Image“We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”–Lynda Barry

My holdings are eclectic, but my books are usually not randomly acquired. Often, one book leads to another. And another. Which is how LW learned of Mark Twain’s Aquarium – The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910, edited by John Cooley. In the previously-mentioned Family Found, The Art of Morton Bartlett, Marion Harris compares Bartlett to other well-known creators of surrogate families and private worlds (and favorites of LW), including Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Henry Darger, Degas, and Calvin Black, but also, to LW’s surprise, Mark Twain.

It was in the Bartlett book that LW learned that in Twain’s last years he began a “collection” of school-aged girls. He corresponded with and entertained these girls, whom he called his Angelfish, after some beautiful fish he had seen in an aquarium in Bermuda. He inducted them into his own “Aquarium Club” with special pins made by Tiffanys, and hung their portraits in his billiard room which became club headquarters. (I, for one, would loved to have been a member.)

This was all new to LW, who claims to have read several biographies of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) over the years. It’s possible she had dozed off by the time she got to his final years. That happens a lot. But Twain’s Angelfish years are an under-reported part of his life. LW eager to learn more about them, which is why I now hold a copy of Mark Twain’s Aquarium.

So here’s the basic story: Near the end of his life, having lost his beloved daughter Suzy and his wife Olivia, Clemens was fighting illness, depression, and loneliness. His relationship with his two surviving daughters was strained and, ultimately, tragic. He longed for grandchildren but realized none would be forthcoming. As a remedy, at the age of 72 he began a collection of “pets” (his word)–school-aged girls–to take the place of granddaughters, choosing the brightest and most interesting girls he happened to meet for his “collection” (also his word). 

Editor John Cooley is the second cousin of one of the “Angelfish.” Her stories and letters inspired him to learn more about the Aquarium Club. He provides interesting background information about this period in Twain’s life, as well as every relevant piece of Angelfish-related correspondence and ephemera he could find, which is quite a lot. Twain’s charm, humor, and wit are still very much in evidence in these letters. LW thinks that Twain’s Club Membership Rules alone are worth the price of the book. (I recall how, as a child, she loved to draw up rules for imaginary clubs in which she was always designated President.)

The idea of a 72-year-old man sporting about with schoolgirls can be unsettling and raises questions for some, similar to those raised about Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Morton Bartlett and others. LW finds these questions interesting, complex, and mostly unanswerable. But she appreciates the amazing joy and humor in the art of these melancholic men, art created, as Lynda Barry puts it, in order to be able stay in this world.