of the three and it sets the tone. A by now familiar tale of mistaken identity, it establishes the form for every similar comedy to follow. I admit to having scant patience for this in sitcoms and movies so it shouldn’t surprise that it didn’t work for me in print either. Twain has a few axes to grind in these books and we get the ‘royalty is stupid, they’re really just like us’ message loud and clear in this tale. You also get a lot of crowded, smelly streets, galoots, bores and court followers/fools. The point is made a whole lot quicker in the 1937 movie starring Errol Flynn.
Let’s move on to our second volume/film. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court continues the raillery at the expense of royalty. This time it’s the social structure in general, and more specifically the elements controlled by the Church, that come under attack. Our hero, Hank Morgan, is a 19th century resident of Hartford magically transported back to the days of King Arthur. Hank proceeds to introduce 11 centuries of technologies to free the populace from their overlords and, alas, doesn’t succeed. The 1949 Paramount picture starring Bing Crosby did as able a job in less time without piling on anyone. Still, my heart’s with Bugs Bunny:
That leaves Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Of the three this was the most palatable although it, too, dragged in spots. My wife grew tired of hearing me say over the course of the final hundred pages, “When is this chick going to burn?” That’s mean and faintly sacrilegious (Joan is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and we are supposed to venerate saints) and says a lot about my reaction to the tale.
I’m not as strong in European history as I should be and so can’t discount the novelty factor.Twain seems to have been reasonably fair to Joan’s visions and voices and his choice to narrate the tale retrospectively in the first person (his narrator is a childhood friend who accompanies the Maid of Orleans on her quest and plays a role in her trials) probably explain that; he’s clearly sympathetic to the child General. The institutions–once again monarchy and the Church–fare poorly. As near as I can tell, though, he’s in the right on this one even if a big chunk of the book is a trial transcript recrafted as a novel.
So there you have it. Mark Twain, defender of the Protestant Christian ideal, scourge of superannuated institutions. My advice is to reread Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.