11 Apr 2011

The Pin That Stole My Innocence: How A Recent Purchase May Have Ruined Mark Twain For Me

Fact: I am a total try-hard.

Proof: I recently decided that I needed a "signature item" - some charming thing I could frequently wear that would be "my thing". Most people come about these things organically, but not a try-hard. A try-hard decides this, hunts something down, and then lies through her teeth when people ask about it.

"Oh this old thing? It was my Grandmother's. I've been wearing it since I was a girl."

But before I could start giddily acting like a giant fake, I had to find that precious little something that would give me personality. I decided that an antique pin would do the trick. For whatever reason, one jumped out at me on eBay - a tiny little colourful angelfish. It felt a little familiar to me but I couldn't place it. Maybe I had seen it in one of my vintage magazines? The age of the pin was unknown, but based on the hinge and the clasp it was likely pre-1940s but still probably 20th century. Fine by me! So for the (outrageous? fantastic? fair?) price of $12, it was mine.

This is a close-up picture of my new try-hard-apolooza signature item:


C'est cute.

Naturally, I decided to do a bit of searching to figure out where I might have seen this pin before, given that it felt familiar. My magazines turned up nothing, but it didn't take long to track the pin down once I turned to Google (what did we ever do before the Internet?). Pretty darn close, no?:


Those pins are part of a collection of Mark Twain memorabilia.

Upon finding that website, I immediately remembered having read about Mark Twain and a thing called The Aquarium Club. As I understood it, Mark Twain was without grandchildren and felt a need to fill that void. And so, he created a correspondence group of kids and he would send them an angelfish pin as part of their membership (the two pictures above are gifts from Twain to those young people). Sweet, right? That was as much detail I knew about the club at the time - and had forgotten. Somehow my brain decided that retaining facts like J.Woww's dogs' names (Lean Cuisine and Juice Box, just so you know) was a better use of storage space.

Now, I'm not saying that the pin I have was one of the pins Mark Twain gave to his Angelfish Club members (I doubt there's a way to tell, is there?). However, I squealed nonetheless about owning something that looked a whole lot like something Twain was connected to.

Mark Twain is one of my literary heroes. I pity the fool who hasn't read his work. Twain was one of the best storytellers and humourists around. His ability to write realistic dialog was all kinds of juicy goodness that many modern writers can't hold a candle to (especially the kind of writers who barf out the words "juicy goodness" to describe classic literature). He was ever so clever that even a number of his off-the-cuff quips are well known and still referenced today. (And to geekify this post even more, one of my favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is the two-parter in which Data goes back in time and meets Mark Twain. Remember that one, nerds? Yes, yes you do.)

So - it was only natural that I spend a sunny Sunday afternoon online reading all that I could about this Angelfish Club of his. In the early 1900s, Twain was working on his autobiography and dictated the following (which I found on this site, which is from the book, Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910):
After my wife's death, June 5, 1904, I experienced a long period of unrest and loneliness. Clara and Jean [his daughters] were busy with their studies and their labors and I was washing about on a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking in high and holy causes... I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren.

Aw.

More info about the pin that's like the one I have was found in this note:

... All the ten school-girls in the above list are my angel-fishes, and constitute my Club, whose name is "The Aquarium" ... The Bermudian angel-fish, with its splendid blue decorations, is easily the most beautiful fish that swims ... The club's badge is the angel-fish's splendors reproduced in enamels and mounted for service as a lapel pin -- at least that is where the girls wear it. I get these little pins in Bermuda; they are made in Norway.

Neato. But as I read further, though, I came to realize it wasn't simply grandchildren Mark Twain longed for, but granddaughters. Which ... OK ... some parents have preferences for a girl over a boy, the same can be said about wannabe grandparents, right? Twain elaborated:
I suppose we are all collectors... As for me, I collect pets: young girls -- girls from ten to sixteen years old; 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. 

 Ummmm? "Collecting" naive teen girls ... whom he calls pets. Heh. Well, this was just a pen pal group, right?
The billiard-room will have the legend "The Aquarium" over its door ... I have good photographs of all my fishes, and these will be framed and hung around the walls. There is an angel-fish bedroom -- double-bedded -- and I will expect to have a fish and her mother in it as often as Providence will permit.

Twain with Angelfish, Dorothy Quick
Image Source: TwainQuotes.com
Oh Jesus.

In the above, Twain was describing a house he was having built in Redding, Connecticut. He decided to call the house "Innocence at Home" in honour of his Angelfish. And that's not at all similar to any other celebrity-owned property that infamously hosted other people's children. Well, at least Twain mentioned hosting the mothers too. The girls who were a part of his club were the daughters of his friends and of people he had met on his frequent trips to Bermuda, so maybe he was also eager to enjoy the mother's company as well?
Margaret is due to arrive here with her mother at 5:45 this evening. It is an event: an event like the advent of spring after winter. The scamp will be welcome. Also her mother.

So ... maybe not. While I may not be a big time writer, I can assure you that there is a big difference between saying, "The scamp and her mother will be welcome" and "The scamp will be welcome. Also her mother." Trust.

I hope I'm just jaded from hearing too many modern tales of old men and their not-so-innocent adoration of little girls. This all could still be completely grandfatherly ...

To Dorothy Quick, he wrote:

I went to bed as soon as you departed, there being nothing to live for after that, & the sunshine all gone. How do you suppose I am going to get along without you? For five hours this has been a dreary place, a sober & solemn place, a hushed & brooding & lifeless place, for the blessed Spirit of Youth has gone out of it, & left nothing that's worth while. Aren't you sorry for me, you fresh breeze blown from fragrant fields of flowers?
To an 11-year old? Really? He later described "worshiping" Dorothy in his personal writings. Alrighty.

Twain with Aquarium Club
member Irene Gerken
Image Source: TwainQuotes.com
Reading further, it sounds like the press at the time made a point of noting Twain's friendships with young girls (like in this 1907 article about Twains recent voyage where he "made a particular pet of little Dorothy Quick, daughter of Mrs. E. G. Quick of Brooklyn, and during the time he was on deck would not let her out of his sight.") - but never went to so far as to suggest impropriety.

However, it's clear that some people close to Twain were somewhat cynical about his Aquarium Club. Twain's daughter, Clara, who had been overseas, was so not impressed with her father's activities and basically demanded that he take a step back from the girls. What she specifically said to him isn't recorded, but I imagine it was the 1909 version of saying, "Dad, that is fucking creepy. Cut it out."

Twain's biographer noted that immediately after Clara's return to America, the Twain household stopped saving the correspondence from Twain's Angelfish and the home's name was changed from "Innocence at Home" to the much less little girl-friendly "Stormfield".

Yup.

I'm holding out hope that everything was truly innocent in this club because I just hate the idea of an admired genius like Twain turning out to be some kind of perv. Suffice to say, I now have a better idea of how Michael Jackson fans feel.

But me and my little pin are skeptical. I know it's selfish, but I really hope my new signature item isn't tainted with gross-old-man vibes.

Because that's not very charming, is it?

8 comments:

Anonymous,  2:03 pm, April 11, 2011  

Your pin really does look like Mark Twain one! I admit, his club did read a little creepy to me too!

Heidi,  2:09 pm, April 11, 2011  

Ya something sounded a little "fishy" with that club. Sorry - had to be said.

Juli 2:24 pm, April 11, 2011  

I LOVE Lewis Carroll and was very conflicted to learn that the inspiration for his stories were young girls whom he befriended. And spent lots of time with. And took pictures of. (etc etc.) As with the Twain thing, nothing has been outright proven as improper, but you can sure bet it wouldn't be kosher today...

I do wonder though - is it a sad commentary on society (and reality) that we are so jaded and hypersensitive that we can't allow the possibility of a true friendship between an older man and a young girl?... Or is it just creepy?

Karen 10:13 pm, April 11, 2011  

Perv pin! Perv Pin! You have a perv pin!

Evie Rae 11:17 pm, April 25, 2011  

What a crazy story! Despite my worries, I enjoyed the read.

Karl Petersen 8:26 am, May 15, 2013  

I see absolutely no problem in an old man finding inspiration and companionship in the bloom of youth. There is zero evidence from the girls that there was any impropriety. Give it a rest. Hug a kid--it is good for you both. Really. Now go research which Norwegian manufacturing jeweler made these pins!!

charles behlen 10:13 pm, September 24, 2013  

I'm very sorry you have this take on the Angelfish club. As a 64-year-old whose daughter prefers cats to kids, I know what it's like to be "grandchildless". I have only one child, and since she's a daughter, I think of granddaughters as a way to relive all the good times I had with the "daughterlet." Twain's one and only son died very young. Therefore, the wish to surround himself in old age with what is now considered the loaded term, "young girls" is, too me, perfectly understandable and inoffensive. Clara's use of the name "Stormfield" was, I'm sure, her way of typifying her stormy relationship with her father. It also smacks a bit of envy. But we have no justification for equating Stormfield with Jackson's ranch and I am disappointed that you made the comparison.

Anonymous,  8:27 am, September 25, 2013  

Oh get a grip and some life. You cannot gain personality with a pin, neither with tastless gossip based on ... well, nothing really.

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