OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
ANIMAL FANTASIES IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
REALISTIC CHILDREN'S ANIMAL STORIES
Fictional and nonfictional children's texts that feature animal characters as their primary protagonists, either in realistic or fantasy settings.
Capitalizing upon the innate link between children and animals, animal stories encompass a wide variety of themes, topics, and genres; their usage is often incorporated into storylines as a means of broaching ideas and subject matters that might otherwise confuse or bore children. Children demonstrate an instinctive connection to animals from an early age; the usage of animal stand-ins to address personal issues has many practical real-world applications. Autistic children have been shown to respond with greater empathy to animals than their human counterparts, parents often use pets as a means of socialization and early introduction to larger questions of birth and death, and, as Chérie Clodfelter has noted, "[p]sychologists have long recognized the importance of the ‘third person,’ the talking animal—and animal puppets are known to help children express their deepest feelings." Such applications of humanized animals also remain ensconced within our culture in the form of religious parables and Aesopic allegories, such as "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" and "The Fox and the Grapes." Within literature, such doctrinal tracts and allegorical fables were often the first adult literary works appropriated by children, forming the basis for the early canon of children's literature. Today, the inclusion of animal characters within books for children forms a fundamental facet of the genre, so much so that many critics have suggested that the usage of animals as a substitution for real people is heavily overused in modern children's literature. "Too many authors," Peter D. Sieruta has argued, "have tried to make a hackneyed, sugary, or moralistic story palatable to children by slapping a tail, paws, or a cold, wet nose on the protagonist." Sieruta has cited the example of the long-running Berenstain Bears series of picture books by Stan and Jan Berenstain as typical of this type of story, which offers, in his opinion, "trite, didactic writing and cartoon-like illustrations to an audience of beginning readers." However, Sieruta has acknowledged that several contemporary children's writers have brought new depth to the animal story genre, drawing attention to Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books, which he has praised for their "gentle prose and amusing illustrations." Many children's animal story texts have won a variety of awards and accolades, including William Armstrong's Sounder (1969), Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad Forever (1972), and Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves (1972), all of which were recognized as Newbery Award Honor Books. Tove Jansson and E. B. White, two children's authors known best for their animal stories, were also awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal and the National Medal for Literature, respectively.
Generally, the animal story genre is split into two categories—the animal fantasy and the realistic animal story. In the former, animals are often presented anthropomorphically, walking, talking, and living as almost exact analogues for human characters. In more realistic animal texts, the animals retain their bestiality, remaining in their less-fantastic normal roles as either pets or wild creatures. However, there have been many subtle variations on and degrees of compromise within these two broad categories. For example, in Charlotte's Web (1952), E. B. White's barnyard creatures clearly preserve their animalistic natures, while still fashioning a distinctly complex society with language, emotion, and societal rules. And yet, the animals remain apart from the human world, living in a bestial universe set parallel to that of their human counterparts with whom they interact, but who—apart from Fern—have no knowledge of the apparent sophistication of their farm society. White's three children's novels, Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) are generally regarded as fantasies due largely to the depth of emotion and language skills his animal protagonists display, as well as their proactive and deliberate responses to the events around them. In the realistic animal story, animals retain their instinctive natures and do not adopt or imitate the social behaviors of human beings. Variations do exist within realist animal texts, which can be seen in the differences between such works as Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves and Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903), both works set in the Alaskan wilderness and utilizing wolves and dogs as their primary protagonists. In George's novel, the wolves primarily serve as a support system for an Inuit girl, Julie. They function as narrative foils that enable Julie to evolve into a self-sufficient young woman, and the reader is never given any insight into their individual thoughts or natures. London's Buck, a half-wolf, half-husky mix, on the other hand, serves as the primary narrator of The Call of the Wild. While Buck is shown as having greater internal awareness than any real canine would, nevertheless, he never acts in opposition to his animal nature, never presenting any anthropomorphic traits other than intelligence. However, despite Buck's clear animalism, readers are nevertheless drawn to color Buck and his animal compatriots in human terms, casting them as substitutes for human characters. Similarly, the detailed rabbit society of Richard Adams's Watership Down (1972) also skirts the definition of a true realistic animal story. While his rabbits are gifted with sophistication and mythology beyond the ken of normal rabbits, Adams took pains to present their behavior through a realistic lens and, as with London, his story is a parable for the human condition, offering an animal adaptation of the heroic quest. Another such book is Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877), in which Sewell casts her horse protagonists as capable of speech, yet colored in a realistic depiction of horses enduring the cruelty of their human masters. Thomas L. Benson has suggested that, in these kinds of texts, the "virtues manifested by the animals are distinctly human ideals. The moral paragon stereotype presupposes that animals are moral agents, capable of understanding, however dimly, the principles of right conduct and equally capable of pursuing such principle. To this extent, it is misleadingly anthropomorphic and inaccurate." Jon C. Stott has concurred, noting that "the major interest in most fiction is character analysis; however it is impossible to know if animals think and, if they do, what they think. The author is forced to two extremes: either he must be studiously objective in his reporting, making his work similar to a scientific description, or he must attribute human personalities to his characters, thus coming perilously close fantasy."
Truly realistic animal stories may be better represented by the texts highlighting the bond between child and animal, such as Marjorie Rawlings's The Yearling (1938), Walter Farley's The Black Stallion (1941), Fred Gipson's Old Yeller (1956), and William Armstrong's Sounder. The early precursors to these works, authored in the early twentieth century, most often featured tales of wild animals tamed by the love of a child, as seen in the works of such authors as Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, Marguerite Henry—whose King of the Wind won the 1948 Newbery Medal—and Ernest Thompson Seton. As the century progressed, the child-animal bonds depicted in animal stories began to move away from wild creatures, favoring safer relationships between children and their domesticated pets. Often the animals or pets are represented as heroic, willing to sacrifice their lives for their human friends or owners. Lori Jo Oswald has characterized this bond as "a reciprocal relationship between human and animal: Protecting each other is merely what loved ones do." Such sentiments are shared by Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote, in the preface to his Animal Heroes (1905), that, "A hero is an individual of unusual gifts and achievements. Whether it be man or animal, this definition applies; and it is the histories of such that appeal to the imagination and to the hearts of those who hear them." While these animal stories seek to underscore the positive value in cultivating relationships with animals, they nevertheless paint them almost inevitably as victims, an approach, Oswald has contended, that "presents problems, for it deprives them of their natural identities."
The other category of animal stories, the animal fantasy, generally uses anthropomorphism as its driving stylistic device. In these stories, the animals often are depicted as living in human-like societies, standing upright, wearing clothes, and speaking as people do. They range from the surrealist universes of Dr. Seuss to the diverting pleasures of Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books, places where humans rarely intrude. Jon C. Stott has described the prototypical animal fantasy as one where the author "draws on characteristics of the animal world and aspects of human nature and combines these to create a unique being—a literary character which would be totally unbelievable in the real world but which functions convincingly within the confines of a story." Prominent examples of this style can be found in the works of Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and Rudyard Kipling, all of whom feature elements of the Aesopic tradition in their children's texts. Of the animal characters that populate the pages of Kipling's Jungle Books (1894-1895), Stott has suggested that, while "they act physically like animals, they talk to each other and evolve a complex social hierarchy. Kipling's purpose, among other things, was to develop his theories of social organization and leadership; to do this he showed how each of the species in the book related to the other animals." As with the works of London and Adams, Kipling's novels seek to present an animal society as a substitute for humankind, though here, the anthropomorphic natures of his protagonists overwhelms any aspects of realism. Other series, such as Jansson's Moomintroll books and Jean de Brunhoff's Babar stories, offer another variation, where human culture is a distant universe with little interaction with the animal societies. Margaret Blount has termed such works "animal utopias," commenting that, "Animal fantasies that banish people usually have this happy, idyllic quality that human intrusion would quite spoil. They exist in worlds that are better, simpler, truer, more innocent than the human one." Chérie Clodfelter has advocated the developmental benefits of such literary animal utopias, arguing that, "From Christ's parables of the lost sheep through Aesop's fables, anthropomorphism is utilized. Plutarch, Plato, and Socrates also taught and illustrated universal values using memorable, believable animal characters. Like many fine anthropomorphic characters, the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse teach values without condescending—in lessons children enjoy and adults long remember."
This mild methodology works in direct contrast to such texts as Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986) and George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), which can be better described as animal dystopias. While Spiegelman's graphic novel seeks to portray his father's World War II Holocaust story in more subjective terms, re-casting the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, Orwell's novel is pure fiction, a cautionary allegorical tale about revolution gone wrong. "Central to the fable's mordent humor," Mary Ellen Snodgrass has asserted, "is an Aesopic caricature that depicts human foibles in the words and actions of common farm animals. With humanity and compassion for the lowest social order, Orwell re-creates the poignant paralysis and vulnerability that gradually return a rebellious underclass to its former servitude." Using much the same moral philosophy, albeit in more gentle trappings, were the animal parables that the American nineteenth-century children's periodical Our Young Folks used to subtly make a case against slavery. Edited by Lucy Larcom, J. T. Trowbridge, and Mary Abigail Dodge, Our Young Folks was a Northern periodical begun in 1865 with strikingly abolitionist views that often incorporated simple tales—such as Ruth Chesterfield's "The Disobedient Crow" (1866) or Dr. Burt Wilder's "Memoirs of a Cripple" (1866)—to, Brand Parris has argued, "present the same difficult themes as the human Reconstruction stories but do so with anthropomorphized animals, diminishing the threat by projecting these issues onto animals." Such a methodology, Parris has asserted, "emphasize[d] kindness to animals and figure goodness in terms of one's ability to sympathize with others. This combination of animal rights and Sentimental sympathy enabled the discussion of sensitive issues surrounding Reconstruction by displacing tensions between people into less politically charged relations with and between animals." Summarizing the appeal of the genre, Peter D. Sieruta has stated that "animal stories are among the most popular and enduring books published for young people. There are folktales in which animals enact universal truths about humanity, picture books filled with bunnies and mice, child and dog stories, ambitious fantasies about animal communities, and naturalistic portraits of wild animals. Stories about animals cross a wide spectrum of genres and intended age groups, providing evidence that these books are popular with readers of nearly every age and taste."
Watership Down (young adult novel) 1972
Sounder [illustrations by James Barkley] (young adult novel) 1969
The Incredible Journey [illustrations by Carl Burger] (juvenile novel) 1961
Chanticleer and the Fox [adaptor; from the story by Geoffrey Chaucer] (picture book) 1958
Shadrach [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (juvenile fiction) 1953
The Old Lion and Other Stories (juvenile short stories) 1942
The Black Stallion [illustrations by Keith Ward] (juvenile fiction) 1941
Jean Craighead George
Julie of the Wolves [illustrations by John Schoenherr] (juvenile fiction) 1972
Old Yeller (juvenile novel) 1956
The Wind in the Willows (juvenile novel) 1908
Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Camping Holiday (picture book) 1938
Misty of Chincoteague [illustrations by Wesley Dennis] (juvenile fiction) 1947
King of the Wind [illustrations by Wesley Dennis] (juvenile fiction) 1948
The Bat-Poet [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1964
The Animal Family [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1965
The Jungle Book (juvenile fiction) 1894
The Second Jungle Book (juvenile fiction) 1895
Frederick (picture book) 1967
Frog and Toad Are Friends (juvenile fiction) 1970
Frog and Toad Forever (juvenile fiction) 1972
The Call of the Wild (novel) 1903
White Fang (novel) 1906
Martha Speaks (picture book) 1992
Robert C. O'Brien
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH [illustrations by Zena Bernstein] (juvenile novel) 1971
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (novella) 1945
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (juvenile fiction) 1901
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (juvenile fiction) 1903
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (juvenile fiction) 1908
The Yearling (juvenile novel) 1938
Sir Charles G. D. Roberts
The Kindred of the Wild (juvenile fiction) 1902
Red Fox (juvenile fiction) 1905
Kings of Exile (juvenile fiction) 1909
Ernest Thompson Seton
Animal Heroes (short stories) 1905
Famous Animal Stories: Myths, Fables, Fairy Tales, Stories of Real Animals [editor] (folklore, fairy tales, and short stories) 1932
Horton Hears a Who! (picture book) 1954
The Cat in the Hat (picture book) 1957
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (picture book) 1958
Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse (juvenile fiction) 1877
The Hundred and One Dalmatians (juvenile fiction) 1956
*Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (graphic novel) 1986
†Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began (graphic novel) 1991
‡The Complete Maus (drawings, journal entries, and recordings) 1994
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (picture book) 1969
Ticknor and Fields, publishers
§Our Young Folks (juvenile periodical) 1865-1873
E. B. White
Stuart Little [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1945
Charlotte's Web [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1952
The Trumpet of the Swan [illustrations by Edward Frascino] (juvenile fiction) 1970
*Early versions of chapters 1 through 6 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1985. The chapter "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" originally appeared in Short Order Comix #1 in 1973.
†Early versions of chapters 1 through 4 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1986 and 1991.
‡The Complete Maus was released as a CD-ROM, combining artwork, movies, and recordings of interviews with Spiegelman's father.
§Our Young Folks published monthly from January 1865 to December 1873, until the magazine was merged with the similar periodical St. Nicholas. During its existence, Our Young Folks published children's sto- ries authored by such notable nineteenth-century writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.
Peter D. Sieruta (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Sieruta, Peter D. "Animal Stories." In The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, pp. 21-4. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
[In the following essay, Sieruta offers a critical introduction to animal stories, describing the genre as made up of "folktales in which animals enact universal truths about humanity, picture books filled with bunnies and mice, child and dog stories, ambitious fantasies about animal communities, and naturalistic portraits of wild animals."]
Nearly every baby shares its crib with an assortment of teddy bears, flop-eared dogs, and calico cats, beginning an association with animals that for many children continues to grow and deepen with the years. Infants, like puppies, kittens, and other young animals, not only share a diminutive size and appealing "cuteness" but are also alike in their innocence and dependency on larger creatures. This early identification between child and animal often leads to a lifelong respect and love for both household pets and the entire animal kingdom. Certainly children's literature reflects this interest, as animal stories are among the most popular and enduring books published for young people. There are folktales in which animals enact universal truths about humanity, picture books filled with bunnies and mice, child and dog stories, ambitious fantasies about animal communities, and naturalistic portraits of wild animals. Stories about animals cross a wide spectrum of genres and intended age groups, providing evidence that these books are popular with readers of nearly every age and taste.
More than two thousand years ago, Aesop used animal characters to convey moral lessons in fables such as "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" and "The Fox and the Grapes." This tradition predates Aesop, however, and is in reality as old as storytelling itself. Most cultures have folktales and myths in which animals represent human characteristics. Talking animal stories, a staple of folklore, have also inspired many original books for children. This genre, however, which includes some of the most brilliant works of the twentieth century, also includes some of the worst. Too many authors have tried to make a hackneyed, sugary, or moralistic story palatable to children by slapping a tail, paws, or a cold, wet nose on the protagonist. A prime example is the regrettably popular Berenstain Bears series, created by Stan and Jan Berenstain. These stories of a humanized bear family offer trite, didactic writing and cartoon-like illustrations to an audience of beginning readers. Fortunately, the same age group can enjoy one of the finest talking animal series ever produced: the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. Beginning with Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970) and including the Newbery Honor Book Frog and Toad Together (1972), the books follow the pair as they go swimming, bake cookies, and tell each other stories. Distinguished for both their gentle prose and amusing illustrations, the books present a portrait of true friendship accessible to most young readers.
Frog and Toad spring from a literary tradition that allows animal characters to think, behave, and sometimes even dress as human beings, although they remain animals in many other respects. Thus, Lobel's Frog wears a bathing suit and rides a bicycle, yet hibernates all winter. Beatrix Potter, beloved by generations of readers for her charming illustrated stories, also utilized this technique. In her classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), the young rabbit wears a jacket and shoes but also has a craving for carrots and a fear of being caught by Mr. McGregor and cooked into a pie.
Humanized animals inhabit a number of important fantasy novels for intermediate readers. Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows (1908) contains an evocative portrait of nature as several animals travel through the English countryside. The novel depicts the friendship of Mole and Water Rat, as well as the comic adventures of Toad, who lives in a mansion and covets motorcars. Published near the twentieth century's midpoint, Charlotte's Web (1952) immediately established itself as a benchmark by which all later animal fantasies must be measured. E. B. White's unforgettable tale of Wilbur the pig, whose life is saved by the spider Charlotte, is filled with memorable animal characters, features important themes of life, death, and friendship, and is written in crystalline prose. Critics continue to express shock that this distinguished book failed to win the Newbery Medal, but nearly twenty years later, another strong animal fantasy did capture the prize. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), by Robert C. O'Brien, mixes a domestic story of a mouse who must relocate her family with scientific speculation about escaped superintelligent laboratory rats who live in a sophisticated rodent community.
Two British animal fantasies must also be noted. Watership Down (1972), by Richard Adams, is an epic novel about rabbits who leave their warren to find a new home. The book succeeds as both an exciting adventure and a wonderfully complex portrait of a rabbit society. Young readers and adults continue to enjoy this lengthy, ambitious novel. Although lacking the philosophical depth of a great animal fantasy, Dodie Smith's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956) is an immensely popular farce of kidnapped puppies, vicious villains, and harrowing rescues. The style is tongue-in-cheek, but the suspense is real.
While most talking animal stories are presented in a matter-of-fact tone, another type of fantasy, which dates back to the nursery rhyme "Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog," derives its humor from animals that display human characteristics. Dr. Seuss's time-tested classic The Cat in the Hat (1957) uses a minimal vocabulary and bouncing rhyme to tell the story of a boisterous cat who visits two bored children on a rainy day. One of the funniest canines in children's literature appears in Martha Speaks, Susan Meddaugh's 1992 picture book about a dog who develops the ability to talk. At first Martha's family of humans is charmed by her new skill because she can now explain long-pondered questions such as "Why don't you come when we call?" and "Why do you drink out of the toilet?" Less charming is Martha's tendency to tattle, make rude remarks, and tell her life story in excruciating detail. How Martha traps a burglar and learns to control her talking makes a thoroughly delightful story.
A final category of animal fantasy combines everyday behavior with fantastic happenings. Randall Jarrell's Animal Family (1965), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, features a bear and a lynx. Although perhaps tamer than most wild animals, the pair do not talk, dress up, or emulate human behavior in any way. Yet these animals are integral to the plot of this fantasy about a mermaid who leaves the sea to join a hunter in starting a family. Exploring issues of loneliness, love, and family, this poetic and lyrical story speaks directly to the heart.
Conversely, Catherine Cate Coblentz placed a mystical animal within a fact-based story of colonial history in The Blue Cat of Castletown (1949), the beautifully written tale of a cat who inspires a Vermont girl to create a rug that would later be displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Few modern readers are familiar with this Newbery Honor Book, but it deserves rediscovery as one of the most magnificent depictions of creativity and the power of art ever explored in a children's book.
Realistic fiction that examines the connections between humans and animals is consistently popular with children. Many stories concern a child's longing for a pet or the pleasure that an animal can bring to a young person's life. Meindert DeJong wrote with intensity of Davie's longing for, and eventual attachment to, a small black rabbit in Shadrach (1956), an exceptionally sensitive novel highlighted by Maurice Sendak's illustrations. Walter Farley's The Black Stallion (1941) is the exciting story of young Alec Ramsey, who, along with a wild horse, is ship-wrecked on a desert island. Alec gentles the horse and, after their rescue, rides him to victory in a race. The boy-and-dog stories of Jim Kjelgaard are also appealing. His best-known, Big Red (1945), depicts the relationship between a rural teenager and a neighbor's prize-winning Irish setter. Danny travels to New York for Big Red's dog show, then returns to Smokey Creek, where he teaches the dog to hunt game and track the marauding bear that is killing local livestock. Marguerite Henry has explored the bond between child and animal in a number of realistic novels, including Misty of Chincoteague (1947) and King of the Wind (1948), which are based on historical horses. The vivid background material provides authenticity to her always exciting story lines.
Many children list animal stories and funny stories as their favorite types of reading. Realistic books that combine the two are especially welcome, as proven by the popularity of Beverly Cleary's work. Beginning with Henry Huggins (1950), in which Henry finds a stray dog and takes him home, through Henry and Ribsy (1954), which concerns Henry's efforts to keep his dog out of trouble for two months, the series presents the warm relationship between boy and dog as they become involved in numerous comic situations.
Even in an uncomplicated, humorous story, the relationship between child and animal usually serves as a catalyst for positive change in the young person's life. Similarly, animals often help guide a child through a crisis or personal problem in a serious novel. Lynn Hall's realistic animal stories are written with conviction, integrity, and heart. Halsey's Pride (1990) concerns a thirteen-year-old girl who learns to accept her epilepsy through her relationship with a collie. A lonely boy who shoots a stray feline confronts issues of guilt and responsibility in Paula Fox's moving and elegantly written One-Eyed Cat (1984). Arctic wolves help a troubled Eskimo girl sort out her problems and survive the North Slope of Alaska in Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves (1972), a Newbery Medal-winning novel distinguished by evocative writing and deep understanding of both human and animal behavior. Another Newbery Medal winner, Sounder (1969), by William Armstrong, tells the story of an African American family in which the father is arrested and his "coon dog" is wounded. The dog is both a presence and a metaphor in this stark, Depression-era novel that has the power of an American myth.
Realistic animal stories do not always concern a child's interactions with a pet or wild animal. Some books focus on the animal itself, giving a naturalistic account of its life experiences. Anna Sewell's nineteenth-century novel Black Beauty (1877) was a forerunner of this type. Although the reader must first accept the premise of a first-person story narrated by a horse, the text is firmly grounded in the animal's perceptions and observations. Albert Payson Terhune collected a number of stories about his own collie in Lad: A Dog (1919), a volume that realistically records a dog's varied adventures. An even better known collie is featured in Lassie-Come-Home, by Eric Knight (1940). Knight took assiduous care to avoid humanizing Lassie in this story of her four-hundred-mile journey from Scotland to Yorkshire; the dog's actions are consistently guided by instinct or simple thought processes. The Incredible Journey (1960), by Canadian author Sheila Burnford, tells of a lengthy trek made by an English bull terrier, a Labrador retriever, and a cat, and also ascribes few human emotions or thoughts to the trio of animals. Felix Salten's Bambi (1926) presents a naturalistic portrait of life in the wild. There is savagery, bloodshed, and fear of the human "He." Bambi grows into adulthood, and an almost ineffable sadness hangs over the story as he begins to behave in instinctive ways he does not completely understand. Yet for all its realism, the animals of this tale converse with one another, making the novel a hybrid between an animal-centered realistic story and a fantasy.
Stories that adopt the viewpoint of a dog or deer are based on the author's perceptions and conjectures and may not be an accurate representation of an animal's experience, yet there is little question that these books increase understanding of the natural world and cause many readers to view animals in a different light. Realistic fiction detailing the love between a child and an animal, whether through comic situations or through personal drama, is also engaging and enlightening. Fantasies in which animal communities symbolize human society or individual animals represent human traits may be the most illuminating of all. Sometimes the most important thing about an animal story is what it teaches us about ourselves.
Chérie Clodfelter (essay date November-December 1998)
SOURCE: Clodfelter, Chérie. "Talking Animals: Anthropomorphism and the Preservation of Culture." Five Owls 13, no. 2 (November-December 1998): 31.
[In the following essay, Clodfelter debates the value of anthropomorphic animal stores in children's education, noting the long history of literary anthropomorphism.]
As a teacher of young children, youth, and university students preparing to teach, the question I am most often asked by parents is if the use of talking animals (anthropomorphism) is appropriate for the child and the adolescent. My response to the question is a resounding yes, yes, yes.
In this author's opinion, literature is as necessary as breathing. Artistic books that help the reader to feel more deeply and understand those feelings have lasting value for readers of any age—whether the books are written about people or animals.
From Christ's parables of the lost sheep through Aesop's fables, anthropomorphism is utilized. Plutarch, Plato, and Socrates also taught and illustrated universal values using memorable, believable animal characters. Psychologists, too, have long recognized the importance of the "third person," the talking animal—and animal puppets are known to help children express their deepest feelings. Therefore, I am amazed when a student or parent objects (usually on religious grounds) to talking animals in literature.
Charlotte's Web is an anthropomorphic tale that subtly develops themes of friendship, generosity, and the natural cycle of life and death. Wilber, Templeton, and Charlotte are a strange combination of animals for sure, yet these widely diverse animals role model honest friendship without being condescending or didactic.
Variety broadens people's awareness. Children who have met kind Arthur, Toad and Frog, Julie and her wolves, the nurturing Mrs. Frisby, the disobedient Peter Rabbit, Sylvester and his magic pebble, the hilarious Brer Rabbit in his briar patch, and Christopher Robin and his cadre of wonderful friends—tend to continue to be readers as adults. I've discovered that people who read these books as children tend to pass them on to other children as well—rather than getting rid of them as soon as they have the opportunity.
I have found that students who have been read to and who have experienced classic folklore from various cultures as children usually have a keen sense of what is moral. Values embedded in these stories become the basis of one's conscience and a guide for future decisions.
Folktales are usually passed down from a vague and mysterious place, with no specifically known author. Coming from oral tradition, folktales have a sense of "talk written down." No matter how many times the stories are told and retold, when a child tells or reads the tale, it becomes his or her own. And values are inherent in the tales. Good or evil, heroic or cowardly, gentle or brutal, the extremes are there and set the models for readers to admire or despise. Animal characters as well as human characters, in their wisdom or foolishness, represent the possibilities of greatness or downfall in the life of listeners and readers.
The Grimm Brothers in their collections of folktales from the Western World compiled many fast-moving stories that passed down to generations of children a guide for what is good and what is evil.
Perhaps the greatest value of this oral tradition is that it provided a style for more recent greats such as Hans Christian Andersen, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Marguerite Henry, Beverly Cleary—all of whom continued the tradition of anthropomorphism in fine literature. Thidwick, the Wild Things, and the Ugly Duckling have all been influenced by anthropomorphic tradition.
Pourquoi ("tell me why") tales are another type of story that arises from every culture. I have never known a family that didn't have a few of these stories. My mother and father had a "why" for every unique characteristic in our family. The reasons we are given become part of family tradition. We have all heard and told "when I was a little girl or boy" stories that reveal the importance of living a good life. Tales seem to bond a family or a culture together in a shared experience. Some of these tales had animal characters.
When I was a child, fables were often used in my instruction. The Lion and the Mouse was one of my favorites. A tiny mouse rescued a huge lion from certain death by gnawing the ropes of a net which held the lion captive. As a small child, the moral that "kindness is not dependent upon size" really appealed to me.
The parables heard in Sunday School also expressed universal human wishes and needs. Images of the shepherd and his lost sheep made it clear that just because people may feel lost doesn't mean they are not lovable.
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams is one of my favorite anthropomorphic stories:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day when they were lying side by side…. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
Like many fine anthropomorphic characters, the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse teach values without condescending—in lessons that children enjoy and adults long remember.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Animal Farm." In Encyclopedia of Fable, pp. 34-9. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, Inc., 1998.
[In the following essay, Snodgrass notes how George Orwell employs his animal characters as metaphors for human society and failed revolution in his young adult novella Animal Farm.]
The modern age pressed the simple Aesopic fable into heavier allegorical motif in the least humorous of twentieth-century beast stories, George Orwell's grimly dystopian Animal Farm (1945). Using bestiality as a mirror for the post-World War II political scene, he exposed the soullessness of Marxism and its tyranny of the laborers it purported to liberate from the exploitative overclass. Central to the fable's mordant humor is an Aesopic caricature that depicts human foibles in the words and actions of common farm animals. With humanity and compassion for the lowest social order, Orwell re-creates the poignant paralysis and vulnerability that gradually return a rebellious underclass to its former servitude.
Orwell's elaborate fable parodies the takeover of propagandists, tyrants, and authoritarian governments that deceive unsuspecting victims. Setting his sheep, horses, cows, pigs, dogs, ducklings, goat, raven, and donkey amid the idyllic agrarianism of Manor Farm, he builds an allegory that characterizes Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Josef Stalin and their cynical plot to uplift then enslave the unwary farmyard. Overlaid with irony and satire, the story depicts beasts whose glorious overthrow unseats Farmer Jones, a decadent, undependable human despot. Innocent of the dangers of revolt, the rebels find themselves entrenched in a dismaying animal police state supervised by a porcine praetorian guard. Under a barnyard version of Nazism, fascism, and hard-line communism, the animals struggle to survive a terrifying opportunism that threatens them with starvation and overwork.
Early in March, the animal uprising in Orwell's beast fable begins with a classic touch of superstition: the prophetic dream of Old Major—originally named Willingdon Beauty—a venerable 12-year-old Middle White boar. He convenes a general session of animal residents, and, with altruistic fervor and polished oratory, typifies the hopelessness of slavery:
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is the lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.
(Orwell 1946, 19)
The prophet exhorts his listeners to "get rid of Man" and rectify millennia of wrong by establishing and governing their own uniquely bestial society. Like Karl Marx's sweeping generalizations about the utopian communist state, Old Major's damning conclusion—"All men are enemies. All animals are comrades"—proves faulty. (Orwell 1946, 21) The farmstead rally ends in an overwhelming majority support for a coup. With a blast of number six shot, Jones disrupts their disorder and quells the fervent strains of "Beasts of England," a stirring "Internationale" comprising seven noble verses set to a heartening tune, "something between Clementine and La Cucaracha." (Orwell 1945, 22) Three days later, Old Major dies of natural causes and is interred in the orchard. The downturn of chaos suggests that, temporarily, human technology can stamp out with a single blow the hopes of the downtrodden.
In the vacuum of a leaderless state, Orwell predicts the type of demagogues who typically arise from the frightened citizenry. Old Major's protégés—three opportunistic pigs named Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer—list simplistic principles of animalism to guide their dream state. With biblical majesty, they title their manifesto the Seven Commandments:
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
- Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
- No animal shall wear clothes.
- No animal shall sleep in a bed.
- No animal shall drink alcohol.
- No animal shall kill any other animal.
- All animals are equal.
(Orwell 1946, 33)
On Midsummer's Eve, Farmer Jones, like the recalcitrant Romanov tsar Nicholas II, angers the animals by drinking to excess and forgetting to tend the stock. In retaliation, a miniature Russian proletariat arises to oust Jones, his family, and workers. Self-governing for the first time in animal history, the pigs, eager to create the perfect farm, make a public display of burning whips, blinkers, nosebags, reins, and halters, all evidence of human oppression. In a public show of piety and state ceremony, they reconfirm their unity by conducting a ritual burial for Jones's hams.
Orwell's fast-paced fable illustrates how quickly good intentions can go awry. Having taught themselves to read and write, the pigs seize the initiative. In place of Jones, now a porcine troika supervises labor, challenges other animals to surpass productivity under human management, and retains for the supervisory elite the fruits of Animal Farm's first harvest. Eventually, Snowball condenses the Seven Commandments to a single precept: "Four legs good, two legs bad." (Orwell 1946, 41) Moreover, by keeping the other animals overworked and in a perpetual state of tension and anticipation, the pigs conceal their duplicity while plotting the next stage of the power play. The episode suggests that gullibility is often a prologue to victimization.
To manage the willy-nilly barnyard disorder, Orwell creates one of fable's enduring humanesque animals: Napoleon, a fierce, secretive, taciturn Berkshire boar of 24 stone who sets ambition over principle. Cunningly self-serving, he deceives his rival, the ingenuous Snowball, and, as a control over minor defections, trains nine puppies into a parody of a jackbooted hit squad. To the question of Sunday morning meetings he responds by barring future such incidents of wasted time and empanels a puppet committee of pigs, headed by himself. Lacking concrete plans for Animal Farm, Napoleon achieves political aims by subverting Snowball's authority and by seizing psychological control through militant posturing, intimidation, and brainwashing. A fable in itself, this sequence mirrors the ominous motifs of classic Aesopic lore, which characteristically anticipates torture, maiming, exile, and death as appropriate punishments of the unwary.
Orwell swells his fable into beast epic by pitting animals against villagers. In mid-October, the experimental farm suffers an unforeseen setback after Jones coalesces a party of neighbors at his pseudo war room, the taproom of the Red Lion pub in Willingdon. Among his henchmen is Mr. Pilkington, a gentleman farmer who prefers sporting events to farm labor. The mob fuels a countermove to rout the animal rebels. Orwell heightens the absurdity of the melodramatic coup d'etat mentality by floating rumors of animal torture, cannibalism, and free love. At the glorious Battle of the Cowshed, Napoleon, a Stalinesque despot, and Snowball, a student of Julius Caesar's battlefield strategies, lead a squadron of pigs to victory. At the high point of the engagement, Boxer the cart-horse unintentionally feels a stable boy with a lethal blow of his iron-edged hooves to the skull. Snowball ripostes with a demagogue's inflammatory sloganeering: "War is war. The only good human being is a dead one." (Orwell 1946, 49) To honor bravery, the animals create a decoration, "Animal Hero, First Class," which they confer on Boxer; they exalt themselves with the evolving legends of the Rebellion and the Battle of the Cowshed. Thus, the self-sustaining mystique of military might cloaks mayhem in ribbons and warmongering frippery.
Orwell stresses the role of revolution in creating a snowballing chain of violence and treachery. Peace at Animal Farm is shortlived; Snowball and Napoleon, who vie for supreme command, fight over the erection of a labor-saving windmill, a highly visible goal destined to ennoble the builder. When the matter comes to a vote, Napoleon unseats his rival by a surprise tactic: he vanquishes Snowball and summons nine savage, brass-adorned dogs, the equivalent of Germany's SS and Italy's Brownshirts. Snowball scampers away to Napoleon's boast of "Tactics, comrades, tactics!" (Orwell 1946, 62) No longer threatened, Napoleon oppresses the other animals by enforced compliance, overwork, and reduced rations. To heighten fanatic nationalism, he exhumes Major's skull to serve as a graphic totem to unity.
Like Russia's stream of ill-fated five-year and ten-year plans, the scheduled accomplishments of Animal Farm fail to materialize. Boxer, a dim-witted dupe, pushes himself to serve the overlord even more slavishly than before by vowing "I will work harder" and reconvincing himself that "Napoleon is always right." (Orwell 1946, 65) After the animals labor 60-hour workweeks plus Sundays to complete the projected windmill, it collapses in a gale. Orwell satirizes political scapegoating in Napoleon's projection of failure on Snowball, who allegedly lurks nearby, sabotages the mill, and disrupts farm progress. The pigs, more firmly in power, hire Mr. Whymper as intermediary. They negotiate with humans in Willingdon and move into the farmhouse, rephrasing the Seven Commandments to accommodate luxuries for the ruling party. To the threat of a pullet uprising, Napoleon applies an embargo on hen feed, which results in nine dead chickens. To hush up the brief internal defection, he issues an official lie, "that they had died of coccidiosis." (Orwell 1946, 77)
To account for the rapid decline of Animal Farm, Orwell derides the false goals that undermine Napoleon's grandiose plans. Following a dismal winter, a second foray, led by Farmer Frederick the next fall, results in a setback after Animal Farm loses ground to human invaders. The farmer's forces blow up the windmill, but the animals prevail. All residents of Animal Farm rededicate themselves to completing the mill, but something is lacking from their initiative. At a spiritual low, Clover weeps for shattered ideals:
If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak…. Instead,—she did not know why— they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.
(Orwell 1946, 85)
Dredging up the dismaying circumstances of his assignment to Spain during Franco's rise to power, Orwell re-creates a terrifyingly real political scenario, a nightmare of false dreams trounced by hobnailed boots.
A cameo within the text, the fable of Boxer, the overachieving drayhorse, creates an autobiographical picture of Orwell's youthful idealism and its eventual cessation during Hitler's rise to power. After wearing himself out with physical labor and misguided devotion to Napoleon, 12-year-old Boxer longs to retire, but the pigs deceive him and dispatch him to the local knacker. Against the counterpoint of Squealer reading a readjustment of harvest figures and work goals, the faithful horse drums a feeble tattoo on the walls of the van to summon his compatriots to action. In Orwell's fable, timing is all. The cabal grasps firmly its control of the barnyard. Squealer, the head propagandist, substitutes rhetoric for truth by falsely reporting that Boxer died in the hospital and that his last words confirmed Napoleon as leader. The poet Minimus (Latin for smallest) composes a sycophantic paean to the acknowledged leader.
Creating simple animal parallels, Orwell demonstrates the spiky rhythms of revolution. His farmyard regression stresses how the day-to-day fight for subsistence subverts the immediacy and thrill of rebellion. Years pass in scandal, chicanery, and graft; the original rebel heroes die off, leaving a younger generation who know Manor Farm, Old Major, and idealism only through the memories of their elders. Because of the youngsters' sketchy knowledge of history, Napoleon deceives his followers with a craftily reworded credo: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." (Orwell 1946, 123) The divisive motto is the beginning of the end. With the assistance of his human cohort, Mr. Pilkington, Napoleon strengthens control over the land, which he renames Manor Farm. The pigs, in imitation of Jones, walk on their hind legs. The other animals, still in Napoleon's power, perceive that the tyrannical police force has developed human habits. As epimythium, or moral, Orwell concludes, "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." (Orwell 1946, 128)
Orwell's achievement hinges on the success of his main character, the crafty Napoleon. The animals, cowed by Napoleon's audacity, ask no questions. Their leader's presumption impels him toward greater atrocities. In Chapter 7, he executes the disobedient, even those whose offenses are slight. In despotic style, "they were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon's feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones." (Orwell 1946, 83) The silent majority enhances Napoleon's bold power grab and heinous public purge. As the old generation dies off, the generation born under animal tyranny views Napoleon's excesses as normal and necessary.
Orwell's satire of human power-mongering suggests that Europe's mid-twentieth-century takeovers succeeded because of their direct and brutal cowing of a fearful majority. In the end, Napoleon prevails by blitzkrieg, the lightning foray that undercuts Snowball. By blaming setbacks on his former rival, the barnyard amalgam of Hitler and Stalin turns rivalry to advantage with specious arguments and grandiose proclamations. Lolling in the Joneses' house and enjoying whisky, human beds and clothing, and the best farm produce, Napoleon remolds political principle to his own ends. He appears in full strutting glory in Chapter 10, "majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him. He carried a whip in his trotter." (Orwell 1946, 122) A formidable warlord, he manipulates farmstead hirelings who lack his brash savvy.
A wry literary tour de force, Orwell's engaging animal fable combines powerful episodes—a litany of intolerable farm conditions, a revered elder's vision of an animal utopia, waves of revolt and counterrevolt, undermining of the master plan to make Manor Farm into an animal-run haven, regressive internal strife, and the coercion of lesser animals by an imperious superstructure. A brilliant and cohesive satire composed for the enlightenment and edification of the postwar generation, Animal Farm symbolizes the ease with which conniving and traitorous usurpers terrorize and crush the working class. By altering truth to shift blame, the pig faction subjugates a gullible, poorly educated nation with dreams turned to nightmare. Just as animal babies born after the initial overthrow have no direct knowledge of farm history, Orwell implies that the human generations born after World War II lack an understanding of the insidious nature of the totalitarianism and fascism that ignited world leaders into global war.
Alok 1989; Calder 1987; Connelly 1986; Oldsey and Browne, eds 1986; Orwell 1946; Snodgrass, The Encyclopedia of Satirical Literature 1997.
Brandy Parris (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Parris, Brandy. "Difficult Sympathy in the Reconstruction-Era Animal Stories of Our Young Folks." Children's Literature 31 (2003): 25-49.
[In the following essay, Parris examines how the nineteenth-century children's periodical Our Young Folks utilized anthropomorphized animal tales to subtly and symbolically express the abolitionist opinions of its publishers.]
In 1865, Boston publishers Ticknor and Fields introduced Our Young Folks, a new children's periodical, under the editorial guidance of Lucy Larcom (a well-known poet and abolitionist from the Lowell cotton mills), J. T. Trowbridge (a Boston writer best known for his morally uplifting children's fiction), and Mary Abigail Dodge (a former teacher and the pseudonymous political writer Gail Hamilton). The magazine, because of its publishers and editors, attracted some of the top writers of the day, including such nineteenth-century literary stars as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. The same month the first issue came out, the House of Representatives ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. The Amendment had already passed the Senate in April 1864 and would be ratified by the states by the end of 1865. Its passage marked an end to abolition work but a beginning to the work of redefining citizenship and its concomitant rights in the United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, a good citizen was portrayed as employing sympathy, the emotional component of "the golden rule," to live harmoniously with others. But would sympathy be viable in a rapidly expanding nation, with its shifting economic and political climate and increasing social heterogeneity? Donnarae MacCann observes, "It can be argued that children's literature makes … social tensions transparent because books for the young are a means of socialization—a means for handling those stresses and uncertainties" (xiv). Our Young Folks presents a view of the United States in crisis, of antebellum values in conflict with postbellum realities. Close examination of several stories from this Reconstruction-era periodical reveals a moment in literary and cultural history when sympathy, the Sentimental socializing agent, no longer functions effectively but has yet to be replaced or reworked.
Our Young Folks appeared monthly from January 1865 to December 1873, at which point it merged with St. Nicholas. Many scholars have provided helpful analyses of St. Nicholas, but there is little work on the earlier periodical. R. Gordon Kelly and Alice Jordan offer brief but informative surveys of the magazine, noting its great popularity.1 Indeed, during its lifetime, Our Young Folks had one of the highest circulations and widest distributions, attracted some of the most popular contributors, and issued from perhaps the most influential Northern publishing house, Ticknor and Fields. As to the magazine's political stance, Kelly remarks at length upon the pronounced Unionism, noting that "most of the pieces emphasize the absolute righteousness of the Northern cause" (333). He also mentions that black characters are treated with compassion but also some condescension. Donnarae MacCann extends this discussion in her work on white supremacist bias in St. Nicholas, and while she does not examine Our Young Folks, her findings apply to it as well. Alice Fahs briefly mentions Our Young Folks, but finds that juvenile war literature, which emphasized "a new adventurous individualism" (286), enabled "the definition of the war by the end of the century as a splendid white supremacist adventure" (285).
James Marten, in his companion books on children's experiences of the Civil War, provides commentary on and useful examples of the contents of various children's periodicals between 1861 and 1865. Marten demonstrates that children were actively engaged in the Civil War. They took part in a variety of activities, from picking lint and raising money for the Sanitary Commission to serving as drummer boys for military units; they suffered the loss of family members and homes; and they learned about issues of slavery, nation, and war in the newly politicized magazines for children. Very few children's periodicals were produced by Southern publishers in the mid-nineteenth century and only one in the years immediately following the war, Southern Boys' and Girls' Monthly; it contained only a few stories about war issues, all of which were nonpartisan or "nonconfrontational" (Marten, Children's Civil War 191-92). Our Young Folks, on the other hand, was widely distributed throughout the United States and continued to express a pro-Union bias throughout its publication run. Marten stops his study at the end of the Civil War, but Our Young Folks is especially suited to analysis of the period directly following the war. North and South alike had concerns about the various issues arising after the war. Because Our Young Folks' publication dates coincide with Reconstruction and its editors and contributors were largely well-known antislavery, pro-Union Northerners, the periodical offers the opportunity to investigate many instances of Northern apprehensions about Reconstruction issues of managing race relations, restoring peaceful sectional interactions, and healing the wounds of war.
Contributors to the magazine addressed these issues in a variety of ways, most often in fictional stories. Fiction predominated in Our Young Folks: however, the magazine also featured columns on athletics, gardening, and natural history; puzzles and magic tricks; as well as biographical portraits, miscellaneous how-to articles, investigations into various careers, and in the 1870s, began to include travel literature and cultural geography articles as well. Our Young Folks also presents a hybrid of the nonfiction natural history article and the standard Sentimental story, which suggests an alteration in the way a child would interact with both Sentimental fiction and the values it presents. Because these hybrid stories often take on a pseudoscientific attention to animal "nature," the Sentimental narrative becomes naturalized or biological explicable, as does its morality. These stories, the focus of this article, emphasize kindness to animals and figure goodness in terms of one's ability to sympathize with others. This combination of animal rights and Sentimental sympathy enabled the discussion of sensitive issues surrounding Reconstruction by displacing tensions between people onto less politically charged relations with and between animals.
Sentimentalism is a contentious and complicated issue in literary studies, imbricated with studies of feminism and, more recently, imperialism, with much work taking a somewhat limiting "pro or con" approach to the material. Both a literary and philosophical movement, Sentimentalism connotes for most a sense of overindulgence in emotion and an impractical belief in human goodness, and this notion tends to seep into even the sharpest literary criticism. June Howard convincingly argues for a revision in the way "Sentimentalism" is used. She suggests that when we employ the term "Sentimental," "we mark a moment when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible. Most commonly, we are recognizing that a trope from the immense repertory of sympathy and domesticity has been deployed" (245). In the stories from Our Young Folks, I will highlight the enactment of sympathy and discuss the ways in which the writers worked both with and against existing literary and political uses of that emotion to reveal who Northern antislavery writers deemed worthy of sympathy after the Civil War.
Sympathy, in Sentimental usage, is an emotion that enables the sympathizer to recognize the common humanity of someone or something normally constructed as different. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Sentimental fiction dealt mainly with "virtue in distress," virtue tested by a corrupt world (Brissenden 135). For example, readers were asked to sympathize with women who had become pregnant through extramarital or premarital sexual relations. The women were portrayed as intrinsically virtuous, their immoral actions a product of circumstance and betrayal of innocent trust rather than any flaw in their own character. The characters were outside the norm in terms of their distressing experiences, but they were otherwise just like their readers—white, middle-class Christians. With abolitionist texts, most notably Uncle Tom's Cabin, sympathy was extended to a new group, black slaves. In order for people to rise to the abolitionist cause, they would have to recognize slaves as humans rather than property. Harriet Beecher Stowe and others depicted African American slaves as family members, focusing particularly on women as mothers and wives torn from their loved ones, in order to highlight their humanity by triggering the reader's own domestic emotional attachments. Philip Fisher reads this as "the experimental extension of normality, that is, of normal states of primary feeling to people from whom they have been previously withheld. It involves the experimental lending out of normality …" (98). He argues that by making outcasts normal and portraying their sufferings as based in an ordinary reality, the Sentimental novel humanizes characters that society has denied humanity.
Elizabeth Barnes has argued that "sentimental strategies inform American revolutionary and early national politics and that sympathetic identification supplies a key element in the sentimental construction of both personal and political unions" (74). She finds that, in early-nineteenth-century literature, sympathy creates a personal and political sense of "permeability" and vicariousness, which serves as the basis for political representation; by extension, sympathy serves as a mode of unifying all experience into one body, the nation (118). Because sympathy and national identity were founded on familial models, they required a "recognition of likeness, thereby equating democracy with similarity" (92). Sympathy thus functions in Sentimental literature and in a society grounded in Sentimental philosophy to formulate and codify the community in the terms of the sympathizer. In this model, difference becomes subordinated to the dominant ideology of the ruling class of the nation.
The Sentimental fiction of Our Young Folks, based primarily in the abolitionist sympathy of its editors, also echoed concerns about sympathy for animals arising in the new animal rights movement. Inspired in part by the 1824 founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in England, Henry Bergh in Manhattan and George Angell in Boston founded the American versions of the SPCA in 1866 and 1868, respectively. Responding to criticism that the SPCA cared more about animal than human welfare, Bergh insisted that his movement included justice to humans as well and eventually intervened successfully in a child abuse case which authorities had failed to prosecute; out of this legal action arose the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in 1875 (Finsen and Finsen 30, Carson 103). Sympathy here is extended to animals and then children, two groups previously so thoroughly dominated that they had not been deemed worthy of sympathy. Angell published his own magazine, entitled Our Dumb Animals, by which he instituted "the recognition of animal rights and a systematized effort to educate youth in the principles of kindness" (Carson 111). As suggested by the creation of the SPCC, those principles, once adopted, could be more universally applied.
Our Young Folks' animal stories also attempt to teach children both about wildlife and about kindness and cruelty through sympathy. Sympathetic identification entails a feeling of distress and a concomitant desire to relieve that distress; therefore, sympathy encourages behavior that both relieves and avoids causing distress (Bell 49). By evoking sympathetic identification, the stories lead a child to recognize the suffering that cruelty causes and wish to be kind instead. While Our Young Folks shows the influence of the SPCA's activities, it presents a unique type of animal story—the Reconstruction animal story, which uses anticruelty rhetoric and a focus on animals to answer the vital questions of Reconstruction for the North: how will we manage race relations, how will we interact with the culturally foreign Southerners, and how will we overcome the wounds of war? These questions posed new difficulties for the mechanism of sympathy. First, the emancipation of slaves created an economic, social, and political reordering which appeared to endanger the power of many whites. Second, from a Northern perspective, the South had so damaged the country and so effectively proved itself a distinct threat to unity that it became not only difficult, but also dangerous to view the South in sympathetic terms. The animal stories in Our Young Folks generally present the same difficult themes as the human Reconstruction stories but do so with anthropomorphized animals, diminishing the threat by projecting these issues onto animals. Including the dilemmas of Reconstruction in the animal stories, however, highlights the inability of sympathy to solve those problems. In the end, the use of animals and "nature" allows what Fisher identifies as the normalizing elements of sympathy to transcend the socially normal and become naturalizing or biologically natural. It is not "natural" in the animal world to sympathize with a menacing creature; therefore, to create a sympathetic Southern or African American character, the animal stories in Our Young Folks must figure them as weak or defeated.
As slaves, blacks excited sympathy in white Northerners because of their abject state; once freed, they gained a more equal and therefore more intimidating status. This change in the status of blacks may account in part for the white supremacist bias MacCann finds in her study of St. Nicholas and other nineteenth-century children's literature. The children's stories in Our Young Folks attempt to maintain a sympathetic stance toward freedmen, but in so doing, must figure them as somehow still dependent on whites. Ruth Chesterfield's "The Disobedient Crow," published in March 1866, features Corvette, a naughty female crow looking for adventure and lured away from home by a suave bachelor crow. The plot is reminiscent of early Sentimental fiction, but in this story, Corvette is referred to as a "contraband" (the term used to designate an escaped slave who has found protection with the Union). As a contraband, she has her wings clipped and is held in captivity (131). In the home where the crow is imprisoned, we are introduced to a black servant, Dinah, whom Corvette initially mistakes for a large crow, making the identification between the two apparent. Another parallel is drawn between the crow and her new owner, a little girl named Birdie. Corvette is well cared for, she is even being educated, learning her "ABCs" along with Birdie, but she is restless. One day, she vows to escape for good when "all her natural love of liberty return[s]" (134), a phrase which indicates that a desire for liberty is both natural and universal for all creatures. Unfortunately, upon leaving captivity, Corvette the crow quickly finds that she is unable to care for herself. In the end, she returns to the cage she left; she is now obedient and, consequently, receives visits from her crow mother.
The crow possesses characteristics common to early Sentimental heroines and abolitionist protagonists: separation from family, an innate yearning for freedom, and difficulty caring for oneself after years of dependency. The last concern is not generally found in slave narratives written by African Americans; instead their post-Emancipation difficulties are seen to arise from lack of opportunity because of widespread racism. Abolitionist narratives written by whites, while occasionally concerned with an imagined cycle of dependency, tend mainly to focus on the remarkable abilities and resourcefulness of the slaves in order to assuage fears that they would require too much assistance after being freed. But, in the era of Reconstruction, a remarkably capable slave posed an economic threat, so the freedmen's inevitable difficulties become reconfigured in many stories as an inability to care for oneself after years of having all one's actions governed by others. The slaves' new freedom is still challenging for whites, but more comfortably managed. "The Disobedient Crow" confronts the challenge by ensconcing a newly obedient crow in a safe and protective home. The crow is thus relegated to a dependent position rather than elevated to a potentially threatening equal status.
Because the story is initially patterned on a standard Sentimental tale, readers need not be convinced but know they should sympathize with Corvette. In the first part of the story, she represents "virtue in distress." When Corvette escapes the second time, she does so to find freedom. While this initially seems a sympathetic goal, the reader is led to a different appraisal of the crow as Corvette concludes, "I have been a very naughty crow. If I had stayed at home and obeyed my mother, I should have escaped all the misfortunes which had befallen me; or if I had stayed with dear little Birdie, I might still have been happy, but I ran away and see what has become of me!" The story teaches children, particularly young girls, to be obedient and stay at home. Yet, because Corvette is a "contraband," it also suggests that a freed black must also be obedient and stay home, faring best in a (safe) white home as an (obedient) servant where she will be well cared for and educated to maintain appropriate values. In this case, sympathy works only if the freed black is absorbed into the standard white, middle-class, Sentimental narrative and then into the white, middle-class, Sentimental home. The story thus fails to address the real concerns of the crow or the freedmen. By reading white, middle-class needs of domesticity (a safe and comfortable home and family) into the situation of the crow, and in turn, the freedmen, other desires such as self-management go undetected. More importantly, and in line with MacCann's findings, the story shows on the micro-level of the home that the freedmen's ability to become part of the nation depended on their willingness to be obedient to the laws and mores instituted by the white middle class. Chesterfield's use of sympathy differs from pre-war abolitionist uses only in that it requires the freed black to be absorbed into the white, middle-class family whereas prewar uses emphasized the importance of blacks being reunited with their own families.
"The Disobedient Crow" takes a fairly traditional approach to the animal story, creating a moral tale much like a fable. A newer type of animal story found in Our Young Folks takes a scientific approach and is exemplified by "Memoirs of a Cripple" by Dr. Burt Wilder. Wilder was a professor of Neurology and Vertebrate Zoology at Cornell University. He served as a medical cadet and officer in the Civil War, completing his service as surgeon for the Massachusetts 55th Black Volunteer Regiment. He continued throughout his career to work for the political and social interests of African Americans, most notably presenting important evidence against racial prejudice based on purported smaller brain size in his paper, "The Brain of the American Negro," presented at the 1909 First National Negro Conference in New York City. "Memoirs of a Cripple" is a children's version of his Atlantic Monthly natural history article, "How My New Acquaintances Spin" (August 1866), about a spider, nephila wilderi, which he discovered while stationed at Folly's Island during the war and whose silk he learned to harvest. In his story for Our Young Folks, Wilder writes a natural history article, but does so using sentimental tropes to make it more accessible for his young readers. For literary scholars, this move to a hybridized genre makes the story somewhat confusing, but it creates a text that exceeds scientific discovery and speaks to social and political issues of Reconstruction as well.
"Memoirs of a Cripple" (Sept. 1866) is the story of a captive spider. Several textual elements make the spider seem to represent a slave, and when read this way, Wilder can be seen to be asserting that slavery produces dependence, and dependence produces indolence and mediocrity. Wilder writes, "although it was well enough to be particular when we had to catch food in our webs, and each spider wished hers to be the largest and the best, yet now, when food is put into our mouths, it is not worth while to spend so much time and trouble" (545). Such habits were not desirable because not conducive to either democracy or capitalism. Yet, in a postscript to the story, the author suggests that one should "not be in too much haste to be rid of [one's] old clothes; for in this [the spider's] misfortunes began" (546). As the spider grows larger, she casts her skin, and with each growth spurt, she becomes hungrier. In her haste to satisfy her increasing appetite, the spider loses her temper, several limbs, and eventually her life. This illustrates the fear that freed blacks would grow as a population, demand more resources, and become violent when dissatisfied. The story, then, indicates that slaves, once free, should curb their aspirations rather than attempt to quickly rise to an independent and equal rank with white people. While it teaches children not to be greedy, "Memoirs of a Cripple" simultaneously teaches the proper way to judge the characters of others, including freed blacks: those who controlled their desires were sympathetic; those who did not were merely pathetic.
The story also naturalizes these imbalanced power relations by naturalizing the difference between races. Perhaps the most odd and thematically broad of the stories examined here, "Memoirs of a Cripple" combines the standard natural history form with slave narrative and features scientific illustrations of a spider, cocoon, spider in the egg, spider casting her skin, as well as a map of Charleston, South Carolina, and a drawing of men capturing the spiders. It includes several elements of slave narrative: the subtitle "Written by Herself"; a preface by the person responsible for making her story public; a note from the spider/slave saying she writes this for the children she will never meet; a lengthy tale of the captivity of a multitude of her race from one particular region; details of the voyage in cramped quarters without food or water; and an emphasis on the theft of her labor in the form of the raw material she produces (in this case, silk). In addition, Wilder explains many specific scientific details about the spider, including her Latin name, her reproductive system, and her method of web making. The narrative emphasizes the degradation suffered by spider/slave while simultaneously describing the species/race scientifically. Although the black "race" is not being described scientifically in this piece, the tightly drawn parallel between the spider's experience and the black slave's experience implies that a similar type of description would be possible and perhaps equally illuminating. At the least, this conflation suggests that the natural species-based characteristics may carry over to certain "natural" racial characteristics in humans.
As Alice Fahs reminds us, "[T]his literature was a conduit for replication of adult racial attitudes in the young[,]" "providing crucial boundaries to the concept of nationhood as blacks became the ‘others’ who would define a nation for whites" (281). I find that during the war and Reconstruction, the South was also quite often "othered." In addition to race, Wilder also considers the problem of the Southerner. "Memoirs of a Cripple" describes the male spider as follows: "Gentlemen spiders, they call themselves. They are a disgrace to our family,—little, dried up, good-for-nothing creatures…. [T]hey never do anything, and are always in the way" (543). The description recalls the numerous descriptions of the useless, aristocratic, white male in Reconstruction fiction—a member of the Southern planter class, unable to work for himself and so unable to offer anything useful to the democratic society. The solution: "if they are really treated unjustly, why let them hold a convention and assert their rights" (543). This snide comment appeared in print five months after the war ended when Southern whites were speaking out against the labor relations activities of the Freedmen's Bureau (Foner 76). At the same time, Southern readmission to the Union, and thus Southerners' ability to "assert their rights," rested largely on their willingness to accept the Fourteenth Amendment, which many were loath to do (Foner 114-19). Interestingly, the reason these gentlemen spiders complain is that the female spiders, already figured as blacks in the tale, are bigger and more powerful and eat the male spiders.
One of the main complaints made by Southern gentlemen was that freedmen (and the North) were becoming too powerful and depriving the gentlemen of what they considered their economic and political birthright; Southern gentlemen saw the nation as doing the same by instituting federal rule in the Southern states—in a sense, devouring them. In fact, this is one of the main arguments that Southerners such as Thomas Dixon (author of The Clansman) made to justify the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. As indicated by the terror wrought by this organization, the South still posed a very real threat to the North and the concept of a united country, so Northerners needed to portray Southerners as weak, "dried up little creatures" who "never do anything" in order to undermine the power of the threat they posed. In addition, portraying Southerners as complaining and lazy counters their self-presentation as robbed and deprived and serves to validate actions taken against the South. The story formulates devouring the complaining, selfish, and lazy gentleman spider, unwilling to contribute to society, as a positive act; in addition, both the act of devouring and the gentlemen spiders' qualities are figured as innate, instinctual, natural. Although weakness would normally activate sympathy, in this case, the male spiders are weak because of disinclination rather than disability, and that sort of weakness is rebellious, not sympathetic. Wilder, then, uses science to define the inherent worth of blacks as sympathetic and Southerners as unsympathetic.
Like Wilder, Harriet Beecher Stowe also mixes science and sympathy, but does so to somewhat different ends. The well-known Sentimental author wrote several animal stories for Our Young Folks, and her presence in the magazine indicates the strength of its reputation. She was, in nineteenth-century parlance, "a literary lion." Her books and stories were so popular that people made pilgrimages to her home hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and failing that, to procure some souvenir from her home or grounds. Her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is the most reprinted and adapted American story. Scholars tend to discuss either the novel's imperialist and racist underpinnings or its "sentimental power" to move people to action; whatever the interpretation, no one denies its immense popularity and antislavery aim. Stowe has been praised for urging people to sympathize with the plight of slaves, but also criticized for whitewashing black characters in the process of making them sympathetic. If she struggled with the limitations of sympathy in creating black characters before the war, how then, once the slaves were freed, did Stowe deal with racial difference? Two stories in Our Young Folks help begin to answer that question.2
Stowe's "The Hen That Hatched Ducks" (January 1866) displays an effort to understand racial difference through scientific explanations of difference in bird species. Indeed, according to Audrey Smedley, the terms "race" and "species" were often used interchangeably in the nineteenth century (229). Smedley explains that a large group of scientists—polygenists—defined people of different races as being of different species, and generally hierarchized them with whites at the top. While this theory was most commonly deployed in defense of slavery, it remained widespread throughout the century. Unfortunately, by using animals, Stowe's story perpetuates the polygenist project, yet she tries to redefine the white supremacist hierarchy of that project by demonstrating that every species has its own innate talents. In addition, the story subtly recognizes the prospect of racial intermarriage, a preoccupying concern for whites and a common topic of literature in the Reconstruction era.
"The Hen That Hatched Ducks" is partly an instructive animal husbandry story about keeping hens and using them to hatch duck eggs, and partly an effort to figure species-based variations as natural and/or scientifically comprehensible. A young boy, Fred, learning to raise chickens, is influenced by a friend to raise ducks as well: "Now you just wait until one of your hens wants to set, and you put ducks' eggs under her. And you'll have a family of ducks in a twinkling" (36). Fred soon trades his jack-knife for some ducks' eggs, which he gets from an elderly black man and places under one of the white hens. When the eggs finally hatch, all the anthropomorphized chickens, not knowing a thing about ducks, use old wives' tales and pseudoscientific information to explain the chicks' "deformed" beaks. "You ought to have eaten pebble-stones with your meal when you were setting," scolds gossipy Dame Scratchard (38). "It's a calcerous enlargement of the vascular bony tissue," proclaims Doctor Peppercorn (39). And of the new chicks' proclivity for jumping in the water, Goody Kertarkut decides, "It's a kind of idiocy … Poor things!" (39).
The ducks are raised in ignorance of their true nature until Doctor Partlett arrives, "lately from Paris, with all the modern scientific improvements fresh in his head" and explains laughingly that these chicks are in fact ducks (40). By pointing to Dr. Partlett's Parisian experience, Stowe may be relying on the readers' understanding that Europeans were more racially tolerant than Americans3 to persuade American readers that racial tolerance was a sign of cultural advancement. Indeed, she suggests that difference here can easily be explained if one has been educated properly. The humorous and ironic ending of the story—the proud insistence by the ignorant adoptive parents that when the ducks finally act like ducks, "It was our system of education did that!" (41)—doubly stresses the need for a proper education for those chickens (whites) unfamiliar with ducks (blacks). The belief expressed is that social difference can be explained biologically, and once that difference is understood scientifically, one will then have the capacity to interact with the other effectively, and each group will be able to thrive in activities to which it is most biologically suited. When the hens believed the ducks were hens, they were compelled to identify with what they considered odd and inferior qualities. Once that difference is explained as biologically determined, the threat it poses to sympathetic identification is minimized. Sympathy, in this instance, does not require homogenization of the community. While in this story Stowe critiques efforts to normalize all who are different, her attempt to recognize difference as natural leaves open enormous potential for biological racism.
Stowe offers a slightly different view of racial difference in a later story, "Miss Katy-Did and Miss Cricket" (May 1866). The wealthy and frivolous Miss Katy spends the majority of the story designing the guest list for her upcoming party. Miss Cricket stops in to ask for alms for a family of black ants whose home and father have been hoed in two, and Miss Katy instantly dismisses Miss Cricket by claiming her nerves are too weak to hear such things. After Miss Cricket leaves, Colonel Katy-Did asks Miss Katy if she will invite the Crickets. "You must see the difficulty," she replies, "Why, their color to be sure" (291). The Colonel responds that he has been, like Doctor Partlett of the previous story, in Paris where such distinctions are not made. Miss Katy explains that this color distinction is necessary to maintain a class structure with Katy-Dids at the top. "If the crickets were not black, we could not keep them down, because, as everybody knows, they are often a great deal cleverer than we are. They have a vast talent for music and dancing; they are very quick at learning, and would be getting to the very top of the ladder if we once allowed them to climb" (292). The stereotypical references to black humans are unmistakable, and once again, the potential arises for biological constructions of racial difference and thus racism.
But the distinction between black and white is seen here to be at once natural (color) and socially constructed (class), and Stowe indicates that the natural difference of color has no true bearing on social differences in class. Finally, Miss Katy dies because she spends all her time and resources on parties and fancy clothes instead of preparing for the winter. But, "when Miss Katy-Did's satin and lace were all swept away, the warm home-talents of the Crickets made for them a welcome refuge" (293). Stowe emphasizes throughout her fiction that sympathy requires one to look beyond an individual's social grouping by class or color (Bauermeister 118). Indeed, the ending declares that character rather than color ensures survival in a democratic society, specifically character founded on nineteenth-century, white, middle-class values of hard work and frugality. Since her guiding Sentimental philosophy judged a person's worth—and thus, the extent to which one could sympathize with him—by his character, Stowe relies on differences in character rather than in biology to draw distinctions between Miss Katy-Did and the Crickets. However, because of this emphasis on character, sympathy for the Crickets in this story depends upon the degree to which they can participate in the Sentimental narrative and, thus, the extent to which they manifest certain white, middle-class virtues. Furthermore, despite Stowe's acknowledgement of the social construction of difference, the Crickets' character is still partly described as a Cricket quality, which marks character as innate. So, even in this second story, just as Stowe proposes a social critique of racial difference, her use of animals and Sentimental ideology limits that critique by pointing up the existing tension between the biological and social theories of race. The prevalence of the biological theory of race undermines the goals Stowe and the other authors have, but this limitation is inevitable when the authors draw on the medium of animal bodies to construct sympathy.
For Stowe, sympathy was the tool for overcoming differences and preventing the horrible cruelty found both in slavery and in war. "Aunt Esther's Rules" (Sept. 1865) is not an anthropomorphized animal story but an anticruelty story, which suggests ways children might learn to help those in need. The rules include "never to frighten an animal for sport" (591) and not to give young children animals as playthings (593). More important, however, is the story of Master Bill, one of Aunt Esther's boys who, as a youth, saved a kitten from a pack of dogs. When he grew up, Bill fought three days at Gettysburg "and resisted the charge of the Louisiana Tigers as of old he withstood the charge of the dogs" (594). Bill's qualities make him an effective soldier and thus defender of the nation. Bravery, Stowe insists, can coexist with compassion. In fact, "only cowards torment that which is not strong enough to fight them; only cowards starve helpless prisoners or torture helpless animals" (594). Stowe clearly likens Rebel soldiers to children who hurt animals, which serves the dual purpose of branding the Rebels both cowardly and immature. She implies that any oppressor of the weak is cowardly, and this designation would include slave owners and slave traders. Kindness was often gendered as female, so Stowe needed to convince boys that kindness equates with bravery to construct it as a desirable "masculine" quality. Specifically addressing boys, she urges, "resolve always to defend the weak, and not permit any cruelty where it is in [your] power to prevent it" (594).
The personal creed to defend all the weak and prevent all cruelty, whether to humans or animals, rests on sympathy for the plight of the defenseless, whether kitten or slave. Since sympathy encourages behavior that both relieves and avoids causing distress, it makes sense to encourage children to feel sympathy to disarm their potential for acts of cruelty. In "Aunt Esther's Rules," because Stowe must figure sympathy as manly, she equates it with bravery, which in turn necessarily evokes the trope of the male protector. But a protector doesn't need to protect things stronger than himself, so in this formulation, only those weaker than the protector are in need of protection and, therefore, of sympathy. So, weakness becomes a marker of the sympathetic.
In Our Young Folks, trauma also marks not only blacks as worthy of sympathy and assistance, but also the various wounded in these stories. Louisa May Alcott teaches child readers sympathy for the wounded in her story, "Nelly's Hospital" (April 1865).4 In 1865, Alcott had not yet begun to write her most famous work, Little Women; however, her book Hospital Sketches, about Alcott's experiences as a war nurse, was published in 1863, and because the narrative "successfully used and at the same time mocked sentimental ways of describing nursing, it garnered considerable attention" (Sizer 97). As Marianne Noble has shown, wounding and wounds are intrinsic to the Sentimental genre as writers themselves "thrust into readers' preexisting wounds, forcing them to ‘feel for’ [characters] by reexperiencing their own painful separations and other forms of suffering" (130). Despite its ability to exceed Sentimentalism, the emphasis on wounds in Hospital Sketches maintains a standard of the Sentimental genre and arouses sympathy for the many wounded men who pass through the hospital. "Nelly's Hospital" does the same.
In "Nelly's Hospital," Little Nelly, wanting to do more than pick lint for the war effort, begins her own Sanitary Commission campaign in her yard, picking up and nursing injured animals as a way to practice until she's old enough to be a real nurse. She picks up a little black fly that she thinks of as a contraband; baby mice orphaned, she pretends, by the war; and a wounded turtle named Commodore Waddle of the U.S. Navy. Although Nelly treats a variety of war "wounds," the focus in this story is on injured soldiers. All of the wounded are treated gently and given food and medicine. One of the injured animals Nelly discovers is a little gray snake. "She knew it would not hurt her, yet she was afraid of it; she thought it pretty, yet could not like it; she pitied its pain, yet shrunk from helping it, for it had a fiery eye, and a keep quivering tongue, that looked as if longing to bite" (272). She decides immediately that the snake is a Rebel. But she also remembers she must love her enemy, and so treats the snake with as much kindness as she gives the other animals and even cries when the "gray-coated rebel" dies (275). Thus, a Unioner's duty to the wounded Rebel at least is kindness, yet this passage also shows that Union feelings toward the Confederacy and perhaps the South in general are truly ambivalent. Northerners might, as they do in many Reconstruction-era novels, recognize their strength over the South yet still fear reprisal; they might find the South attractive yet improper; and they might even wish to help the South overcome the devastation wrought by war but be put off by the anger and rhetoric flaming from Southern eyes and mouths. By figuring the South as a snake, Alcott naturalizes its negative qualities as well as Northern fear of Southern violence. Child readers are encouraged to help the wounded South, but also to view it with some trepidation. Since it was mainly the South's trauma that the North could identify with and since it was only as a debilitated entity that the Southern threat was diminished, it was only as victims that Southerners excited sympathy.
Nelly's charitable efforts have several consequences. First, her kindness to and care of animals trains her for a future role doing the same for humans. Second, Alcott indicates that because "there was something in the familiar words ‘Sanitary,’ ‘hospital,’ and ‘ambulance,’" Nelly's work provides hope by reminding her neighbors of the real Sanitary Commission and the "absent sons who might be journeying painfully to some far-off hospital" where they will surely find safety and comfort at the hands of an adult version of Nelly (275-76). Third, Nelly's older brother Will, himself an injured soldier home from the war to recover from a lame foot, begins the story in a quite sour temper, but he is encouraged and cheered by his little sister's activity so much that by the end of the story, he is able to return to the battlefield. She cures his psychological wounds, which aids in the cure of his physical wounds. Finally, Nelly's exemplary kindness affects even the youngsters whose cruelty has caused the animals to be in need of her assistance.
Like Stowe, Alcott turns her attention to white children, attempting to inculcate anti-cruelty values. She writes, "rough lads looked ashamed when in [Nelly's] wards they found harmless creatures hurt by them" (275). The way sympathy might function here is confusing because it is hard to imagine how a tormentor could come to sympathize with his victim. Witnessing another's suffering in itself should arouse sympathy, but the suffering must also be made relevant, somehow transferable to the witness's own experience (Barnes 20-22). The young boys can all see themselves as soldiers and therefore as potential victims of violence, so in that sense, they may feel sympathy for the animals they've wounded. On the other hand, Alcott describes the boys' affect on visiting the hospital as "ashamed" rather than sympathetic. The story indicates that people in the neighborhood have taken Nelly's hospital seriously, and so it may be social pressure rather than a feeling of sympathy that causes the boys to vow not to hurt birds, butterflies, or cats anymore. In this, as in other stories, kindness is gendered female, yet it is something boys can learn. Nelly's kindness to animals is motivated by a sense of both "compassion" (267) and "love" "for all creatures" (269). Nelly's compassion, however, seems innate, arising from her love for all creatures. She wishes to be helpful and evinces kindness to all from the beginning of the story. It is not sympathy that leads her to compassion, but rather a natural compassion and love that causes her to sympathize with others. In "Nelly's Hospital," Alcott naturalizes compassion while figuring sympathy and kindness as learned behaviors in both boys and girls. Since Nelly has innate compassion and the boys clearly do not, the story also naturalizes emotional gender differences in children. What seems a change in Sentimentalism here is that Alcott suggests the boys could learn kindness, a form of moral behavior, without first feeling sympathy. Alcott thus revises the Sentimentalist reliance on sympathy to create community and instead points to the socializing work of other emotions, such as shame.
As Alcott's story also shows, presenting threatening characters as wounded lessens their threat and makes them more sympathetic. Yet, it does not account for how these creatures might behave once healed. Certainly, in "Nelly's Hospital," and to a lesser degree in "Memoirs of a Cripple" and "The Disobedient Crow," there is the implication that once under the nurturing care of a proper moral authority, the menacing creature will recognize its misdeeds and reform—or rather, conform. This may have been the hope of many Northerners in regard to the South, which was economically and socially devastated after the war. Taking a caring approach to the South, helping them "heal," might prevent further dissidence. Of course, this was not the political approach adopted; instead, efforts made to restructure Southern society required the spread of Republicanism and the consequent weakening of the legislative power of the wealthy white Democratic segment of the South. In the stories mentioned thus far, the redeemable characters are African Americans or Northern boys and soldiers. The Southerners appear to be incorrigible.
Both kindness to the injured and the incorrigibility of the South are stressed again in Maria S. Cummins's "The Veteran Eagle" (Oct. 1866), with an emphasis on a new category of injured, the Civil War veteran. Cummins relates the true story of an eagle that served as part of a Wisconsin regiment during the Civil War. "Old Abe," named for Lincoln, headed his regiment at various famous battle sites—Red River, Vicksburg, New Madrid, and Island No. 10. In the account, when he returns home, he is supported "at the public expense, in a residence appropriated to him, near the State Armory" (620). Old Abe suffers a form of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which manifests for him as shrieking and wing flapping whenever he hears firearms. Human veterans undoubtedly had similar startled reactions, and some were likewise cared for at public expense,5 so Old Abe could serve as an example for children interacting with veterans in their own families and neighborhoods. The author describes the eagle's somewhat pampered lifestyle as a veteran and the various ways people continue to honor him as a hero, stressing that she hopes human veterans are not as fussy as the eagle, but acknowledges that all deserve great honor and glory. Children coping with the injured veterans in their families may have felt frustrated when veterans did not behave in ways children had come to expect based on their pre-war relations. By offering the eagle as a representative veteran, an animal whose good deeds the children could recognize but of whom they would not have any behavioral expectations, Cummins enables a greater sympathy for veterans' post-war behavior. "The Veteran Eagle" teaches that through others' accommodations of and kindness to the veterans, they can be reincorporated into the community.
However, this story teaches a less sympathetic attitude toward the South. Like "Memoirs of a Cripple" and "Nelly's Hospital," "The Veteran Eagle" poses the Northern response to the South as natural, yet it also figures the response in terms of the national. The eagle is both named Old Abe, after the beloved President, and is the symbol of the country: the bald eagle "assumes in his youth the honors which belong to a bald head and hoary crown" as the U.S. "has had so much experience, and has progressed so much faster than [other] nations that … [it has] hair which care and anxiety have turned prematurely gray" (617). It is presumably the Civil War that has caused this premature graying, and in Our Young Folks, the South is always to blame for the war. Old Abe accompanies his regiment in many battles, survives the front line on numerous occasions, and eventually enjoys great popularity and exposure as a celebrated war veteran. After the war, he "is reserved toward strangers, sometimes even showing fight when they take liberties with him or trifle with his dignity"; however, he "knows and loves every soldier who has fought in the great cause…. [H]e always flaps his wings at sight of a federal uniform, and claims the wearer for a friend" (621). The ordering of these clauses implies, while not stating explicitly, that anyone not loyal to the Union (in other words, Rebels) may be greeted with suspicion, coolness, and perhaps even some bite. Since Old Abe also represents the nation, one may infer that those embraced by the nation are those loyal to the Union, and those excluded are secessionist Southerners. If post-Revolutionary War novels "link problems of sympathy to obstacles of perception" (Stern 7), then these Reconstruction stories invert that trope; the enemy has made himself clearly visible by wearing the uniform of secession. Because forming and protecting community is a key function of sympathy, sympathy fails to operate here because identifying with this particular other, incorporating them into the community, has proved deadly. More importantly, by using an animal to represent the nation, the nation and its (potentially violent) reactions to strangers or enemies are made to seem "natural," and thus acceptable.
Maria Cummins was one of the most popular Sentimental novelists of the mid-nineteenth century. Her first novel, The Lamplighter, published in 1854, was an enormous success. But compared to other popular Sentimentalists such as Susan Warner or Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cummins seems a harsher moralist. Even minor moral infractions or weaknesses in character are seen to have tragic and lasting consequences in this novel. It is not surprising, then, that Cummins's approach to the South in "The Veteran Eagle" is largely unsympathetic and unforgiving. Marianne Noble has noted that Sentimental fiction specifically constructs the scene with the abuser clearly in the wrong so that the reader can feel anger without consequences (92). Although Noble is speaking specifically of women readers who were culturally prohibited from expressing anger, in the Reconstruction era anger expressed by anyone would seem extremely threatening because it disrupted union.6 Cummins's treatment of Rebel soldiers in "The Veteran Eagle," then, may have allowed Northern readers to feel anger toward the South during a time when the pressures of reunification encouraged the repression of anger.
Abby Morton Diaz, conversely, discouraged anger. She was the daughter of Ichabod Morton, a leader in the temperance, antislavery, and education reform movements. They lived for a time in Abby's youth in the experimental utopian community of Brook Farm. As an adult, Diaz became a well-loved children's author as well as an advocate for women's education and suffrage. She was a regular contributor to juvenile periodicals, and her most famous book, The William Henry Letters—a string of cute, funny, and gently moralizing letters between a boy at boarding school and his family—was first published serially in Our Young Folks. The tone of her work tends to be very positive and trusting in the goodness of humankind. Her approach to healing the wounds of war is no different.
"The Cat's Diary" (February 1869) is an early version of Diaz's book King Grimalkum and Pussy Anita, or, The Cats' Arabian Nights, published in 1881. As we might expect, then, "The Cat's Diary" contains a number of smaller tales. One of these features a group of cats sharing stories at their "Nights of Lamentation" (88), disclosing the cruelty inflicted on them by humans, mostly in long stories of cats making small mistakes that are punished by attempted drowning. None of these stories has a clear moral; each simply relays a sense of unfairness and seeks to build sympathy for the sufferers. For example, one cat exclaims at the end of her tale, "‘Was I once Happy Minty, indeed?’ (Here all the court were moved to tears.) … ‘And now what am I? What am I? Draggled, lean, starved,—a wreck of a cat,—no more. Just a strip of fur hanging over sharp bones!’" (91-92). Readers would recognize the common Sentimental theme of virtue in distress, but, in case the reader still could not guess the appropriate response, the author inserts the instruction in parentheses that everyone should be moved by this tale. This anticruelty story is thus intended to arouse readers' sympathy for suffering beings, most notably cats, which were often the victims of childish pranks and negligence as well as parental impatience. But this story also contains advice for the sufferers.
Sufferers find relief in telling their stories and from the sympathy garnered therefrom, so much so that the cats set aside a special "Night of Lamentation." While this moniker evokes scenes of cats caterwauling, and some of the language in the story almost parodies the Sentimental form, the humor serves more to relieve the tension built through many stories of terror more so than to undercut the sympathy child readers were meant to feel. There is no room for anger toward the abusers in this story. They are treated dismissively or not mentioned specifically in the cats' recounting of events; instead, the narrative focus is the cats' own suffering. During the special night of storytelling, sympathy creates social cohesion with those who have suffered similar traumas. At the end of the night, the king of the cats, "after expressing his sympathy for the afflicted stranger," advises the cats in the fashion of Sentimental fiction to "bear your troubles bravely," "be cheerful," and "consider your blessings," pointing out that some cats live in places where they do not even have the simple freedom to wave their tails (92). "The Cat's Diary" suggests that all pain and suffering could be healed through cheerfulness and sympathy, and through thankfulness for the liberty available to all in the nation. As "Nelly's Hospital" implies, nearly everyone suffered in some way from the war, whether orphaned, widowed, disabled, uprooted, or disempowered. If there was any common experience between the various players in the Civil War, it was suffering.
Julia Stern discusses the importance of postwar communal suffering in her study of post-Revolutionary War fiction. She argues that the country was founded in the violence of a fratricidal war; that the familial element of that violence becomes erased from the national memory; and that post-Revolutionary War Sentimental fiction both remembers and mourns that violence (12). A similar process occurs after the Civil War. The new nation is refounded on the blood shed by brothers, sometimes literally so. Reunification requires the destruction of the boundaries created by the war and reconstruction of the bonds that create the nation. The war created a newly shared experience between the North and South—that of wounds. If one could not sympathize with the Southerner's desire to secede or his economic justification for slavery, one could sympathize with the multifarious wounds of war. By emphasizing the universality of wounds, "The Cat's Diary" attempts to foreclose the differences that divided the nation, and asks instead that both sides sympathize with each other and then refocus (nationalistically) on what they have in common, a love of liberty. Diaz returns to the traditional Sentimental operation of sympathy and suggests that sympathy can still function to create community if one can continue to recognize the similarities that exist among differences.
No other animal stories directly address the problem of the Southerner; in fact, very few Reconstruction animal stories appear in the 1867 to 1869 issues. Instead, the stories dealing with Reconstruction during these three years describe white children learning to interact with black children, more stories of war and slavery, and a few stories of children confronting the troubles of veteran fathers. In April 1870, Our Young Folks published its last and shortest Reconstruction animal story, "The Two Caterpillars," by Annie Moore, which very generally addresses the question of how to deal with the South. The story describes two caterpillars that grow up as good friends until the time comes for them to separate and go into their cocoons. One caterpillar fears, "What if we should never meet in the new life, or should not know each other if we do meet?" (256). The North and South "grew up together" until the war forced them apart; one overriding fear about this separation was that the two sections might never come together again. A more desperate and perhaps more lingering fear, one exacerbated by the anonymity of urbanization that also followed the war, was: how shall we recognize friends? "The Two Caterpillars" solves the problem easily; recognition is almost instinctual. When the butterflies emerge, one remarks, "The same, yet not the same,—I should have known you among a thousand" (257). The first half of this sentence, before the comma dash, concisely indicates the confusion felt after the war. The North and South look at each other and think, "You are the same as you were, yet somehow transformed—the same as I, yet somehow different." Yet, these differences, made patently clear and dangerous by the war, must be immediately elided: "I should have known you among a thousand." Something is shared between these two that they do not share with all the thousands of others, some ineffable Americanness. In practical terms, they have found each other because they laid their cocoons side by side. So too the North and South, having laid their plans alongside each other, eventually must meet and proclaim, like the caterpillars, "How good it is to meet after the long separation! … The long sleep is over, and this is the new life" (257). So, while the story proposes that reunion of the North and South will result from an instinctual sympathy for one another, occurring naturally after a necessary period of separate renewal, it also implies that it is their shared past and shared political foundation that will "naturally" bring them together, and either create or necessitate that sympathy. Unlike the earlier stories, which address real problems and differences, this story offers the child reader a pat ending based on a murky sort of sympathy aroused by the indissoluble bonds of nationhood.
In the 1870s, one shift in the contents of Our Young Folks becomes quite distinct, and like Diaz's and Moore's stories, it suggests a desire to put aside the concerns of the war and focus on brighter horizons. Cultural geography articles begin to replace war and Reconstruction stories in number; such articles describe the people, lifestyles, and climates of foreign countries and distant regions of the United States. This shift also indicates a growing sense of regionalism, which would acknowledge and explain cultural differences between national regions. Furthermore, figuring foreign countries as culturally other creates an illusion of a culturally unified United States. All of these possibilities mitigate the need to acculturate Southerners to Northern ways. Yet, as Fred Erisman points out, such stories often maintained traditional Sentimental styles, and "by applying these same Sentimental traditions to the diverse regions of the United States," that is by normalizing difference, "the stories helped reunite the divided nation" (56). As MacCann and Fahs both have suggested, it may well be that the real sectional disputes of the postbellum period needed to be effaced in order to make way for a unified white supremacist social vision that would enable the preservation of white political authority.
Anthropomorphizing animals seems an ideal technique to teach children about sympathy because it displaces tensions between people onto relations with and between animals, yet it also entails recreating social situations that make sympathy difficult in the first place. Therefore, the element of menace in any particular Reconstruction situation is replicated in the stories. For sympathy to function, the stories must minimize the threat of the other (who destabilizes the hegemony) by portraying that other in pain, marking it as weak and vulnerable. Once the other regains power, if it has not been successfully incorporated into the community (indicated by an adoption of dominant values), it again poses a threat that must be dealt with by weakening it. "Nelly's Hospital" offers a partial adjustment to this process by figuring kindness as a trait that children could learn without the aid of sympathetic identification. Yet, by explaining social difference in terms of science and nature, most of the animal stories in Our Young Folks examined here only exacerbate the difficulties inherent in the sympathy model because they naturalize and rationalize social relations. Consequently, sympathy, and thus the morality behind it, is justified through the appearance of being both natural and rational rather than social and contextual.
Thus simplified and naturalized, sympathy can no longer function as it ought. For sympathy to create a sense of unity among citizens, all must be willing to set aside differences and defer to the dominant ideology. Of the authors discussed here, only Diaz seems to recognize this when the cats decide their various wrongs matter less than their mutual appreciation of liberty. After the turmoil and destruction of the Civil War, difference in the Reconstruction era posed too great a threat to remain in any form. Those whose characters are reformed by a proper education, like Corvette in "The Disobedient Crow," must fully assimilate, dissolving differences rather than subordinating them. But in most of the stories, differences are figured as innate, and "natural," biological differences are not alterable. Children reading these stories were being taught a new model of community, one in which the qualities necessary for joining the community were to some degree inherent. They would learn that a little gray snake (the Rebel in Nelly's hospital) is always going to be a snake and do snakey things; he cannot change his gray skin to a blue one. Likewise, the spiders in "Memoirs of a Cripple" act on instinct; they are not going to change. If the snakes and the spiders can't change, they will not be allowed to remain part of the citizenry. They will be devoured or die. This lack of options indicates the failure of antebellum notions of sympathy to operate effectively to establish community in the postbellum period and signals the beginning of the breakdown of sympathy as the ideal mechanism by which to construct the nation. Of the authors discussed here, only Alcott points Sentimentalists in a new direction. By focusing on the socializing elements of emotions other than sympathy, most notably shame, she provides an idea of how Sentimentalism might continue to shape the nation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Alcott's move also allows scholars to refine our idea that sympathy is the lynchpin of Sentimentalism and instead begin to think of the Sentimental as entailing a set of emotional constructs and practices that includes other emotions and complexes of emotions that do just as much cultural work as sympathy.
I would like to thank the journal's anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and helpful suggestions. I am also indebted to my writing group—Kimberly Emmons, Tamiko Nimura, and Brooke Stafford—for their consistently useful and generous feedback.
1. For more information about Our Young Folks, see Kelly 329-41, Jordan 123-30.
2. Eunice Beecher talks at length about people hunting down her celebrated sister-in-law in her book All Around the House. The most influential favorable study of Stowe's work is found in Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs. Critics include Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture, and Lauren Berlant in "Poor Eliza."
3. There were strong antislavery elements in France that gained popular approval earlier than those in the United States. However, French political leaders had a variety of approaches to the slavery question in the United States based on their political and economic goals. A helpful review of the situation can be found in Serge Gavronsky, "American Slavery and the French Liberals."
4. This story has been reprinted in James Marten's collection, Lessons of War, 87-99, and Alice Fahs comments on it in The Imagined Civil War, 273-74. Both use the story as an example of gendered war work for girls.
6. For more information about the relation of anger to the notion of union in the nineteenth century, see Peter N. Stearns and Carol Zisowitz Stearns, Anger.
Alcott, Louisa May. "Nelly's Hospital." Our Young Folks 1.4 (1865) 267-77.
Barnes, Elizabeth. States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Bauermeister, Erica Rechtin. "In a Different Context: Rereading Works by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Maria Cummins, and Rebecca Harding Davis." Diss. U. Washington, 1989.
Beecher, Eunice. All Around the House: or, How to Make Homes Happy. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1879.
Bell, Michael. Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Berlant, Lauren. "Poor Eliza." American Literature 70 (1998): 635-68.
Brissenden, R. F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. New York: Barnes and Noble-Harper, 1974.
Carson, Gerald. Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals. New York: Scribner's, 1972.
Chesterfield, Ruth. "The Disobedient Crow." Our Young Folks 2.3 (1866): 129-36.
Cummins, Maria S. "The Veteran Eagle." Our Young Folks 2.10 (1866): 616-22.
Diaz, A. M. "The Cat's Diary." Our Young Folks 5.2 (1869): 88-98.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. 1977. New York: Noonday Press-Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
Erisman, Fred. "Regionalism in American Children's Literature." Society and Children's Literature. Ed. James E. Fraser. Boston: David R. Godine-ALA, 1978. 53-75.
Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.
Finsen, Lawrence, and Susan Finsen. The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper, 1990.
Gavronsky, Serge. "American Slavery and the French Liberals: An Interpretation of the Role of Slavery in French Politics during the Second Empire." Journal of Negro History 51 (1966): 36-52.
Howard, June. Publishing the Family. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Jordan, Alice. From Rollo to Tom Sawyer and Other Papers. Boston: The Horn Book Inc., 1948.
Kelly, R. Gordon, ed. Children's Periodicals of the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984.
MacCann, Donnarae. White Supremacy in Children's Literature: Characterizations of African Americans, 1830-1900. New York: Garland, 1998.
Marten, James. The Children's Civil War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998.
Marten, James, ed. Lessons of War: The Civil War in Children's Magazines. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.
Moore, Annie. "The Two Caterpillars." Our Young Folks 6.4 (1870): 256-57.
Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Sizer, Lyde Cullen. The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.
Stearns, Peter N., and Carol Zisowitz Stearns. Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 38-50.
Stern, Julia. The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "Aunt Esther's Rules." Our Young Folks 1.9 (1865): 591-94.
———. "The Hen That Hatched Ducks." Our Young Folks 2.1 (1866): 35-41.
———. "Miss Katy-Did and Miss Cricket." Our Young Folks 2.5 (1866): 289-93.
Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1988. 877.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Wilder, Burt G., M.D. "Memoirs of a Cripple." Our Young Folks 2.9 (1866): 534-46.
Lori Jo Oswald (essay date June 1995)
SOURCE: Oswald, Lori Jo. "Heroes and Victims: The Stereotyping of Animal Characters in Children's Realistic Animal Fiction." Children's Literature in Education 26, no. 2 (June 1995): 135-49.
[In the following essay, Oswald notes that the "animal as hero is a standard element in children's realistic animal fiction" and argues that the founders of the realistic animal fiction genre—such as Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G. D. Roberts—deserve credit for avoiding stereotypes and creating three-dimensional animal protagonists.]
Animals as Heroes
The animal as hero is a standard element in children's realistic animal fiction. Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the genre, established the characterization of animals as heroes. He introduces his collection of short stories, Animal Heroes, with a definition:
A hero is an individual of unusual gifts and achievements. Whether it be man or animal, this definition applies; and it is the histories of such that appeal to the imagination and to the hearts of those who hear them.1
Many of Seton's stories are about wild animals who are heroic for surviving against great odds. In his preface to Lives of the Hunted, Seton lists animals who are heroic because "in them we can find the virtues most admired in Man":
Lobo stands for Dignity and Love-constancy; Silverspot, for Sagacity; Redruff, for Obedience; Bingo, for Fidelity; Vixen and Molly Cottontail, for Mother-Love; Wahb, for Physical Force; and the Pacing Mustang, for the Love of Liberty.2
But as the twentieth century progressed, the definition of animal hero in realistic animal fiction generally changed from wild animals that were heroic for surviving against all odds to domesticated animals that were heroic for rescuing humans from wild beasts. Part of the difference, of course, is due to the inclusion of a main human character in the novels. The early authors, whom I term the founders, such as Seton and Charles G. D. Roberts, created wild animal heroes that fought for survival against human hunters, trappers, and often their dogs. An example is found in the first chapter, "The Price of His Life," in Roberts's Red Fox. In this scene a fox is pursued by hounds and men, whom he valiantly steers away from his mate and "five blind, helpless, whimpering puppies."3 The chapter ends with the fox being killed by the dogs, but he has led them far from the den: "At a price, the little family in the burrow had been saved" (p. 12). Later writers—whom I term the traditionalists—shifted from a wild animal's point of view to a human character's or, sometimes, to a domesticated animal's. Therefore the bear trying to rescue her cub in the following scene from Old Yeller would have been characterized as heroic by Seton, but Fred Gipson's narrative focus is on a child and dog who attacks the bear. Through this shift in narrative focus, the dog becomes the animal hero and the wild animal becomes the enemy:
Then, just as the bear went lunging up the creek bank toward Little Arliss and her cub, a flash of yellow came streaking out of the brush.
It was that big yeller dog. He was roaring like a mad bull. He wasn't one-third as big and heavy as the she bear, but when he piled into her from one side, he rolled her clear off her feet. They went down in a wild, roaring tangle of twisting bodies and scrambling feet and slashing fangs.4
Old Yeller, by his heroic action of saving Little Arliss from the bear, finally wins Travis's love and approval. Generally, although there are some exceptions, as the twentieth century got under way the definition of animal as hero changed. Part of Seton's definition can still be applied to the traditional novels—"an individual of unusual gifts and achievements"—but most of the heroes of later animal novels are animals who save the lives of humans, sometimes sacrificing themselves in the process.
Old Yeller saves the life of Little Arliss, and later he rescues Travis from the "killer hogs": "He took the awful punishment meant for me, but held his ground. He gave me that one-in-a-hundred chance to get free" (p. 77). Finally, he saves the family from a rabid wolf. In all three cases, he must attack wild animals that threaten humans; the dog serves as a protective shield. The dog's heroism causes Travis to care about him. But earlier in the novel, when Old Yeller refuses to act heroically, Travis believes the dog has no value. When two bulls are fighting and nearly trample Travis and then begin destroying the cabin, Travis's mother tells him to "Call the dog! Put the dog after them!":
Well, that was a real good idea. I was half aggravated with myself because I hadn't thought of it. Here was a chance for that old yeller dog to pay back for all the trouble he'd made around the place.
But Old Yeller "didn't come and he didn't sic 'em" (p. 29). As Travis tells it, the dog sees Travis running toward him with a bullwhip and "knew I'd come to kill him. He tucked his tail and lit out in a yelling run for the woods" (p. 29). Travis narrates, "Right then is when I would have killed him," for the dog does not do what he is supposed to do, that is, act heroically and chase away the bulls. He does not perform his utilitarian function.
Old Yeller is a unique animal hero for this display of cowardice; of course, what he fears is Travis and his whip, so the narrative itself—despite what the narrator says—holds Travis responsible for the ways he has mistreated the dog up to this point (and the mistreatment does not end until Old Yeller saves Little Arliss from the bear). Also, when the bulls are fighting, it is the house that is in danger, not so much the human occupants.
The ranch dog Pilgrim in Mary O'Hara's Green Grass of Wyoming does save humans from a bull, and this scene is common to the characterization of dog heroes in the genre. The bull is more than once portrayed in such novels as an evil necessity for cattle breeders; the fact that he is not castrated means he is uncontrollable, undomesticated, wild—and therefore bad. As Nell holds her baby, Pilgrim continues his frenzied heroic attacking of the bull, Cricket, and ultimately loses his life in the attempt:
Pilgrim was agile. Again and again he saved himself, then bored in to nip at haunch or shoulder as the hot charging mass swept past him.
He was watching for another chance at the nose.
Ah! He had it! His teeth closed! Once again the frenzied beast swung his head and the dog with it. Pilgrim went sailing. But this time, when he hit the ground, Cricket was there. He made a sideways scooping motion with his head. It came up with a small twisted form on the horns. Down again. The bull kneeled. Pilgrim disappeared from view—the bull was making motions of grinding his head into the ground.
Nell heard the death cry of the dog, turned her face to the rock, clawing it to keep it from whirling out from under her. The whole universe whirled. She knew that she was fainting again— Oh, Pilgrim! Pilgrim!5
In this scene, Nell's last thoughts are of Pilgrim, so the dog is given value, especially considering what a minor character he is in the novel.
Dog heroes are always willing to and sometimes do give up their lives for the humans that they care about. Almost always, the dog must save a human from a wild animal. In Where the Red Ferns Grows, Billy's two hounds, Old Dan and Little Ann, rescue him from a mountain lion:
I never saw my dogs when they got between the lion and me, but they were there. Side by side, they rose up from the ground as one. They sailed straight into those jaws of death, their small, red bodies taking the ripping, slashing claws meant for me.6
The heroic dog usually shows no fear or desire to flee from a dangerous wild animal. The dog hero always values human life—at least its beloved master's or mistress's life—above its own. It is the dog's duty and function to protect humans, even if it must die doing so. Albert Payson Terhune's Lad: A Dog offers an exception in that the collie has an "instinctual desire" to flee from a copperhead snake that threatens a human baby. But still, when there is a human to save, there is no choice:
Left to himself, he would have taken, incontinently, to his heels. With the lower animal's instinctive appeal to a human in moments of danger, he even pressed closer to the helpless child at his side, as if seeking the protection of her humanness. A great wave of cowardice shook the dog from foot to head.7
Despite his fear, when the snake strikes for the child, the heroic dog must take the bite meant for the human:
And the copperhead's fangs sank deep in Lad's nose.
He gave no sign of pain, but leaped back. As he sprang his jaws caught Baby by the shoulder. The keen teeth did not so much as bruise her soft flesh as he half-dragged, half-threw her into the grass behind him.
Usually the dog saves the human with whom the dog has a "bond," but in this case, Lad risks himself for a visiting child who has mistreated him. As an animal hero of children's fiction, Lad can do nothing else. Any human—with the exception of those who intend to harm the dog's beloved master—must be protected and saved by the dog hero.
Over and over again, scenes of dogs saving humans from wild bulls, boars, mountain lions, bears, rattlesnakes, and wolverines dominate children's realistic animal novels. The dogs of realistic animal novels serve as protective shields for humans against the dangers of nature.
These portrayals of dogs might seem exceptional, but I still term them realistic because dogs have been domesticated, bred, and trained to protect, serve, and bond with humans. In her introduction to George Watson Little's 1951 True Stories of Heroic Dogs, Albert Payson Terhune's wife, Anice Terhune, writes, "Knowing dogs as my husband and I did, it is my firm conviction that all dogs are potential heroes at heart; and given the opportunity or the occasion they will prove it."8 The authors of children's realistic animal novels describe what they assume to be the true nature of dogs, even if their dog characters have unusual opportunities to protect humans.
Many nonfiction books on dog heroes describe feats similar to those found in realistic animal novels. For example, in Dog to the Rescue, "Leo" is about a dog that comes between a rattlesnake and a child, taking the bites intended for the human.9 The description of the heroic dog's action is similar to the portrayal of Terhune's Lad. Another true story describes a St. Bernard, awarded the 1970 Ken-L Ration Dog Hero of the Year award, that "hurled himself" at a grizzly bear that was attacking the dog's owner, who was standing between the bear and her cub (p. 25). The story as told by the dog's owner is similar to the fictional account of Old Yeller attacking a bear to save Little Arliss.
Sometimes the animal hero must rescue the human protagonist from a "bad" man or men. An example is found in Sounder. When the sheriff and his men come to take away the father, Sounder is furious:
Suddenly, the voice of the great dog shattered the heavy, seemingly endless silence that came between the gruff words of the sheriff and those of his men. Sounder was racing toward the cabin from the fields.10
Despite warnings, Sounder is so determined to save his beloved owner that he chases the sheriff's wagon. One of the sheriff's deputies coldly shoots the dog. In Lad: A Dog, Lad's love for his "Master" drives him to leap at a human:
Schwartz's kick at the Master had thrown the adoring dog into a maniac rage against this defiler of his idol. The memory of Schwartz's blow at himself was as nothing to it. It aroused in the collie's heart a deathless blood-feud against the man.11
A dog can (indeed, a dog should) kill a wild animal in saving a human in this genre, and so be heroic, but rarely does a dog kill a human in the novels. The frequent occurrence of animal deaths and the infrequent occurrence of human deaths suggest a devaluing of animal life, or a valuing of human life above animal life, in the genre. It is not that the novels avoid death altogether: Wild animals and unworthy domesticated ones (usually those who have turned wild) are often killed by the dog protagonists. But an animal must never kill a human—even a very bad human. Jack London offers an exception (and it is probably significant that White Fang was intended for an adult audience): White Fang saves Judge Scott (Weedon's father) from the escaped convict Jim Hall—"A gaping throat explained the manner of his death" (p. 290)—and nearly loses his life in the heroic act. And as with other animal heroes that have "one chance in a thousand" to survive, White Fang makes it. The superior strength developed from his years in the wild pulls him through:
White Fang had come straight from the Wild, where the weak perish early and shelter is vouch-safed to none. In neither his father nor his mother was there any weakness, nor in the generations before them. A constitution of iron and the vitality of the Wild were White Fang's inheritance, and he clung to life, the whole of him and every part of him, in spirit and in flesh, with the tenacity that of old belonged to all creatures.12
Ironically, then, although the animal's heroism is often displayed in protecting humans from dangerous "wild" animals (and sometimes "bad" men), it is also their affinity with the wild that enables the superanimals to survive near-death, when they do.
Although dogs are clearly the most common heroic animal characters, the genre includes other species showing heroic tendencies. Since horses are the second most common animal protagonists, it is useful to consider how their heroism is portrayed in the books.
A well-known example of early horse heroism is Black Beauty's refusing to cross a bridge during a storm. Although Black Beauty is not a realistic novel because the horse narrates his own story, it is useful to consider the heroic action of the horse in this scene because it became a model for later writers in one way. The horse often has some knowledge—horse sense, if you will—that the human characters do not have and so "saves the day." While a dog character that risks or sacrifices his own life is motivated by the desire to save a human, such motivation is rarely given for a horse's action. A horse simply knows better than to do what a human demands of him when that demand means danger. But in all cases, animals that save humans are valued because they save humans, as in Black Beauty:
We were going along at a good pace, but the moment my feet touched the first part of the bridge, I felt sure there was something wrong. I dare not go forward, and I made a dead stop. "Go on, Beauty," said my master, and he gave me a touch with the whip, but I dare not stir; he gave me a sharp cut, I jumped, but I dare not go forward.13
Later, when the master learns the bridge was broken in the middle, Black Beauty hears him tell John that
God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves, but He had given animals knowledge which did not depend on reason, and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they had often saved the lives of men. John had many stories to tell of dogs and horses, and the wonderful things they had done; he thought people did not value their animals half enough, nor make friends of them as they ought to do.
Another way in which heroic horses and dogs differ is that the dogs are heroic because they protect humans, while horses are heroic because they serve humans. The dogs of the genre seem realistic because dogs are by nature protective creatures. They have been selectively bred and trained to protect humans. Horses, on the other hand, have been bred and trained to serve humans in many ways as work animals, but not as protectors. I term those horses of the genre heroic that meet Seton's criteria for an animal hero: "an individual of unusual gifts and achievements."14 However, horses differ from the wild animal heroes that populate the works of Seton and Brown because the horse is not considered a hero merely for its abilities, but for how those abilities translate into benefiting humans. It does not matter what the horse's intent may be, just what the results are. In Brighty of the Grand Canyon, for example, the burro is considered heroic because he has "borne burdens and blazed trails"15 into the Grand Canyon, aiding humans in reaching its depths. Instead of being heroic for saving humans, then, horses are often valued for the work they do for them, for the races they win, and for the money they bring by producing valuable offspring.
Wild animals—even those that have been tamed and made the pets of humans—that save or protect humans are much rarer in the genre. In the novels by the founders, wild animals are heroes because they are unusual, strong, and intelligent. They are never pets of humans; therefore their heroism is not defined by their rescuing humans, as in the traditional novels. In the traditional novels, on the other hand, wild animals are generally characterized not as heroic, but as dangerous.
An exception is found in Gentle Ben. Although Ben is an animal "hero," he differs from the bears in Seton's and Roberts's stories in that he is, for much of the novel, a pet of the boy Mark, and his heroism is defined by this relationship. Near the end of the novel, the formerly domesticated bear, now living wild and free on an island, saves Mark's father, Karl Anderson, from some dangerous men who are stealing fish:
Karl was about to charge out the door, where he might have been killed, but at that moment there came a startled cry of fear and panic, a wild shot—the sounds of running feet.
Andersen threw the door open. He saw the distant shape of the trap, and men tumbling frantically into a rowboat on the beach. These were suddenly blotted out as a monstrous shape seemed to rise out of the earth before him…. Then the shape lowered itself again…. He jumped outside, threw a shot at the boat, and then lost all interest in it as Mark rushed past him, crying, "Ben! Ben!"16
The readers do not know Ben's motivation or thought—if he has any—on the matter. The bear's act seems protective, certainly, but the readers are not told if he has acted out of a concern for the welfare of Mark's family. The author leaves this up to the readers to decide by keeping the point of view in Karl's mind. Ben's second heroic action does shift to his point of view, which assures the readers that the bear is not trying to rescue the human trapped under a rock but is merely searching for food:
Ben sniffed curiously at the edge of the rock where Mark was scratching. He caught no scent of mice or park squirrels. But he had rolled many rocks in his quest for the long white grubs he liked so well…. He yanked, and the rock rolled easily off King's leg. Ben sniffed at the ground where the rock had lain, and at King's leg. Nothing there interested him. He looked up at Mark, as if waiting.
Although Ben's action here is not motivated by altruism, the consequences are that he is valued as heroic within the novel. Mr. King, who was hunting Ben, has a change of heart about hunting because of the bear's action. He imagines the "hunting story" he'll tell back home: "‘There he is, the biggest, toughest, strongest thing in the whole world on four feet with fur. Practically saved my life, too. Flipped a five-hundred-pound rock off my leg easy as that’…. Nobody can top this for a hunting story" (p. 216).
As mentioned previously, Gentle Ben is a unique animal character for the traditionalist period because most wild animals represent danger rather than protector to humans. The wild animal as protagonist, without a "bond" (or relationship) to a human, while common at the beginning of the century, appears infrequently as the century progresses. When he does appear as protagonist, he is most often heroic because of his intelligence and strength, which allows him to escape the men who pursue him, as seen in the works of Seton and Roberts. For example, in Yellow Eyes, the mountain lion protagonist is intelligent enough to learn by observation that climbing into a tree when pursued by hounds and men is dangerous:
He had learned a lesson which would make him the most dangerous killer in the high country. With it he had acquired a disdain and a hatred for dogs and man.17
Thomas L. Benson writes that in the traditions of animal heroism, "there is boundless anthropomorphism":
The virtues manifested by the animals are distinctly human ideals.
The moral paragon stereotype presupposes that animals are moral agents, capable of understanding, however dimly, the principles of right conduct and equally capable of pursuing such principles. To this extent, it is misleadingly anthropomorphic and inaccurate.
But there is another problem with such stereotypes, according to Benson, in that they "deprive [animals] of their natural identities," and this shaping of human attitudes toward other species could have serious consequences in how we treat them:
Animals have suffered enormously at the hands of humans who have insisted on viewing animals according to one nature-distorting stereotype or another. The sooner animals are recognized as animals, nothing less and nothing more, the better their fortunes will be.
To Benson, then, the portrayal of animals as heroes is dangerously unrealistic. And I would agree with his point that "we must come to accept animals as animals" (p. 89). However, would it really be fair to categorize scenes of animal heroism as mere stereotypes, as Benson does? As I have tried to show, the actions of the heroic dogs in fiction, especially, are not unrealistic ones. One of the reasons such dog stories are so popular is that children can relate the actions in them to their experiences with their own pets. The more dangerously inaccurate stereotype is when the animal is portrayed purely as a victim.
Animals as Victims
Preceding the appearance of the first realistic animal novels at the end of the nineteenth century were several anticruelty novels. In two, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Marshall Saunder's Beautiful Joe, the animals narrate their own pathetic tales of woe; these are animals victimized by cruel men. When Black Beauty encounters his long-lost friend Ginger, he describes what years of human abuse have done to the mare:
It was Ginger! But how changed! The beautifully arched and glossy neck was now straight, and lank, and fallen in; the clean, straight legs and delicate fetlocks were swelled; the joints were grown out of shape with hard work; the face that was once so full of spirit and life was now full of suffering, and I could tell by the heaving of her sides, and her frequent cough, how bad her breath was.
All that is left for Ginger is to hope for death, as she tells Black Beauty:
Men are strongest, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing that we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end. I wish the end was come. I wish I was dead.
The animal-as-helpless-victim theme was carried from the nineteenth-century anticruelty novels into new genre of realistic animal fiction. The difference is that the animals of the realistic novels by the founders and the traditionalists have a strong will to survive; it is only when they are near death because of human cruelty that the kind human protagonist must rescue them. These animals are strong, willful, and defiant in many of the novels. The animal that is a victim throughout the novel (like Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe), without will or fight, does not appear again until the animal-rights-inspired novels of the 1980s.
In many of the earlier realistic animal novels, the victimization of the animal serves as a way of beginning the relationship between the human rescuer and the animal, but once the relationship is established, the animal's function shifts—often to hero, utilitarian tool, and friend. In other words, animals in the older novels are not victims for long. At the beginning of Walt Morey's Gentle Ben, the bear lives chained in a dark shed. He was put there when he was six months old by Fog Benson, who "had killed Ben's mother and brought the young bear to town to show him off" (p. 10). Mark knows that Benson "was mean to Ben" and sometimes didn't feed him for days (p. 9), so Mark sneaks into the shed to visit with and feed Ben. After Mark rescues Ben, the bear's role shifts from victim to pet. By the end of the novel, Ben is wild and free. In White Fang, Weedon Scott rescues the wolf from a dog fight, where White Fang is being attacked by both a bulldog and Beauty Smith:
When [Weedon Scott] broke through into the ring, Beauty Smith was just in the act of delivering another kick. All his weight was on one foot, and he was in a state of unstable equilibrium. At that moment the newcomer's fist landed a smashing blow full in his face…. The newcomer turned upon the crowd.
"You cowards!" he cried. "You beasts!"18
White Fang's role at this point in the novel is the victim that needs to be rescued by Scott, but earlier he was a wild animal and a sled dog; later, he will be the animal companion of Scott.
In some other older novels, such as Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows and Jack London's Call of the Wild (as well as in many of the Jack London imitators), there is a reciprocal relationship between human and animal: Protecting each other is merely what loved ones do. In the climactic scene of Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy and his dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, fight a mountain lion to the death to save each other. Both human and dogs are heroes who save and victims who need to be saved by the other. First, Billy jumps in to save his dogs: "There in the flinty hills of the Ozarks, I fought for the lives of my dogs" (p. 226). But when he is trapped and the lion springs for him, his dogs reciprocate and save Billy. Similarly, Old Yeller saves Travis from the wild hogs, and so Travis must save Old Yeller. Travis's motivation is not that he must rescue the poor victim Old Yeller; it is that the equality of their relationship and the fairness of friendship call for this action:
I don't quite know what made me do it. I didn't think to myself: "Old Yeller saved my life and I can't go off and leave him. He's bound to be dead, but it would look mighty shabby to go home without finding out for sure. I have to go back, even if my hurt leg gives out on me before I can get home."
I didn't think anything like that. I just started walking in that direction and kept walking till I found him.
(Gipson, 1956, p. 78)
A theme found in both the older and more recent novels is that part of the child's "growing up" is due to his or her standing up to a person who is cruel to an animal. Sometimes this "standing up" involves defying parents, the law, or the community. The child knows that the mistreatment of an animal is wrong, and no matter what the consequences, he or she must act to rescue the animal victim. The child takes on the power of a hero, as well as the attributes of an adult. In Gentle Ben, Mark is told by his father that "we can't just take things into our own hands because we've decided they're wrong. We have to live by the rules, even when those rules don't always seem right" (p. 48). But Mark knows that Fog Benson's selling chances to kill Ben is morally wrong, even though Fog has the legal right to do so, since he "owns" Ben. Mark assures his father that he "can take a man's place" and work to pay for the purchase and care of Ben (p. 51).
In White Fang, Weedon Scott is not a child and has no growing up to do, but a similar theme occurs: What is right takes precedence over legal ownership:
"You've forfeited your rights to own that dog," was the rejoinder.
"Are you going to take the money? Or do I have to hit you again?"
"All right," Beauty Smith spoke up with the alacrity of fear. "But I take the money under protest," he added. "… A man's got his rights."
"Correct," Scott answered, passing the money over to him. "A man's got his rights. But you're not a man. You're a beast."19
When it comes to animal cruelty, the older novels sometimes suggest an animal rights concept: There is no such thing as animal "ownership"; there are only animal-human relationships. And a human has no moral right to mistreat an animal. For London, this belief was fundamental. White Fang and Buck are both considered "property" by bad men, who abuse them in any way they want to. When John Thornton first meets Buck in the Call of the Wild, similar to when Weedon Scott first meets White Fang, the dog is being killed by a man who claims he has the right to do so because "It's my dog" (p. 72). In both novels, however, it is the animal that chooses who "owns" him and who is "owned by" the animal; that is, the animal chooses to form a bond with a human. And so Jack London, at the beginning of the twentieth century, introduced an animal-rights philosophy long before the term became popular with philosophers, long before and more convincingly than in the attempts in the 1980s by writers of children's novels.
A reason for the failure of the 1980s novels to promote an animal-rights ethic is that the animals are characterized as poor, helpless, innocent victims of humans. In Avella Whitemore's You're a Real Hero, Amanda, Amanda rescues her rooster from the dangerous Mr. Schwartz, who uses him for cockfighting. In Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh, the boy narrator rescues a beagle from his abusive owner. In The Elephant in the Dark, Will calms Toong, the elephant, and so saves her from being shot by a "burly innkeeper with an ancient muzzleloader."20 In Jane Resh Thomas's Fox in the Trap, although no individual animal is saved, Daniel, by destroying the traps, prevents future foxes from being killed like the one he had watched his uncle kill the day before. In Ron Roy's Chimpanzee Kid, in an odd twist, Harold rescues from a laboratory a chimp that he believes is mistreated; it turns out, however, that this "lab" is actually a place set up to "take unwanted chimps from labs around the country," (p. 113), try to bring them back to health, and ship them to West Africa to be set free. Now what Benny, the chimp, needs rescue from is his "freedom" in America (since Harold released him), and it is due to Harold's calming of the chimp that he can finally be captured. In Carly's Buck, Carly wants to save a beautiful buck from hunters, but the deer is shot by accident despite her efforts to protect him. The final image of the deer is of a pathetic victim:
Already her buck's eyes were glazed. Blood oozed from the gunshot wounds and a trail of it led to the body. [Carly] didn't need Harry to tell her the animal was dead…. She imagined her buck staggering toward some thicket to escape the draining pain in his belly.21
These books were written with the intention of teaching children that animals should have rights and considerations equal to those of humans, but the romanticizing and idealizing of these one-dimensional animal characters undercuts the animal-rights theme. The reason for the "highly sentimentalized view of animals" in the more recent novels may have much to do with the "growing distance between people and nature," according to Yi-Fu Tuan. Although Tuan is referring to the appearance of several "maudlin dog books"22 that appeared in the early nineteenth century, consider Tuan's statement in light of what has happened in the realistic animal novels as the twentieth century progressed. It is possible that the romanticization of animals and nature in the later books is attributable to the separation of humans from nature and wild animals. As humans experienced less direct contacts with wild animals and wilderness (because of the growth of urban areas and the reduction of wilderness), such encounters became more valuable to people. At the same time, as wild animals and wilderness became less understood because they were less accessible, the more unrealistic and romantic the fictional descriptions of them became.
Thomas L. Benson writes that among the group of dominant animal stereotypes are some that "involve apparently innocuous or even idealized versions of animal nature":
Unflattering or not, however, each of the stereotypes responds more to human needs than to the realities of animal nature. Such stereotypes are, quite simply, lies told at the expense of animals…. Cut adrift from the demands of discovering and responding to animals as they present themselves to us, we are free to invent their natures, floating at the impulse of need and fantasy from one false image to another.23
Even characterizing animals as all "virtuous" presents problems, for it deprives them of their natural identities, adds Benson: "The objections that feminists and Native American activists have leveled at efforts to place them on pedestals, as guileless and innately wise, are relevant here," for romantic portraits tend to set the group being romanticized apart "and indeed, left out … when it is a matter of distributing rights and opportunities" (p. 85).
But there is a more serious problem with the overromanticizing of animals in children's novels. The child reader may come to expect all animals to act as those do in fiction and so may be disappointed and disillusioned by real animal behavior:
The sentimentalized representations of animals provide a distorted picture of their natures and needs. Children reared in an environment that portrays animals exclusively as cute, docile, and innocent are ill-prepared to appreciate the complex behavior and very real suffering of mature and, from a human standpoint, not always attractive animals.
Benson's criticism is similar to the critics of "nature fakery" in the early twentieth century in that both warn of the dangers of influencing children by overly romanticizing animal characters.
When I began my research, I did not intend to write a defense of the so-called nature fakers, whom I refer to as the founders of children's realistic animal fiction. But the process of researching and writing is one of discovery. And what I discovered was that the founders deserve much more credit than they have received for their realistic portrayals of animals in fiction. Because they focused on the individuality of their animal characters, even their animal heroes, they avoided stereotyping the members of a given species. They also avoided representing animal characters as mere victims, unlike several recent writers. To accuse Seton, London, and Roberts of anthropomorphism or "nature fakery" is unfair because their animal characters are based on their perceptions of what real animals are capable of, often based on their own observations.
1. Ernest Thompson Seton, Animal Heroes, n.p.
2. Ernest Thompson Seton, quoted in Thomas L. Benson, "The Clouded Mirror," p. 84.
3. Charles G. D. Roberts, Red Fox, p. 3.
4. Fred Gipson, Old Yeller, p. 37.
5. Mary O'Hara, Green Grass of Wyoming, p. 223.
6. Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows, p. 226.
7. Albert Payson Terhune, Lad: A Dog, p. 47.
8. George Watson Little, True Stories of Heroic Dogs, p. xvii.
9. Jeanette Sanderson, Dog to the Rescue, p. 33.
10. William H. Armstrong, Sounder, p. 24.
11. Albert Payson Terhune, Lad: A Dog, p. 195.
12. Jack London, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, p. 291.
13. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, p. 53.
14. Ernest Thompson Seton, Animal Heroes, p. 7.
15. Marguerite Henry, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, p. 132.
16. Walt Morey, Gentle Ben, pp. 188-189.
17. Rutherford Montgomery, Yellow Eyes, p. 103.
18. Jack London, White Fang, p. 237.
19. Jack London, White Fang, p. 240.
20. Carol Carrick, The Elephant in the Dark, p. 129.
21. C. S. Adler, Carly's Buck, p. 146.
22. Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection, p. 112.
23. Thomas L. Benson, "The Clouded Mirror," p. 80.
Adler, C. S., Carly's Buck. New York: Clarion, 1987.
Armstrong, William H., Sounder. 1969; New York: Harrow, 1972.
Bauer, Caroline Feller, Children's Literature. Telecourse Guide. Portland, OR: Campus of the Air, Oregon State System of Higher Education, 1973.
Bauer, Erwin A., Treasury of Big Game Animals. An Outdoor Life Book. New York: Popular Science, 1972.
Benson, Thomas L., "The Clouded Mirror: Animal Stereotypes and Human Cruelty." Miller 79-90. Carrick, Carol, The Elephant in the Dark. New York: Clarion, 1988.
Gipson, Fred, Old Yeller. 1956; New York: Harper, 1964.
Henry, Marguerite, Brighty of the Grand Canyon. 1953; New York: Rand, 1972.
Lippincott, Joseph Wharton, Wilderness Champion: The Story of a Great Hound. Illustrated by Paul Bransom. New York: Lippincott, 1944.
Little, George Watson, True Stories of Heroic Dogs. Introduction by Mrs. Albert Payson Terhune. New York: Grosset, 1951.
London, Jack, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. 1903 and 1905; New York: Bantam, 1969.
Montgomery, Rutherford, Broken Fang, 1935; New York: Scholastic, 1963.
Montgomery, Rutherford, Yellow Eyes. Morey, Walt, Gentle Ben. New York: Scholastic, 1965.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds, Shiloh. New York: Dell, 1991.
O'Hara, Mary, Green Grass of Wyoming. 1946; New York: Dell, 1970.
Rawls, Wilson, Where the Red Fern Grows. New York: Curtis, 1961.
Roberts, Charles G. D., Red Fox. 1905; New York: Scholastic, 1969.
Roy, Ron, The Chimpanzee Kid. New York: Clarion, 1985.
Sanderson, Jeannette, Dog to the Rescue: Seventeen True Tales of Dog Heroism. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
Saunders, Marshall, Beautiful Joe. Racine, WI: Western, 1965.
Seton, Ernest Thompson, Animal Heroes. New York: Grosset, 1967.
Sewell, Anna, Black Beauty. 1877; New York: Scholastic, 1958.
Terhune, Albert Payson, Lad: A Dog. 1919; New York: NAL, 1978.
Thomas, Jane Resh, Fox in a Trap. New York: Clarion, 1987.
Whitmore, Arvella, You're a Real Hero, Amanda. New York: Clarion, 1985.
Cori Trudeau (essay date November-December 1998)
SOURCE: Trudeau, Cori. "The Wonder of Animals: Rediscovering the Bond between People and Animals." Five Owls 13, no. 2 (November-December 1998): 1, 22-3.
[In the following essay, Trudeau suggests that realistic animal fiction and nonfiction can inspire young readers to develop a more mature interest and bond between themselves and the natural world.]
As a zoo educator for more than twelve years, I have learned that one of the most important things children share with us is their sense of wonder. To experience animals and the natural world through the eyes of a young child is to get closer to nature ourselves. Some time ago, for instance, I was showing a group of four-year-olds the snakes at the Denver Zoo. After we had surveyed the exhibits, one particularly quiet girl came over to me and asked me why the snakes weren't moving. I explained that snakes don't move around much unless they're hunting. A little later, the same girl reported that one of the snakes had started moving around. Sure enough, the snake she pointed to had a mouse meal in its cage.
I gathered the children around to watch as the snake opened its jaws and began to ingest the mouse headfirst. You could have heard a pin drop. Every one of the children was fascinated by the cycle of life and death they were witnessing. I had no idea what they were thinking but knew by the looks in their young eyes that they were mesmerized. This is what many in the education field call the "wow factor." It's precisely this kind of response that keeps me in my profession.
Before the children left, I asked the girl what her favorite part of the class had been. She said when the snake ate the mouse. Had this been an adult group, the reaction would have been quite different. Many adults would have turned away and said it was "gross" or "disgusting." As we grow up, our perceptions of the natural world are inevitably tainted by adult views and societal misconceptions. Even some children as young as the first or second grade may react negatively to the mouse meal—which is a shame. For me, this kind of socialization represents a sad, step-by-step loss of connection with the natural world, especially with animals.
We humans have studied, classified, dissected, and experimented on animals in an effort to understand them. Ironically, we have undermined our ultimate goal. We understand only those aspects of animals that can be seen and measured.
In the past, humans had a more spiritual and even mystical bond with animals. Today, we have separated ourselves from the aspects of animals (such as their thinking) that we know are present but cannot prove. What is the cost of this alienation to us as individuals? What is the cost to society? How can we help children to preserve their natural sense of wonder about animals?
The relationship between animals and humans is not simple. It never has been. Our industrialized, technological society has confused our relationship with animals even further. In the not-so-distant past, animals played an essential role in the daily lives of people. Their importance was demonstrated in many ways. People hunted animals in order to feed and clothe themselves. Horses and cows helped farmers plow and cultivate their fields. People depended on chickens, cows, and pigs to put protein on the table. People needed animals—and animals needed people as well. There was respect in these relationships—whether it was between prey and hunter or between farmers and their stock.
Today, we have stepped away from that close relationship with animals—at least in the obvious ways we can see and feel. Today, few people slaughter their own beef, or tend and sheer their own sheep. The people who eat meat usually buy it in neatly packaged squares at a local market—and if people want a new wool sweater, they usually buy it at a store without even considering the source of the yarn. No longer do people harness a team of horses; cars and airplanes transport us anywhere we need to go, and farm labor is done by huge tractors or other machines.
As we have ceased to recognize the natural cycles that govern the earth, we've distanced ourselves from the animal kingdom of which we are a part. Instead of seeing nature as something "natural" and necessary, we have come to see it as something apart from ourselves and outside our daily lives.
But another and perhaps more important distancing has also been occurring. As animals play a less visible role in our lives, we fail to see them as the spiritual creatures that they are. We increasingly view animals as things, as property, and even as products. We destroy their habitat and decimate their numbers without thought. Perhaps the question is not whether we can live without animals physically—but can we survive mentally, emotionally, and spiritually without them?
In a book called Other Creations: Rediscovering the Spirituality of Animals, author Christopher Manes says that animism, humanity's oldest religious worldview, lies at the "prehistoric heart" of ancient and modern institutional religions. "Animistic cultures see animals as inspirited beings that can be invoked for wisdom, success, insight in life's mysteries, and to do harm." He says that "all religions acknowledge a common concern for the condition of our souls, and the word ‘animal’ itself traces back to the same Latin root as anima meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘soul.’"
I have found that people today are uncomfortable discussing whether animals have souls, spirits, thoughts, or even emotions. In the past it was taken for granted that animals had souls. In The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment, John Bierhorst writes about the conclusions of an anthropologist named Hallowell. Hallowell documented that Ojibwa believed "animals, plants, and objects were indeed persons—except that here, ‘person’ is not the same as ‘human.’ Rather, it is a larger, more inclusive category. From the standpoint of the [Ojibwa], the concept of person is not, in fact synonymous with human being but transcends it." Clearly, the Ojibwa people see themselves and animals as being part of a larger system or community.
Bierhorst goes on to tell of Kwakiutl salmon fishermen. They "used to club the fish just once, then lay the bodies carefully on the beach saying, ‘I do not club you twice, for I do not wish to club to death your souls, so that you may go home to the place where you come from, Supernatural Ones.’" Yet today, if a person hits a deer on the road, the biggest concern is usually damage to the vehicle. Even people who drive past the carnage pay little attention.
According to Christopher Manes, Western civilization's view of the animal kingdom goes back to Genesis. "The Bible offers us a choice right from the start: either we can see ourselves embedded in the living animal world as participants in the larger unfolding of creation, or we can view ourselves as unique and isolated beings at odds with other living things, civilization versus the wilderness, man against the elements, art over nature. Needless to say, modern culture chose the latter."
What does this loss of reverence say about us? Where will it ultimately lead us? Many scientists and teachers believe that for the survival of the human race, we must teach children about animals and why we need them. Most scientists and teachers prefer, however, to keep their presentations on a purely scientific, factual level. This, I think, is our undoing. We need a shift in how we view the human race and our place in the world. Once we believe it is our place to "tame" and "conquer" the natural world, no amount of knowledge can overcome our belief.
We must begin to understand how humans and animals spiritually rely on each other. This aspect of spirituality is shunned by today's "pragmatists," yet spirit pervades our lives. What else could it be that gives people such a sense of renewal from their hikes in the wilderness? There is deep meaning in our wanting to take a walk, sit by a stream, enjoy birds at a feeder, or watch a herd of elk cross a meadow.
Manes makes the point well when he states that "different religions and denominations have their own distinct theological view … but … no one can doubt that our spiritual imaginations as a whole respond in a special way to the shapes, sounds, and behaviors of living creatures." He suggests that "past societies placed their moral and religious existence in a universe oriented toward other living things, while we increasingly turn our minds toward an abstract and inert realm of human artifacts, texts and machines."
Though we may not want to discuss this in public, it's evident in many aspects of our culture that people need to include animals in their lives. We glimpse this through our books and popular media, as well as the multimillion-dollar pet industry. We can't explain it, but people are drawn to animals. Perhaps Chief Seattle said it best when he said, "If all the animals were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit."
Some research suggests that people are drawn to animals that are more "like us." That's why we confer respect on "intelligent" animals, or those that are cuddly and charismatic. Animals are deemed more "worthy" if they are social and take care of their young. For better or worse, this type of attraction has been used to help educate people and save natural habitat. If you get people to buy into saving a large mammal or charismatic bird of prey, you can use the income to protect an entire ecosystem. I don't know if this does more harm or good. It gets the job done—but at what price to the quality of the general public's knowledge and understanding?
Sometimes I reflect on my past in order to figure out the influences that have led me down my path. Early on, I'd found animals appealing. When I was only a year old, my mother wrote in my baby book, "Likes the dog, likes being outdoors." That still describes who I am and how I live my life.
When I was a kid, I went camping and skiing in the Colorado Rockies. Being in the mountains was like going to church for me—I found peace, and I was thankful. Another influence on my life was having family pets and going horseback riding. I learned so much from my horse, Copper. It took me a year to earn his respect—but once we were a team, we understood each other.
Though my relationship with nature and animals is something I've been considering my whole life, I still have trouble expressing my values with regard to the animal kingdom. Though I have a deep empathy for animals, I am also a scientist. I understand the food web and the cycle of life and death—yet sometimes I question my career choice. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have zoos. They're intended to bring people into relationship with nature—but we must be careful not to "manufacture" the animals people want to see. Individual animals of endangered species may appear to have a sense of well-being at a zoo. We must be careful that we don't present a warped sense of reality by providing the public with images they desire to see instead of the truth.
One of the things I've done is to train dolphins. I've discovered that the moments that endear the animals to me don't happen during training sessions and shows, when I'm more or less in control—they hap- pen in between, when the animals are being their natural selves. One night I was leaving work and saw Connie, one of our dolphins, watching me through a glass wall in the main tank. The other dolphins were out swimming together, but not Connie. I was looking at her, and she was looking at me. Slowly she began to rise to the surface. I stood close to the glass wall, looking up to see what she was doing. To my surprise, she had lured me to the perfect spot. At that precise moment, she dumped onto my head what felt like a bucketful of water (actually it was just a mouthful). She then floated back down and just watched me. I was absolutely floored! If dolphins can laugh, I'm sure Connie was laughing at me—and probably thinking I was the biggest sucker in the world.
I've also worked with a couple young dolphins, Coral and Akea. I was teaching them a "slide-out"—that is, to come out of the water onto a platform, so the public can get a good look at them. Between sessions, I would walk by a lagoon, where Coral and Akea would pop their heads onto the platform without prompting. This had become a new game for them— one they initiated. Eventually, I started bringing people to this area for educational talks. We'd all sit along the dock and just talk about the animals. One day, Coral popped her whole head up, right into the lap of a little girl. Coral has popped up into the lap of an unsuspecting guest several times since—and the person she responds to is always a child. I can't explain the experiences from a scientific point of view—but the encounters are always very tender, and I treasure each one.
There's something mysteriously moving about dolphins—not just to me but to many others as well—and it is not about their being cute, friendly, or humanlike. I'm not sure where the passion comes from, but it burns from within—a reverence for life that can move you unexpectedly with unbelievable emotion.
I believe people's innate link with animals is what makes television shows and children's books about animals so popular. It's also why people own pets.
Children's books about animals are more than mere entertainment. They continue to teach us. Stories can add that "wow" factor to the cold, hard facts. Even anthropomorphic approaches have their place, as they teach us empathy toward animals and other people. I grew up reading Walter Farley's The Black Stallion and Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague. These stories helped me to sense life from an animal's perspective.
There is a wide variety of books about exotic animals available in bookstores today. Some I never heard of as a child. I didn't hear the term "rain forest" until I went to college. Today, an average six-year-old can usually tell me all about it. There are also many wonderful fiction stories about animals from other countries. Such books are wonderful tools in helping to teach basic science concepts and bringing to life exotic animals we seldom have the opportunity to see.
Still, there is a type of book that is not often touched upon. We need more books that raise the questions "Where do people fit into the environment?" and "How do people and animals connect?" This would add back the reverence for what animals have sacrificed for us. Hopefully, books of the future will educate our children to their own role in the web of life—so they don't just pick up a steak at a local market without being conscious of what it involves.
Books help children explore their feelings about animals in this complicated society. Sometimes books even help us look at ourselves from an animal's point of view. As a naturalist and zoo educator, children's books help me go beyond flat science concepts to touch a child's spirit and soul.
It is not for me to dictate what others should feel about animals, nor can I define what role animals will play in the lives of others. I just want people to keep being "wowed," by their encounters with animals—for people to keep wondering and searching for the truth about animals in their own lives.
Blount, Margaret. "Where There Are No People." In Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction, pp. 267-83. New York, N.Y.: Avon Books, 1974.
Presents a study of various animal-centric utopias in children's literature.
Gose, Elliott. "Epic Integration: Watership Down." In Mere Creatures: A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children, pp. 122-34. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
Portrays Watership Down as an epic animal fantasy with resonances of the stories of Ernest Thompson Seton.
Mills, Sophie. "Pig in the Middle." Children's Literature in Education 31, no. 2 (June 2000): 107-24.
Relates how the humanity of pigs allows them to serve as a figurative tool "for exploring themes relating to human transition" in several works of children's literature including Charlotte's Web.
Stott, Jon C. "Animal Stories." In Children's Literature from A to Z: A Guide to Parents and Teachers, pp. 15-18. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.
Discusses the differences between fantastic and realistic animal stories for children.