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The Gilded Arc of Mark Twain's 'Lesser' Books

01/19/2012 03:49 pm ET | Updated Mar 20, 2012

This year marks the 600th anniversary of Joan of Arc's birth and the whatever anniversary of when America's second Gilded Age began, so it's time for... an appreciation of Mark Twain's less-famous work!

Including his novels Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and The Gilded Age.

Twain, of course, is best known for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- two books loved by adventurous and unadventurous readers alike. But several of his supposedly second-tier titles would be first tier for many other authors.

Joan of Arc is a compelling novelization of Joan's life told by a page/secretary who knew her. We read about Joan's early years, her visionary calling to be a warrior, her military campaigns, her doubts, her compassion, her imprisonment, her trial, and her death. Twain also puts us in the heads of the loyal men who supported her and the vile men who opposed her, and succeeds wonderfully in humanizing a long-ago woman who's often perceived in a one-dimensional way.

The 1896-published Joan is clearly the best book written by Twain (1835-1910) during the last 20 years of his life, and the author himself said it was his favorite work from any part of his life.

(Speaking of the aging Twain, you might want to watch this amazing 1909 film footage of the author shot by none other than Thomas Edison.)

The 1873-published The Gilded Age is Twain's first novel. Co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner, the book looks at political corruption, financial shenanigans, entrepreneurship, and other aspects of post-Civil War life in America. The book includes an okay romantic element (said to be mostly Warner's doing) as well as hilarious and cutting satire (definitely Twain's doing). The Gilded Age character of the grasping, pompous, wily, funny Col. Beriah Sellers is priceless -- Twain at his best.

Another second-tier Twain novel is Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). It deserves its lesser status in a way, because the book is a bit sloppy and disjointed -- partly reflecting the haste with which Twain wrote it at a time he desperately needed money. But the plot, with its echoes of Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1881), is riveting. Two kids are switched as infants, with the rich white kid growing up as a poor black kid, and the poor black kid growing up as a rich white kid (they have similar coloring because the "black" kid's ancestry is mostly white). The latter youth becomes nasty and aristocratic and the former kind and humble -- which is Twain's anti-racist way of emphasizing the importance of expectations and environment over genetics and heredity.

On the nonfiction side, The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Life on the Mississippi (1883) are hardly obscure parts of Twain's canon. But, despite their brilliance, they don't quite enjoy the love heaped on Tom Sawyer (1876), Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

The Innocents Abroad is an often-comic chronicle of Twain's extended tour of many countries and cities, including Jerusalem. You may never read another travel book that makes you laugh out loud so often.

In Life on the Mississippi, Twain recalls his pre-Civil War stint as a riverboat pilot while also including material about that iconic river's history, ecology, and more. It's a book almost as fascinating as the way Joan of Arc lived her life and the way the greedy rich managed to foist a second Gilded Age on the rest of us.

Which Twain books are your favorites? And which supposedly second-tier novels by other authors do you feel should be better known?

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