Charles Neider on Twain's Essay
The following is an excerpt from Charles Neider's Introduction to The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY 1963.
One of Clemens's favorite roles is that of Mark the
Dragon-Killer. In the Harriet Shelley episode the unfortunate dragon is
Edward Dowden, Irish Shakespeare scholar, also the official biographer
of Shelley under the patronage of Lady Shelley, Mary Godwin's
daughter-in-law and detractor and suppressor of Harriet. Mrs. Louise
Schutz Boas, the author of the very recent Harriet Shelley (1962)
asserts that Dowden's Victorian morality compelled him to disparage
Harriet in order to make a purer portrait of Shelley. She also states,
“The letters between these two gentlemen [Dowden and Richard
Garnett, Lady Shelley's coadjutor] trying to be gentlemanly in their
denigration of Harriet make an amusing study in self-justification,
Victorian smugness, and determined prejudice.” Clemens read the
Dowden biography, concluded that it was a character assassination of
Harriet, and proceeded, in three issues of the North American Review of
1894, to assassinate Dowden in every possible department — style,
logic, innuendo, guesswork, evidence, scholarship, decency, sanity: the
whole spectrum of the Dragon's armor.
He had the will, the motive and the genius to make
an astounding performance of it. Clemens was rarely in danger of verbal
constipation, but now his literary sluices were wide open. Not,
however, at the expense of organization, logic or cool-headedness. He
did not stammer, or go blind with rage, or slam into dead ends.
Instead, he proceeded with forensic skill and the passion of a
knight-errant. The flow of energy, the tenaciousness of mind, the
untiring stream of language are quite amazing. He is writing about
people long dead, yet he is as excited and angered as if Bysshe and
Harriet are still alive, or as if Harriet is a dead relative, or
perhaps a girl he once loved. Fortifying his anger is his Victorian
idealization of woman, family and the home. Bysshe had promised to be a
husband to Harriet and had turned out to be something of a rake, at
least in Mark Twain's view. Therefore he is a scoundrel. Clemens is too
worked up to stop to consider Shelley's views on marriage and to
attempt to see the institution with the poet's eyes. Having stern
notions of his own, he is not averse to roundly condemning the young
poet for failing to live up to them. Clemens was no ethical relativist.
He was deadly on the subject of the French, for example, because of
their different approach to the world of sex. One wonders what Dowden's
reaction was to this shower of brimstone, this descent from Vesuvius.