Pet column: The vital new voice of animals in literature

Dawn Armstrong
Special to the Tribune

Animals in literature have been used for metaphor and allegory, to promote political viewpoints, childhood compassion and just plain fun. From “Animal Farm” to “Black Beauty” to Mickey Mouse animation, animals became human representatives, tragic figures and celebrity characters. Recently, students of animals and society adopted a changed perspective on animal literature. One thought on why this is happening is because pet keeping is practiced by more people than ever, resulting in more animal awareness, domestic and wild. Whatever the reason, what is perceived as the true animal “voice” is being heard across disciplines and is creating renewed interest in the humanities.

One of the keenest observers of the trend is Susan McHugh, associate professor at the University of New England. In a class discussion of “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, students saw the animals as animals. They did not see the animals as representations of human victims of oppression. They saw the farm as an environment, not a world stage. In her book, “Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines,” McHugh tracks more than 100 years how literary treatment of animals evolved in tandem with social and cultural change. She interprets her students’ point of view as the ability to see animals as having their own stories and histories. The professor and researcher feels that questions about how animals are used in literature is inspiring changes in thinking about human-animal research across disciplines, which may lead to better treatment of animals, preservation of species, and the environment.

The emerging genre of “ecocriticism” is in the title of a recent book by Barney Nelson, “The Wild and the Domestic: Animal Representation, Ecocriticism, and Western American Literature.” Nelson’s autobiography tackles the real world of animals and people together from rangeland to suburban neighborhoods and how adaptation for coexistence affects urban and rural economics worldwide. The nontraditional form of nature writing addresses animals as themselves in their environment, rather than the historic representation of animals reflecting the human condition.

Randy Malamud’s article about a Mexican poet, “The Culture of Using Animals in Literature and the Case of Jose Emilio Pacheco,” is cited in the Purdue University Press abstract as “one of the most sensitive and ambitious attempts to craft a discourse that facilitates an approach to animals on their own terms — representing their authentic existence and consciousness, in a poetic that assumes and preserves the integrity and dignity of the subjects, and unlike most representations in culture and literature which clearly exploit or co-opt animals in the service of our own aesthetic agendas.” Malamud writes: “This uniquely sensitive stratum, where I believe Pacheco’s poetry merits a solid place, is importantly enlightening on the triple-front of aesthetics, ecology, and ethics. Such poetry has the potential to educate and reform its readers. Poetry like Pacheco’s honors animals, without implicating them (and thus positioning them as subaltern) in human cultural models. It attempts to confront animals as they are, instead of as they appear to us, or as they suit and flatter our habits. Pacheco repeats these overtures toward connection in dozens of striking, insightful animal poems that describe animals perfectly, imagine them spectacularly, appreciate them diligently, respect them uncompromisingly, and empathize with them movingly.”

Ultimately, the new voice of animals can affect science and species survival — including humans — according to the writers and thinkers who are listening. For an introduction to contemporary animal studies, visit the Animals and Society web site which offers a diverse and provocative list of online courses in literature, the humanities and culture.

— Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.

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