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Thurber and Foote – Great Writing, from Great Dog Fanciers

I have been remiss! In the recent Pet Connection blog on best beloved animal stories of all times, I forgot to mention one of my absolute favorite dog writers, John Taintor Foote, a fact I was reminded of when I picked up my dog eared copy of “Dumb Bell of Brookfield” yesterday afternoon.

Born in 1881, Taintor Foote was something of a renaissance man – an author, a screenwriter and a playwright, he had a particular interest in the so-called ‘sporting life’ – angling, hunting, horse racing and the great outdoors. His screenwriting credits were diverse, ranging from The Mark of Zorro to the Story of Seabiscuit.

I was introduced to Foote’s writing by my rather eccentric – and recently deceased uncle. He found me in his rather well stocked library one day, reading a copy of “The Water Babies” that hindsight tells me was likely a first or so edition. He walked up, removed the book from my hands, and placed it back on the shelf, and then replaced it with a volume he selected from another shelf. The book was “The Dumb-Bell of Brookfield” – not an original edition (that came out in 1917), but one published in 1922. Dumb-Bell is the story of an under sized pointer – over looked, and under valued by his owners (a couple with the rather hackneyed mannerisms of “Mervyn Lloyd and Claudette Colbert”, in the words of Foote’s son, Timothy Foote , in the introduction to the re release of his father’s stories).

Years later, an article by Vicki Hearne mentioned some of Taintor Foote’s writing on Pit Bulls, and I immediately searched out a copy of the anthology of Taintor Foote’s dog stories. “Dumb Bell of Brookfield, Pocono Shot and Other Great Dog Stories” has some phenomenal writing about sporting dogs – even a neophyte like me can tell that – but for me, Foote shines when he’s writing about “Bulldogs” (‘Bulldogs’ of course, is used in the old sense of the world, as a vernacular for what we now call Pit Bull Terriers. To quote Thurber “An American Bull, none of your English fellows”). Foote’s most famous story, after Dumb Bell, is contained in this collection. “Trub’s Diary” is written from the view point of a troublesome white Bulldog, and is one of the funniest pieces of anthropomorphic writing ever done. Foote might have written human characters that are, by today’s standards, heavy handed, but his dogs still ring true today.

Pick up the collection of Foote’s dog stories, or grab one for the sporting fan or Pit Bull lover on your list who’s hard to buy for. Oh, and fans of great horse writing will be instantly enamored of “Hoofbeats“, his collected horse stories. His tales of track life are as evocative today as they were at the beginning of last century, although the vernacular used can be difficult to get used to (and the racial slang hard to swallow).

The Thurber DogI mentioned Thurber above, and no mention of great dog writing is complete without Thurber’s name prominent on the list. I suppose that, today, he’s better known for his downtrodden men and haughty women than he is for his dogs, but the “Thurber dog”, as it was known, was once an instantly recognizable icon. Shaggy, nondescript and not prone to the pitfalls of his people, the Thurber dog was a symbol of sanity in Thurber’s chaotic world.

Thurber’s dog stories recall some of the beloved dogs of his childhood, including the stories of Rex, the decidedly non English Bulldog. Rex, who found enjoyment in dragging home items like wardrobes, once engaged in a dog fight that lasted ‘most of the day’. Thurber reminisces about this event with nostalgia, even fondness. Thurber’s “Rex, Portrait of a Dog”, remains one of my personal favorite stories of all time, of all genres, and possibly the best story even written in homage of Pit Bulls.

Thurber seemed to relish dogs that others would describe as ‘difficult’. His story about Muggs (The Dog That Bit People), affectionately tells of his family’s irascible Airedale Terrier – a dog that did, quite literally, bite people with clock work regularity. Thurber’s encounters with Muggs, seen through the lens of nostalgia, become affectionate and humorous, but he makes it clear that Rex was a danger to almost everyone around him, and his mother’s eulogy for Rex, Cave Canem, was tellingly apt.

Also in this collection is Thurber’s bitterly humorous “Lo, the Gentle Bloodhound” – his response to the ‘dangerous dog’ hysteria his time was plagued with. Hard to believe today, but in Thurber’s time, Bloodhounds were regarded as savage man killers – a left over from their days as slave tracking dogs. It’s easy to laugh about anyone regarding the mope faced Bloodhound as a threat, but consider that, in Thurber’s day, the Pit Bull was America’s classic family pet – a sort of turn of the century Golden Retriever or Lab.  Thurber regarded fear of Bloodhounds to be as ludicrous as fear of moths, or bunny rabbits, but I have no doubt he’d have regarded fear of his beloved Bulldogs as even more ridiculous.

Thurber’s Dogs” seems to be sadly out of print. As an alternative, pick up the (possibly even better) “Dog Department“, which contains not only the stories from “Thurber’s Dogs”, but also previously unpublished work. Thurber and his wife bred and showed Scottish Terriers and Standard Poodles, and his writing on them, and on dog shows, will stand the test of time as some of the best ever published. If Thurber begins to beguile you, move on to “The Thurber Carnival“, which replicates some of the work from the “Dog Department“, but also includes many of his best short stories (including Walter Mitty) and a selection of his best cartoons (Thurber dogs included).