Mark Twain - America's First Animal Welfare Advocate?

Fri Oct 23, 2009 12:00pm EDT

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Stanford Professor and Leading Mark Twain Scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's
Latest Research Suggests That Mark Twain Was One of the First Prominent
Americans to Raise Awareness of Animal Cruelty. 
STANFORD, Calif.--(Business Wire)--
Given the prevalence and influence of groups devoted to animal welfare and
animal rights in America today, it may come as a surprise to learn that the
animal welfare movement did not start to gain momentum in the U.S. until the mid
19th century. Since then, activists have made the welfare and rights of animals
a mainstream issue for both legislators and the general public. Animal advocacy
may have never gotten to this point, however, without the help of one of
America`s greatest writers, Mark Twain. 

Leading Mark Twain scholar 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." 

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

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 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

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." 

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University is recognized as one
of the world's leading research and teaching institutions. 

Photos/Multimedia Gallery Available:

Stanford University
Corrie Goldman, 650-724-8156
Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer

Copyright Business Wire 2009

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