Growing up as a vegetarian in rural England in the ’90s, I was sometimes under the impression that my lifestyle was unusual—if not radical. In recent years, vegetarianism (and reduced-meat diets) have become more mainstream even in rural areas.
With time I’ve come to realize that there have always been vegetarians and vegetarian communities. Perhaps the more interesting ones for me are the artists and thinkers who go against the grain, choosing to think and live differently from the people around them. There is sometimes difficulty in ascertaining the validity of claims that certain historical figures actually followed a vegetarian lifestyle. For Da Vinci we have both Giorgio Vasari’s accounts and the letters between Andrea Corsali and Da Vinci’s patron Giuliano de’ Medici as convincing sources; for Pythagoras we have a number of ancient sources, as well as his enduring legacy. My awareness of Albert Einstein’s vegetarianism comes from primary sources—letters to Hans Muehsam and Max Kariel.
I will employ the term “vegetarian sentiment” here, as vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies before they are followed through in lifestyle and dietary choices. There are many writers and thinkers who advocate for vegetarianism and/or animal rights but still consume flesh meat. There’s Alice Walker, who I’ll talk about in more detail later; there’s Voltaire, who argued fervently against Descartes’s belief that animals were mere machines (though he may have been a practicing vegetarian based on what he writes in Dictionnaire Philosophique: “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”
Anna Sewell, through her children’s novel Black Beauty, taught young and old readers about how to treat both animals and humans with kindness—and in turn spurred progression in the animal welfare movement.
Raskolinov’s fearful horse dream in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is symbolic of what is soon to come—though also revelatory of what the author feels about animals. In his later novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a discussion between Alyosha and the elder Zosima:
Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us!
Suffragists who fought for women’s rights were also heavily involved in campaigning against vivisection and the consumption of meat. Many suffragists thought that the adoption of a vegetarian diet could herald a new world where women were not confined to the kitchens. Carol J. Adams writes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (extract obtained from Stuff Mom Never Told You):
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights, and Vegetarianism.”
Recently a friend came to me asking for a recommendation for vegetarian literature. I was taken a little off guard, for I have never actively searched for books on vegetarianism. Why read to be convinced of an opinion I already share? Though I realized that I had read books by vegetarian authors (of fiction), and writers who have expressed a vegetarian sentiment. And though I couldn’t answer his question, it compelled me to pick up work by authors whose experiences of (and sometimes motivations for) vegetarianism were entirely different from my own.
While far from exhaustive, I shall discuss some among them here.
1. Franz Kafka
Max Brod is often remembered as the friend who wouldn’t burn Franz Kafka’s life’s work, as was asked of him by Kafka, instead publishing it posthumously. If it were not for his refusal to follow his friend’s instructions, we might not have stories such as The Metamorphosis and The Castle. But Brod was also a prolific published writer during his lifetime, and he eventually became Kafka’s biographer. Much of what we know about Kafka comes from Brod, including his experimentation with different diets—in part to ease his lifelong sickness.
One of the most striking images from Franz Kafka: A Biography is where Brod recalls how Kafka, a recently turned strict vegetarian, once visited the Berlin aquarium:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more.” …
Among my notes I find something else that Kafka said about vegetarianism…He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. “What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people.”
In a letter from Brod to Kafka’s fiancee Felice Bauer, Brod writes:
After years of trial and error Franz has at last found the only diet that suits him, the vegetarian one. For years he suffered from his stomach; now he is as healthy and as fit as I have ever known him. Then along come his parents, of course, and in the name of love try to force him back into eating meat and being ill—it is just the same with his sleeping habits. At last he has found what suits him best, he can sleep, can do his duty in that senseless office, and get on with his literary work. But then his parents…This really makes me bitter.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer returns to fellow Jewish writer Kafka’s moment at the Berlin aquarium throughout his first nonfiction work, Eating Animals. The book is the result of three years spent immersed in the world of animal agriculture. This was in part motivated by a desire to make an informed decision about what to feed his newborn son—but also to become more resolved with regard to his wavering vegetarianism. He makes the invisible realities for factory-farmed animals visible for himself and the reader, forcing us to think about what is impaled on our forks.
Eating Animals is essentially his own denunciation of factory farming, but it is also a reflection on the culture that surrounds meat eating: the history of ambivalence toward carnism; societal hypocrisies; the myth of consent and other stories cultures create for themselves to justify slaughter; the language we use to devalue some animals but place value in others that we love as companions.
In several places, Safran Foer refers back to that moment when Kafka looks at fish at the Berlin aquarium. He uses Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Kafka’s animal tales to frame this part of his own story. Benjamin tells us how Kafka’s animals are “receptacles of forgetting,” while shame—as paraphrased by Safran Foer—is “a response and a responsibility before invisible others.”
“What had moved Kafka to become vegetarian?” asks Safran Foer:
A possible answer lies in the connection Benjamin makes, on the one hand, between animals and shame, and on the other, between animals and forgetting. Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate satisfaction.
Shame doesn’t just prompt forgetting about the animals we harm. “What we forget about animals,” writes Safran Foer, “we begin to forget about ourselves.”
During the spring of 2007, Safran Foer lived in Berlin with his family, and they would visit the aquarium Kafka had visited the previous century—and like him, they would stare into the tanks at the sea life. “As a writer aware of that Kafka story, I came to feel a certain kind of shame at the aquarium,” he writes. Among the various manifestations of shame he experienced: shame at feeling “grossly inadequate” compared to his hero, shame at being a Jew in Berlin:
And then there was the shame in being human: the shame of knowing that twenty of the roughly thirty-five classified species of seahorse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed “unintentionally” in seafood production. The shame of indiscriminate killing for no nutritional necessity or political cause or irrational hatred or intractable human conflict.
For Safran Foer, remembering thwarts forgetting when he visits the kill floor of Paradise Locker Meats and looks into the eyes of a pig who is minutes away from being slaughtered; he didn’t quite feel at ease being the pig’s last sight, though what he felt wasn’t quite shame either. “The pig wasn’t a receptacle of my forgetting,” he writes. “The animal was a receptacle of my concern. I felt—I feel—relief in that. My relief doesn’t matter to the pig. But it matters to me.”
3. Alice Walker
“KNOW what the caged bird feels,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a poem entitled “Sympathy.” With this poem, Dunbar—who was born to parents who had been enslaved before the American Civil War—opened up this dreaded comparison between human and animal slavery. The line was borrowed by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Most will feel uncomfortable with comparisons between animal suffering and human suffering—the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison acknowledges this. The African-American writer and self-described womanist Alice Walker, known best perhaps for The Color Purple, prefaced Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial title. Walker writes, “It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognize its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially so, if we are the descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are also responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals.”
Though Walker acknowledges the difficulty of this comparison, she concludes that she agrees with Spiegel’s line of reason: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. This is the gist of Spiegel’s cogent, humane and astute argument, and it is sound.”
Walker is not a vegetarian. In a book entitled The Chicken Chronicles, the author writes about her relationship with her flock of chickens. Rather than turn her head, Walker confronts her food vis-à-vis—in this way, the chicken is not a receptacle of her forgetting. Interviewer Diane Rehm expressed surprise upon learning that Walker eats birds. “I know, I know. It’s a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I’ve been a vegetarian,” replied Walker, “but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.”
Vegetarianism, or veganism, is something to which Walker seems to aspire, though. To an audience at Emory University, the author talks about her love of cows and says she is glad she doesn’t eat them. She then recites a short poem she wrote for an Italian friend who wanted help giving up meat, “La Vaca”:
She does not think
4. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The comparison between human and animal slavery is not the only dreaded comparison; the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has become the classic reference for comparisons between intensive farming and the Holocaust. In “The Letter Writer,” he wrote, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Singer was born in a village near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi, while his mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. Singer seemed destined to become a rabbi, too, though a brief enrollment at a rabbinical school turned him off the idea. He worked brief stints in a number of fields before emigrating to the United States, fearful of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. In New York City he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish-language newspaper before penning his own novels and short stories, including The Slave and The Family Moskat.
Vegetarianism crops up often in his work. Yet it is nowhere near as explicit as in “The Slaughterer,” a short story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1967 and now resides in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story follows Yoineh Meir, a Jew who—like Singer—seems destined to become a rabbi. A competitor takes Meir’s place, and instead he is offered the role of the town’s ritual slaughterer. The career causes him daily anguish and eventually leads to his own untimely demise. The story is graphic and bloody, the protagonist sensitive and empathetic toward all living creatures:
Yoneih Meir no longer slept at night. If he dozed off, he was immediately beset by nightmares. Cows assumed human shape, with beards, and skullcaps over their horns. Yoineh Meir would be slaughtering a calf, but it would turn into a girl. Her neck throbbed, and she pleaded to be saved. She ran to the study house and splattered the courtyard with her blood. He even dreamed that he had slaughtered [his wife] instead of a sheep.
Yoineh Meir extends his love toward all animals when he realizes what it means to kill one. Later in the narrative, Singer writes that “when you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”
5. J.M. Coetzee
In his metafictional novella The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s alter ego and fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university’s annual literary seminary. Rather than talk about literature, she decides to talk about animal cruelty and in several places compares the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust:
The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka—Poles, for the most part—said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake. …
I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. …
It was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies.
We know Coetzee is a vegetarian and active animal rights advocate, though in The Lives of Animals it becomes difficult to distinguish between Elizabeth Costello’s views and J. M. Coetzee’s. He has written several op-eds for the Sydney Herald about beliefs we can safely say are his own.
In one article, Coetzee criticizes the manner in which consumers tend to idealize family farms:
It would be a mistake to idealize traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
In another, Coetzee expresses his optimism concerning the compassion of children: “It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.”
6. V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a visceral response to the sight and smell of meat. Naipaul was born in Trinidad; unusual among Indian laborers in the Caribbean region, Naipaul’s paternal grandfather was a Brahmin—the highest ranked caste among Hindus in India. Naipaul’s father also claimed this distinction, though the validity of his claim is less clear. Often, due to general caste rules, Brahmins distinguish themselves from other castes by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. All Hindus aspire to transcend this life through self-realization—halting the transmigration from one body to the next. To do so, in their daily lives they must act in accordance with the tenets of Sattva Guna (mode of goodness) laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which includes the abstention of flesh meat.
For many Hindus who follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, the ideological reasons for not eating animals are still ever present—for others, it is merely a distinction inherited from the cultural context into which they were born. I don’t know which category Naipaul fits into. He has, to the best of my knowledge, never spoken openly about any ideological reason for his vegetarianism.
He has, however, written about his disgust at the sight of meat. What is perhaps the first mention is in his early work Between Father and Son: Family Letters. A young Naipaul received a scholarship to study at Oxford, where he found himself struggling with depression and loneliness. In a bid to bridge the distance between continents, he wrote letters to his family—a correspondence that lasted four years and ended with the death of his father. In a letter to his elder sister Kamla, dated Sept. 21, 1949, he recapitulates a distressing situation during an Old Boy’s Association dinner: “Special arrangements, I was informed after dinner, had been made for me but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in different ways—now fried, now boiled.” Turtle soup was served to the other diners; being vegetarian, Naipaul asked the manager for corn soup instead. “He ignored this and the waiter bought me a plateful of green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette.”
7. Leo Tolstoy
Vegetarianism was the focal point of several of his essays and tied in with his pre-existing beliefs in the benefits of abstinence. In On Civil Disobedience, for example, Tolstoy writes, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”
Tolstoy originally wrote The First Step as the foreword to The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. In it, Tolstoy encourages readers to practice harmlessness: “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” He also suggests that vegetarianism is humanity’s natural state: “So strong is humanity’s aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”
He wrote extensively about violence, and in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi published later as A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy convinced Gandhi to use nonviolent resistance to gain independence from the British colonial rule in the Indian peninsula. In his essay “What I Believe,” Tolstoy emphasizes his conviction that we become more violent by inflicting suffering upon animals: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”
Four years after Tolstoy’s death, his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov wrote an article for London-based The Vegetarian News to celebrate Tolstoy’s “great service to the vegetarian movement” during the last 23 years of his life. The article ends like this:
I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”
Books are sacred objects. Books are garbage. Between, the books with badly bent covers on the parsons tables of Midas Muffler and orthopedists’ waiting rooms. Books bought by the yard to complement the colors in the redecorated den. The tumbled remainders of remainders on the dollar store shelf, Geoff Dyer next to Christian fiction. The gorgeously designed new releases presented on the tabletops of independent bookstores as if they were hand-painted confections in a vitrine at Teuscher. Then there is the final stop, where some books are no longer figurative garbage. They are actual trash.
I no longer go to church, since here in the Catskills we have the dump. Ours is the purest iteration of the cathedral: on a windswept rise under a ceiling of sky, the enclosing mountains the choir waiting silently to begin. Beneath the metal eaves of a soaring peaked roof, mortal leavings gather.
The dump’s offering plate is a discarded sideboard on which parishioners jettison belongings someone else might yet find useful. Old plates. Used mugs. Videotapes (Sylvester Stallone in his salad days, Jane Fonda in very small workout wear, cartoon features once prized by children). Stuffed animals. Inscrutable decorations for such holidays as the Festooning of the Kitchen with Inspirational Adages on Little Faux Chalkboards. Books. Boxes and boxes of books, soaking up the ambient humidity and anything that might have spilled on its way to interment in the great roll-off sepulchers that swallow couches, wheels that will never roll again, and black plastic bags in their hundreds. Books that are no longer wanted, because—Long-ago read? Owners moved, downsizing, died? Gifts from now-despised givers?
Here is where a book reaches the bottom of the narrative ladder that, as in Black Beauty, describes life’s trajectory ever downward, unless, at the end sudden redemption plucks the unfortunate from final doom. I root through piles of superannuated World Book Encyclopedias and Ultimate Grill cookbooks and find what I am looking for but did not know I was. More than occasionally slightly mildewed, but that’s not always a disqualifier.
These are the definition of a gift. They stir the rescuer’s impulse; they recall past happy lives spent in narrow aisles of the Strand, sitting on the floor at the old used-textbook annex of the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, book barns and yard sales and stoop sales. Not that I’ve never offloaded books myself. A library fair finally received the collection of philosophy and Middle English works I realized, after boxing and unboxing them through the course of several moves, would never be cracked again. I don’t like to get rid of books, though I do—they tell a personal history, I imagine with obvious false hope, my grandchildren will one day be fascinated to trace. Never at the dump, though. I use the dump for retrieval only.
Today the gems do not hide. They are in their open box. Today’s trash is the complete Emily Dickinson in hardcover, with dust jacket. Today’s detritus is an unread Penguin Classics Don Quixote. Today’s undesirable is Of Human Bondage in a Modern Library edition. The sight of a virgin Penguin is alluring enough. But it’s the running torchbearer on the cover of a Modern Library that rouses an atavistic urge sharp as hunger. The Modern Library editions my parents collected when they were in college were the backdrop against which the cinema of life unreeled. Of course I would collect them myself as soon as I was on my own. I was the reader envisioned by Boni & Liveright in 1917 when they conceived the Modern Library imprint: eager to attain culture in the form of immortal literature, but short-pocketed.
I begin reading that night. Philip, the misplaced orphan, who is like a book and also like Maugham himself, finds lost volumes on a shelf. Philip’s severe guardian bought books reflexively but did not read much: “he forgot the odd lots he had bought at one time and another because they were cheap.” And so, among the dry dust of pedagogy, Philip finds some real “old-fashioned novels.” As he read, he forgot “the life about him” and “formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.” How had I missed Maugham before?
What you had forgotten, the dump remembers. It addresses all manner of grave omissions and gaps. That is what I want to believe, and at my place of worship I believe anything I wish.
Whatever led these books to have been discarded sometime close to my Friday 11 a.m. visit? I don’t know. Happenstance is a meaningless miracle with no origin. The dump and what you find there, or don’t, is just one of those things.
I open the cover and see this was a book meant for the long haul, for possession and the permanent shelf. The original owner had affixed a bookplate. These delightful claims on the posterity of one’s books have fallen into disuse. Because the idea of building a library—a lasting monument to character—has itself fallen into disuse in days when it is a moral superiority to get rid of the “unuseful.” The plate is an atmospheric woodcut depicting two figures (or perhaps the same one in a time-lapse portrayal of hope), one defeated and one who has risen to gesture aspiringly at the night sky. Ad Astra reads its legend—To the Stars.
In another two weeks my own garbage has piled up warningly, predictable as few things are anymore. The lids on the recycling bins are askew, plastic and tin looking to make their escape. So I load the truck again. I don’t permit myself to look at the old sideboard until I’ve finished my final task: a walk down the hill to the scrap metal mountain, there to toss with a clang the Christmas tree holder that’s outlived its usefulness. Then I head back up and into the nave, eye searching for the telltale heap of cardboard boxes that signals ripe pickings. No such luck. There is only one small box on the ground; I fear an old Thermos or, worse, pot holders. Instead—and this I swear, for only a sociopath lies in church—there are only two books. I am suddenly struck, or struck back to the moment where you get born again.
I have been an atheist for decades, but I have also long bent to collect pennies from the dirt, believing them portents of luck. The dump embraces both aspects of an inexplicable persistence. It is a place of generosity. It is an oracle. Today I think I was right about the church part. Maybe only god can help us now. But first, I look well at what is found by chance at the same time it is put right in my hands.
Image Credit: Maxpixel.
Books are our first, and sometimes best, teachers. I inherited the books of my older brothers. While they were away at college, I went into their rooms and stacked and arranged the titles by color and letter. My two favorite relics from their childhood were Punt, Pass and Kick and The How and Why Wonder Book of Stars. The diagrams of movement across the gridiron reminded me of the constellation maps. I appreciated that athletic bodies and celestial bodies were in constant motion, and yet might be captured in a single glance.
I was years away from the writing instruction of workshops and line edits, or the training of literary analysis. Those early years of reading were charged with the stuff of raw imagination. After I exhausted the books of my brothers, my parents took me to the library and used book sales. I wanted to run and play basketball, but I also wanted to read until I fell asleep, chin planted on open pages. My father had been a college football player who studied theology; my mother read history and poetry and told stories with layers and layers of detail. I was raised to appreciate words and to embrace wonder.
It might be because I teach young students, but I am endlessly fascinated by the routes of our reading lives. I seek interviews with writers because I look for their origin stories. I want to pinpoint the moment reading became a life-breathing activity. I am particularly drawn to the memories of writers whose imaginations remains raw and jarring; writers who are “charged,” to borrow the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I contacted six writers with such imaginations, and am happy to share their memories about the books that were most formative during their childhoods.
1. Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians:
It’s hard to grow up in the American West and not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books at a young age, and I was in love with the whole pioneer narrative. Like Laura, my parents had traveled far to make a home in the West. I also came to love the simplicity of her language and her storytelling. She had no sentimentality. She would so matter-of-factly say the worst news: Mary was blind. The crops failed. It was a sad day though when I realized Laura and I would not have been friends. Her ma hated Indians (albeit the other kind), and the books weren’t that kind to others or brown people. But I marveled over her making a lot out of little — sewing, canning, simple pleasures. But I mostly connected with how Laura loved the land—the prairies and woods, the sky and open– which were so important to me as a little girl in Wyoming.
Since my parents both grew up in colonized countries — India and Ireland, much of what they read as children was British. So, as a little girl, I was introduced to Enid Blyton, who seemed to be the most prolific writer ever. She wrote several series from the Famous Five and Secret Seven to scores of boarding school narratives like The O’Sullivan Twins or The Naughtiest Girl. But what I loved were her fairy stories. She wrote a trilogy about a magic tree which started with The Enchanted Wood. In the book, three children found a magic tree, and climbed it — and at the top was a series of ever-changing lands — The Land of Birthdays, The Land of Sweets. I think as a brown kid living in Wyoming, these books were the ultimate in escapism. I was transported into a forest in England where the world was constantly shifting. I found this extremely comforting. I would often find myself climbing the big cottonwood tree in our backyard, hoping I would be taken away by something bigger than me.
2. William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark:
In the late 1980s, Time-Life Books had a popular, 33-volume series called Mysteries of the Unknown. At 11 years old, I didn’t know enough to be irked by the redundant title — all mysteries are unknown: that’s the definition of “mystery” — and so I grabbed the phone (Time-Life advertised on television) and soon began receiving books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, poltergeists and Sasquatch, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Pyramid of Giza, werewolves and vampires and witches. For a cradle Roman Catholic reared in only one acceptable species of the supernatural, these titles seemed great feats of transgression and betrayal, fonts of the extraordinary and occult, a concussion of the spiritual and the cerebral, the factual and the fantastical. The books were mostly cascades of conjecture and fatuity, of course, but they rubbed against my imagination in all the ways I needed then. Mystery is another word for hope; monsters are how we make sense of ourselves. New Jersey seemed so drab without them. In the years after the Time-Life series, I’d be found by Poe and Stoker, by Stevenson and Wells, and then it was off into the more “serious” stuff: important books, yes, but hardly ever as wondrous.
3. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of Bone Map:
I remember loving Black Beauty and A Little Princess, which was my mother’s favorite book as a girl (and one reason for my name, which has no “h!”). I also read a lot of series meant for young girls — Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, the Ramona Quimby books — though my absolute favorite series was Goosebumps. R.L. Stine wrote the original series in my prime formative reading years, from 1992 (when I was eight years old) to 1997 (when I was 13), and I was always so excited when a new one came out. My early love of Goosebumps (as well as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series) blossomed into the unapologetic affection for the horror genre I have today, a lonely affection to have in adulthood! But my favorite book as a child was probably The Giver, which, like many in my generation, I read for English class at the beginning of sixth grade. It was my first taste of dystopia, and so, in some ways, the first challenge to my world, and the first literary protagonist with whom I truly felt a kinship. When Jonas receives from the Giver the unwieldy collection of memories his monotone community has buried — of pain, war, starvation, but also pleasure and art — he becomes isolated and lonely in a way I think that I sometimes felt then, as a shy child without siblings. In the Receiving process, memory is a physical phenomenon literally subsumed and experienced by the body, as when Jonas receives the memory of a broken leg and feels as if his leg is broken — an early reminder that these entities we often consider purely psychological, such as memory, language, and dream, have physical and even physiological presences. I never read the rest of the books in the series, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I think perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book — one of its lessons for even adult authors — is how it ends, in that it doesn’t quite end, leaves us in the aperture of uncertainty: “Behind him, across the vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.”
4. Dimitry Elias Léger, author of God Loves Haiti:
The books that absolutely rocked my world as a kid, before my 10th grade teacher introduced me to The New York Times Book Review and Great Classic Literature, were a French series dating back to the early 20th century. You see, the first novels I read were in French because I lived in Haiti from ages eight to 14. Somewhere around the age of 10 probably I met Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. The clever master of disguise starred in 16 novels and 36 short stories starting in 1905. The novels were thrilling. As befitting a French answer to the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Lupin was a darkly humorous lady-killer. Come to think of it, he may well indeed be a good precursor to James Bond. I devoured Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin stories, and, during summer vacations in New York City, the books that slayed my pre-teen imagination were Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Phoenix Saga may very well be the greatest, most epic comic story of all time, much as the love story of Cyclops, with his death-ray eyes, and Jean Grey, an unsuspecting world consuming telepath, was the most riveting love story. The tragic story of the brooding band of mutants and the stories of a leaping, thieving lover of Parisian rooftops and the jewels of Parisian nobles were my favorite books as a kid. These series’ gentle high-low balance rewards rereads to this day.
5. Tony Ardizzone, author of The Whale Chaser:
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the oldest boy in a large working-class Italian-American family. We lived in a basement flat, then a second-floor flat across the street from a liquor store, and finally in a brick two-flat, with tenants upstairs. I grew up in a house without books. We always had newspapers — when I was a boy Chicago had four daily newspapers — because my father sold newspapers. I went to Roman-Catholic schools and read the books they gave us: the Baltimore Catechism (much of which I still know by heart) and Bible stories. In school after lunch each day, the Sister of Christian Charity who taught us read to the class a chapter or so from a series of books about a boy named Tom Playfair, a rough-and-tumble kid sent off to Catholic school, who had to struggle to live up to his name.
After we moved to the brick two-flat in Chicago’s Edgewater district, I discovered a mobile library van parked about six blocks away, and I got a library card and checked out as many books as I could carry. The librarian often questioned me, asking if I was sure I could read all the books I wanted in one week. I told her I could, and I did. Reading was a sort of sanctuary to me. Our flat was small and our family had a lot of kids and reading was a way for me to be by myself for a while. I read every book the mobile van had about dinosaurs. I also read what were considered the classics at the time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, an edited version of Moby Dick. I supplemented these books by reading every Classic Illustrated comic I could get my hands on. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Time Machine were among my favorites. I often read these while standing around those circular comic book displays in a neighborhood drugstore. When the owner yelled for me to quit browsing, I’d do my best to remember my place, then pick up the comic the next time I was in the store.
A middle-aged woman cashier in the grocery store where I was often sent to buy milk and eggs took a liking to me and one day gave me a big, marvelous hardback anthology of dog stories. The book had a blue cover. I wish I still had it. I read and re-read every story in the book several times. Best of all, it was my book, not one I’d have to return to the mobile library van on Saturday morning.
My turning point came years later when I was in high school. On Saturdays my friends and I would go down to Chicago’s Old Town, where we’d knock around the neighborhood. I always ended up spending hours in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street. It was a big, wonderful place, full of books and posters and poetry on placards and broadsides up on the walls. It was there in Barbara’s Bookstore that I saw a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, Coney Island of the Mind. It knocked me out. I never before realized that poetry could be written this way. The book made me truly want to be writer.
6. Christa Parravani, author of Her:
Most every street of our Tarawa Terrace neighborhood on Camp Lejeune was named after a battle: Bougainville drive. Inchon Street. Iowa Jima Boulevard. The battle of Tarawa was for a small Pacific atoll in 1943. The battle of growing up with a Marine stepfather, was he believed that children should be seen and not heard.
Marines have a way of saying things. Houses are housing. Dinner is chow. A bed is a rack. Teeth are fangs. But get lost was still get lost.
I escaped silently into books. I read whatever my teachers gave me.
I was 13 the summer my stepfather left. The Persian Gulf War was televised that January. I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried not too long after. The novel was live in my hands, my first real touch of literature’s flame. The story of Vietnam, how it haunted every military family I knew, how its lure was part of me like my family’s story was. My stepfather may not have loved me, but I had to love him, and those years on Lejeune gave me a love of country, of the fighter. O’Brien opened my heart with a story that arguably has nothing to do with a teenage girl. But I’d shut up for far too long. The war was alive in me.
A biography, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is “an account of a person’s life written, composed, or produced by another.” Yet, in recent years, a number of writers have been stretching this definition. Nowadays, human beings are no longer the sole suitable subjects for a biography, which is coming to mean an account of just about anything’s life, or history, or essence. These things include cities, literary forms, integers, currency, animals, and automobiles, to name a few.
Why are people writing biographies of such things now? Is it because contemporary writers are more imaginative and open-minded than their predecessors? Or are they simply more desperate for subject matter that hasn’t already been chewed to death? Or could it be some combination of the two?
While I don’t claim to know the answer, I do have a theory that the expanding field of worthy subjects for biographies is related to the expanding field of worthy subjects for serious academic and historical inquiry. The latest example of this high-low trend is Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s current bestseller, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It joins a growing shelf of serious books about such everyday objects as salt, cod, pop songs, and the pencil (and, yes, how to sharpen a pencil).
Here is a sampling of a half dozen things that have become the subject of biographies by writers who have stretched the conventional definition of the form, to sometimes stunning effect.
Scott Martelle, a former reporter for The Detroit News, like so many people who grew up in Detroit or spent a sizeable chunk of time there, became fascinated by the place. The result is Detroit: A Biography, a book that makes no pretense of being an exhaustive history, but is, rather, “a book about life, and human nature, and about a city as a living and breathing thing.”
And it succeeds at telling the remarkable story of this city’s life, beginning with its “difficult childhood” as a French trading outpost in the early 18th century, its adolescence as a manufacturer of stoves, carriages and rail cars, its brawny adulthood as the center of the world’s automobile industry, and its surprisingly swift decline into decrepit old age. But Martelle, like many smart observers in recent years, does not write Detroit off, nor does he buy into the hackneyed theories about what caused the city to fall so far, so fast — such tidy scapegoats as the bloody 1967 riot, or the troubled 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young. The city’s population peaked in 1950, Martelle notes, the point at which government policies, corporate business practices, and century-old racial animosities began to drain the city of jobs and population.
“White flight wasn’t the only force emptying Detroit,” Martelle writes. “During the 1950s the Big Three automakers and other leading industrial concerns embarked on massive decentralization plans to build factories closer to regional customer bases around the country, but also to try to reduce one of the main pressure on profit margins: the cost of labor.” White flight was also greased by aggressive highway building and entrenched (and racist) real-estate policies that benefited the suburbs at the expense of the inner city. In hindsight, there was almost no way for Detroit to fail to fail.
This biography ends on a cautiously hopeful note. The Motor City may be gone forever — “Large-scale industry will not lead whatever comeback might be possible,” Martelle correctly writes — but he sees signs of hope, including a newly vibrant downtown, many solid neighborhoods, an influx of entrepreneurs, urban farmers, and creative people, a growing sense that Detroit still matters and that it still has a chance.
Recent developments indicate Martelle’s optimism might not be misplaced. His book was published in 2011, two years before Detroit became the largest city to declare bankruptcy in American history. The city has just emerged from bankruptcy, far more quickly than expected, and with many valuable assets, including its coveted Institute of Arts, intact. Maybe a new chapter is opening in the life story of this impossibly tortured, impossibly resilient city.
A Literary Form
In setting out to write the life story of our age’s dominant literary form, Michael Schmidt decided to bypass critics, historians, and, yes, biographers. Instead, The Novel: A Biography is “mainly told by novelists and through novels,” or what Schmidt, echoing Ford Madox Ford, calls “artist practitioners.” The book is staggering — it covers more than 700 years and runs to more than 1,000 pages. Jonathan Russell Clark tried to grasp the scope of Schmidt’s achievement in an essay here at The Millions, noting that a key to its success is the author’s avoidance of literary theory in favor of a dissection of literary influences. It proves to be a wise choice. And Schmidt, for all his erudition, isn’t shy about injecting his personal opinions, which contribute to this biography’s rumbustious vitality. He prefers David Foster Wallace’s essays to his novels; he disses Samuel Richardson and Michael Crichton; he’s very fond of Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, and Martin Amis; he adores Miguel de Cervantes; and he sticks up for Stephen King. In a nice bit of symmetry, he concludes that the novel is every bit as elastic as the elastic notion of biography that inspired him to write this book. The novel’s great strength, in Schmidt’s view, is its slipperiness, its ability to change shapes, its capacity to absorb material from endless sources, including music, art, history, life, and, of course, other novels. In a final twist, Clark argues in his essay that this biography isn’t a biography after all: “The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure ––the ultimate unreliable narrator — that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him.”
In his anecdotal, entertaining book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, the mathematician Charles Seife describes his subject as “infinity’s twin,” adding that “zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite. This is why it has been feared and hated — and outlawed.”
Ranging over 30,000 years, from the carvings of prehistoric man to the musings of today’s astrophysicists, Seife’s biography notes that Babylonians were using zero 300 years B.C., and Alexander the Great carried zero to India. But the resistance to zero in the West was not overcome until the Renaissance, with the advent of the vanishing point in art, an innovation that could accommodate the twinned concepts of zero and infinity. Since then it has proven useful to everyone from accountants to people trying to envision black holes as stars packed into “zero space.”
Seife concludes, “All that scientists know is that the cosmos was spawned from nothing, and will return to the nothing from whence it came. The universe begins and ends with zero.” A worthy subject for a biography, indeed.
Pity the poor almighty dollar. There are 760 billion of them circulating in the world, but two-thirds of them live far from home, in chilly places like the central bank vault in Seoul, South Korea. The dominant global currency since the end of the Second World War, the dollar has recently come under attack, most directly by the European Union’s solid euro and China’s newly muscular yuan, but also by shortsighted policies of the U.S. government. Things have gotten so dire that in his near-future satire, Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart has Americans spending nearly worthless “yuan-pegged dollars.” The funny thing about the joke is that it isn’t all that far-fetched.
In Biography of the Dollar, his story of the rise and suddenly precarious position of this once-almighty currency, Wall Street Journal reporter Craig Karmin lays out an astonishing fact. Since the United States went off the gold standard in 1971, the dollar’s value has been built on the thinnest of tissues: faith in the idea of America. And we all know how flimsy that is.
Karmin notes that the dollar’s historical solidity has done much to lift many global economies. But there is a downside: “Enduring demand for the dollar has also encouraged the United States to run up enormous — some would say unsustainable — foreign debts and record deficits.” The U.S., he adds, pays $1 million each day for every man, woman, and child living in the country — just to service its debt. Which leads Karmin to a scary conclusion: “Too many dollars may be circulating the planet and could be setting the greenback up for a big fall.” Which explains his subtitle: How the Mighty Buck Conquered the World and Why It’s Under Siege.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. And you might want to consider buying gold — or euros or yuan — while you’re at it.
Writing biographies about non-human subjects, it turns out, is not an invention of our times. Back in the late 19th century, a prolific author, wildlife artist, and environmentalist named Ernest Thompson Seton wrote a delightfully weird novel that purported to reveal the inner life of a grizzly bear. The Biography of a Grizzly tells the story of Wahb, a grizzly cub in western Canada who watches as his mother and three siblings are gunned down by a bad bag of applesauce named Old Colonel Pickett, the cattle king. The orphaned Wahb nurses his own wound and lives a long, lonely, bitter life, so traumatized by the killing of his family that he never takes a mate. Wahb is a sensitive giant, besieged by enemies on every side, as when a beaver trap snaps shut on his paw: “He did not know what it was, but his little green-brown eyes glared with a mixture of pain, fright and fury as he tried to understand his new enemy.”
The book was preceded by Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, which portrayed wolves and other animals as compassionate individualistic beings. It became one of the bestselling books of its day, part of a wave of books advocating animal rights by featuring anthropomorphic wild animals that had emotions and were capable of learning, teaching, and reasoning. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Jack London’s White Fang were part of the wave, which eventually inspired a backlash by critics who derided such books as “yellow journalism of the woods.” President Theodore Roosevelt, whose love for the outdoors was surpassed only by his love for slaughtering wild animals, weighed in with a magazine article in 2007, dismissing Seton and company as “nature fakers.” Teddy had nerve.
Earl Swift published a book this year called Auto Biography, which is, quite literally, the story of the life of a single car — a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Swift, a pit-bull of a reporter, tracked down the man who bought the shiny new car in Norfolk, Va., in 1957, and every one of the dozen people who have owned it since, right up to a bruiser named Tommy Arney who rescued the car from the scrap heap and lovingly restored it to its original glory. The car’s owners, Swift writes, represent “a cross section of America in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, all of them players in a single narrative for having sat behind the wheel of this Chevy.”
Swift’s ingenious narrative strategy reminds me of Marguerite Yourcenar’s in her novel A Coin In Nine Hands, which follows the journey of a 10-lira coin as it passes through the hands of nine very different people on a single day in Rome in 1933. These nine people, like the dozen owners of the ’57 Chevy, are linked in ways they cannot explain or understand. But in the hands of a gifted writer, just about anything — a car, a coin, a ring, a book, a smell, a memory — can be an opening into the mysteries of human connectivity.
In closing — and in the interest of full disclosure — I should tell you that my interest in the elastic nature of biography dates back more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, I was driving a luscious lipstick-red and black 1954 Buick Special, a car that became my Muse and a central character in my first novel, which told the story of a fictional publicity campaign built around the sale of the 500,000th Buick in 1954, when Buick and rival Plymouth were locked in an actual sales war for the number three slot behind Chevy and Ford. Since the novel’s arc followed that particular Buick from conception to birth to infancy — from the drawing board to the assembly line to the showroom to the first buyer’s driveway and finally onto a magazine cover — I came to think of the novel as the life story of the car. And so my working title was Biography of a Buick.
As publication neared, my editor contacted Buick’s PR people in Detroit, hoping they might somehow help us promote the book. Instead they bristled, threatening legal action if a General Motors brand name appeared in the title. My editor had no desire to go up against GM’s legal department, and so he persuaded me, kicking and screaming, to change the title to Motor City.
With time I’ve grown to like the title, maybe because I ended up getting a consolation prize. The novel also sold in Great Britain and Germany, and my publishers there, unfazed by the huffing of GM’s legal department, stuck with my original title. So the book came out in England as Biography of a Buick and in Germany as Biographie eines Buick. I got to have it both ways, and the life story of my car was destined to have a life of its own.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Compassion comes with age, with experience, with having walked the writer’s path over many years. But in the best sense, compassion is also profoundly, if paradoxically, simple. One spiritual tradition after another has pointed out that if you can give the external trappings of identity (house, car, job) no more meaning than they deserve, you can discover that you are just one container for a greater energy, a greater common ground of being you share with other creatures too. John Keats, that most famous young artist, wrote that “the camelion Poet” is “always filling some other body,” curious to experience reality as other beings understand it and to render it into art. His alert and precise observation extends the grounds of artistic vision – or compassion – to animals: “I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass,” he wrote in a letter of 1819. “[T]he creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”
Like Keats, and like that other 19th-century female recluse, Emily Dickinson, Anna Sewell (1820-1878) possessed a spiritual curiosity that pushed her imagination beyond the boundaries of bodies, even species. “The Victorian invalid” has become a cliché, yet Anna Sewell really was. From an active young womanhood, she declined into a state of dramatically poor health after breaking an ankle, eventually dying from symptoms resembling lupus. Her only book, Black Beauty, was written in painful fragments and dictated to her mother (with whom she lived her entire life), then published six months before her death at age 58. Yet in considering her life, I think of a favorite line from another writer who lived at home with her mother, Eudora Welty: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within.”
Consider this: Anna Sewell, spinster invalid, wrote one of the most influential and original books to come out of Victorian England. Influential? Original? Think about how omnipresent this book has been in your own life (as a child) or in the lives of children you know. Think about how writing such a book now would be equivalent to writing from the point of view of your Subaru — the transportation mode with a semblance of mechanical “life.” Now think about the radical twist of compassion, the Keatsian, world-opening change that happens (as it happens in childhood) when you realize that other beings are as real to themselves as you are to yourself, that, for example, the color orange as you see it might or might not be the same orange someone else sees. We need this realization, often. We need to be reminded that the world is bigger than just ourselves. And because Black Beauty is so simple — short chapters, limited-first-person narration “translated from the equine” — it’s easy to forget how radically it reminds us of just that.
In an essay for The Believer, Paul Collins places Black Beauty beside slave narratives, and another Victorian tradition: The Autobiography Of [insert overlooked object, person, or mysterious other here.] Among the “autobiographies” were those of lumps of coal—which takes me to George Orwell’s reflection, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), on his harrowing tour of a coal mine:
It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
Poor drudges, black bodies, blackened to the eyes: to a Victorian, this could describe coal miners, dirty housemaids, and the slaves freed throughout the Empire only in 1833, on whose working shoulders all of “civilized” life depended. It might describe horses, too, who are lower even than such lower people, because they lack language and reason. Or so we might think, until we read Black Beauty.
The genius of Sewell’s simple conceit — what would you learn if the horse that pulled your carriage every day could speak to you? — is that it upsets adult prejudices by returning us to the moral and imaginative porousness of childhood, where empathy wasn’t a conscious effort at all. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual, then, for your favorite stuffed toy to speak, because you were also secretly sure your cat or dog could understand everything you said and, in its own way, could talk back. As a bookish farm kid, I was convinced that horses and cats and dogs had their own personalities and systems of justice and love, inarguably better than bewildering human cruelties and rules. Black Beauty was confirmation of what I already knew, in my heart: people were mean, and they hurt the good and forbearing creatures around them every day, without knowing it. Sometimes those animals were horses. Sometimes they were pudgy preteen girls, locked in bodies that seemed as far from humanity as anything that neighed or barked or curled up at the foot of the bed, purring, to sleep. Black Beauty was vital therefore in igniting a sense of justice, the basis for which was already there: the strong may hurt the weak, but the weak never, never lose the right to say this is unfair and hope that someone else will hear.
Black Beauty does not speculate about human motivations, which are unknowable to him; he only reports what he feels, hears, and sees. Sometimes these are lyrical evocations of the English countryside:
The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end.
Sometimes these are his own sensations, defamiliarized:
Every one may not know what breaking in is, therefore I will describe it. It means to teach a horse to wear a saddle and bridle and to carry on his back a man, woman, or child; to go just the way they wish, and to go quietly. . . He must never start at what he sees, nor speak to other horses, nor bite, nor kick, nor have any will of his own, but always do his master’s will; even though he may be very tired or hungry; but the worst of all is, when his harness is once on, he may neither jump for joy nor lie down for weariness. So you see this breaking in is a great thing.
Black Beauty’s reportorial narration is simple, and factual, and yet the reader feels a stirring of unease at how simply such obedience may be exploited, and how ambiguous is that word “great” — to the Victorians it’s “significant,” not necessarily good. There is life before and life after “breaking” — Black Beauty goes from childhood to adulthood just as his readers must, and he’s surrounded by a constellation of other equine characters whose circumstances determine their “breaking” just as they do for people.
Chief among these is the mare Ginger, a consistent foil to the stoicism of Beauty (who’s a gelding, although the castration is not described.) Like some of her human literary forbears — the reformed prostitute Jemima in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman (1798) or the abused wife Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) — Ginger is a sensitive and high-spirited female, literally beaten into apparent obedience by men. Her resistance becomes the occasion for more punishment, and the novel leaves little doubt that men’s brutality — uncomfortably resembling rape — has formed her into the rebel she remains throughout the book:
But when it came to breaking in, that was a bad time for me; several men came to catch me, and when at last they closed me in at one corner of the field, one caught me by the forelock, another caught me by the nose, and held it so tight I could hardly draw my breath; then another took my under jaw in his hard hand and wrenched my mouth open, and so by force they got on the halter and the bar into my mouth; then one dragged me along by the halter, another flogging behind, and this was the first experience I had of men’s kindness, it was all force: they did not give me a chance to know what they wanted… You know yourself, it’s bad enough when you have a kind master and plenty of coaxing, but there was nothing of that sort for me.
Yet in the same kind home where Beauty finds himself, Ginger “grew much more gentle and cheerful, and had lost the watchful, defiant look that she used to turn on any strange person who came near her.” One wonders how such kindness might work on any of the other defiant “creatures” we now see as “problems” — schoolchildren getting arrested, for instance?
Good fiction nudges us to see that which we would prefer to forget, and often draws parallels between ourselves and apparently different others. It enlarges the aperture of our moral vision (which the daily textures of our own comforts and concerns always threaten to narrow) in a way that encourages us to follow that morality into social awareness, and into action. In Anna Sewell’s time, as in ours, “Christianity” as a term is politically much-abused and deliberately manipulated, especially by those “Christians” who should know better. Yet as a Quaker, Sewell is part of a tradition of activism, in her time and ours — a tradition which reminds us that our comfortable lives are cushioned by the labor and sacrifice of human and nonhuman others, and that if we do not find ways to honor these others, we commit injustice: we transgress what she would have respected as God’s creation. As I’ve written elsewhere, antislavery and animal rights were linked to one another in the 18th and 19th centuries by just this view. Jesus’s promise of social disruption and reversal (the last shall be first, and the first shall be last) and his focus on the meek, the poor, and the disenfranchised, opened the door for women (socially “meek,” legally disenfranchised) to follow their training and beliefs as “good Christians” into activism on behalf of others, human and animal.
We hurt and rely on and remain willfully ignorant of those around us all the time, every day, rather than giving them – in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt — “a claim on our thinking attention.” Victorian industrial processes alienated worker from product and consumer, alienated worker from other human beings. But socially, they also alienated those who labored or produced from those who enjoyed the fruits of that labor, even as they came into daily contact, sometimes living under the same roof. Servants, animals, and women were all considered different “species” from the dominant male — despite the servant sweeping ash from your fireplace or the horse trotting along in front of your carriage, in plain view, every day. Ditto the wife whose body was at once an intimate, domestic presence and — when you waited anxiously in the parlor while your children were born upstairs — a near-total mystery. Yet as Anna Sewell is still helping readers and writers to learn, from childhood on up, imagination and compassion will help you cross that gap.