Archive for December 23rd, 2009

Mark Twain, revisited: A reply from Shelley

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
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mark-twainFollowing my post below on Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote to tell me I’d cited her own favorite passages from her book. But then she added a few more personal favorites (as well as a seitan recipe):

“All of us have our favorite Twain quotes regarding animals — I’ve always been partial to: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” I’ve also liked: “Concerning the difference between man and the jackass. Some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.”  Twain’s amusing and mordant quips about animals like these are well known. But it was not until I was deep into my work this book that I came to recognize the seriousness that was behind them.

I was genuinely surprised to find that Twain was actually the most prominent animal welfare advocate of his era in the U.S. — and that his writing on the subject spanned four decades — nearly his entire career as a writer.  He wrote about everything from hunting to bullfighting to cockfighting  to gratuitous cruelty to pigs and dogs to using animals for laboratory experiments,  to  the abuse of  horses by people who overworked them or failed to feed them enough or made them pull ridiculously heavy loads.

While during Twain’s earliest years as a writer,  animals may have functioned  mainly as a source of humor they soon  became much more. Twain found that making fun of animals for qualities  that showed them as all-too-human could be a useful ploy for mounting genial critiques of human behavior. By the same token, Twain found that shining a spotlight on the cruelty with which humans treated animals could be a useful strategy for illuminating human hypocrisy, misplaced moral pride, and unwarranted senses of entitlement and superiority — qualities that became increasingly salient for Twain as the years wore on. Ultimately, Twain’s observations of non-human animals enabled him to train a cynical eye on human animals, and find them wanting.  The Lowest Animal—as he came to call man — did not stack up so well against the rest of the animal kingdom.

I had not expected my research to result in a dramatic change in my life, but it did:  Twain was not a vegetarian himself, but spending all this time with his attentive explorations of animal emotion and cognition made a quasi-vegetarian of me.*

*a pescetarian, to be precise.