- Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850–1900
Jennifer Mason begins Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and Ameri-can Literature, 1850–1900 with a series of bold analyses of the disciplinary blind spots in American Studies. Although "nonhuman nature" has been given a privileged place in the field, she observes, American Studies has been consistently located "beyond the periphery of civilization" (3). This historic obsession with the idea of wilderness bespeaks an underlying scorn for the mundane and the domestic as not only uninteresting, but even un-American. Moreover, the power of this narrative has led critics to skip from Thoreau's wild creatures and Melville's white whale to the conservation efforts of the early twentieth century, while ignoring the intense interest in domestic animals that marked the fifty years between. By focusing on this missing window of time, Mason's study aims to restore animals to their place in the lived experiences and literary imaginations of Americans, arguing that "the most powerful influence on Americans' understanding of their affinities with animals was not increasing separation from the pastoral and the wilderness, but rather the population's feelings about the ostensibly civilized creatures present in the built environment" (1).
In the book's four chapters, Mason brings together a wide range of affective and political investments in animals, reading equestrian manuals, evolutionary theory, and the literature of the animal protection movement alongside works of fiction by Susan Warner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Chesnutt. These unexpected combinations often yield rewarding results. Mason's chapter on Warner's novel The Wide, Wide World, for example, offers a compelling challenge to accounts of the novel as a critique of domestic ideology. Mason argues that these accounts, which rest on parallels between its heroine's development from a spirited youth to a submissive wife and the riding lessons she takes under the direction of her future husband, who notoriously beats his horse, fail to take into consideration the contemporary discourse of female equestrianism. Drawing on Foucault's theories of internalized discipline and the changing class politics of equestrianism, Mason shows that when Warner turns the equine body into a trope for the female body, she does so in order to highlight a self-regulation [End Page 209] that allows middle-class women, in turn, to regulate others. Mason demonstrates her claim that humans articulate their cultural authority by way of animals most successfully in the study's brief but fascinating conclusion, which reads Jack London's The Call of the Wild in relation to Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's paintings of drinking, smoking, poker-playing dogs. Examining the images of undomesticated masculinity at work in each, she persuasively links popular interest in canine "nature" with constructions of turn-of-the-century manhood.
At times, however, Mason's efforts to put such a wide variety of animal-related texts into conversation flatten out their multiple registers. In the chapter on Stowe, for example, she attempts to rescue the author from debates over her racial politics that cast her as either a homogenizing environmentalist, terrified by difference, or an inveterate essentialist. Yet if Stowe's many stories and essays about animals deploy "essentialism as a tool" that promotes women's and African Americans' "efforts at self-determination," (108) as Mason contends, one might well question why she takes recourse to "the language of animality" (96) in order to make such claims on behalf of these groups. The problems of reading animal analogies this transparently become even clearer in the book's final chapter, which argues that the success of the animal welfare movement prompted Charles Chesnutt to "strategically (re)associat[e] black men and dogs" in his fiction in order to advocate against racial violence and for African Americans' civil rights (134). The chapter combines somewhat flimsy evidence (the fact that the SPCA held their 1895 convention in Chesnutt's home town, for example) with acutely intentionalist readings, which, as in the Stowe chapter, hinge on the author's strategic...