By: Tina Colvin, PhD candidate in English at Emory University
In 1902, the “father of Canadian literature,” Charles G.D. Roberts, published his book-length collection of wild animal stories, The Kindred of the Wild: A Book of Animal Life. Roberts’s collection emerged at a time when the readership for stories about the lives, deaths, and struggles of wild animals had blossomed, and the popular success of The Kindred of the Wild cemented Roberts’s status as one of the most prominent authors of the period. In keeping with the genre of the animal story, Roberts’s collection depicts animals such as rabbits, eagles, moose, wolves, foxes, and owls as they evade predators, stalk prey, protect their young, play in the snow, and try to avoid the guns, snares, nets, and other dangers posed by humans. The Richard Minsky Collection holds the first edition of the book, one of the versions that also contains illustrations by Charles Livingston Bull who provided dramatic portraits of the wildlife described by Roberts’s prose.
According to Roberts’s appraisal of modern wild animal stories, his own Kindred of the Wild does not suffer from several major mistakes committed by other writers of animal tales. As Roberts explains in his introduction to Kindred, the modern animal story is uniquely engaged with the then-emergent realization that animals possess diverse mental functions, behaviors, and importantly, emotions. The writers who take up this unmapped terrain of animal psychology, Roberts explains, “may be regarded as explorers of this unknown world, absorbed in charting its topography.” Despite their pathbreaking efforts, however, writers of animal stories risk humanizing the animals whose inner lives they endeavor to capture: for instance, Roberts cites Marshall Saunders’s Beautiful Joe and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty as guilty of creating an overly humanized, and by extension overly sentimentalized, representation of animal existence.
To avoid turning his own animals into humans-in-disguise, Roberts’s stories focus on how animals survive or perish in the face of everyday encounters with their environment, humans, and other animals. In Kindred, an orphaned fawn falls prey to a hungry wildcat, a goose travels across lakes and sky in search of a mate, and a wolf dies in the snow, “kicking dumbly,” from a hunter’s bullet in his neck. Despite Roberts’s attempt to offer “realistic” portrayals of animal life, however, traces of the very humanization he disavows creep into his characterizations of animals. A kingly eagle “takes tribute” from a lesser raptor, and a lynx glares with “exultant pride” after killing a mink. More than humanization alone, too, Roberts projects his own values onto animals: he consistently depicts all his most triumphant, daring, and praiseworthy animals as male, thereby betraying his gender bias and patriarchal thinking.
Keeping these issues in mind, what can Roberts’s work teach us about our relationship with wild animals over 100 years after the publication of this first edition? Despite its flaws, Roberts’s collection reveals that depicting animals in all their nonhuman complexity present an ongoing challenge to those humans who venture to write stories about them. Even more importantly, Roberts’s stories endeavor to show that animals are far from simple, machine-like creatures who act according to an invariable, fixed set of behaviors. Instead, Roberts insists that animals have a diversity of personality and emotion. His tales provided an important precursor to contemporary studies of animal behavior that increasingly confirm many animals’ capacity for not only complex responses to problems, but also a wide range of emotions including grief, joy, and empathy. Ultimately, Roberts’s The Kindred of the Wild and the work of several other writers of wild animal stories marked a growing shift in popular attitudes toward animals, a shift from viewing them as passive automatons to recognizing their varied needs and desires as worthy of human attention.