“Of all the animals, man is the one who is most cruel,” wrote Mark Twain. According to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a leading Twain scholar, the 19th century author isn’t well enough known for his positions on animal welfare. She’s setting the record straight.
Her new book, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, a compilation of 50 years of Twain’s writing about animals (and illustrated by Barry Moser), is humorous and jaunty, dark and upsetting — sometimes all at once: For example: “Cats are packed full of music — just as full as they can hold; and when they die, people remove it from them and sell it to the fiddle-makers. O yes indeed. Such is life.”
Twain’s kindness sprang from remorse. His mother had “pleaded for the fishes and birds and tried to persuade me to spare them.” The killing of a bird provided a conversion: “I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood.” Twain put his own moment of conscience in the words of Huck Finn:
“…I see a bird setting on a limb of a high tree, singing, with its head tilted back and his mouth open, ad before I thought I fired, and his song stopped and he fell straight down from the limb, all limp like a rag, and I run and picked him up, and he was dead, and his body was warm in my hand, and his head rolled about, this way and that, like his neck was broke, and there was a little white skin over his eyes, and one little drop of blood on the side of his head, and laws! I couldn’t see nothing more for the tears; and I hain’t never murdered no creature since, that wasn’t doing me no harm, and I ain’t going to.”
Listen to Shelley’s podcast: Would Mark Twain go Bare for PETA?)