Edited with Introduction, Afterword, & Notes by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
University of California Press
325 pages, hardcover. $27.50.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Wrote Ed Duvin, whose 1989 Animalines newsletter essay “In The Name of Mercy” prophesying “no kill” animal sheltering is widely considered a classic of humane literature, to ANIMALS 24-7 a few days ago, “Every five years or so, I like to reread the classics, since I derive rich nourishment with each new reading. The books obviously don’t change, but as we grow and learn, more richness is absorbed.”
Duvin did not mention which classics constitute his summer reading, but something by Mark Twain is probably on the stack, and Mark Twain’s Book of Animals offers an accessible shortcut to much of Twain’s work on subjects of specific interest to ANIMALS 24-7 readers.
“Animals were integral to Mark Twain’s work”
“Animals were integral to Mark Twain’s work as a writer from the first story that earned him national renown to pieces he wrote during his final years that remained unpublished at his death,” notes Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
“Twain is famous for having crafted amusing and mordant quips about animals. He is less known for being the most prominent American of his day to throw his weight firmly behind the movement for animal welfare.”
Twain’s mother, Jane Clemens, was a cat feeder and rescuer, who deplored killing any animal and forbade keeping any animal caged. Two of Twain’s daughters, Suzy and Clara, became humane society volunteers; daughter Jean made her career in humane work.
Twain himself, the middle generation, took frequent note of animals, decrying and exposing cruelty and neglect, years before the U.S. had any organized humane societies.
Mark Twain, Henry Bergh, & the ASPCA
Much as Charles Dickens saved the two-year-old Battersea Dogs & Cats Home with an 1862 essay entitled “Two Dog Shows,” Twain as a then young and still little known journalist boosted the American SPCA in 1867, when it was barely one year old.
“One of the most praiseworthy institutions in New York,” Twain wrote, “and one which must plead eloquently for it when its wickedness shall call down the anger of the gods, is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its office is located on the corner of Twelfth Street and Broadway, and its affairs are conducted by humane men who take a genuine interest in their work.”
Oddly, Twain interrupted this otherwise effective appeal, complete with address for sending contributions, by noting that the founders, led by Henry Bergh, “have worldly wealth enough to make it unnecessary for them to busy themselves about anything else.”
But Bergh was independently wealthy, and reputedly never took a salary from the ASPCA, unlike subsequent generations of ASPCA presidents, whose salaries have come from charitable donations; see Why did the ASPCA pres get $852,231, while we got $9.70 an hour?
The remainder of the 1867 Twain essay was perhaps the earliest of many laudatory profiles of Bergh and his work to enforce the first New York state humane law.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
Shelley Fisher Fishkin in Mark Twain’s Book of Animals gathered together most of Twain’s contributions to animal literature, beginning with Twain’s first famous story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1865.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” has long been misused to rationalize the capture and abuse of frogs in jumping contests, the mere thought of which would have infuriated Twain.
Indeed, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is among the few Twain stories which at a careless glance does not appear to clearly damn cruelty. The “hero,” Jim Smiley, is a gambler
who keeps a fighting pit bull, and “had rat-tarriers and chicken cocks, and tom cats, and all of them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you.”
A closer look reveals that Twain’s story, narrated by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler,” is a damning expose of Leonidas W. Smiley, an alleged “young minister of the gospel,” who morphed into a mining camp rogue.
“Dogs remain in peaceable possession of the streets”
Touring the Mediterranean as a foreign correspondent in 1867-1868, Mark Twain sent home extensive notes about the animals he met, later included in his book The Innocents Abroad (1869).
“Once a sultan proposed to kill off all the dogs here,” Twain wrote at the end of several pages about the street dogs of Istanbul, “and did begin the work––but the populace raised such a howl of horror that the massacre was stayed. After a while he proposed to remove them all to an island in the Sea of Marmora. No objection was offered, and a shipload or so was taken away. But when it came to be known that somehow or other the dogs never got to the island, but always fell overboard in the night and perished, another howl was raised and the transportation scheme was dropped. The dogs remain in peaceable possession of the streets.”
More than 130 years later Istanbul became one of the first cities in the Islamic world to officially adopt a no-kill dog control policy––albeit often ignored and circumvented, even after neuter/return became the official policy of the whole of Turkey in 2004.
Stylish donkeys & cats “something sacred”
At the Giza pyramids in Egypt, Twain found––to his surprise––that, “The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and willing to prove it. They were the best we had found anywhere…They had all been newly barbered, and were exceedingly stylish.”
Twain’s only criticism of the Giza donkey care was that, “The saddles were high, stuffy, frog-shaped things,” also seen in Ephesus and Smyrna, Turkey.
In Damascus, Syria, however, Twain disgustedly found that, “The stable owners “have no love for their horses, no sentiment of pity for them, and no knowledge of how to treat them or care for them. The Syrian saddle-blanket,” Twain objected, “is a quilted mattress two or three inches thick. It is never removed from the horse, day or night. It gets full of dirt and hair, and becomes soaked with sweat. It is bound to breed sores. These pirates never think of washing a horse’s back.”
Twain in Tangier discovered that “Moors reverence cats as something sacred,” so the Spanish and French colonial overlords of that era terrorized the citizens by eating cats and using cat pelts to make rugs.
“The Cayote, Allegory of Want”
Much of Twain’s early satire was double-edged, but there is no mistaking his admiration of coyotes in “The Cayote, Allegory of Want.” A chapter of Roughing It, published in 1872, this essay incorporated every common slander of coyotes, and turned the slanders into virtues in the context of coyotes’ ecological roles and habitat.
In conclusion, writing in the singular of all coyotes, “remembering his forlorn aspect and his hard fortune,” Twain “made shift to wish him the blessed novelty of a long day’s good luck and a limitless larder the morrow.”
The next prominent defender of coyotes was animator Chuck Jones, 1912-2002, who at Warner Brothers rehabilitated Bugs Bunny from inept and racist early versions by others. Acknowledging inspiration from Twain, Jones in 1948 created Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, whose antics burlesqued the Cold War arms race.
Jones in his autobiography Chuck Amuck acknowledged that encountering Roughing It at age
seven had shaped his life––especially his portrayals of Wile E. Coyote, which drew upon negative
stereotypes to bring first laughter and then sympathy.
Jones during a 1953 stint at Walt Disney Studios may also have influenced Disney himself. Walt Disney produced his first of three films made in defense of coyotes in 1960.
Lamentably, as Twain grew older and more popular, and perhaps more sensitive about being misunderstood, his satire became more pointed and often counterpointed by sentimentality that the younger Twain would have mercilessly satirized.
Twain cannot be faulted for having devoted the last several decades of his life to using his stature on behalf of good causes, especially opposition to racism, imperialism, and cruelty to animals.
However, by the time Twain wrote a series of stories attacking sport hunting, bullfighting, and vivisection, included in Mark Twain’s Book of Animals but otherwise seldom seen, he had degenerated as a fictionist into an author of melodramas.
Essays were by far the strongest part of Twain’s later work, but because Twain hoped to reach a wide audience with his messages on behalf of animals, including children, he wrote on behalf of animals mainly in fictional form.