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.

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