There has never existed a more witty writer than Samuel Clemens, our beloved Mark Twain. Everything the man has ever written, particularly as age sharpened his sense of irony, carries a most suave and acute style of point-of-view. Every observation, every poignancy, every comment he makes is exquisitely nailed down with a genius's flair for words. While some readers of today may find some of his essays antiquated and over-worded, all I can say is that this man possessed the finest intellect ever granted to a human being and was able to produce it on paper with a resounding flourish. Not to mention the finest humor also.
I have read most books by and about Mark Twain and was thrilled to recently come across this collection of his works. Out of the essays he has written in this volume, "In Defense of Harriet Shelley" is my favorite. This essay is Mark's review of Professor Dowden's book titled "Life of Shelley". Ordinarily, I would never have heard of the poet Shelley's adultery while married to his first wife, Harriet, nor even cared if I had, but Mark, who reviewed many books of his era (including his hilarious upbraiding on the grammatically incorrect Fenimore Cooper's novels!) put it all in perspective for me - brought it right up to present time and concern, so to speak. Every sentence in that particular essay is loaded with vintage Twain-ism and he does so rightly defend Harriet that when you finish reading, you want to print a copy of it and post it everywhere in your own defense of Harriet as well! At least I felt that way.
Other essays of note in this book are "Saint Joan of Arc", "Mental Telepathy" and "The Death of Jean", the latter particularly profound since Mark writes about the death of his daughter, Jean, who while visiting him, dies as a result of an epileptic stroke. The bereaved father began this essay on the eve of her death and finished it within scant days; thus this writing displays a desperate immediacy to it - outpourings of a heart lamenting it's disbelief and shock. We see and feel with the man here in his most vulnerable state, hoping perhaps to find in his own writing, some link to his now-dead child.
This volume of essays was published in 1963 and I would love to see it reprinted again, updated with a catchy illustrated front cover, etc, (costs be damned) just to lure in a generation of readers who otherwise might never come across it.