Litter-ary Cats: Mark Twain, Animal Advocate in Fact and Fiction
Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.
Nearly everyone has heard this quote, though not perhaps in its full context, but it certainly clearly states Twain’s opinion of felines. It doesn’t appear in any published writing, but in his notebooks (Notebook 33, typescript pp. 56–57).
Though Twain clearly likes cats and lived with quite a number—up to 19 at one time—he also wrote fondly of other animals in his novels, short stories, essays and notebooks. Animals often symbolized or outright bespoke his opinions about current politics, social issues or people in general.
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
~The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, chap. 16.
While Twain’s animals led him or his fictional characters to conclusions, or he might ponder and consider just what they were thinking as they laid in the sun or grazed on grass or trotted purposefully into town, they rarely ever spoke themselves, talking to humans or each other. Just a few stories allow this, as in A Horse’s Tale, when one horse answers another’s question of whether or not he is educated:
Well, no, I can’t claim it. I can take down bars, I can distinguish oats from shoe-pegs, I can blaspheme a saddle-boil with the college-bred, and I know a few other things—not many; I have had no chance, I have always had to work; besides, I am of low birth and no family…
That horse is as smart as he needs to be, though he’s never had any formal education, and that was Twain’s opinion of education, that it needed to come from life as well as books and that you did as well as you could with what you were given.
And then there is “Letters from a Dog to Another Dog Explaining and Accounting for Man”. You can just imagine what the dogs have to say. You can find it in the book I reference below—read it and others so you can sit and have a good read and a good laugh.
Perhaps it’s partly because America was still largely a rural agricultural society that animals appear all over Twain’s writings, but I’ve read authors from the same times and places and they might mention harnessing the cart horse and nothing else. It’s clear that Twain really loved and respected animals, and in the day when animals were largely kept for their use to humans, first his mother then he and his wife Olivia were advocates for humane treatment of animals.
Twain was writing primarily between 1850 and 1910. The first SPCA in the US was founded in 1866 in New York; American Humane, founded to help both animals and children, was founded in 1877. Clearly animal welfare was in its infancy, yet he was writing directly about how animals should be treated, and also dispensing advice to persons about how to treat animals and incorporating that into his notebooks and letters.
Stories and wood engravings, “Mark Twain’s Book of Animals”
While I find anything by Twain to be a good read, to focus on his writings about animals look for a 2010 book entitled Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, a compilation edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin with expressive wood engravings by Barry Moser that show incredible animal personality. Fishkin compiled all of Twain’s writings about (and by) animals into this one volume including many works, some only a brief paragraph in length, that had never before been published. His writings are divided by decades beginning with 1850 with a full table of contents in front and title and content indices in the back. The 30-plus wood engraving illustrations in the book and on the covers were created for this book, not pulled from other sources, and many are humorous in their own right; I can tell you I’m going to explore wood engravings very soon. I checked my copy out of my local public library, but this may be one I need to own.
Specifically for cat lovers is a children’s book Twain “wrote” that was actually derived from his bedtime stories to his daughters about two cats named Cattaraugus and Catiline who fight often and have different goals for their day, just like the two sisters. A Cat-tale was written down by Twain from the favorites of the stories and also illustrated with line drawing by Twain as well.
Find these two books, and enjoy yourself!
I had seen in several places photos of one group of Twain’s cats, and I found them on a website with quotes from Twain about cats as well as a portrait of him sitting in a chair with a cat tucked in by his hip and some other really wonderful illustrations plus lots of quotes and stories. This is at www.twainquotes.com, and his cat quotes are specifically on www.twainquotes.com/Cats.html.
So now I’ll close with another Twain quote many cat lovers are familiar with:
A home without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?
~The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, chap. 1
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2 thoughts on “Litter-ary Cats: Mark Twain, Animal Advocate in Fact and Fiction”
I love this!
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