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Mark Twain for Animal Welfare


Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s latest research suggests that Twain was the most prominent American of his day to throw his weight behind the movement for animal welfare. In her new book entitled Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Fishkin, a Stanford English professor, examines how Twain’s fascination with, and advocacy for, animals reveals itself in many of his works. In the book’s introduction and afterword, Fishkin suggests that Twain’s works played a pivotal role in raising Americans’ concerns about cruelty to animals and the exploitation of non-human animals by humans. Mark Twain’s Book of Animals is a broad-ranging collection of Twain’s work relating to animals, ranging from short stories and essays to excerpts of novels, travelogues, and private letters. Notably, it also includes a famous polemic Twain wrote against vivisection (the use of a living animal in experiments or demonstrations) that was later used as a manifesto of sorts by anti-vivisectionists around the world. The book, published by the University of California Press and released this Fall, also features six works by Twain which are being published for the first time.  Philosopher Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation and The Life You Can Save, wrote that "For those unaware—as I was until I read this book—that Mark Twain was one of America's early animal advocates, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's collection of his writings on animals will come as a revelation. Many of these pieces are as fresh and lively as when they were first written." 

Notable Writers Laud Twain’s Works in Forthcoming Publications

Professor Fishkin, whose research focuses on American literature and cultural history, is also working several other Twain-related projects. She is currently putting the finishing touches on The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work, which the Library of America will publish in March, 2010. The anthology contains writings about Twain by well-known authors from around the globe, including pieces originally published in Chinese, Danish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish that have not previously been translated into English.  

In addition, this October, Oxford University Press will publish a paperback edition of the twenty-nine volume The Oxford Mark Twain that Fishkin edited in 1996, and which includes prefaces to Twain’s works by writers including Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Miller, Ursula Le Guin, Gore Vidal, and many others.

Scholar Discovers Passionate, Angry Twain

According to Fishkin, her research for Mark Twain’s Book of Animals was especially rewarding because she was investigating an aspect of Twain’s writing   that had not previously been explored. Fishkin said that in this collection of his work  “We see Twain at his silliest and most philosophical, at his most sentimental and sardonic. We see him having fun, and we see him seething anger. We read texts that are playful, and we read texts that are dark. Texts that are appealing, and texts that are quite frankly, repulsive. We get glimpses of Twain as a child, a parent, an artist, a thinker and an activist. In short, we have writing that is complex and variegated as Twain himself.”   Animals referenced in Twain’s works range from the familiar (cats, dogs, horses, birds) to the exotic (platypuses, kookaburras and tsetse flies). Although birds are mentioned in a number of the examples, cats were apparently Twain’s favorite; he admired them for their independence and the fact that they were the only animal to elude the sting of man’s whip.

Illustrations by Luminary American Artist Bring Stories to Life

The edited collection also contains over 30 engravings of animals by the renowned, 20th century illustrator Barry Moser.

“He is one of the greatest living engravers and illustrators,” Fishkin said of Moser, who has also illustrated editions of Moby Dick, Alice in Wonderland and the Bible. “He did a wonderful job. His animals are stunning.”

Darwin Played a Central Role in Twain’s Animal Philosophy

Fishkin was inspired to undertake the project after realizing how central animals were to Twain’s works and that his views on animals revealed a great deal about how he viewed people.  

Fishkin was surprised by what she found during the course of her research. “ I had not realized when I embarked on this project that Twain was the most prominent American of his era to throw his weight behind the animal welfare movement.”

Mark Twain was greatly influenced by the ideas that Charles Darwin laid out in his groundbreaking publication, The Descent of Man (1871), a book that “startled the world,” as Twain put it.  She examined copious notes that Twain wrote in the margins of his copy of The Descent of Man (housed with the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library) and analyzed their significance.

In particular, Fishkin found that that Twain was affected by Darwin’s idea that man and animal were in reality, much more similar than people liked to believe. “The topic he was dealing with was emotional and intellectual continuities between humans and non-human animals. Darwin wrote that the lower animals were capable of experiencing the same emotions as people and that they were capable of rudimentary reasoning, as well. ”

Darwin’s observations resonated with Twain’s personal observations, as several texts in the books show. A number of Twain’s works show that Twain believed that even if animals could not speak, they could still think and communicate, as well as feel.

Twain refused to place humans at the apex of creation, however. On the contrary, Twain classified humans as “the lowest animal.”  “Man is the animal that blushes,” Twain once said. “He is the only that does it—or has occasion to.”

Twain often used animals as a vehicle for criticizing humans, sometimes with a combination of whimsy, satire and invective, as is the case with “Letters from a Dog to Another Dog, Explaining and Accounting for Man,” by “Newfoundland Smith. Translated from the Original Doggerel by M.T.”— a piece that is published in this book for the first time.

Sport Hunting and Cockfighting Drew Twain’s Ire

Twain writes about cruelty to animals in a range of contexts, criticizing, for example, the insensitivity involved in the exploitation of animals for sport or entertainment. Twain may have been the first American to call attention to the brutality of the so-called sport of cockfighting, which he describes in graphic detail.

Several pieces express Twain’s contempt for the idea of hunting for sport, including a memorable passage from a sequel to Huckleberry Finn in which Huck shoots a bird and feels immediate remorse and shame (“Huck Shoots a Bird”). Another text in the book--from an unpublished piece of autobiographical writing -- makes it clear that Twain based this account on an experience he had himself as a child (“Assassin”).

Twain wrote a searing account of an English earl’s behavior on a buffalo hunt (in “Man’s Place in the Animal World”) and wrote an impassioned anti-bullfighting novella (A Horse’s Tale).

He also wrote a profile of the founder of the ASPCA, Henry Bergh, the year after the organization was founded, in which he witnessed and recounted Bergh’s protest to a theatre manager about the way a live animal was treated as part of a play (“Cruelty to Animals”).

While Twain condemned man’s treatment of animals in a range of contexts, the issue of vivisection--experimentation on live animals--sparked his greatest ire. His letter to the London Anti-vivisection Society was “one of the strongest statements ever made about vivisection”—and, indeed, quotes from the letter can still be found on thousands of animal rights websites today. 

At a time when there were relatively few, if any, constraints on the circumstances under which experiments could be conducted on live animals, Mark Twain’s criticisms, which were widely reprinted, had an impact. As one prominent anti-vivisection activist wrote in a letter to Twain in 1907, “Your words are listened to where the fervent representations of other men are passed by unheard.” She expressed her gratitude for “your power to mould the thoughts of the world.”

Twain – Disappointed in Man and Ahead of his Time

In the last decades of his life, as Twain grew increasingly disappointed with his fellow human beings for a broad range of reasons, “their treatment of animals was right up there with other failings-cupidity, greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, pride,” Fishkin noted.

Some of the debates that Twain’s writings entered are still raging today, she said. Mark Twain’s words “helped prompt us to think, to question our assumptions, and to care--both about our fellow human beings and about the other animals with whom we share the planet.”