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The following review appeared 14 November 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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One might assume, a century after his death, that most, if not all, of the critical influences in Mark Twain's life and career had been addressed and dealt with, in great detail and multiple volumes, by generations of scholars who have focused their energies on the study of his writings. One would, however, be mistaken. Mark Twain's Book of Animals is Exhibit A for the proposition that many important aspects of this iconic life and career remain relatively untouched. It is no exaggeration to assert that any reader of this work will conclude that he or she has, indeed, been missing, or, at best, underestimating the importance of other members of the animal kingdom in Twain's thought and writing, throughout his life. Every important aspect of Twain's writing, stylistic and thematic, is reflected in the sixty-five bits, sketches and excerpts assembled by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, including those that are readily familiar to readers of Twain, some which are obscure, and previously unpublished pieces garnered from a variety of sources. In her Introduction, she summarizes the scope of these writings when she states "We read texts that are playful and texts that are dark, texts that are appealing and texts that are repulsive. We get glimpses of Twain as a child and as a parent, artist, thinker, and activist. Twain's writings on animals, in short, are as complex and variegated as the author himself" (p. 1).
The writings in this volume cover a period of more than fifty years in Twain's life, and are arranged in roughly chronological order in three sections, the first including pieces prior to 1870, the second the 1870s and '80s, and the final section covering the last two decades of his life. There is an Introduction and Afterword in which Fishkin provides extensive historical context for the included pieces, as well as tracing, from the writings and Twain's biography, his interest in and concern for the animals he writes about, and the particular uses to which he puts these writings, e.g., in service of his often jaundiced views of homo sapiens, who, he opines, in "Man's Place in the Animal World," partly tongue-in-cheek, descended from the "Higher Animals." (Twain was an early adherent of Darwin's ideas regarding evolution.) Of particular interest is a section in the Afterword in which Twain's participation in the animal welfare movement and anti-vivisection activity is illustrated, largely through cited sections of his letters and a recounting of the "Brown Dog Affair," which may have been the inspiration for "A Dog's Tale." This history is complemented by two of the included selections ("Cruelty to Animals I & II") which provide evidence, from Twain's early journalistic career, of his concern for ill-treated animals and his admiration for the work and mission of the newly-founded Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. The "Note on the Texts" section provides the literary pedigree of each of the included pieces, some of them unpublished until now, and, in conjunction with the Notes section, provides sufficient contextual and reference information to satisfy the curiosity of the most devoted Twain scholar-cat. And, while Fishkin is the ringleader in this project, she makes it clear in her Acknowledgments that the task of shepherding this book through to its completion could not have been accomplished absent a gaggle of supporting characters and academic resources.
Twain's literary menagerie, as represented in this volume, includes many familiar characters, as such illustrating his penchant for anthropomorphizing the "lower" animals. His "cayote" from Roughing It, the acknowledged model for Chuck Jones's Wile E. Coyote, is "so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it." Likewise, Twain's bluejay from A Tramp Abroad is human; he has got all a man's faculties and a man's weakness. He likes especially scandal; he knows when he is an ass as well as you do." Twain is careful to note the limits of these comparisons, however, relying on the St. Bernard named Newfoundland Smith in "Letters from a Dog to Another Dog Explaining and Accounting for Man" to catalog characteristics and behaviors that are the exclusive domain of Man. He identifies these as malice, envy, ambition, "lust of vengeance," cruelty, murder, immodesty and slavery. In the course of the included selections, the reader is introduced to a "president" beetle, a jumping frog (of course), a deceitful turkey, "presumptuous" ravens, an "idiotic" ant, "loafing" pigs, a "laughing" jackass, Tom Sawyer's pinch-bug, an "independent-minded" magpie, a "pious" chameleon, and the "phenomenal" flea, to name only a few of the personalities in Twain's personal zoology. Twain's acute observations of and affections for most of the animals in these pieces is obvious, as is his penchant for utilizing his critters as not-so-oblique foils and commentary on members of the human herd. Even in those instances in which he is less fond of a particular species, moreover, there is not a trace of an attitude amounting to enmity. The best example of the latter in this collection is "The Supremacy of the House Fly," in which the futile efforts of the Clemens family to banish this creature from their household are documented in hilarious detail. Even here, however, Twain admits that "But for my deep prejudices, I should have admired those daring creatures."
"A Cat Tale" is the least surprising sketch included in this collection; even casual readers of Twain are aware of his particular lifelong admiration of and affinity toward the feline species, traced, by Twain's account, to his mother's ready adoption of the neighborhood strays in his Hannibal childhood. Twain's partiality to cats is demonstrated in this comically instructional story, as told to daughters Susie and Clara, and the "catechism" of catologisms (cat neologisms) with which he responds to his daughters' impertinent questions, hilarious and vaguely reminiscent of the experiments in language employed by Lewis Carroll in his stories for Gertrude, aka Alice. The whimsical nature of the sketch is consistent with the man whose household was populated by cats with names like Soapy Sall, Blatherskite, Sour Mash and Pestilence, but Twain's genuine respect for this member of the animal kingdom is illustrated by the tongue-in-cheek formulation of a republic with a hereditary royal family of cats in "A Prescription for Universal Piece" from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Twain's love of cats has been previously addressed by scholars in a few short articles over the years and, perhaps coincidentally, was the subject of a paper titled "Mark Twain and His Cats," presented at the recent International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, New York.
The empathic thread which runs through Twain's life and writing is well documented in this book, beginning with the reference in the Introduction to Twain's recollection, from his Autobiography, of his mother's intercession, on a St. Louis street, on behalf of an abused horse. We also read Twain's account of the genesis of his repugnance for the idea of hunting as sport, in Huck's words, from Tom Sawyer Abroad--"I hain't never murdered no creature since, that warn't doing me no harm, and I ain't going to," in conjunction with Twain's own account of shooting a bird during his childhood--"I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him..." No one is spared Twain's contempt for the idea of hunting as sport, as illustrated by "The President Hunts a Cow." Samuel Clemens, famously known for his predisposition to openly assume guilt for his behavior, whether deserved or not, harnessed these feelings in service of his public advocacy for humane treatment of animals, amply illustrated in the final section, which includes his "Letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society" and "A Dog's Tale." The ferocity of Twain's opposition to vivisection, regardless of its capacity to "produce results that are profitable to the human race," is, in his words, "so strong and so deeply rooted in my make and constitution that I am sure I could not even see a vivisector vivisected with anything more than a qualified satisfaction." In "A Dog's Tale," Twain approaches his subject indirectly, through the first-person (sic) narration which begins, "My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian." The casual humor is a device employed by its author which leads us, gradually but inexorably, to witness the horror of cruelty inflicted in the cause of scientific experimentation by its unapologetic perpetrators. As Fishkin notes, the beginning and the first-person approach, through unschooled narrators, in commentary on particular societal horrors, are characteristics shared with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
For the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that the topic of Mark Twain and animals has been previously addressed in books by at least two other scholars. Janet Smith examined the topic in Mark Twain on Man and Beast (1972) which included a wide selection of Twain's writings on the animal world. Smith's work, a serious effort, does not provide the comprehensive focus on the subject as well as historical background material that Fishkin brings forth. Maxwell Geismar edited The Higher Animals: A Mark Twain Bestiary (1976) which was illustrated by Jean-Claude Suarès. Geismar's book, with its whimsical drawings, lacks the extensive notes and the contextual material, as well as any discussion or reference to Twain's involvement with animal treatment issues. It should also be noted that one of the pieces in Fishkin's collection titled "Assassin" is listed as "Not previously printed" although it has appeared in at least two previous books. It is included in a collection from the University of California Press "Jumping Frogs" series titled Mark Twain's Helpful Hints for Good Living: A Handbook for the Damned Human Race" (University of California Press, 2004). It also appeared in Mark Twain: Family Man by Caroline Harnsberger (Citadel Press, 1960). Harnsberger's version, taken from the original manuscript titled "A Family Sketch," is a longer excerpt.
Mark Twain's Book of Animals is the third installment from the University of California Press "Jumping Frogs" series. The production values, as any reader of Twain-related California Press publications has come to expect over the last four decades, are very high. However, prior California editions of Twain's sketches and unpublished works often include brief prefatory remarks for each piece, including information regarding dates of the original writing, and, having been so conditioned, it is at times a minor annoyance to flip to the Notes section following the text prior to reading a particular sketch. The emphasis here, however, is on "minor," and the editorial decision to present each piece absent these potential prefatory interruptions is likely designed to appeal to the general reader, not to the pedantic Twainiac.
The illustrations in this book warrant particular mention, the twenty-nine woodcut engravings by Barry Moser underscoring both the serious and playful aspects of Twain's writing, with no trace of gratuitous exaggeration. His depiction of "The Dogs of Constantinople" from The Innocents Abroad conveys the visual message of Twain's own words-- "In their faces is a settled expression of melancholy, an air of hopeless despondency." The image accompanying "The Retired Milk Horse" from Roughing It gives every evidence of the devil-may-care animal oblivious to the humiliation of its owner, Clemens himself, from its conditioned habit of stopping at every house along its pre-retirement route. Moser's work has graced many editions of literary classics, including Moby Dick and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and has appeared in two prior Twain editions, including a rare issue of 1601 and a centennial edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with depictions of Huck and Jim which are more true to the text than Kemble's 1885 originals. Two of Twain's own graphic efforts are also included, in "A Cat-Tale." Conspicuous by their absence, however, are any of the numerous photos available in which the strength of Twain's connection is captured on film, e.g., the white-suited and like-maned Twain gently cradling a kitten which graces the cover of the August 24, 1907 issue of Harper's Weekly, an image which conveys Twain's humaneness as eloquently as his writing. The omission is, perhaps, a minor point, but warrants a mention.
Mark Twain's Book of Animals is proof, if it were needed,
that the death of Mark Twain is, indeed, "exaggerated." The cumulative
impact of this collection is the realization that Twain's empathies toward
members of the animal kingdom, of which he considered himself to be a flawed
member, informed the pathos, empathy and humor which pervades all of his writing.
Indeed, an unstated, but implicit premise of this book is the conclusion that
Twain's attitudes regarding racism, imperialism, human foibles and empathy
for the "lower animals" are all of one piece. The potential impact
of this work is illustrated by its particular effect on its intrepid editor/creator
who, in the course of its making, by her report, was transformed from her
status as homo sapiens omnivorian to homo sapiens pescetarian.
The average reader may not have such a strong reaction to these pieces, but
will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that he or she has been shown another
heretofore-hidden facet of the diamond-in-the-rough character of America's
best-known celebrity. Mark Twain's Book of Animals is a work that can
easily be enjoyed by the casual reader of Twain and certainly qualifies as
an essential volume for the devoted Twain scholar. In retrospect, this book
animatedly begs the question, "What took so long?"