My brother and I were never permitted to have pets of any kind, apart from a small turtle that I was given once on a trip to Florida and that my parents unaccountably allowed me to bring back home to Massachusetts. And even this modest and inoffensive creature, sloshing about in its bowl, was forced, on my mother’s command, to spend its nights not in my bedroom but on the screened-in porch. I suppose that my mother feared that somehow, in the middle of the night, the captive would scale the walls of its glass enclosure and strangle us in our beds.
The regimen must not have disagreed with the turtle, since it survived for some months. But when the fall came, and with it a sudden cold snap, I went out to the porch early one morning to find my little pet entirely encased in a block of ice. I rushed into the house and, not knowing what else to do, I put the whole bowl into the oven, at a low temperature. What occurred then was the only miracle—apart from life itself—that I have ever directly experienced: as the ice slowly melted, the turtle, at first rigid and immobile, unaccountably began to move. It had returned to this world from the dark kingdom whose threshold it had crossed.
The next night, of course, I repeated the sequence, promising myself a renewal of the resurrection, to be witnessed now, at my solemn invitation, by my brother. But this time the poor frozen turtle failed to revive. There were no more miracles and no more pets in my house.
Even outside the house, my parents shunned animals. Dogs were the objects of their particular aversion. Fearing them intensely, they communicated their anxiety to me, so that it took many years before I could relax and feel comfortable around them. In the presence of my friends’ dogs, I feigned an admiration and pleasure I did not actually feel, and eventually, as often happens, the feigning produced at least a shadow of the actual feeling. I met dogs that I recognized to be beautiful and lovable, but the love was always in truth someone else’s, not fully my own.
Nothing in my professional life as a scholar contrived to soften this personal distance.1 The artist on whose work I have spent the most time, Shakespeare, seems to have disliked dogs. About almost all other creatures in the world—horses, rabbits, even snails—he felt a deep, inward understanding, but with dogs his imagination curdled. As Caroline Spurgeon observed more than seventy years ago, in a landmark study of Shakespeare’s imagery,2 dogs function in his work almost entirely negatively. He can effortlessly catalog their types—
Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or him,
Bobtail tyke or trundle-tail—
—but they are all equally menacing: “Be thy mouth or black or white,/Tooth that poisons if it bite” ( The Tragedy of King Lear 3.6.21–25). In the tragedy from which these lines come, the villainous sisters, Goneril and Reagan, are “dog-hearted,” a quality they share with the “hell-hound” Richard of Gloucester and with the fathomlessly malevolent Iago (“O damned Iago! O inhuman dog”). When in Shakespeare dogs are not snarling and biting, they are servile flatterers, like the most craven courtiers: “Why, what a candy deal of courtesy,” Hotspur remarks of Bolingbroke, “this fawning greyhound then did proffer me!” ( I Henry IV 1.3.247–248). Such sickening displays of canine flattery must never be trusted: “When he fawns, he bites; and when he bites,/His venom tooth will rankle to the death” ( Richard III 1.3.288–289).
Dogs, the clown Lance observes in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, lack all feeling. Everyone in his household is touched by Lance’s departure—“My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands”—except for their dog Crab: “He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog” (2.3.5–9). Even a Jew, Lance remarks, would have wept at the parting, but Crab did not shed a tear.
This melancholy history must serve in effect as a disclaimer, because, though it has a Shakespearean plot, the best-selling novel about which I write, David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is first and foremost a book about dogs. The Sawtelle family owns a farm in rural Wisconsin where for several generations they have bred and trained dogs. The kennel is immensely hard work and only barely breaks even, but a privileged few understand that Sawtelle dogs are truly exceptional, the mystic marriage of blood and loving discipline.
Gar Sawtelle’s father, who established the enterprise, had been an early adherent of rigorously scientific breeding, and he passed along his theories and the methods developed to realize them to his son. The son, Gar, in turn attempts to convey the whole complex system to his only child, Edgar. This reach across generations is crucial for successful breeding: “A litter,” Edgar’s father once told him,
is like an x-ray of its parents and its parents’ parents, but an x-ray that takes years to develop, and even then it’s faint. The more x-rays you have, the better the picture you get.
Assisting with the whelping of a litter and taking charge of the pups is Edgar Sawtelle’s great initiation ritual, the decisive mark of his father’s trust in the skills that his son has been acquiring virtually from the moment of his birth. The acquisition is complicated by a singular fact of Edgar’s existence: he is mute. His mother Trudy takes him as a baby to an unending series of specialists, in the hope of finding a medical solution, but she hears the definitive answer not from a doctor but from an old crone, the owner of a decrepit grocery store, who functions repeatedly in the novel as an uncanny, laconic truth-teller:
“No,” Ida Paine grunted, with some finality.
“He can use his hands.”
As oracular Ida foresaw, the child and his parents learn to sign. Edgar becomes particularly adept at using his hands to convey not only commands but also the smallest nuances of meaning to the dogs, especially to his beloved and faithful Almondine, who has watched over him from birth. He learns to feed and water the dogs; to clean their pens; to groom them. He is given the special responsibility of assigning names to the newborns, a task facilitated by eager forays into his favorite book, TheNew Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.
But none of this gradual training, described in loving detail by Wroblewski, fully prepares young Edgar for the momentousness of his father’s question: “What would you think of making this litter yours?” The novel—which has a tendency not to leave well enough alone—makes sure that readers catch the implication of the question: “You look,” Edgar’s father remarks, “like you’re about to have puppies.” The line between Edgar and the dog world is blurred: he has been, a bit like Kipling’s Mowgli (who is repeatedly invoked), the child of the dogs, and from this moment he will be their parent as well.
Edgar’s quasi-parental responsibility for the puppies extends to a further feature of the Sawtelle kennel, indeed to what is arguably its central pillar: fanatically accurate and extensive record-keeping. In the back of the workshop in the barn there is a row of paint-chipped filing cabinets that contain the records of the whole enterprise, all carefully keyed to the ledgered names and litter numbers of the master litter book:
A thousand times he must have watched his father run a finger along a page, then snatch an overstuffed folder out of a drawer. Generations of dogs filled those metal drawers.
Again Wroblewski wants to be sure that readers grasp the import of his figure of speech:
If ever a folder turned up missing, his father said it was as if they had lost the dog itself, and he would search and search, saying, “These records are it. Without them, we wouldn’t know how to plan the next litter. We wouldn’t know what a dog meant.”
If the Sawtelle farm is, from young Edgar’s perspective, a kind of paradise—a loving father, mother, and child, presiding over the sweet mysteries of natural fertility—it is a paradise that requires constant maintenance and a strict order based on elaborate documentation.
Into this puritanical Eden, a garden built on discipline, hard work, and adherence to the rules, there comes a snake: Gar Sawtelle’s younger brother Claude. Claude had left the farm years before to join the navy, and the reader has already glimpsed him in a mysterious prologue, set in South Korea in 1952. There, in the novel’s opening pages, an unnamed sailor has slipped away from his naval base and sought out a sinister herbalist in a dark alley. In a scene worthy of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu (“Past the ginseng, a tangled pile of antlers lay beneath a rack of decanters,” etc.), the sailor trades penicillin for a vial of very special poison: “Something that works at once. No stomachache for the rat. No headache. The other rats should think the one rat went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” The herbalist demonstrates the efficacy of his product not on a rat but on a stray dog. End of prologue; cut to the Sawtelle farm.
We do not need to know that Claude has brought the vial of poison home from Korea and that he has been on the wrong side of the law to sense that he is serious trouble. Edgar’s first glance is enough: “His father’s brother wore an ill-fitting serge suit, in which he looked uneasy and shabbily formal.” Confirmation of the unease comes late that night when Edgar, spotting his uncle slipping out of the house, follows him to the barn: “Claude lay in the middle of it all on a hastily improvised bed of bales, one hand hanging slackly to the floor, palm up, fingers half curled beside a liquor bottle.” When Edgar asks him what is going on, his uncle is evasive:
Okay, your father asked me not to get into too much detail here, but, uh, let’s just say I’ve been inside a lot. I got really tired of being inside all the time. Little room, not much sun, that sort of thing.
The orderly life of the Sawtelle kennel has come to an end.
Claude, who is handy and manages dogs well, stays on to help Gar and Trudy with the farm. There are moments of pleasure—card games with the elderly vet Doctor Papineau, old stories of childhood escapades, genial teasing and flirting—but the tension between the two brothers, always simmering, soon boils over. After a violent quarrel in which Edgar’s father manages to best his brother, Claude leaves to find work in the nearby town.
There are, to be sure, endless loving representations of dogs in Renaissance painting: the frisky Brussels griffon in Van Eyck's Arnolfini wedding portrait, the sleek, loping hunting dogs in Breughel's sublime Hunters in the Snow, the pissing mongrel that aroused the Inquisition's wrath in Veronese's Last Supper, and (my personal favorite) the eerily intelligent gray dog in Dosso Dossi's Circe or Melissa in the Borghese Gallery.↩
Shakespeare's Imagery, and What It Tells Us (Cambridge University Press, 1935). Citations of Shakespeare are to The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Norton, 2008).↩
There are, to be sure, endless loving representations of dogs in Renaissance painting: the frisky Brussels griffon in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, the sleek, loping hunting dogs in Breughel’s sublime Hunters in the Snow, the pissing mongrel that aroused the Inquisition’s wrath in Veronese’s Last Supper, and (my personal favorite) the eerily intelligent gray dog in Dosso Dossi’s Circe or Melissa in the Borghese Gallery.↩
Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What It Tells Us (Cambridge University Press, 1935). Citations of Shakespeare are to The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Norton, 2008).↩