Literary Pets

Flannery O'Connor and peacock

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

Literary Pets

by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

The animal figure is a universal ingredient in literature from Aesop to Orwell. Perennially and ubiquitously, from the humblest children's storybook to the most ambitious epic, beings with paws and claws, beaks and fangs, horns and hooves, fins and flippers, have been put at the service of metaphor or moral instruction. Fables and fairy tales abound with familiar and endearing creatures; the brute beast, although bereft of the faculty of speech, may be eloquent on the printed page. Whether presented realistically or symbolically, members of the animal clan have reflected and, in some cases, indicted the behavior of their human stewards in ways that make representatives of the two-legged species look at least as curious as any of their "lower" planetary co-inhabitants, and often more contemptible.

Leonard Woolf and Pinka in Monk’s House garden-photograph (modern), 1931

Leonard Woolf and Pinka in Monk's House garden, 1931

From sable cats to albino cetaceans, famous titular animals span the chromatic spectrum: White Fang; The Green Mare; The Bluebird; The Red Pony. Literary animals of ill omen include Poe's redoubtable raven and Coleridge's ineluctable albatross; other fine feathered friends have exerted a comparable fascination: the fixation of the classical Persian poets on the nightingale, Shelley's skylark, Hardy's thrush.

Even amoebae and their unicellular relatives have found focus in certain literary productions: the tubercular germ in Eduardo Wilde's consumption story "The Rain"; the viral infection, tentative, if implied, in Ezequiel Martinez Estrada's "The Cough"; the microbial organisms which prove the downfall of the extraterrestrial invaders in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds; from primitive protozoa to prehistoric monsters, to the mythic creatures populating the bestiaries of old, animals have been a constant of literary culture.

Petrus Borel

Transformation stories—the Kafka character who metamorphoses into a cockroach; the Cortazar protagonist who turns into an axolotl—carry forward a tradition delineated two millennia ago by Ovid; a tradition in connection with which must not be omitted Bram Stoker's dread vampire Dracula and his elective bat-guise, nor the equally bloodthirsty, half-human, half-lupine werewolves—a theme exploited by French author Charles Nodier and his countryman and fellow dark romantic Petrus Borel, whose nickname was "the lycanthrope." Then there is Arthur Machen's Great God Pan—a goat-human amalgam—the satyr-like deity who presides over nature.

Carl Sandburg, Photo by June Glenn Jr. 1946.

Many preterit writers had an intimate association with livestock from an early age, either by choice, or by accident of birth: Robert Burns had been a farmer—he probably knew how to throttle a hen and trap a fox, slaughter a hog and slop a sow, and could tell a ram from a ewe and a stag from a doe. Argentine beef baron and avant-garde poet Oliverio Girondo grew up among droves of cattle which ranged over mile upon mile of unspoiled pampas, guarded by vigilant gauchos. Carl Sandburg raised dairy goats at Connemara, his North Carolina spread. No doubt many another author of yore could identify with Old MacDonald while enthusiastically chanting with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there, here a quack, there a quack, everywhere a quack-quack; not all, however. Joaquin Miller once rolled a rock down a slope and gravely injured a neighbor's cow; he fenced his property to keep chickens out, not in; but he loved trees and vegetation, and launched the tradition of celebrating Arbor Day in his adopted state of California.

While a hamster, a goldfish, a parakeet are a part of so many lives, and it is to be assumed that many of the most famous of authors had more than a passing acquaintance with common household pets as well as local varmints and other wild critters, an empirical linkage with the animals depicted in their celebrated works does not necessarily follow. So far as is known, Jack London didn't keep a wolf; Kipling didn't keep a mongoose or an elephant or a tiger; Tennessee Williams didn't have an iguana; Mark Twain didn't have an athletic frog; Miguel Angel Asturias didn't have a kinkajou; Jacques Prevert didn't have a donkey; and Edgar Rice Burroughs passed the days at his Tarzana ranch with ne'ery an ape in sight.

nypl, Evonne Kummer with lobster at NY World Fair

Nerval enthusiast Evonne Kummer with lobster at NY World Fair [via nypl]

Zane Grey wrote animal tales and fishing stories galore but, at his rustic California estates, kept neither pelican nor pangolin. Eugene O'Neill went in for neither fish nor fowl as pets, but he had some llamas at the Tao House, his hilltop abode. Authors have often kept exotic pets: C. S. Lewis didn't keep a lion at Oxford but, at Cambridge, Byron kept a bear; D. G. Rossetti maintained, in a section of London which is today smack in the middle of the modern metropolis, a menagerie which would have been the envy of Noah. And eccentric French romantic Gerard de Nerval paraded his pet lobster on a leash through the streets of Paris before hanging himself with Marie Antoinette's garter.

* * *

Persian caricature of Hedayat with owl

* Lord Byron's spirit of friendship among mammals extended to the husbandry of monkeys. At one time or another, his pets included falcons, a fox, a badger, a goose, a heron, a peacock, a brood of guinea hens, a crane, a crocodile, and a crow.

* The pet name of lover Reynaldo Hahn for Marcel Proust was "pony."

* Persian novelist Sadegh Hedayat, author of The Blind Owl, wrote movingly about animals, believed in reincarnation and was a strict vegetarian.

* At the Rare Book Department of the Philadelphia Library, "perched on a log, preserved with arsenic, frozen inside his shadow box" and dead since 1841 (as a result of ingesting lead paint flakes), rest the mortal remains of "Grip the Clever," "Grip the Wicked," "Grip the Knowing"--a corvus corax or common raven, formerly the pet of English novelist Charles Dickens. After its demise, Grip was professionally embalmed and mounted. Eventually, the ebony bird's mortal coil wound up in the City of Brotherly Love—a city once inhabited by Edgar Allen Poe, who was familiar with the pet belonging to his English friend and colleague, and who is said to have been inspired by the raven to indite his eponymous poetic masterpiece—centering on the idea of the ominous avian's "prophetic croakings." In some societies, ravens are thought to embody the souls of murdered people.

* For hours on end, day after day, week after week and month after month, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke studied the panther at the Paris zoo. He undertook this curious research on the advice of his employer, sculptor Auguste Rodin, who counseled the young poet to look at the caged beast until he could truly see.

* Presumably for reasons similar to Rilke's, American author O. Henry regularly visited the alligators in the pond of a prominent Texas park.

Flannery O'Connor and peacock 2

* Novelist Flannery O'Connor gave an ornamental flock of peafowl the run of the grounds at her farm "Andalusia" outside Milledgeville, Georgia.



* Spanish ladies used monkeys as foils to their beauty. At one time in France, the Salle des singes, or "monkey room," was an essential fixture of the best households: this was an elegant salon or fashionable lounge ornately decorated with murals, textiles or other wall coverings featuring lavish scenes of frolicking monkeys. Throughout the early decades of the eighteenth century, the cavorting simian was a major fad of Gallic décor. Despite the title of British American writer John Collier's celebrated 1930 novel His Monkey Wife, no evidence has surfaced which would indicate that any of his three spouses was a chimpanzee.

Blemie's grave


* Byron was particularly fond of a Newfoundland hound named Boatswain, whom he nursed after the animal became infected with rabies. Byron buried this beloved pet on the grounds of his ancestral home at Newstead Abbey, where his grave monument eclipses that of his master. The poet inscribed Boatswain's memorial tablet with one of his best-known texts: Epitaph to a Dog. Reclusive spinster Emily Dickinson, though a homebody, kept a Newfoundland named Carlo—with whom she roved the family garden, and surrounding meadows and woods of Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson remarked that dogs are better than people because "they know—but do not tell." Writers named Emily seem to have preferred larger animals. Emily Bronte had an intimidating, massive-pawed brute named "keeper" who accompanied her on her prowls over the moors. Like Byron before him, American playwright Eugene O'Neill's wrote a moving eulogy to his pet Dalmatian "Blemie." Sword and sorcery fiction writer Robert E. Howard had a dog named "Patches," after the famous jester who, having disappointed the king, was sent without supper to sleep with the spaniels. Virginia Woolf had a spaniel, as did Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose puppy "Flush" was twice dog-napped and ransomed.

Virginia Woolf. Flush- A Biography. London- Hogarth Press, 1933

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton with a pair of petite pooches perched precariously atop her shoulders

* Lonely New England novelist Edith Wharton, married to an invalided and intellectually impaired spouse, found solace in the companionship of lapdogs, including Chihuahuas, Pekingese and poodles. Wharton confessed being secretly terrified of animals, explaining that she dreaded "the usness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it—so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them: left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us." Woof-woof, arf-arf, bow-wow-wow…

Kate Simon, print, Burroughs and cat
(c) Kate Simon, print, Burroughs and friend [via]


* William S. Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot kept large clowders of cats. Other prominent literary figures with a fondness for felines have been Alexander Dumas, whose puss "Mysouff" each day greeted him in the street as he returned from work, and Raymond Chandler, whose purring Persian "Taki" routinely took up her station atop a mound of manuscript as he edited. Chandler jokingly referred to his mewling colleague as his "secretary."

Hemingway and friend

Faulkner in his Farmington Hunt Club riding habit


* Southern novelist William Faulkner was an inveterate equestrian. He claimed to have written his self-proclaimed "potboiler" novel Sanctuary in order to raise money to buy a horse. When running errands in the vicinity of his home in Oxford, Mississippi, he liked to get about on horseback and, late in life, he joined a riding club in Virginia. If there wasn't a fox hunt in which he could ride, he would create his own steeplechase, jumping hedges and fences and repeatedly falling off his mount or being thrown. One day, he broke his collarbone and injured his back in a bad spill from which he never recovered.

Käthe Olshausen-Schönberger, Elternstolz. (1907)


* At her plantation in Kenya, Isak Dineson didn't have a pet hippo, rhino, gorilla, or giraffe, although she did care for an orphaned bushbuck, kept poultry and raised steers which competed with marauding zebra herds she was constantly at pains to shoo away.


* In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, historical novelist Lionel Feuchtwanger, being a Jew, had to flee Berlin, where his house was ransacked and his pet lizards were killed by the brown shirts, who also trampled his gardens and destroyed his library. Although Feuchtwanger's beloved reptile terrarium had been crushed by the jackboot, he managed to mitigate his loss at his eventual place of exile—the seaside overlook he called Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, California: there he kept a pair of tortoises, tattooed with his phone number, so that they could be returned to their owner if lost.

* A herpetologist by avocation, Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, after being abandoned by his second wife, fabricated a serpentarium out of the empty swimming pool he had built for her at his agricultural station on the edge of the Amazon jungle. There he kept such exotic pets as an anteater and a coatimundi, wrote a number of snake stories and even titled one ensemble of tales Anaconda.


* In 1939, American children's author E. B. White moved his family from New York City to North Brooklin, Maine, where he occupied a farmstead and raised cud-chewing sheep, pellet-pecking chickens, and slop-wallowing, corncob-gobbling swine destined for slaughter. On one occasion, he discovered that one of his prize porkers had fallen seriously ill and, instead of speeding its delivery to the butcher shop to be turned into bacon, decided to spare the sickling. He did his utmost to nurse the ailing oinker back to health, finding himself "cast suddenly in the role of pig's friend and physician." His experiences resulted in the celebrated essay Death of a Pig. One can't help but wonder if White would have shown the same compassion to a feral javelina or European boar.


* In a tradition which continues to the present day, museums around the world loan specimens of stuffed animals for use as pedagogic aids, theatrical props, and decorative accessories. When French novelist Gustave Flaubert was composing his story A Simple Heart, he rented a taxidermied parrot from the Rouen Museum and placed the preserved featherling on his desk as an object of inspiration. The polychromatic avian proved an excellent muse for the literary master who patterned on it an imaginary counterpart which was to become the centerpiece of his immortal story. Within a few weeks, however, the novelist had tired of the brightly hued bird and returned it to the custody of museum curators.


* Considering the Japanese fascination with all things aquatic and the predilection of the national palate for fresh marine life, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Nipponese novelist Yasunari Kawabata kept a number of pedigreed Koi; nor that fellow pen pusher Kajii Motojiro was rumored to have kept an aquarium filled with multicolored jellyfish, on which he would brood for hours at a time.

Oberländer, Ice-Skating Camel, ca. 1898
Oberländer, Ice-Skating Camel, ca. 1898 [via nypl]


* Isabelle Eberhardt and Paul Bowles trekked across the Sahara desert on camels.


* English romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, when a resident student, defied Cambridge University's statutory prohibition against dogs by keeping a tame bear, instead. Byron took pains to provide the former dancing bear with the finest viands available and pampered his pet with long walks and every comfort his college quarters could afford. This attitude was perpetuated at later domiciles where he allowed contingents of horses, hounds, foxes, and fowls to freely roam indoors.


* Although they obviously had a soft spot for animals, famous nature writers such as E. Thomas Seaton and G. D. Roberts and children's writers such as Joel Chandler Harris and Howard R. Garis were not known to nurture any creatures outside the ordinary domestic variety. The slightly more adventurous American memoirist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings kept a pet raccoon.


* Beekeeping was the hobby of Belgian dramatist, poet, Nobel Prize winner, and winged thing fancier Maurice Maeterlinck, author of The Bluebird and The Life of the Bee. He maintained an apiary for many years, so as to enjoy the soothing sound of the buzzing drones.

* Itchier and twitchier specimens were the insects of choice for certain writers: ants were just the ticket for H. G. Wells in The Empire of the Ants; a beetle was the focus of E. A. Poe's "The Gold Bug"; Norberto Luis Romero favored tamer fare in his moth story "Epiphytes." Although British novelist and author of The Collector John Fowles is not known to have gone in for any sort of butterfly hunting himself, his Russo-American counterpart Vladimir Nabokov was an entomologist first class with a special interest in the fairylike creatures. Amateur lepidopterist Nabokov killed and impaled butterflies; he didn't raise them. He chased the flitting ephemerids through forest and meadow, swooping down on them with a net, before chloroforming them and pinning their bodies to mounting board so as to best display their painted wings. Because Nabokov never learned to drive a car, his wife chauffeured him on these expeditions. Nabokov discovered several unknown genera and had many others named for him. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University maintains Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet" containing male butterfly reproductive organs. The genitalia are stored not because they afford a means of establishing gender but in order to distinguish among species. Nabokov spent so much time poring over his specimens that he permanently damaged his eyesight.

* While Swiss novelist and prudish Protestant pastor Jeremias Gotthelf authored the plague allegory The Black Spider, he wouldn't have dreamed of keeping a pet arachnid. Shabby genteel symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, on the other hand, reputedly kept a Brazilian tarantula in a glass-encased window box purely for the spooky effect it lent to his decadent, demi-dandified Ile Saint-Louis digs.

Rossetti, wombat sketch

Rossetti's "Death of a Wombat," sketch
"I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!"


* Not to be outdone by his pet-crazy predecessor Byron, English Pre-Raphaelite poet and animal fanatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti ran, at his Cheyne Walk "Tudor House" in Chelsea, a three-ring circus of exotic beasts. Not content with a Brahmin bull, a zebra, an armadillo, a wallaby, a Japanese salamander and an Irish deerhound, he soon added dormice, rabbits, marmots, woodchucks, laughing jackasses, a Pomeranian puppy, owls and parrots. Also in residence were the novelist George Meredith and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a being every bit as exotic as any of the other specimens in Rossetti's suburban zoo. Neighbor Thomas Carlyle complained about the constant racket emitted by the denizens of Rossetti's large, lime-and-mulberry-tree-filled garden. The bohemian poet was a sucker for every creature from the clumsiest caterpillar to the most graceful gazelle. He wanted to add a young elephant to the population, but balked at the exorbitant price quoted by his pet broker. After spending endless hours during the 1860s at the Wombat's Lair in Regent's Park Zoo, he eventually determined to acquire one of these marsupials for his own. In September, 1869, he purchased a wombat, named it "Top," and installed it as the showpiece of his collection. Although "Top" was short-lived and survived by Rossetti's sturdier and hardier Canadian woodchuck, the little antipodean fur ball was the star prop of the London literary scene and single-handedly started a craze much like the mania for ferrets in our own day. The talented Rossetti family fawned over "Top": the poet's sister Cristina composed verses praising the pet as "nimble, cheerful, hairy and round"; she bought or built a "shrine" to serve as the wombat's headquarters; brother William noted that "Top" would follow people all over the house and described him as "lumpish and incapable, with an air of baby objectlessness" but affectionate, and apt to "nestle up against one, and nibble one's calves or trousers." Dante Gabriel himself gasped, "Can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat?" He devoted endless encomia to the pet and painted a self-portrait with the wombat crowned by a halo. "Top" is surrounded by legend. "Rossetti gleefully reported that the wombat had effectively interrupted a long and dreary monologue from John Ruskin by patiently burrowing between the eminent critic's jacket and waistcoat. Much later, James McNeill Whistler invented a silly story about how the wombat had perished after eating an entire box of cigars." It has been noted for a fact by Ford Madox Brown and other illustrious guests that Rossetti allowed the wombat to sleep in the large epergne which rested on the dining room table. This same table was also the site of a rodeo staged by a toucan sporting a cowboy hat and trained by Rossetti to ride rings on the back of a llama.

* Contrary to popular belief, Australian authors Judith Wright and Patrick White had neither a koala nor a duck-billed platypus between them.

Rackham, illus. for Comus (1921)

Rackham, illus. for Comus, 1921, via nypl


Considered by many to constitute a lower order of animalia than even the slimiest insect, the rodent embodies mankind's collective guilt over its exploitation of beings with gills and pelts. Beavers, gophers, voles and weasels, with their beady eyes, luxuriant fur and ever-replenishing, ever re-sharpening incisors, represent the animal kingdom at its most accusatory, at its most menacing. The undeservedly unsavory reputation of the rodent and its popular classification as a breed of vermin stems from the perception that there is something subversive about its kind; this perception, in turn, derives from man's remorse and embarrassment over his lamentable, millennia-long history of subjecting beasts of burden to the yoke of oppression. To see the injustice of this situation, we have only to look at E. A. Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," in which rats are the heroes and act as the condemned protagonist's saving grace and ultimate deliverance. The rodent is a vehicle of contrition. Innovative editor and pioneer science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback dreamed up robot mice because he knew that, in the absence of this natural enemy who threatens to displace us, threatens to outperform us, we would have to fill the void with artificial surrogates. In point of fact, the members of the writerly tribe, along with all their fellow men, thrive on the furtive threat of infestation poised to catch them unwary and unwitting. A Freudian might asseverate that the creative personality, of a highly imaginative and sensitive nature, coupled with a pronounced susceptibility to suggestion and a propensity for hysteria, nurtures a secret dread—not unfounded—of succumbing to a runaway lemming effect

* * *

It will be seen, then, that the personal pet has played a triple role in the service of literature: that of comfort, companion and, along with its undomesticated counterpart, that of inexhaustible source of inspiration—an inspiration which surely will endure until the most delinquent pigeon roosts and even the tardiest cow comes home…

nypl, Children placing wigs and headdresses on their pets

Children placing wigs and headdresses on their pets [via nypl]

See all posts by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert