Celebrity Authors For A Cause: The Anti-Vivisection Connection Between Mark Twain & Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Twain’s fascination and sympathy for animals is abundantly clear in the countless depictions of animals in his writing. One of my favorite manifestations of Twain’s love of animals, however, isn’t a literary example, but an architectural one: the cat doors built into his Octagonal Study. The cat doors allow me to identify with the iconic author on a personal level as I conjure up a delightfully relatable image of him exactly as I am at the moment – writing with my beloved cats surrounding and draped upon me. That Twain loved animals is common knowledge. But what may surprise even Twain fans today is that he didn’t only love animals, he advocated for their rights. 

Twain’s sympathy for animals can be traced throughout his entire life, a fact he attributed to his mother’s influence, and his wife Livy and their daughters were all avid supporters of animal welfare causes. It took a more radical branch of the animal welfare movement, though, to draw Twain’s public statements of protest: the practice of vivisection, or scientific experiments on live animals. During Twain’s lifetime, vivisection became increasingly common, especially in universities, where “modernized” physiology laboratories touted their facilities for conducting animal experiments and theatrical lecture hall demonstrations on animals were the new norm. Twain became increasingly conscious of the use of animals in experiments, and he railed against the practice in his 1899 letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society, which was published and circulated on both sides of the Atlantic as a pamphlet for the anti-vivisection cause. Characteristic of the author’s usual outrage over the exploitation of the vulnerable in society, Twain’s letter took a radical philosophical stance, refuting the notion that animal testing was justifiable as a means to advance medical science.

“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 to the race 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.”

A few years later, apparently at the suggestion of his animal-loving daughter Jean, Twain wrote the short story that solidified his public support for the cause, “A Dog’s Tale.” As the last published work Twain wrote in Quarry Farm, “A Dog’s Tale,” published in December 1903 in Harper’s and the following year as a book, is a fitting culmination of the many productive summers he spent surrounded by the beloved cats, dogs, farm animals and wildlife of his Elmira, N.Y. retreat. The story is told from the perspective of a loveable mother dog, Aileen Mavourneen, who earns an honored status in her family by rescuing a baby from a nursery fire, only to have her own puppy killed by her unfeeling vivisector owner in an unnecessary experiment in his home laboratory. In “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain condemns vivisection as an act of betrayal. As the sympathetic family servant who buried Aileen’s puppy, laments, “Poor little doggie, you saved his child.”

After the publication of his letter to the Anti-Vivisection Society and “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and he was not alone in that role. His contemporary Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, the author of over 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays, also joined the fight against vivisection. From the 1890s until her death in 1911, Phelps devoted herself to the anti-vivisection cause. In addition to writing novels and short stories that protested vivisection, Phelps contributed several pamphlets and three speeches to the Massachusetts Legislature in support of a bill to regulate vivisection in that state, and she lobbied for legislative reform with lawmakers. Phelps was such a prominent advocate for animal rights that the New York Times featured her stance in a 1908 article about the vivisection controversy: “Ten thousand things learned, if this were possible, from vivisection, would not justify the intolerable and unpardonable torture to which animals have been subjected by this brutal practice.” Phelps, while in agreement with Twain on wanting to abolish vivisection completely, nevertheless supported legislation to regulate the practice, with the hopes of lessening the suffering of animals in laboratories. 

Despite the nuances of their activist stances, Twain and Phelps both used their fiction as a vehicle to generate sympathy for animals and support for the anti-vivisection campaign. As Phelps’s most significant contribution to the cause, her novel Trixy highlights the degrading effect of vivisection on humanity and especially on the medical profession. The vivisector characters of both “A Dog’s Tale” and Trixy are portrayed as elite class “gentlemen of science” who perform unnecessary experiments on animals for the sake of professional glory, and who are desensitized to the suffering of living beings. The dog characters of both stories are the kind of loyal, trusting, and loveable companion animals that were cherished in the Victorian pet keeping culture (and today), which makes the stories of their betrayal by humans especially heart breaking.

Although neglected by scholars and readers for many years, Twain’s contributions to the anti-vivisection campaign are finally getting the attention they deserve, in large part thanks to Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s volume, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, published in 2010. Phelps’s writing for the cause, which has been out of print for over a century, warrants recovery, as well. Trixy speaks as much to readers today as it did in Phelps’s and Twain’s era, because it presents a progressive and capacious model of compassion that crosses boundaries of species and social status. In Trixy, Phelps anticipates posthumanist philosophers today who challenge species-based divisions and hierarchies.  

Animal rights activists today will appreciate Phelps’s strategic choice in highlighting not only the suffering animals, but also the bonds between animals and humans, and they’ll recognize the power of storytelling as a key strategy in transforming readers’ attitudes about the status of animals in society. In many ways, I see social media profiles of rescue dogs as a modern day version of the narrative strategies popularized by Twain and Phelps. In Twitter posts told from the point of view of rescue dogs, adopters share updates about their dogs’ happy lives, loving homes and relationships, and carefree adventures. With their focus on telling stories of dogs and their emotional experiences and interactions with people, activists who focus on nonhuman animals’ stories pick up where Phelps and Twain left off over a century ago. 

Trixy and “A Dog’s Tale” take us back to a time when the use of animals in laboratories had just become commonplace in the U.S., especially in universities. These stories offer us a glimpse into the authors’ prescient ideas about the enduring effects of that new norm, and they reflect the authors’ passionate devotion to the rights of nonhuman animals. At the same time, they also offer readers today a progressive vision of love and compassion across the species divide. 

“Who comes so near to meeting the conditions of a real friendship as your dog? His devotion surpasses the devotion of most women. His affection outvies the affection of any man. He gives everything; he asks nothing. He offers all; he receives little. He comforts your loneliness; he assuages your distress; he sacrifices his liberty to watch by you in sickness; when every one else who used to love you has neglected your grave, he will break his heart upon it. Who fails you in faith? Your dog is loyal. Who deserts you? Your dog never. Who gashes you with roughness, or bruises you with unkindness? Your dog offers you the tenderness that time and use cannot destroy. You have from him the expression of the uttermost, the unselfish love.”

from Trixy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

A more expanded discussion of these remarks, especially the Twain and Phelps anti-vivisection connection, can be found in my Introduction to the new critical edition of Trixy being published by Northwestern University Press. The volume also includes Mark Twain’s story “A Dog’s Tale” in the appendix. To find out more and received a 25% discount, check out this flyer.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center for Mark Twain Studies through a Quarry Farm Fellowship, which provided me with valuable research time and inspiration for this project. 

Emily E. VanDette is a Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia. She was a Quarry Farm Fellow in 2017.