Clemens' 'angelfish' provided refuge from the world's sorrows

March 10, 1991|By Dick Polman | Dick Polman,Knight-Ridder News Service





Edited by John Cooley.

University of Georgia.

326 pages. $24.95. Seventy-three years old, and his passion for the opposite sex had not been sated. "I want you!" he wrote to a companion in 1908. "Can you imagine a time when I don't want you? As far as my understanding of it goes, I want you all the time. I hope you will get entirely over your cold, dear heart & will come to me tomorrow week sound & well."

Thus wrote Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, in a letter to Dorothy Quick, of whom the author had taken "possession" (his word) after meeting her during an ocean cruise the previous year. To say he was smitten is an understatement. He once told her, "I went to bed as soon as you departed, there being nothing to live for after that."

Dorothy was 11 years old.

And she wasn't the only gal in his life. Among others, Loraine Allen was 9 that year, Helen Martin was 10, Irene Gerken and Margaret Blackmer were 12, Jean Spurr was 13, Dorothy Butes was 14, Dorothy Sturgis was 16 and Frances Nunnally was 17. As he put it in his journal, "It is a treasure-place of little people who I worship, and whose degraded and willing slave I am."

But it's clear, in a new collection of letters titled "Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence 1905- 1910," that the great American storyteller must not be confused with, say, Roman Polanski (who fled the United States after having sex with a minor), or Elvis Presley (who reputedly liked teen-agers in cotton panties). No, the revelation is that Clemens spent his old age worshiping young girls as would a virginal schoolboy, to escape the black clouds of bitterness and despair that had come to envelop him.

As chronicled here by John Cooley of Western Michigan University, who has managed to collect the surviving 300 letters between Clemens and the girls he called his "angelfish," the last years were painfully lonely. His wife was dead, his favorite daughter had drowned, and he often was estranged from his two other children. For all his public success, he didn't have a clue about the meaning of life, and he raged against its brutalities.

At the end, in his private writings, he fulminated about man's warlike instincts ("the only animal that for sordid wages will march out . . . and help to slaughter strangers") and guilt about sex ("the human being naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys -- yet he has left it out of his heaven!").

By contrast, he saw his "aquarium" of "angelfish" as a refuge from such sorrows. The girls typically were the children of friends and acquaintances. He saw himself as a collector of "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."

He implored them to stay for weeks at a time at his Connecticut home ("Hurry up, dear! I am inconsolable"), or to send him flowers and other items of affection (like Frances Nunnally's "little pink bows"). In return, he took them to the theater, taught them to play billiards and even imparted writerly advice: "Always remember, Dorothy, to catch the attention of your reader in the opening paragraph. Once you've caught your fish, you're sure to land him."

Clemens offers few cosmic pronouncements; he voiced enough of those on the lecture circuit. The girls' letters are even more unremarkable. They boil down to this: "I'm sick with a cold, my studies are going well, hope to dine with you soon, I miss you ever so much."

Nevertheless, the story that emerges is poignant. Clemens grew more infirm while the girls simply grew up. He knew that nothing could stop the clock, and told one friend, "I . . . have entered upon a holiday whose other end is in the cemetery." It's not surprising that Clemens' final letter, several weeks before he died in 1910, urged one of his maturing girls to remain virginal. Guard your "diamond," he told her. "Be cautious, watchful, wary, dear."

In the end, Mr. Cooley suspects that Clemens' love for his "angelfish" was really his way of reliving his lost childhood.

Clemens once wrote, "Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." But, as these letters show, he was sustained by the girls' affection, and unlike so many other members of the "damned human race," he left this world with reborn innocence and love still in his heart. Not a bad deal.

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