A Disturbing Passion? : Mark Twain & The Angelfish

While I appreciate a sensational headline as much as anyone, and there are new bombshells arriving with disturbing daily frequency, when a friend sent me one that recently appeared in The Paris Review, “Mark Twain’s Disturbing Passion for Collecting Young Girls,” it felt, with a nod to another great American humorist, Yogi Berra, “like déjà vu all over again.” Samuel Clemens’s late-in-life friendships with prepubescent girls, ten to sixteen, is a well-mined area of Twain scholarship that continues to resurface. My reading of the article was as a subtext to allegations regarding the Roy Moore’s apparent attraction to and pursuit of young girls. My sense is that the gentle reader might walk away thinking that the erstwhile Republican senate candidate from Alabama was just engaging in a kind of well-established American male tradition of predatory behavior of which Mark Twain was a participant.

I beg to differ. Not about the well-established male predilection of predatory behavior towards women, young and old—hey we even have it on tape! I’m in full agreement there. I’m just unconvinced that this sick and heinous club of assholes includes Mark Twain.

One of the great Twain scholars and a good friend, Hamlin Hill, discussed Clemens’ relationship with prepubescent teenagers in his Mark Twain: God’s Fool , published in 1973. Hill’s view was that Clemens’ final years were tragic ones punctuated by the deaths of family members and closest friends. A world-wide celebrity, Clemens was a lonely and ill man in his late sixties, trapped by fame, exploited as a commodity, an angry widower and estranged from his two surviving daughters. Hill claimed that in the last month of his life, April 1910, while vacationing in Bermuda, a dying Clemens might have done something to offend his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Allen, by possibly making “improper comments or even actions” toward their fifteen-year-old daughter, Helen. Hill admits there is “scanty evidence,” and in the subsequent memoirs written by the “angel-fish,” Clemens’ nickname for them, they remembered him as an elderly, grandfatherly figure who seemed to prefer living in a dream-like fugue state, and they recalled their parents’ injunction that they should be on their best behavior whenever in his company. I acknowledge their stories, and I also understand that for women of their time and place the likelihood that they would have narrated anything less than glowing attributions is likely nil.

In a dictation made for his Autobiography, recently published in full for the first time, Clemens listed the names of his ten angel-fish: Dorothy Butes, Frances Nunnally, Dorothy Quick, Margaret Blackmer, Hellen Martin, Jean Spurr, Loraine Allen, Helen Allen, and Dorothy Sturgis. Clemens was interested in them, encouraged them in their writerly hopes and had their photographs hung on a wall next to his billiard table. He never had any inclination to keep his friendships with them a secret. There’s no doubt that Clemens was fond of them and that once they matured he was quick to say good-bye. John Cooley, in his Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910 (2009), collected every extant communication between Clemens and the girls and concluded that while Clemens idealized their childhood and innocence, he could find no evidence of impropriety.

In the work that I’ve done about Clemens over the years, while I’ve discovered a great deal about him that is often at odds with the sexless, secular saint image that has been promoted ever since his death, I’ve never uncovered anything that supported Hill’s assertion. What I did find is that parents were thrilled that their daughters would be spending time with America’s best-known author and would push them to make chaperoned visits even when it was clear that they were bored to death and wanted to be with friends their own age. It also appeared to me that Clemens was trying to recreate a family circle that had disappeared years ago, first with the maturation of his daughters and then with the deaths of his oldest daughter Susy and wife Olivia. Susy was his acknowledged favorite and harbored aspirations of becoming a writer like her father. His encouragement of others may have been a way of keeping her memory alive. In short, he was an old man who wanted to try and remind himself of happier times all the while cognizant that this was just a futile grasping at ghosts.

Clemens certainly fell well short of saint status, in my view, and he possessed several characteristics that rendered him fallible and thus more human; to others standing more firmly on the saint side even a mention of them would appear unseemly. Here are a few mentions: after taking the temperance pledge to satisfy his mother Jane, he wrote her from Virginia City promising that he would “never gamble, in any shape or manner, and never drink anything stronger than claret or lager beer, which conduct is regarded as miraculously temperate in this country.” Both claims were “stretchers” of the most outrageous sort, particularly in view of the Virginia City Bulletin’s note at the beginning of that same month detailing how “Mark Twain had stolen [an arrested man’s] gin bottle and boots.” Perhaps it is just as well he didn’t try to reassure his mother of his chastity because a week after writing her, the Virginia City Bulletin ran an item that Clemens had been spotted: “coming from Chinatown ‘with a feather in your cap’”—referring to his visit to the red-light district.

A few years later, two weeks before paying a visit to his future wife, Olivia Langdon, in her hometown of Elmira, New York, he wrote to his good friend Frank Fuller asking him to “forward one dozen Odorless Rubber Cundrums—I don’t mind them being odorless—I can supply the odor myself.” (Every time I read this letter I can’t help shuddering and making gagging sounds.) Whether the condoms were a hopeful investment with Olivia in mind or some other woman remains a mystery. Indeed, he had such a lousy reputation that he would be described to his prospective father-in-law by a “friend” who knew him in California as “a humbug—shallow & superficial—a man who has talent, no doubt, but will make a trivial & possibly a worse use of it—a man whose life promised little & has accomplished less—a humbug, Sir, a humbug.” Twain himself would admit, up to that point at least, he was “drunk oftener than was necessary & that I was wild & Godless, idle, lecherous & a discontented & unsettled rover & they could not recommend any girl of high character & social position to marry me.”

We, the American public, are currently enrolled in a public, educational moment that is revealing what some of us always knew, namely a sordid lineage of masculine deviancy that has Roy Moore as its latest poster boy. As I understand it from reading various newspaper accounts, Moore was in his mid-thirties while pursuing girls as young as fourteen. Moore’s behavior was so well-known that he was banned from the local shopping mall for trolling. According to the women who have come forward, he physically attacked some of them and contrary to his denial about knowing any of them, it appears clear that he did and left his signature behind as proof. Samuel Clemens as far as I can tell does not share this narrative. There are a raft of many, many others who do. It is my ardent hope that they will all be exposed and repudiated for their poisonous, illegal and predatory behavior. But as Moore’s election looms on the horizon it is helpful to keep in mind what Clemens had to say about politicians: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”


Laura Skandera Trombley is a Professor of English at University of Southern California, as well as former President of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is also author of two books on Sam Clemens’s relationships with women – Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) and Mark Twain’s Other Woman (2010) – as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. In 2017 she received the Louis J. Budd Award from the Mark Twain Circle of America.