BOOKS: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2010:

Mark Twain’s Book of Animals
Edited with Introduction, Afterword, & Notes
by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
University of Calif. Press (2120 Berkeley Way,
Berkeley, CA 94704), 2009. 325 pages,
hardcover. $27.50.

“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final years that remained unpublished at his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 animalsÅ 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.
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, deploring cruelty and neglect, years
before the U.S. had any organized humane
societies. Much as Charles Dickens saved the
two-year-old Battersea Dogs & Cats Home with an
1862 essay entitled Two Dog Shows, Twain 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.”
Unfortunately, Twain interupted 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.”
The remainder of the essay was perhaps the
earliest of many laudatory profiles of Bergh and
his work to enforce the first New York state
humane law.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin in Mark Twain’s
Book of Animals collects Twain’s chief
contributions to animal literature.
Twain’s first famous story, The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, has
long been misused to rationalize the capture and
abuse of frogs in jumping contests. Indeed,
this was 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 kept a fighting pit bull terrier, 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.
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 defenders of coyotes
were Walt Disney, who produced his first of
three films on behalf of coyotes in 1960, and
Chuck Jones, the Warner Brothers animation
director who first rehabilitated Bugs Bunny from
inept and racist early versions by others,
acknowledging inspiration from Twain, then in
1948 created Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
Jones in his autobiography Chuck Amuck
acknowledged that encountering Roughing It at age
seven had shaped his life–especially his
portrayals of coyotes, which drew upon negative
stereotypes to bring first laughter and then
sympathy.
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
burlesqued.
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, 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.

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