Mark Twain wasn’t just a riverboat pilot, a raconteur, a mustache pioneer, and one of the great early American celebrity-authors: He was also an animal rights activist. The new Twain compilation Mark Twain’s Book of Animals (University of California Press) explores Twain’s treatment of animals —in literature and in life—throughout his career and arrives at an inescapable conclusion: He was a softie when it came to the beasts. Twain may have come to largely despise what he famously called “the damned human race,” yet he turned into a puddle of mush at the sight of a kitten.
In her introduction, editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin traces Twain’s sympathy for animals to his youth and especially to his mother, who kept a house full of cats with names like Blatherskite and Belchazar and once soundly berated a man in the street for beating his horse. Fisher Fishkin also digs up evidence that a formative experience for Twain was his shooting of a bird as a child, an act he deeply regretted. In the previously unpublished “Family Sketch,” he writes:
. . . I shot a bird that sat in a high tree, with its head tilted back, and pouring out a grateful song from an innocent heart. It toppled from its perch and came floating down limp and forlorn and fell at my feet, its song quenched and its unoffending life extinguished. I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood.
Fisher Fishkin goes on to follow the threads of Twain’s animal fascinations and sympathies in his writings, from his early celebrated story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” to his “Letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society,” which is perhaps the best known expression of his views on animal cruelty. “From 1899 until his death in 1910,” writes Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain lent his pen to reform efforts on both sides of the Atlantic and became the best-known American author—and, indeed, the most famous American celebrity in any field—to give outspoken, public support to agitation for animal welfare.”