Animal Souls and Tales
- Robert E. Kohler (Author)
All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rod Preece (Author)
Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution: The Historical Status of Animals. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tina Loo (Author)
States of Nature: Conserving Canada's Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley
Animals—that is, non-human animals—have lately received considerable attention from literary scholars. Essays in recent special issues of the journal Mosaic and in the collection Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination (2007), for instance, examine animals in terms of genre, philosophy, and critical approaches, and investigate the representation and function of particular animals in particular texts. Historical studies of the relations between humans and other animals can offer valuable insights to critics studying the portrayal of animals in literature. Rod Preece’s Brute Souls,, Happy Beasts,, and Evolution treats the history of religious and philosophical attitudes toward animals; Robert E. Kohler’s All Creatures addresses American zoological and botanical collecting practices; and Tina Loo’s States of Nature focuses on ideologies and strategies of conservation in Canada. Each of the three books is fascinating in its own right; all three will also be of special interest because of their extensive use of literary sources.
The most broad-ranging of the books is also the most contentious. Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution begins somewhat antagonistically, offering itself as a corrective to inaccurate scholarship. “A premise of this book,” Preece writes, “is that, despite some works of great merit, much recent writing on the development of the status of animals is seriously misleading”; he contends, too, that the “intellectual integrity” of the field of critical animal studies “has often been subordinated to politically correct goals concerning the value of animals.” He suggests that works as different from each other as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975), Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979), and Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990)—and many more, besides—misrepresent the respect accorded by the western tradition to animals and animal-lovers and exaggerate the degree to which non-western traditions respect animals. Preece insists that greater attention must consequently be devoted to accurately understanding the historical place of animals. To this end, he demonstrates convincingly that “there is no orthodoxy in the history of animal ethics,” suggesting instead that “the history of ideas in Western society” should be understood as “as an ongoing unresolved debate, with different views and emphases in the ascendant at different times, and none at all in the ascendant at some times.”
To support his thesis, Preece refers to a range of literary texts reaching from antiquity to the twentieth century. Goethe, Kant, Coleridge, and Steinbeck receive substantial attention; dozens of other writers are also mentioned, among them one Canadian, Ernest Thompson Seton. Preece uses the evidence provided by these writers to support his contention that animal studies lacks sufficient historical perspective: “Many scholars set out to prove the importance of animal wellbeing … and then pretend they are in the vanguard of thought in suggesting such a novel proposition, when, in fact, the selfsame view has been proclaimed throughout human history as one side of a continuous debate about the relative status of humans and animals.” Preece concludes that “[w]hat matters is not proving that animals deserve consideration,” but extending the pragmatic reach of the belief, which he suggests is nearly universal, “that animals are entitled to some consideration.”
The “debate about the relative status of humans and animals” also dominates States of Nature. Loo takes as her subject “the efforts of Canadians to conserve and manage wildlife over the twentieth century to about 1970,” a year that “marked the beginnings of a shift in the nature and tactics of the debate over how to treat wildlife—something associated with the establishment of Greenpeace.” The focuses of Loo’s investigation include laws and governmental policies, the Hudson’s Bay Company, Jack Miner (“Canada’s first celebrity conservationist”), and the management of large predators. These case studies, Loo proposes, represent notable parts of the “history of wildlife conservation” in Canada, which in turn “[provide] a particular perspective on the history of environmentalism in Canada … and specifically on the attitudes and roles of the state, urban sportsmen, and rural peoples, from resource workers to First Nations.”
Loo alludes to the animal stories of Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts, “two of the genre’s most important and prolific authors,” in the course of observing that “the wild animal story” was a counter-Darwinian genre that “rejected the idea that the natural world was cruel and amoral, inhabited by organisms engaged in a ruthless and unrelenting struggle for survival”; she notes that Roberts and Seton instead portrayed “animal heroes.” Loo also discusses Farley Mowat at length, suggesting that the “far-reaching effects” of Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963) were instrumental in “rehabilitating” the reputation of wolves. She observes that in Mowat’s book, as in the stories of Roberts and Seton, “wolves were noble creatures whose commendable conduct highlighted the morality of nature.” Other writers, including Archibald Belaney (“Grey Owl”), Roderick Haig-Brown, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Thomas King also appear in States of Nature, although Loo discusses Scott in his capacity as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, not as a poet.
All Creatures provides an account of a certain kind of natural history—what Kohler terms “natural history survey,” a mode of collecting specimens and creating inventories of species—as it was practised in North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Scientific collecting in the age of survey,” Kohler writes, “was accomplished mostly by small parties … whose purpose was to send back not exotica and accounts of heroic adventure and discovery, but rather crates of specimens.” The volume of specimens collected—natural history survey “aimed at a comprehensive, total inventory”—would ideally make possible a complete catalogue of the extant species in a given region and record the ranges of a region’s species. Kohler’s very readable study pays close attention to the characteristics of surveying expeditions and to the social and environmental conditions that made this form of collecting possible. Of crucial importance was the existence of a North American landscape that “afforded an unusual intimacy between settled and natural areas. Densely inhabited and wild areas were jumbled together” in the period between 1870 and 1920, making “relatively undisturbed nature … accessible to people who lived in towns and cities, with their cultural and educational institutions,” including the museums, universities, and government agencies that funded surveying expeditions. The concept of the “middle landscape” that Leo Marx advances in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964) is central to Kohler’s discussion of “middle landscapes” and “inner frontiers,” which “encouraged Americans to see nature neither as a commodity to be used up, nor as a wilderness to be left alone, but as a place of cultural and scientific interest, to be surveyed, collected, conserved, and understood.” Other writers to whom Kohler refers include John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Burroughs.
These books, although their subjects and approaches vary, each demonstrate, as Loo writes in States of Nature, “the extent to which culture and nature are interconnected.” Their examinations of various aspects of such interconnectedness will doubtless be of great interest to critics concerned with the vast menagerie of literary animals.
- Books of Beast by John Considine
Books reviewed: Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards, Baby Elephant by Aubrey Lang and Wayne Lynch, Baby Lion by Aubrey Lang and Wayne Lynch, and Baby Fox by Aubrey Lang and Wayne Lynch
- River Echoes by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: River in a Dry Land: A Prairie Passage by Trevor Herriot and Steamboat Connection: Montrneal to Upper Canada 1816-1843 by Frank Mackey
- Men in the Trees by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands
Books reviewed: Listening to the Trees by A. K. Hellum and Early in the Season: A British Columbia Journal by Edward Hoagland
- Women Write Nature by Andrea Lebowitz
Books reviewed: Here in Hope: A Natural History by J.M. Bridgeman and In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 by Barbara T. Gates
- The Sincerity Test by Bert Almon
Books reviewed: After Ted & Sylvia by Crystal Hurdle, Taking the Names Down from the Hill by Philip Kevin Paul, and The Gates of Even by John Thompson
MLA: Bradley, Nicholas. Animal Souls and Tales. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 165 - 167)
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