I've been thinking about why Twain considered this his best
book (so I've heard tell). My thoughts center around the differences
in povs between teaching literature and writing fiction.
When teaching literature, or reading as a teacher of literature,
I focus on meaning, and on ways to bring students to understandings
of literature, art, and yes, history. I want the literature to
mean in the several ways that literature can mean when it enters
and changes lives: compassion, passion, good sense, plus a sense
of magic and wonder.
When I write fiction I don't really give a hoot about
meaning, so long as meaning of the story carries no cheap shots.
If the work carries symobls, Okay. If not: Oh, dear. But -
I care about not offending the material, about craft, about accuracy,
artfulness, language, and being canny. Not all writers feel
this way, but I'm pretty sure Twain did, and I know that such
attitudes are displayed in the work of Capote, Steve Becker, McCullers,
Welty, Arnow, LeGuin, James Jones (although his adverbs would
drive a saint to drink), Pat Conroy, Hemmingway, among many.
In those terms Joan may well be MT's best book. He was
clearly satisfied with his research. He maintained artistic
control from beginning to end (which was not always the case, as the
end of HF demonstrates). He set himself a job of craft that was not
easy, even for a writer of great experience. Joan is told in
very short chapters. This makes the writing easier, but the
conceptual framework harder because of placement - one event
does not lead naturally to the next. Joan required a lot of
I kept expecting him to break up as he got closer and
closer to burning. I expected him to fall into his occasional
habit of hitting the sarcasm button too hard. When one stops
to think of how much he had been through by the time he wrote
Joan, and how easy it would have been to lose artistic
control because of indignation or anger or despair, it is
impossible not to admire the book (whether one treasures
it or not).
Apologies for the length of the post, but, by gosh,
it's a lot better book than I remembered. From MT's pov there
was good reason to believe it was his best.