Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century

Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century

Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century

Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century

Synopsis

In Animals and Other People, Heather Keenleyside argues for the central role of literary modes of knowledge in apprehending animal life. Keenleyside focuses on writers who populate their poetry, novels, and children's stories with conspicuously figurative animals, experiment with conventional genres like the beast fable, and write the "lives" of mice as well as men. From such writers--including James Thomson, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and others--she recovers a key insight about the representation of living beings: when we think and write about animals, we are never in the territory of strictly literal description, relying solely on the evidence of our senses. Indeed, any description of animals involves personification of a sort, if we understand personification not as a rhetorical ornament but as a fundamental part of our descriptive and conceptual repertoire, essential for distinguishing living beings from things.

Throughout the book, animals are characterized by a distinctive mode of agency and generality; they are at once moving and being moved, at once individual beings and generic or species figures (every cat is also "The Cat"). Animals thus become figures with which to think about key philosophical questions about the nature of human agency and of social and political community. They also come into view as potential participants in that community, as one sort of "people" among others. Demonstrating the centrality of animals to an eighteenth-century literary and philosophical tradition, Animals and Other People also argues for the importance of this tradition to current discussions of what life is and how we might live together.

Excerpt

The task of this book is to recover what is most unique and still useful about eighteenth-century approaches to animal life. I do this by focusing on writers who people their poetry, novels, and children’s literature with goats, mules, oxen, and hares; experiment with beastly genres like the fable; write the “lives” of mice as well as men. These writers turn to animals in works that call attention to their own formal devices: extensive poetic personifications, sentimental cross-species conversations, and fables that use speaking animals to teach children that speech is the sole property of human beings. Such devices can seem utterly conventional, having little to do with animals, and lacking significant conceptual or ethical stakes. My aim is to make the contrary case. I argue that the patently figurative animals in eighteenth-century literature have much to contribute to cultural and intellectual debates that are still with us— about the specificity of animals and the nature of species, about persons and their relationship to other sorts of creatures, and about what life is, which lives count, and how we might live together. They do this by making a point that eighteenth-century writers understood better than we: rhetorical conventions make real-world claims.

The philosophy and literature of the period is full of animal figures, from Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s conversible parrot to Rousseau’s natural man that is or is like an animal; from the “soft fearful People” and “houshold, feathery People” (sheep and chickens) of James Thomson’s nature poetry to the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms of Gulliver’s Travels; from the dogs, cats, goats, and parrots that inhabit Robinson Crusoe’s otherwise solitary island to the talking animals of children’s fiction. These figures are distributed across the long eighteenth century and appear in a range of its favored genres—those that are on the rise, like the novel or the life narrative, and those that are ancient or even antiquated, like the animal fable. As diverse as they are, these works all suggest . . .

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