When I was a child, my love for dog literature could be described as nothing short of an obsession. From Where the Red Fern Grows to Lassie, I sought out every book in between that sported a dog on the cover and a title promising adventure. I especially enjoyed a collection of true dog rescue stories and poured over these proofs of canine fidelity and brilliance, knowing that if my dogs were ever given the opportunity, they would achieve just as remarkable feats.
This obsession has only been mildly tempered with age, and so it was with great relish that I came upon the USC Press’ newly released anthology of American canine literature, In Dogs We Trust. While in the 21st century mankind as a whole is not as dependent on the use of dogs for survival as our agrarian ancestors, editors Jacob Rivers and Jeffrey Makala point out in the introduction that the bond shared between dogs and humans is in many ways stronger than it ever has been, with dogs sleeping in the bed, dressing up for Halloween, and having their own Instagram accounts. Yet, they write, “Even the most hearth-friendly family dog still retains this fundamental wildness deep inside its psyche … dogs become correctives to the dehumanizing effects of technology and a direct link to the ancient unity between humans and the nonhuman environment in which we live. Dogs help link us to our own primitive past.”
This volume contains a diverse collection of short stories, essays, articles, memoirs, and poetry representing the American perception of beloved canines over several centuries. The evolution of the working dog to the recreational sporting dog and finally to the companion house pet serves as the categorical organization for the content, including authors such as Jack London, Archibald Rutledge, John Winthrop, Emily Dickinson, and Carl Sandburg, among many others, who all celebrate the magnanimous qualities of man’s best friend.
One magazine excerpt from 1831 describes a dog who, with no direction to do so, braved a snowstorm and found his farmer’s lost flock of nearly frozen chickens and brought them inside, one by one, laying them by the warm hearth. Another article from 1861 relates the story of a dog swimming out to save an entire crew of fishermen who were unable to bring in their boat past a line of treacherous breakers, again with no human command. He refused to go aboard and instead swam around a short distance from the boat until they finally threw him a line, which he promptly took in his mouth and used to pull them safely into shore.
I particularly enjoyed a short story entitled “The Bar Sinister” by Richard Harding Davis, told by a young bull terrier mix (“Kid”) in 1902. Kid’s grammar and narrative voice are in keeping with his upbringing in the streets, comically chronicling his rags to riches life first as a stray, then as a champion ring fighter in the underbelly of Montreal, and finally as a pet to the groom of “Mr. Wyndham sir” on a lush estate. There he is introduced to the elite world of dog shows and the snobby canines who compete in them.
I also stumbled upon a story that, halfway through, I realized I had read as a child: “One Minute Longer” by Albert Payson Terhune. It details the heroic rescue by a collie named Wolfe who, at the risk of his own life, saves his boy who has fallen through the ice of a deserted duck pond.
This collection is a must-have for any dog-lover and for anyone who loves classic American storytelling, writing, and poetry. As the editors explain, “Dog literature is American literature; it helps explore and explain who we are, and who we wish to be.”