Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Research Journal: Mark Twain's Angelfish

One of the lesser known, and most controversial aspects of Mark Twain’s last years was his friendship with little girls, aged eight through sixteen, whom he called his Angelfish. He said that he “collected” young girls—in his words “girls who are pretty and sweet and naïve 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.” Many people who know about the Angelfish are disturbed, justifiably so, by the seventy-something Twain’s habit of surrounding himself with prepubescent girls. By his own admission, Twain wanted grandchildren—something his two surviving daughters had failed to provide him with. In 1907, when he started “collecting” his Angelfish, his wife and his favorite daughter, Susy, were both dead. His middle daughter, Clara, was spending most of her time in Europe, away from her father, and his youngest daughter, Jean, was in a sanatarium for epileptics, in virtual exile from her father’s home because of her poorly-understood disease. He had a desperate longing for the happy days when his own daughters were little and their relationship with him was relatively unproblematic. Most scholars who have looked closely at his relationship with the Angelfish see nothing “improper” beyond a longing to surround himself youth and innocence, and an avoidance of his strained relationship with his own daughters. As Karen Lystra says, “Clemens appears to have tried to fill a deep emotional hole with fictive kin.” Instead of putting in the hard work of repairing his relationships with Clara and Jean, he played endless games of hearts and billiards with little girls to whom he had no obligation other than to be entertaining.

In the summer of 1908, Twain moved into his new home in Redding, Connecticut, which he named “Innocence at Home.” His first guests at the new house were two of the Angelfish, Louise Paine (left) and Dorothy Harvey (right), who arrived on June 20 for a week-long stay that involved chaperoned walks in the woods, billiards lessons, charades, romping with Tammany the cat, and storytelling in the inimitable Mark Twain style. Both girls were thirteen (born in 1895). Louise was the oldest daughter of Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, who also lived in Redding. Dorothy was the daughter of Twain’s publisher, Col. George Harvey, the president of Harper & Brothers and editor of the North American Review.

George Harvey, Dorothy’s father, was an interesting character. He started out as a cub reporter for his hometown newspaper in Vermont. His first magazine article, published in St. Nicholas when he was eighteen (1884), was called “How Science Won the Game”—the first published explanation of how to throw a curveball. He went on to work as an aide to two Vermont governors before making a fortune on Wall Street and rescuing both the North American Review and Harper & Brothers from bankruptcy. In 1908, he was in the midst of an Esperanto craze, and had just been elected the president of the Esperanto-Asocio de Nordo Ameriko. He had also just published a book of his essays on the subject of Women. In one of the essays, he wrote: “...we find little that is interesting, aside from her physical appearance, in the American girl of today between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one... Indeed, if the truth be spoken, she is rather a bore, self-conscious, ignorant, and concerned chiefly with matrimonial aspirations.”

His daughter, Dorothy, married in 1914, and later divorced and remarried in 1929. Louise Paine, meanwhile, attended Teacher’s College in New York, where in 1914 she took the lead role in a production of a play called All of a Sudden Peggy. The New York Times said she “made a clever Peggy,” but was mostly interested in the fact that all of the male parts were played by the young women of the teacher’s college: “The girls form Teachers College fooled even the Columbia men yesterday,” the Times reported, “when they appeared before the footlights in Earl Hall, smoking cork-tipped cigarettes as they strutted about in the latest cut of male attire... The girls made excellent men.” Louise later married and became the associate editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, contributing articles throughout the Thirties and Forties with titles like “I’m Getting a New Figure,” “Have a New Face for Summer,” “Femininity Begins at Home,” and “Is Your Little Girl a Good Wife?” She also published a book titled Why Men Like Us: Your Passport to Charm (1937).

Links to my poem about the Angelfish, "Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick Sit for Photographs, 1907," here and here.


Karen Lystra. Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. The "dangerous intimacy" refers not to Twain's relationship with the Angelfish, but to his dependence on his manipulative secretary, Isabel Lyon, who according to Lystra embezzled large sums of Twain's money and was primarily responsible for Jean Clemens' prolonged exile from her father's home. Miss Lyon probably took the photograph, above, of Twain with Louise and Dorothy.

John Cooley, ed. Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Dorothy Quick. Enchantment: A Little Girl's Friendship with Mark Twain. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1961. Quick was one of the Angelfish.

I wrote briefly about Twain and the Angelfish in my article “The Male Readers of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28.1 January 2004.

1 comment:

fabrile heart said...

I am just about to embark on a biography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who also enjoyed the company of young girls. You are right though it is difficult not to think about this particular aspect of the lives of artists like Dodgson and Twain in a post-Freudian world without a sense of the sinister creeping into one’s own mind.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .