The Literate Kerry (Vol. 5)

(Author, cartoonist, humorist, and satirist, James Grover Thurber was born in 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. He began his career as a reporter for the Columbus Evening Dispatch and became known for his work on The New Yorker, where he was a writer and a cartoonist. Some say his most famous story is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

The brief passage below is taken from a personal essay entitled, “And So to Medve.” Although this excerpt does not directly relate to it, within the longer work, Thurber talks about his dog, Medve, which he states is Hungarian for “bear.” One Thurber aphorism is “The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to its level of sagacity, but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his.” Thurber died in 1961.)

Dog may be man’s best friend, but Man is often Dog’s severest critic, in spite of his historic protestations of affection and admiration. He calls an unattractive girl a dog, he talks acidly of dogs in the manger, he describes a hard was of life as a dog’s life, he observes, cloudily, that this misfortune or that shouldn’t happen to a dog, as if most slings and arrows should, and he describes anybody he can’t stand as a dirty dog. He notoriously takes the names of the female dog and her male offspring in vain, to denounce blackly members of his own race. In all this disdain and contempt there is a curious streak of envy, akin to what the psychiatrists know as sibling jealousy. Man is troubled by what might be called the Dog Wish, a strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog, and I hope that some worthy psychiatrist will do a monograph on it one of these days. Even the Romans of two thousand years ago displayed the peculiar human ambivalence about the dog. There are evidences, in history and literature, of the Romans’ fondness for the dog, and my invaluable Cassell’s Latin Dictionary reveals proof of their hostility. Among the meanings of canis were these: a malicious, spitful person; a parasite, a hanger-on. The worst throw in dice was also known to the Romans as a dog. Caesar may have been afraid he would throw a dog that day he crossed the Rubicon.

Tracing aspersions on the dog in literature and in common everyday speech is a task for some stronger authority than I, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, but there are a few calumnies that I might glance at here, in passing. I remember when “Don’t be an Airedale all your life” was a common expression in the Middle West, and a man I knew in Zanesville thirty years ago used the expression a dozen times a day. Shakespeare takes many cracks at Dog from “I would rather be a dog and baying at the moon than such a Roman” to “Turn, hellhound!” which Mackduff hurls at the bloody Macbeth to start their fifth-act duel with broadswords. The Bard, knowing full well that it is men who are solely responsible for wars, nevertheless wrote “Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war!” But it is not only in the classics that the much-maligned hound has been attacked. A craven pugilist is known to boxing fans as a hound. And I have always resented the words Whittier put in Stonewall Jackson’s mouth: “Who touches a hair on yon gray head dies like a dog!” Here it is implied that any soldier who took a free shot at Barbara Frietchie would be shot, and shooting is rarely the end of a dog. There are a score of birds and animals which could more aptly have been substituted for the dog and I suggest, “Who touches a hair on yon gray head dies like a duck!” But alas, these ancient libels are past erasing, and Dog will simply have to go on enduring them as patiently as he can.

Editor’s Note:
To find out more about Shakespeare’s reference to the dog, please read the article written by Bob Nazak entitled, “Shakespeare Goes to Montgomery.”

Last Updated: 06/29/2004, 8:50 am