English professor (and dog lover) Jim Carson probes the significance of animals in literature, drawing on insights from the emerging field of animal studies.
Story by Dan Laskin
In 2005, while making his way through the 12 volumes of the letters of Walter Scott, Jim Carson couldn’t help but notice the many references to dogs. “I was reading the letters more for politics and for his remarks on authorship,” Carson recalled, “but I was very much struck by the dogs.”
This will come as a surprise to nobody who knows Jim Carson. Carson’s Kenyon students and colleagues over the past 28 years have appreciated his gifts as a teacher and scholar, an expert on 18th century British literature and English Romanticism. But he also presents greater Gambier with a daily vision of six legs in motion: a slim human figure striding or running along village streets and campus pathways with a smiling husky or husky mix at his side. He and his wife, Deborah Laycock — also a member of the English faculty — are devoted dog people.
Carson with his dog, Fergus, in Sunset Cottage.
A scholar with a dog lover’s sensibility: It stands to reason that Carson’s research on Walter Scott, the great Scottish novelist, would have led to a wide-ranging and deeply nuanced exploration of animals in literature. This work has generated numerous publications as well as a book that is nearing completion. Moreover, it has drawn on, and contributed to, the relatively new interdisciplinary field of animal studies, which delves into such subjects as animal cognition and the question of human distinctiveness, the history of pets, the invention and purpose of zoos, visual and literary representations of animals, factory farming and animal rights.
“There’s been a lot of reassessment of the animal-human relationship,” said Carson. “Almost everything is seen in a new way in literature once you start seeing animals, and seeing them everywhere.”
Carson’s scholarship focuses mostly on the Romantic period, when growing industrialization and urbanization began to diminish people’s contact with animals. This change gave rise to a nostalgic interest in the natural world from which humans felt exiled. Pet-keeping expanded in the 19th century: owning animals for love, not utility. Anti-hunting sentiment emerged — William Wordsworth’s poem “Hart-Leap Well” is a good literary example — as did fanciful animal stories teaching children not to be cruel to other creatures.
Carson’s first major article in this area, “Scott and the Romantic Dog,” examines the ways that Scott used dogs to develop his views on “the natural and moral order” in two of the Waverley novels, “Guy Mannering” (1815) and “The Black Dwarf” (1816). Scott and the Romantics in general, Carson writes, accepted but went beyond the idea of a natural hierarchy in which humans should dominate creation. They imagined an “interspecies sympathy” and even hinted at “a non-anthropomorphic recognition of the shared personhood of non-human animals.”
Wordsworth owned several dogs (including a border terrier given to him by Walter Scott), and dogs figure in many of his poems. In a chapter for his book-in-progress, Carson closely analyzes three poems that focus explicitly on dogs, discussing the poet’s changing views of personfication and the way dogs can serve as “a hinge between the matter-of-fact and the abstract.” (See “A Closer Reading.”)
The boundary between man and beast lies at the heart of animal studies. In his course “Animals in Literature,” a section of English 103, Carson has his students read an essay by the late English critic John Berger on the once intimate, now ruptured relationship between humans and other animals. In “Why Look at Animals?,” the first chapter of his 1980 book “About Looking,” Berger notes our “existential dualism”: Animals are both like and unlike us, and even as our capacity for symbolic thought distinguishes us from other animals, they are deeply embedded in our earliest symbols, our use of metaphors and our ancient religious beliefs. “What distinguished men from animals,” according to Berger, “was born of their relationship with them.”
Other readings in the course range from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” filled with contemptuous animal references) to Virginia Woolf’s “Flush” (an imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel). For Carson, one of the key works is “Elizabeth Costello,” a 2003 novel by the Nobel Prize-winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee, who incorporated into the book some of his own philosophical lectures on the moral status of animals.
Students in the course often single out, as their favorite books, Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang.” Both novels have scenes depicting “the powerful love of dog and human being,” Carson said. “I think that’s got to be the reason why students like these books — thinking of their own pets, probably.”
Carson himself didn’t have a dog during his boyhood in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “My parents, who grew up on farms, didn’t believe dogs belonged in the house, maybe didn’t believe they belonged in the urban setting,” he said. When he visited his paternal grandfather’s farm, however, he would spend a lot of time with the farm dogs.
And dogs inhabited his imagination. “The books that most powerfully affected me as a kid were ‘Beautiful Joe,’ about a dog who is horrfically mistreated, and ‘Silver Chief: Dog of the North,’ about a sled dog.” *
Carson received his undergraduate degree from the University of Alberta and a master’s at the University of British Columbia, then went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1986. He joined the Kenyon faculty in 1988. His wife, Deborah, a specialist in both Canadian literature and 18th century British literature, was hired by Kenyon three years later, in 1991.
Since then, the Carson-Laycock household has included dogs, and the Kenyon community associates the couple with both literary scholarship and canine companionship. “Gambier is such a paradise for dogs,” said Carson, who with Laycock has had four dogs — Toby, Plato, Monty and Fergus.
“I learned how to be a dog person from Jim and Deborah,” said Sarah Heidt ’97, who studied with both professors and views them as mentors. Heidt returned to teach English at the College in 2004 (she currently chairs the department) and so now appreciates Carson as a colleague.
“I’m always impressed by Jim’s meticulousness, his microscopically close readings and the detail in his writing,” said Heidt. “He has so much at his command. He combines his knowledge of this really growing field of animal studies with an incredible depth of knowledge of the Romantic period.”
I’m always impressed by Jim’s meticulousness, his microscopically close readings and the detail in his writing."
Sarah Heidt '97, associate professor of English
Carson readily admits that “personal investment” has played a role in his current research. Animal studies is an exciting field at the moment, with clear relevance for environmental issues, but it also appealed to Carson because of his own experience as a dog owner, not to mention the lingering influence of Beautiful Joe (who was rescued by a humane family).
On a personal level, Carson is sensitive to the contradictions we live with in spending billions of dollars on pets — whom we treat as both property and family members — while subjecting animals like pigs to factory-farm conditions. As a scholar, he is attuned to the writers who expanded on the anti-cruelty views of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), considered the earliest major advocate of animal rights. Where Bentham famously argued that the critical question is whether animals can suffer, the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt (1784–1859), for example, felt that “animals are not made for man but rather they are ends in themselves, embodying their own kind of happiness,” as Carson puts it in a chapter of his book.
The book, called “Animal Figures in the Romantic Period,” will include chapters on animal fables, children’s literature, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Scott and Wordsworth. Among Carson’s aims: to examine literary practices such as metaphor and allegory during an era when figurative language was being transformed and when animal-human relations were being redfined — when, for instance, sentimentalism gave rise to a new humanitarianism and ultimately a “full recognition of the animal’s otherness.”
Carson compared the Romantic period to our own time, when society is questioning — and revising — some traditional binary oppositions. Today, for example, it’s increasingly common to think of gender in terms beyond the binary notion of male-female. In his book, said Carson, “I am seeking the historical roots of another distinction which could never have been fully binary: human-animal.”
The prevailing view in modernity has long been that animals are essentially soulless machines; that we humans, although products of biology, have crossed the line, alone, into consciousness and culture, meaning and morals. This line, in fact, is part of the territory that Carson is exploring. Our default assumption may be that the species boundary is as fixed as the bars of a cage. Animal studies scholars — and a good many dog people — beg to differ.
Jim Carson's Five Favorite Literary Animal "Characters"
The wild horse from the Ukraine in Byron’s 1819 narrative poem, “Mazeppa” Ivan Mazeppa is tied onto an unbroken horse, who runs for days across the steppes from Poland to the Ukraine. When the horse arrives home, he temporarily revives and then dies of exhaustion among the thousand wild horses of the herd into which he had been born.
The greyhound Music in William Wordsworth’s “Incident, Characteristic of a Favourite Dog” and “Tribute to the Memory of the Same Dog” (1807) In the first poem, Music, who belonged to Wordsworth’s brother-in-law, struggles in vain to save his friend Dart, who broke through the ice in chasing a hare across a frozen river. The second poem is an elegy for the dog who lived a long life, grew deaf, and by the end was scarcely able to stand. “Tribute to the Memory” is a moving canine elegy by the poet who wrote for his brother John one of the greatest elegies in the language — “Elegiac Stanzas.”
Buck, the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, in Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” (1903) Kidnapped in California and worked to the verge of death as a sled dog in the Klondike gold rush, Buck is saved by John Thornton. With this ideal master, Buck experiences devoted love for the first time. Only Thornton’s death enables Buck to answer the call of the wild by joining a pack of wolves.
The spaniel Wag in Toa Fraser’s 2008 film “Dean Spanley” In a beautiful scene of dogs running after sheep, horses, a rabbit and the moon, narrated in voice-over by the Church of England Dean of the title, the purebred Wag goes on an adventure with his nameless friend, a homeless mongrel. Dean Spanley’s story leads Horatio Fisk, the former master of Wag, fully to realize his humanity and to develop a loving relationship with his son.
* “Beautiful Joe” was written by Canadian author Margaret Marshall Saunders in 1893. “Silver Chief” was written in 1933 by the American arctic explorer Jack O’Brien.
Jim Carson is not the only Kenyon professor who incorporates animals into his lesson plans. Here is a sampling of other classes, across disciplines, that have included the study of animals.
• “Comparative Animal Physiology”
• “Marine Biology”
• “Animal Behavior”
• “Physiological Ecology of Animals”
• “Integrative Biology of Animals”
• “Animal Cognition”
• “Practical Issues in Ethics”
• “The Anthropocene as A Philosophical Problem”
• “Religion and the Wild”
From Alumni Magazine - Summer 2017
A Closer Reading: Wordsworth’s “Incident, Characteristic of a Favourite Dog, Which Belonged to a Friend of the Author”
In William Wordsworth’s poem, a farmer is making his rounds on a winter morning with four canine “comrades” when a hare darts forth. The dogs chase the hare, who flees across the thin ice of a river. The first two dogs make it across, but the third one breaks through into the frigid water. The fourth, named Music, stops to try to save her “struggling Friend”:
From the brink her paws she stretches, Very hands as you would say! And afflicting moans she fetches, As he breaks the ice away.
In his forthcoming book, “Animal Figures in the Romantic Period,” Carson points out how Wordsworth humanizes Music, who forsakes her training and instinct “as motives of love and friendship assume control.” Her paws are like hands, and instead of barking she raises “afflicting moans.” Carson adds, however, that the word “fetches,” while here meaning “utters,” is nevertheless “the most canine of verbs.” Thus, “the humanizing is ambiguous. … Music is positioned between the animal and human.” Wordsworth’s mature poems, Carson writes, suggest a “serious rethinking of the species boundary.”