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D A V I D C O P L A N D M O R R I S University of Washington, Tacoma A Dog’s Life: Anthropomorphism, Sentimentality, and Ideology in John Muir’s Stickeen John Muir is well-recognized as a founder of the American environmental movement. However, his important and original writing has only recently begun to be appreciated. His books, long difficult to obtain, are now available in uniform paperback editions, and his work is drawing increased critical attention. It is worth not­ ing, however, that as of this writing neither the mainstream Norton Anthology o f American Literature, nor the much-touted, revisionist Heath Anthology ofAmerican Literature, contain any of his writing. For anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with M uir’s work, this omission is simply amazing. Indeed, the anthologies list­ ed above are guilty of omitting a huge body of what might be called nature or environmental writing. Nowhere is there to be found any work by Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Loren Eiseley, Barry Lopez, Aldo Leopold or Wendell Berry. One can dimly imagine arguments (however weak) for not including these writers, but Muir is a figure of major importance in American culture outside of literary history, and is also, in my view, very often a brilliant stylist. A good place to begin in remedying the anthologies’ sad defi­ ciencies would be the short narrative Stickeen which exhibits Muir at his most energetic and ambitious. Ronald Limbaugh relates: “Muir told his friends that Stickeen was the hardest story he had ever composed” (27). Limbaugh goes on to argue: 140 Western American Literature A ll o f M uir’s creative energies went into the writing o f Stickeen. W hat began as a sim ple adventure story— the kind R. U. Johnson [the editor] had in mind for Century— ended in a profoundly m oving nar­ rative, a classic commentary on the rights of animals and their place in nature. (27) I endorse Limbaugh’s large claim for Stickeen, but I think even he limits what might be claimed by the way he phrases it. Stickeen is really a challenge to the entire humanist perspective on con­ sciousness. Specifically, Muir calls into question one of the most deeply seated ideas in Western culture, namely that there is an unbridgeable chasm of difference between human and animal con­ sciousness. M uir’s attack on this idea is part of his larger project of expressing and supporting a belief in the inherent value of the non­ human world, a belief at the foundation of any environmental ethic. He writes: W hy should man value him self as more than a sm all part o f the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the com pleteness of that unit - the cosm os? The universe would be incom plete without man; but it w ould also be incom plete without the sm allest transmicroscopic creature that dw ells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. (W W 317) The notion of unbridgeable difference in consciousness has seri­ ously distorted our understanding of human and animal mentality, as well as of the human place in the natural world. And this distor­ tion has obstructed our understanding of what ethical treatment of animals might be. But those who call this notion of difference into question have often been criticized for sentimentality and anthropomorphism. The deep ideological commitment on the part of some to the absolutely firm dividing line is evidenced (among many other examples) by the exceedingly hostile reception given to the work of researchers into animal language capabilities. It is true that some of this research was vulnerable to methodological critique, but the intensi­ ty and virulence of the attack was as characteristic of a religious David Copland Morris 141 feud as of a scientific dispute. Some of that same ideological flavor can be seen in the response in some quarters to Stickeen, a story that effectively dramatizes the heretical idea that the line between human and animal is much fainter than usually thought. Predictably, the story has been called sentimental...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 139-157
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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