Some Dogs of Fiction
What dog lover hasn’t shed a quiet tear over a make-believe story of canine loyalty or heroics or just plain dog being dog? Which admirer of the species hasn’t had a good laugh along with Snoopy or James Thurber’s Hound or some silly Fido cavorting in the Sunday comics?
The answer is that all of us who love these beasts have eagerly lapped up the stories about them.
From classical times until the present, from Homer through Dickens and to the screenwriter of Men in Black who created Frank the Alien, poets, novelists, and all sorts of other creative types have catered to our taste for dog tales.
Perhaps the most famous of all the fictitious barkers still cited today is Lassie, the heroine of Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home, originally a 1938 Saturday Evening Post short story that was later expanded into a novel and then made into the forever-popular 1943 movie with a young and breathtakingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor.
Toto, Dorothy’s terrier companion in The Wizard of Oz, was introduced to the world in 1900 through the illustrations of W.W. Denslow in L. Frank Baum’s book. It was the movie again, however, that elevated him to eternal stellar status.
Similarly, it was the movies that brought us Strongheart, the real German Shepherd whose fictionalized adventures made him the first of the canine superstars . . . Rin Tin Tin, his brave and noble successor. . . Asta, Nick and Nora Charles’ Wire-Haired Terrier in The Thin Man series . . . Otis the pug in Milo and Otis . . . Old Yeller, adapted from Fred Gibson’s 1956 classic and immortalized, with all the heartbreak and sobbing intact, by Disney . . . and Big Red, Jim Kjelgaard’s fabulous Irish Setter who was also popularized by Mickey Mouse’s studio.
It was the movies (and once again the Disney organization in particular) that introduced a worldwide audience to One Hundred and One Dalmatians. For cognoscenti of the doggie fairytale, however, even that well-loved movie was not in a league with the original novel written by Dodie Smith whose 1948 work I Capture the Castle has also captivated an enormous audience.
Can there possibly be a more lovable hero and heroine than Dalmatians Pongo and Missus Pongo? And what about the wonderful cast of anthropomorphized supporting players like the elder caregiver Spaniel and the feisty Old English Sheepdog Colonel? And has there ever been a more hateable villainess than the fur-clad Cruella de Vil?
A far less jolly read is the nineteenth-century tear-jerker, A Dog of Flanders (1872), by Marie-Louise de la Ramée, published under her pseudonym Ouida. This is the sad tale of Nello, an orphaned boy, and the dog he rescues, named Patrasche. Alas, at the end of this story the pair is found in Antwerp, frozen to death on Christmas morning at the foot of Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross.
Prince Jan, St. Bernard by Forrestine C. Hooker is a personal favorite, perhaps because, at age six or so, it was the first book I read cover-to-cover. Initially published in 1946, it exerts obvious charm as soon as we open the book: “Prince Jan was a fuzzy, woolly puppy with clumsy paws and fat, round body covered with tawny hair. His brown eyes looked with loving good-will at everything and everybody.”
Who but the most anti-dog person would not want to know what happened to this beguiling creature?
Alexander Woollcott of Algonquin Round Table fame may have been known for his sharp, cruel wit, but there is no trace of it in his novel Two Gentlemen and a Lady (1928), which was illustrated by Edwina Dumm. This is a collection of three warm-hearted tales. The first, “The Story of Verdun Belle,” tells of a shabby, lonesome dog, “a squat setter bitch of indiscreet, complex, and unguessable ancestry” and her attachment to a young Buck Private during World War I. No hint of cynicism soils any page.
John Held, Jr. is best known as the definitive illustrator of the Jazz Age, but his dog stories, published in 1930 and filled with his marvelous drawings, are a special treat. Especially worth noting: “The Memoirs of a Pug Dog.” In this delicious tale set in 1911, an aging Madison Square Garden champion looks back on a rich and comfortable life. At one point he predicts “I think the horseless carriage is only a passing fad. It will never take the place of a fine pair of Hambetonians and a shining black carriage with purple broadcloth upholstery.”
A more sprightly Pug is featured in Kay Thompson’s perennially popular series of Eloise books. In each of the four (Eloise, Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime and Eloise in Moscow), first published between 1955 and 1959, Weenie, “the dog that looks like a cat,” cavorts with the heroine and stoically puts up with her high jinks. The superb illustrations of Hilary Knight very much bring this critter to life.
A random listing of other celebrated canines in fiction would include Jack London’s White Fang and Buck, the hero of his still more famous novel, The Call of the Wild . . . Boots, the narrator of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “Thy Servant A Dog” . . . Montmorency, the unruly Terrier in Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) . . . Zane Grey’s “Don” . . . and Sholom Aleichem’s “Rabchik, A Jewish Dog.”
American author and film producer Garth Stein’s 2008 novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, remained on the best seller list for some forty weeks. It tells the story of Denny Swift, a race car driver living in Seattle with his dog Enzo. The novel is written from Enzo’s point of view and his observations capture our heart on the first page:
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively in order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is dedicated to Muggs. Who do you suppose that is?
And then there are the dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune.
Generations of young readers (and lots of older ones as well) have learned just how good a novel with a dog as the hero can be through the works of this master storyteller.
Terhune, a journalist and sometimes amateur boxer with impeccable Colonial American roots, was the son of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, who was also a well-known and popular writer. He was born in 1872 in Newark, New Jersey, and although first well-established as a reporter (he was the only one on the scene during the Stanford White murder trial), his lasting renown came with the publication of his dog stories. In early 1915, Redbook magazine published “His Mate” about a charismatic Collie named Lad. This tale inspired Terhune’s first novel, Lad: A Dog (1919), which received enormous success and is still readily available.
Among the many titles that followed the publication of this first novel: Bruce (1920) about a Collie who, as I recall, was at least partly responsible for defeating the Germans in World War I; Gray Dawn (1925), Bruce’s son, an erratic and boisterous beast who was also capable of astonishing heroics; and A Dog Named Chips (1931), which tells the story of a mongrel cur who insinuates himself into the heart of the ninth-richest woman in America. Interestingly, after a night spent out at the pound, Chips is discovered to be not only female but expecting puppies as well. Her name is quickly changed to the more aristocratic-sounding Cleopatra and she obviously will live happily ever after.
Sunnybank, the Terhune property near Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, was built as a summer home by his parents in the late 1850s and later became the author’s main residence and the a setting for many of his stories. In fact, it became something of a reappearing character itself.
Alas, the ending of Terhune’s own story is quite poignant.
Sunnybank fell into disrepair following the writer’s death and his widow’s medical expenses consumed all the money that had been set aside to guarantee its preservation. Terhune’s only child—a daughter from whom he was estranged—died childless in 1956, destitute and in broken health.
For those interested in rediscovering this prolific writer there is Irving Litvag’s biography, The Master of Sunnybank (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
Happily his legacy of captivating adventures will live on to entertain generations of new readers, especially those with a special fondness for Collies. The 1942 obituary which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune perhaps sums it up best: “Mr. Terhune loved all dogs but he loved Collies in particular, and his Sunnybank Kennels produced many dogs of this breed which became internationally famous blue-ribbon champions. Some critics thought Mr. Terhune a bit biased in favor of Collies for, when musing over the feats of some ancient dog of great heroism, he used to add, ‘He must have had a Collie strain in him.’”
Throughout the centuries dogs have served as man’s closest animal companions and it should come as no surprise that they have been celebrated in so many works of fiction. There are undoubtedly many other worthy canines who have been neglected in this piece; suggestions for future inclusion would be most certainly welcomed. It is to be hoped, however, that the roll call presented here will spark some memories of hours well spent following the fictitious adventures of these exceptional critters, and, perhaps, it will offer some ideas about future good reads.