One day at Riverdale-on-Hudson, Mrs. Clemens and I were mourning for our lost little ones. Not that they were dead, but lost to us all the same. Gone out of our lives forever—as little children. They were still with us, but they were become women, and they walked with us upon our own level. There was a wide gulf, a gulf as wide as the horizons, between these children and those. We were always having vague dream-glimpses of them as they had used to be in the long-vanished years—glimpses of them playing and romping, with short frocks on, and spindle legs, and hair-tails down their backs—and always they were far and dim, and we could not hear their shouts and their laughter. How we longed to gather them to our arms! but they were only dainty and darling spectres, and they faded away and vanished, and left us desolate.
That day I put into verse, as well as I could, the feeling that was haunting us. The verses were not for publication, and were never published, but I will insert them here as being qualified to throw light upon my worship of school girls—if worship be the right name, and I know it is. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908
I am always delighted to discover rare tidbits of human interest that relate to little girls. The most notable British case is Charles Dodgson known to most by the pen name Lewis Carroll who was a skilled photographer of children and enjoyed their company. Only a few years ago I learned there was also an American writer of great stature who also had a strong affinity for little girls which manifested itself in an unusual way in the last years of his life: Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), a prolific writer of novels and essays under the pen name Mark Twain. A pseudonym is used to create a kind of alter ego—to distinguish the man from the character of his work. This period in his life in which he became obsessed with school girls is a personal one and, for the sake of convention, I will refer to him as Clemens but when referring to those written works consistent with his other persona, I will call the author Mark Twain.
This interesting epiphany about Clemens’ association with young girls was best fleshed out in a book called Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence 1905–1910 (1991) edited by John Cooley. Cooley was then a professor of English at Western Michigan University. The editor’s first knowledge of the Aquarium Club came from his second cousin, Marjorie Breckenridge, who still had in her possession the letters Clemens had sent her. Fascinated with his cousin’s teenage friendship with Mark Twain, he set out to find out more—scouring the various institutions that housed his papers. The book endeavored to contain nearly every known written communication between Clemens and the young women who constituted his Aquarium Club. Undoubtedly, many of the letters have been lost. Because of its peculiar nature, this aspect of his life has been largely excluded from biographies.
When the book was written, only seven letters from angelfish survived of the eighty-seven letters Clemens wrote to them during this period. Since Clemens was a diligent saver of letters, it is assumed that his daughter Clara, who strongly disapproved of the Aquarium Club, disposed of many of them after her return from Europe in September 1908.
For example, Hamlin Hill’s important biography of Clemens’ last decade, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973), reveals many aspects of Clemens’ last years that strongly contrast with the image of him perpetuated by his daughter Clara and his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Until then, it was generally believed that Clemens remained the “king” of American humor—a devoted family man and playful public cynic, passing gracefully into retirement and old age. Only more recent biographies gave clues to the breakdown of his family life after 1904, upon the death of his wife Olivia which followed that of his eldest daughter, Susy. His relationship with his surviving daughters, Clara and Jean, became so strained that neither spent much time with their father during his last years. Clemens’ overwhelming vanity and unpredictable rage made him extremely difficult to live with. Quite routinely, after prolonged visits, Clara would place herself in a rest home to regain her emotional strength.
The impulse to be humorous choked a man whose sense of rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions. -Hamlin Hill. Mark Twain: God’s Fool, 1973.
These girls and young women were no doubt reminders of the happy years when his own daughters were younger, and of his girlfriends from that happiest of times, his own adolescence.
His earliest sweetheart was Laura Hawkins. Clemens recalled her as a blond, blue-eyed “charmer” who wore white summer frocks, plaited her hair into two long tails, and lived across the street from the Clemenses in Hannibal. She was also the inspiration for Twain’s Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer and other stories. In the fall of 1908 Laura contacted him and was invited to come visit.
About next Tuesday or Wednesday a Missouri sweetheart of mine, is coming here from Missouri to visit me—the very best sweetheart I ever had. It was 68 years ago. She was 5 years old and I the same. I had an apple, & fell in love with her and gave her the core. She figures in “Tom Sawyer” as “Becky Thatcher” -Samuel Clemens in a letter to Margaret Blackmer, October 1908.
Another important sweetheart was Laura Wright. She was fourteen when she met Clemens, an age of some significance appearing frequently in his stories. Years later his rules of the Aquarium Club stipulated that only school-age girls were eligible for active membership. In 1906, Clemens dictated a remarkably detailed passage for his autobiography concerning his brief romance with Wright, one summer forty-eight years earlier while she was sailing on a freighter with her parents from St. Louis to New Orleans.
I found that I remembered her quite vividly and that she possessed a lively interest for me notwithstanding the prodigious interval of time that had spread its vacancy between her and me. She wasn’t yet fifteen when I knew her.
Clemens stated that he was never more than “four inches from that girl’s elbow” during their waking hours over the next three days.
That comely child, that charming child, was Laura M. Wright, and I could see her with perfect distinctness in the unfaded bloom of her youth, with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time. … I never saw her afterward. -Samuel Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Charles Neider ed., 1959.
Wright’s parents did not approve of her continued association with Clemens who was the pilot of another ship. He wrote to her many times, but the letters were intercepted and disposed of. He did not hear from her until the publication of these passages 48 years later. She wrote to him to ask for money which he sent her, thrilled at the prospect of being her hero. He was quite dismayed by her change of circumstances, having a modest career as a teacher.
When I knew that child her father was an honored judge … What had that girl done, what crime had she committed that she must be punished with poverty and drudgery in her old age? … It shook me to the foundations. The plaited tails fell away; the peachy young face vanished; the fluffy short frock along with it; and in the place of that care-free little girl of forty-eight years ago, I imagined the world-worn and trouble-worn widow of sixty-two -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, August 1906.
Clemens’ fond recollections were not just from his own adolescence, but from the joy of spending time with his little daughters. And during the period of their childhood, Susy, Clara and Jean Clemens more than filled his need for contact with teenage girls. He teased and played with them and frequently created stories for their entertainment. His desire to relive these wonderful moments was made more acute by the death of his eldest, Susy, in 1896, the death of his wife, Olivia, and the lack of grandchildren. Two manuscripts devoted to his family, “A Family Sketch” and “The Children’s Record” (Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley) reveal how much pleasure his young daughters gave him.
For Clemens, childhood was the most important time—the central experience of life. Although boyhood portraits figured prominently in Mark Twain’s best-known and greatest works, in later years the author turned his attention to the adolescent female.
Clemens’ repeated concern for the innocence of his angelfish suggests that he believed young women became spoiled or perhaps corrupted upon entering the age of sexual activity. In both his fictional and his autobiographical writing, Clemens returns with some frequency to the idea of the “platonic sweetheart,” in which a somewhat older and more experienced male both longs for and wishes to protect his school-age sweetheart. This paradigm is most clearly expressed in the short story “My Platonic Sweetheart” (1898), which purports to be a report of Twain’s recurring dreams in which he is always seventeen and his love is an innocent maid of fifteen. Although he kisses her and they walk “arms-about-waists”, he insists that it “was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it.” Nor was it the mere affection of brother and sister, but something “finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting” (Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, 1922).
Clemens worked out his concept of young female innocence in greatest detail in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895). Clemens remarked that Joan of Arc was written out of love, not for money, and that his heroine reminded him of his daughter Susy and believed it to be his best work. He was something of an authority on Joan—citing eleven books on the topic in his preface. Other revealing though minor portraits of young women appear during Clemens’ last decade of writing: “The Death Disk” (1901), “Eve’s Diary” (1905), “A Horse’s Tale” (1906) and an essay, “Marjorie Fleming, Wonder Child” (1909). There is a note of pessimism in his interpretation of the Saint Joan story: that an innate and powerful goodness cannot survive long in the real world, certainly invoked by his memories of Susy.
It is known that about three hundred letters were written and received by Clemens and the schoolgirls as well as personal notes indicating the extent to which the girls occupied his thoughts during the last five years of his life. In 1908, the Aquarium Club was at its height and Clemens sent several letters a week to the angelfish and received an equal number in reply and became his “chief occupation and delight”. Despite the author’s usual inventiveness in his writing, this correspondence was much more formulaic in his attempt to plead for letters and visits from his young friends. Nonetheless, amongst the gushing sentimentality, one can find small gems of wit, wisdom, and humor we would normally associate with Mark Twain at his best.
In grandchildren I am the richest man that lives today: for I select my grandchildren, whereas all other grandfathers have to take them as they come, good, bad or indifferent. Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908.
The spark for the Aquarium Club came from Clemens’ correspondence with a girl named Gertrude Natkin whom he met during his travels. Then one “golden day” in the winter of 1907, a fourteen-year-old English girl and her mother came to visit. Since then, Dorothy Butes and Clemens maintained a correspondence and he considered her his first angelfish. Only later did he begin “collecting” and corresponding with schoolgirls in earnest: Butes was followed by Carlotta Welles and Frances Nunnally, girls he met while on a ship for England. On the return voyage he also met Dorothy Quick. The first half of 1908 is when Clemens formulated his plan to establish his aquarium to be comprised of a school of girls of bright and lively temperament. The club really began to take shape during Clemens’ two winter trips to Bermuda, adding Margaret Blackmer, Irene Gerken, Dorothy Sturgis, Hellen Martin, and Helen Allen. Clemens notes that most readers will understand that, like all collectors, we believe our fad to be more rational than any of the others.
… As for me, I collect pets: young girls—girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. My collection consists of gems of the first water. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, February 1908.
Each of the girls received a pin as a memento of their friendship.
In June 1908, Clemens moved into a new home in Redding, Connecticut aptly naming it ‘Innocence at Home’ to commemorate his latest fascination. This villa was able to accommodate the angelfish during their numerous visits. New acquisitions at this point were Marjorie Breckenridge, Dorothy Harvey, and Louise Paine. Clemens’ daughter Clara disliked the name of the villa and its associations and had it changed to Stormfield—a name apropos to a period of discord in Clemens’ domestic life and the eventual decline of the Aquarium Club to come.
Clemens’s own awareness of his destructive pessimism, of his great rage at the swindle of life, must have driven him all the harder to construct about himself a small court of happiness, innocence, and youthfulness, which he set against the ever painful reality of his life. Thus, his indulgence in stories and tales involving young female characters and his collection of young angelfish serve as a surprising antistrophe to the strophe of his rage and despair. -John Cooley, Mark Twain’s Aquarium, 1973.
Although Clemens’ last years were often dominated by loneliness, illness, and depression, his angelfish letters are nearly always optimistic, loving, and playful; they reveal the depths of his loneliness and the size of his need for attention and affection.
It is interesting to examine this work in the context of his other writings of the period: his autobiography, The Mysterious Stranger, and in his late stories, essays and letters. The contrast between this and his angelfish correspondence helps us appreciate the conflict between his natural inclination for youthfulness, playfulness and affection against his growing fatalism and cynical rage.
Clemens’ writing during his last decade does not include young female characters and reveals his preoccupation with predestination and a corruption seemingly inevitable in adulthood. In one of the most bleak yet most important works of his last years, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain has his cosmic representative, a young cousin to Satan named Philip Traum, reveal that human and earthly reality are purely an illusion. Despairing as this seems, he concluded that the great, unbeatable weapon of the human race is laughter. In another work, What is Man?, the old man declares that nothing is able to shake humanity of its fundamental cheerfulness, not even the most bleak facts of existence.
For Clemens, there seemed an eternal dichotomy between evil and good, darkness and light. As Albert Stone expresses it, Clemens sought to maintain a “desperately delicate balance between despising mankind and loving certain individuals, between intellectual assertion of a meaningless universe and intuitive awareness of love’s reality” (Albert Stone, The Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain’s Imagination, 1961).
A core issue in this counterpoint between light and dark is Clemens’ ambivalence about sex and sexuality and as Mark Twain, he generally avoided dealing with the subject. A set of writings published posthumously bears this out. Letters from the Earth (1909) concerns morality, the hypocrisy of religion and racism. It takes the form of a personal report to Satan, informing him of the numerous foibles of Earth’s human denizens. Clara Clemens initially objected to its publication in March 1939 but finally conceded that “Mark Twain belonged to the world”. The letters were first collected, edited and published by Bernard DeVoto. Twain writes the following startling revelation expounding on humans’ obsession with sex, despite the well-known presence of Biblical admonitions.
The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in woman’s construction is this: There shall be no limit put upon your intercourse with the other sex sexually, at any time of life.
The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in man’s construction is this: During your entire life you shall be under inflexible limits and restrictions, sexually.
During twenty-three days in every month (in absence of pregnancy) from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent. As competent as the candlestick is to receive the candle. Competent every day, competent every night. Also she wants that candle—yearns for it, longs for it, hankers after it, as commanded by the law of God in her heart. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter VIII, 1909
Not all the letters have a cynical tone. Twain speaks eloquently about the beauty of the “sweeter sex” and that of the nakedness of an uncorrupted human body.
The pleasant labor of populating the world went on from age to age, and with prime efficiency; for in those happy days the sexes were still competent for the Supreme Art when by rights they ought to have been dead eight hundred years. The sweeter sex, the dearer sex, the lovelier sex was manifestly at its very best, then, for it was even able to attract gods. Real gods. They came down out of heaven and had wonderful times with those hot young blossoms. The Bible tells about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter IV, 1909.
The convention miscalled modesty has no standard, and cannot have one, because it is opposed to nature and reason, and is therefore an artificiality and subject to anybody’s whim, anybody’s diseased caprice. And so, in India the refined lady covers her face and breasts and leaves her legs naked from the hips down, while the refined European lady covers her legs and exposes her face and her breasts. In lands inhabited by the innocent savage the refined European lady soon gets used to full-grown native stark-nakedness, and ceases to be offended by it. A highly cultivated French count and countess—unrelated to each other—who were marooned in their nightclothes, by shipwreck, upon an uninhabited island in the eighteenth century, were soon naked. Also ashamed—for a week. After that their nakedness did not trouble them, and they soon ceased to think about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter III, 1909.
This last passage expresses effectively a key philosophy of Pigtails in Paint. Also of interest is a book written by one of the angelfish, Dorothy Quick, Enchantment: A Little Girl’s Friendship with Mark Twain, 1961.
*Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations are part of a collection of Mark Twain Papers housed at the University of California, Berkeley.