Last-minute gift for animal lovers … and Twain fans, too


twain“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.”


Fisher Fishkin (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

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?)

3 Responses to “Last-minute gift for animal lovers … and Twain fans, too”

  1. Shelley Fisher Fishkin Says:

    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.

  2. James A. Says:

    I enjoy reading your post. Thank you so much for provide nice information.

  3. Zoe Patrick Says:

    “Of all the animals, man is the one who is most cruel,”

    I love this quote. So true!