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.  

“Mark Twain & Libation”: A Talk By The 2017 Louis J. Budd Award Winner

On Saturday, August 5th, the Mark Twain Circle presented the Louis J. Budd Award to Laura Skandera Trombley at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. Dr. 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, as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. Ann Ryan, in presenting the Budd Award, says Dr. Trombley is “nothing if not spicy and untraditional.” What follows is the paper she presented at the conference, titled “Mark Twain & Libation,” which may tempt you to search out the small-batch bourbon produced especially for the conference by Finger Lakes Distilling.

I’d like to dedicate this paper to the Caldwell gang of 5: Ann Ryan, Gary Scharnhorst, Michael Kiskis, and Tom Quirk. All solid drinkers.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a miner’s cabin and a “jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door.” Upon hearing his visitor’s name, “Mark Twain,” he bitterly retorted: “You’re the fourth – I’m going to move.” “The fourth what?” said I. “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours – I’m going to move.” “You don’t tell me!” said I; “who were the others?” “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Holmes – consound the lot!” Three hot whiskeys later, Twain convinced the cranky miner to tell his tale of the seedy Mr. Emerson, fat Mr. Holmes, and the disfigured prize-fighter Mr. Longfellow – all were cheats, thieves and drunken idiots. Upon finishing his sad yarn, the miner repeated: “Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in 24 hours – and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to the littery atmosphere. Twain replied: “Why, my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage; these were impostors. The miner investigated me with a calm eye for a while; then said he, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?”

This famously unsuccessful after dinner story, that William Dean Howells later recounted in My Mark Twain, took place on December 18, 1877 at Boston’s Hotel Brunswick. The dinner, to which 58 male writers had been invited – ladies could only attend the after-dinner speeches – included seven opulent courses washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret, and Burgundy; so much alcohol in fact that the next day the Women’s Christian Temperance Union passed a formal resolution objecting to the dinner. The Boston Transcript pronounced the speech “in bad taste,” and similar newspaper verdicts followed. Howells wrote Clemens on Christmas Day that “every one with whom I have talked about your speech regards it as a fatality.”

Clemens’ self-referential opening to his speech lauded his own literary achievement: “I am reminded of a thing which happened to me thirteen years ago, when I had just succeeded in stirring up a little Nevadian literary puddle myself, whose spume-flakes were beginning to blow thinly Californiaward.” A bold oratorical move considering that this evening organized by The Atlantic Monthly was to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday and, in a larger sense, to pay homage to the New England Brahmin writers Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, the most distinguished American men of letters of that generation, all of whom were in attendance.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a bar and finds “Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the little old dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Boomerang, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smily – Rev. Leonidas W. Smily – a young minister of the gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of this village of Boomerang. I added that if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smily, I would feel under many obligations to him. Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair – and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”

There is a transmutation of sorts taking place between these two ostensibly similar stories. Yet the crucial difference is one of audience and intention. Miners could laugh at themselves; Brahmin New Englanders less so. Clemens was trying to establish himself as a writer in “Jim Smiley.” In his speech, he was asserting he was of the same stature as his elders.

“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published by The Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, just twelve days shy of Clemens’ thirtieth birthday. This bar fly tale took Clemens over eight months to write; he took so long that he missed the deadline for a book of sketches Artemus Ward was editing. Printed and reprinted, the story was Clemens’ entrée into a more literary space than journalistic and has always been considered a pivotal moment in his writing career. The genesis for “Jim Smiley” came from the three months Clemens spent drinking during the winter of 1864–65. Part of his time was spent in the Gillis family cabin on Jackass Hill. Clemens knew Steve Gillis from Nevada, where Steve worked as a typesetter on the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise and was Clemens’ drinking buddy. In San Francisco Clemens signed a straw bond for $500 after Steve got in trouble with the police for intervening in a bar fight. Clemens then spent nearly a month drinking in Angels Camp. That Clemens would choose a saloon as the setting for his story should come as no surprise considering where he had spent the last four years of his life. Soon after arriving in Nevada in 1861 with his brother Orion, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and quickly grew tired of the brutal living conditions. In 1862, he started sending writing samples to the Enterprise and was offered a job as editor earning twenty-five dollars a week. This was a significant move upwards since the Enterprise was, per Dan DeQuill and Enterprise employee, the “most flourishing newspaper on the Pacific Coast” where a “tribal wave of gold rolled in upon its proprietors.” Virginia City, elevation 6,000 feet, was a boomtown consisting of miners, alcoholics, millionaires, gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws, and saloons – more than fifty saloons – all sitting on top of the Comstock Lode. In one year, the population exploded from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. During the time Clemens lived there it was the richest, roughest, murderous, and drunkest place in North America.

In January of 1863, Clemens abandoned his earlier pseudonyms, “Sergeant Fathom,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh,” in favor of a new “nom de guerre”: “Mark Twain.” As has been noted before by Guy Cardwell, Paul Fatout, Horst Kruse, and Gary Scharnhorst, among others, the name Mark Twain has less to do with the muddy waters of the Mississippi than the clear water of high proof whiskey. Scharnhorst notes that in August 1864, only about a year and a half after Clemens began using his pseudonym, in an article for the Alta California, Albert Evans asserted that his “soubriquet was given him by his friends as indicative of his capacity for doing the drink for two.” Multiple newspaper accounts about his pen-name appeared in the spring of 1866. An article in the Nevada Daily on February 22, three years after “Mark Twain” had first appeared in print, explained “Mark Twain” was miner’s slang for ordering two shots of liquor on credit. A large piece of smooth slate would hang on the wall behind the bar where the bartender would chalk two slashes next to the regular’s name and call out “Mark Twain.” And Clemens’ growing bar tab would be on view for all to see. Clemens’ usage of the phrase in his newspaper columns was perfectly timed in that it not only reflected his current hard-drinking lifestyle and alcohol saturated audience, but created a definable persona he would populate for the rest of his life. His choice created a satirical, instantaneous, man-to-man connection with his hardened, swilling audience. Billed under his new name, he attracted crowds on the Western lecture circuit who had read the article about the genesis of his name, who obviously were in on the joke, and who came wanting to see an alcohol-soaked Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope. They were not disappointed. Clemens knew and, without objection, leveraged the fact that his audience expected the man who was described in newspaper accounts as taking two “horns consecutive, one right after the other, and when he come in there and took them on tick, Johnny used to sing out to the barkeep, who carried a lump of chalk in his weskit pocket and kept the score, ‘mark twain,’ whereupon the barkeep would score two drinks to Sam’s account – and so it was, d’ye see, that he comes to be called ‘Mark Twain.’”

Clemens had a life-long fondness for “the drink” (as my mother would say) and in those early years when his career was just beginning he not only frequently wrote about imbibing but also enjoyed a dissipated lifestyle. In January 1866 Albert Evans wrote in the Gold Hill (Nevada) Evening News about Clemens’ arrest for public intoxication in San Francisco, referring to “a stench which is only second in horrible density to that which prevails in the Police Court room when the Bohemian of the Sage-Brush is in the dock for being drunk over night.” This wouldn’t be his only stint in the hoosegow (as my father would say). One year after “Jumping Frog” was published, Clemens departed San Francisco bound for New York. He spent his time visiting city sights and writing about them in letters to the Alta California. In March 1867, he telegraphed the Alta asking to be hired as a paid correspondent on the Quaker City, a sidewheel steamship used by Union forces in the Civil War. The Captain of the ship, Charles Duncan, recalled years later that Clemens was one of the first people to contact him about the excursion. The Captain was repulsed by Clemens’ appearance and demeanor: “tall, lanky, unkempt, unwashed individual, who seemed to be full of whiskey or something like it, and who filled my office with fumes of bad liquor. He said he was a Baptist minister from San Francisco and desired to travel for his health.” Captain Duncan retorted that he didn’t “look like a Baptist minister or smell like one either.” While waiting for the ship to sail, Clemens gave a well-received talk at the Cooper Institute and spent his nights engaging in more risqué conduct. One evening, he was jailed for the night because he claimed to have intervened in a street brawl (why he was out “with a friend” at midnight remains a mystery) and the police insisted upon arresting the thwarted peacemaker. Clemens had now achieved the rather dubious distinction of having been jailed for public drunkenness on each coast.

Four days before the sailing, he visited Harry Hill’s Variety Theatre at Houston and Crosby Streets. Known as an “evil” and “vile house” and a gathering place for prostitutes, gamblers and criminals, it featured male wrestling and female bare knuckle fighting. In his Alta article, “Mark Twain” portrayed himself as an innocent who believed the establishment “was where the savants were in the habit of meeting to commune upon abstruse matters of science and philosophy – men like Agassiz and Ericsson and people of that stamp.” Instead he watched a male dancer dressed in a Highland costume outfitted in only a “short coat and short stockings. This was apparent every time he whirled around. However, no one observed it but me. I knew that, because several handsomely dressed young ladies, from thirteen to sixteen and seventeen years of age, went and sat down under the foot-lights, and of course they would have moved away if they had noticed that he was only partly dressed.” His final evening in New York was spent drinking over the course of many hours “several breeds of wine” and trying to sober up enough to pack his trunk. While on board the Quaker City, he met Charles Langdon, the younger brother of heiress Olivia Langdon, who Clemens would marry in 1870.

Clemens’ marriage to Olivia affected his own sense of self-worth, as well as deeply influencing how he desired others to view him. Seven years after marrying up into the first family of Elmira and publishing the bestselling book of his lifetime Innocents Abroad, Clemens apparently decided that having a pen name that was a miner’s drunk joke was no longer appropriate for the distinguished writer persona he was busily adopting. He didn’t want to be known as just a humorist, instead he was on the path to becoming more refined and “serious” author. On June 9, 1877, the Alta published a note from him explaining that “Mark Twain” was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write for the New Orleans Picayune. When Sellers died in 1863, Clemens claimed he adopted his name. Yet, Sellers didn’t die until 1864 and he also never used that name. Six months later, after rewriting the history of his name, Clemens gave his after dinner talk in Boston. While including himself among the Brahmins, he was drawing upon the southwestern tradition of storytelling with liquor providing the entrée as well as the punchlines while reminding everyone about the brilliance of his short story. A stunning act of simultaneous hubris and self-doubt. He wanted to shove aside the old social order but he also wanted to be a member. As insecure as he was, he wanted to both conquer and belong. Had his inebriated audience laughed, possibly Clemens’ ardent desire to be accepted by this group would have been achieved. He had whitewashed his name; the time had come for these stalwarts to applaud his writerly talents. They didn’t laugh. Instead, as Howells tells us: “There fell a silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy. Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or at his plate. . . . I stole a glance at him, and saw him standing solitary . . . with his joke dead on his hands.” Clemens would defiantly claim decades later in his Autobiography that he would do the same again, and told Isabel Lyon, his secretary who gifted vibrators to him for their “electrical” benefits: “those fine Boston men were a generation ahead of Mr. Clemens – & he didn’t see more of them than just to go up to Boston for their “seventy” birthdays. For himself there are only Mr- Howells and Mr. Aldrich – and he surprised me into recognizing the truth by telling me that he hasn’t had much of a literary friendship with men.” In Clemens’ final years he would disavow “Jim Smiley,” calling it “a villainous backwoods sketch,” just as he had rejected the original association with his pseudonym. The miner’s line, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?” may have been one of the most truthful questions Clemens ever raised in public and one he never managed to reconcile.

Well all this angst and drama is likely to drive sane people to drink! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Twain scholars walk into a bar – see you all there later.

Thank You.