Most people trace counterculture to the 1960s. They've got the right decade but the wrong century. It started in the 1860s with the writing of an upstart from Missouri whose droll read on society's pretenses paved the way for debates that continue today about class, country, race, religion and animals.
This week's 100th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain is prompting an assessment of his legacy almost as wide as the Mississippi. Regrettably, much of the hoopla revolves around the regurgitated Norman Rockwell interpretation of Twain -- a feel-good trip down a dusty memory lane in Hannibal, complete with caves and carefree summer days on the river. But you don't need to read between the lines to see that Twain was as much a provocateur as a source of non-threatening family entertainment. How did this icon of Americana feel about patriotism? "Man is the only Patriot," he wrote. "He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people's countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his."
The gentleman with the crazy mustache was too clever, irreverent and audacious to be whitewashed like Tom Sawyer's picket fence. Let's look more closely at Mr. Twain's edge and influence.
Twain was the literary world's first distinctly American voice -- an author who shunned pomposity, wrote with a drawl and brought to life characters that included slaves and runaways who were uneducated but full of insight. For atheists, his musings on faith made him a god. "Man is the only Religious Animal," Twain wrote. "He is the only animal that has the True Religion -- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven. ... The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste."
This leads to an aspect of Twain's legacy that many aren't aware of: Mark Twain was America's first notable animal rights activist. Animals were always central to Twain's writing, from his first stories through his final years. His Huckleberry Finn is reduced to sobs after studying the limp body of a songbird he killed for sport, swearing he'll never kill another creature again. Inspired by Darwin, Twain observed animals wherever he traveled; unlike any other author, he wrote of their distinct personalities, whether he was writing about a poodle, a robin or a camel. Many essays left unpublished at his death feature animal-related themes and are spotlighted in the recently published Mark Twain's Book of Animals. One artist who was inspired by Twain's fresh and friendly view of animals was fellow Missourian Walt Disney, who commissioned Academy Award-winning live-action nature movies in the 1940s and went on to routinely side with cartoon animals in issues such as hunting (Bambi) and the plight of baby elephants who are separated from their mothers and beaten so that they will perform in circuses (Dumbo).
Twain's animal passions were inspired by his mother, Jane, who took in countless stray cats and didn't hesitate to confront men who beat their horses on the mean streets of St. Louis before the Civil War. Twain, too, became obsessed with cats; his daughter Susy once commented that "The difference between papa and mama is mama loves morals and papa loves cats." Twain could not pass a cat on the street without stopping to make his acquaintance. He was pleased to see his two daughters embrace his compassion for animals; they aggressively continued their grandmother's tirades against ill-tempered drivers of horse-drawn carriages.
The author's feelings for animals transcended the pages of his books and his actions in daily life. In his later years, he actually wrote pamphlets for various animal protection groups--most notably those targeting bullfighting and others campaigning against a new issue: vivisection, or experimentation on live animals. Wrote Twain: "I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't. To know that the results are profitable would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further. It is so distinctly a matter of feeling with me, and is so strong and so deeply-rooted in my make and constitution, that I am sure I could not even see a vivisector vivisected with anything more than a sort of qualified satisfaction."
PETA is well-known for pursuing campaigns with living celebrities, ranging from Pamela Anderson to Paul McCartney, but this week, they are focusing on a dead one. To commemorate Mark Twain's visionary advocacy for animals, on the hundredth anniversary of his death, PETA donated $5,000 to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, to sponsor an exhibit bearing a plaque with his cutting condemnation of animal experimentation, surrounded by photos of Twain with animals.
Dan Mathews is PETA's Senior Vice President; he cites Mark Twain as an inspiration in his irreverent book, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir (Atria/Simon & Schuster)