Few dimensions of the historian’s craft are as crucial as articulating and defending our explanatory scales—and many historiographical trends hinge on polarized approaches to this problem. “Big history,” drawing from disciplines like biological anthropology and cosmology, aims to paint a coherent interdisciplinary picture of human alterations and adaptations on the largest possible canvas of time and space, from the “big bang” to the present day. Microhistory borrows cultural anthropology’s “thick description” strategy and applies a decidedly more focused analytic lens: it positions specific localized people, places, or things to stand as exemplary, or, as Jill Lepore characterized it, “as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole” (“Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 : 129–144, here 133). On this broad spectrum, most historical attention and explanation falls somewhere in between, shaped as much by our available sources as by our narrative choices. Two historians of animals—Abraham H. Gibson and Janet M. Davis—each take a different “mixed methods” approach to solving the scale problem, and in the process they re-define the importance of their beastly actors across and between a range of times and spaces. Taken together, their scholarly tales enrich our understandings of human-animal relations in American history, as well as force us to revisit and reconsider larger historiographical assumptions about agency and causation. Gibson’s book, Feral Animals in the American South, is a self-declared “evolutionary history,” bounded by a focus on particular species (dogs, pigs, and horses) and a very specific continental geography (the area east of the Appalachians, south of the Potomac). Trained primarily as a historian of science, Gibson asks readers to consider the concept of “ferality” as a lens through which to examine the consequences when human and animal worlds collide and then diverge—or, as he puts it, “when our braided coevolutionary trajectories start to unravel” (4). By tracing three large variables—“biogeographical distribution, genetic composition, and behavioral engagement with humans”—in three animals, Gibson aims to place into conversation many strains of animal studies and historical research that are seldom spoken of much less written about in similar breadth (4). Ultimately, this book synthesizes historical and scientific meanings of ideas about wilderness and frontiers, makes local and global claims about the nature of human-animal power relations, and provides an impressive longue durée arc of regional and global change—all with animals at the center, rather than the periphery, of the narrative. The three species were “deliberately chosen,” Gibson notes, to provide coherence as well as contrasts: “not only because of their conspicuous roles in the region’s history, but also because they had such radically different experiences with both domestication and ferality” (12). Gibson’s tight species focus offers a convenient way to ground the book’s expansive scope; each chapter concludes with a brief summary, which is useful because the chapters vary widely in explanatory scale. Chapters 2 and 3 are the most breathtaking. Chapter 2 chronicles the origins of wildness, domestication, and ferality from pre-historic Asia and Africa, from 12,000 to 3500 b.c.e., in order to introduce scientific and anthropological disagreements over the definitions of these terms. Chapter 3 focuses on how dogs, horses, and pigs came to populate the colonial U.S. South, from 11,000 b.c.e. (when people and dogs arrived) to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when English settlers arrived. Colonists’ decisions not to enclose their livestock, Gibson argues, created a form of animal husbandry that was “radiative in nature,” which not only put these animals in service to both colonists and Native Americans but also effectively created “the southern range, a social, cultural, and ecological institution that would define life in the region” as a kind of boundary space (part frontier, part domestic) (50). Horses were subject at the same time to “intensive anthropogenic selection” (51) for the purpose of racing, while pigs and horses lived among both colonists and enslaved people as unkempt and wild animals, as Gibson shows by harvesting descriptions of the animals from diaries, published travel narratives, and legal statutes. Gibson’s middle chapters provide the best examples of the strength of a large-scale interdisciplinary approach to understanding ferality—and not coincidentally, these are also the tightest chronologically, each dealing with less than a century’s time. Chapter 4 examines the relationship between cultivation and domestication from the early national period to the end of the Civil War. Although Gibson engages with existing historical arguments about “equine attrition” (79) and its effects during and after the Civil War, he contextualizes the vast loss of domestic animal life in this time against a background of other “selective parameters” that also shaped outcomes, both positively and negatively. For dogs, these parameters ranged from elite cultural preferences for particular dog breeds to the use of slave-owned dogs in hunting, and for pigs, the parameters included that “there were never enough to fulfill the South’s insatiable appetite for pork” (79), and thus interstate pig trades developed, with animals driven by hoof, and later, railroads. Chapter 5 documents the effects of industrialization and mechanization on these same animal species, noting vast rural and urban differences in the antebellum period through World War II. Domestic dogs in various metropolises were cultivated into ever-more-refined breeds, while “expanding cities waged an ongoing extermination campaign against their … admixed, free-ranging cousins” (10). Horse populations plummeted in the face of automobile transport, but not before many horses were “siphoned into mules” (114) for agricultural use or the race horse fancy. In the later twentieth century (chap. 6) boundaries between wild, domestic, and feral populations further sharpened, as Gibson defines these distinctions using evidence of evolutionary reproductive capacity as well as changing cultural practices ranging from the expansion of pet keeping (dogs and pigs) to hunting trends. Moving effortlessly from secondary scholarship—historians’ journal articles and ecologists’ and evolutionary biologists’ scientific analysis—to more traditional primary source materials, such as newspaper ads and agricultural census documents and letters or diaries, Gibson carefully analyzes a dizzying array of evidence for the presence (in number) and uses of animals, often across boundaries of race and class (showing, for example, how in the earliest debate over fencing-in livestock, people of different ancestries often engaged animals in similar ways). That said, sometimes the narrative threads are so large, across swaths of time and space so vast, that Gibson defaults to using the animals’ own agency to propel the action forward—for instance, feral pigs are described as having “forgot[ten] all their social graces” (51), escaped wild horses as having “carved out an existence” on the South Atlantic seaboard or taken “refuge in Florida’s most inaccessible reaches” (79). Ultimately, he concludes that human agency trumps all: feral animals persist in the contemporary Anthropocene not because of their own choices but because “people cannot stop creating them” (139). Davis, like Gibson, reframes the history of the modern United States with animals as central players, but she focuses on the history of human ideas about kindness toward “fellow creatures” rather than on animal bodies and biologies (4) In The Gospel of Kindness, she explores the wide-ranging cultural and social influence of the American animal welfare movement—on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Also unlike Gibson, Davis starts from smaller anecdotes and questions and makes them stand for a much larger set of historical problems: How were mid-1920s discussions of the founding of an American animal hospital in Morocco reflective of and connected to questions about American patriotism, moral purpose, and benevolence at home and abroad? “How and why did a movement dedicated to protecting animals throw questions of human equality and cultural difference into sharp relief?” (3–4) The Gospel of Kindness reflects Davis’s wide-ranging expertise in American studies, history, and women’s and gender studies. Using published journal articles, newspapers, books, novels, and legal records, as well as diaries, evangelical biblical exegesis, and some archival correspondence, she deftly weaves the history of animal welfare in with that of other social movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter 1 examines animal kindness as a value emerging from the Second Great Awakening and antebellum reform. Revivalism, she argues, was essential to the birth of animal welfare, which was, in turn, a force that accelerated other antebellum reform movements, such as abolition and temperance (chap. 2). Temperance was “large enough to offer a welcoming political platform for other groups denied the full rights of citizenship,” including women (49), but the ties between movements were also more direct professional or family ones. George Angell, Harvard-trained lawyer and animal advocate, spoke to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and while the WCTU leaders were “hardly dependent on his aid,” they “welcomed animal kindness into its self-styled ‘white ribbon gospel,’ a vision of civilization created by benevolent acts of moral suasion and individual uplift to protect home and family” (51). Davis sensitively documents how this vision often had competing public and private dynamics (chap. 3). Public accounts of dog eating and mule beating were rendered in the service of firmer class, race, and gender boundaries for American belonging and exclusion: print media made animal kindness into “a marker of proper American comportment, good citizenship, and higher civilization” (85). Davis’s final three chapters (4–6), however, are her most pathbreaking, for they move beyond the U.S. frame and put American animal advocacy in conversation with global dialogues about our young nation’s empire taking place first in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico under U.S. military occupation, and later in India and Spain via Protestant missionaries. Here, Davis is particularly skillful at synthesizing existing animal studies and global histories with her own close readings of animal advocacy texts. She points out many ironic consequences that embracing a purportedly “universal standard of suffering and kindness” entailed for American militaristic imperialists who saw themselves as progressive versions of their barbaric native counterparts (23). “It would be a mistake,” Davis cautions at the start of her account, “to dismiss the animal welfare movement wholesale as simply an anxious group of elite Euroamerican hypocrites who were hell-bent on a project of social control” (24). Rather, Davis demonstrates how the value of showing kindness to animals was central to the formation of many intersectional tensions of class, race, and gender that are the hallmarks of modern American national identity. This critical approach complicates the boundaries between humans and animals that have heretofore prevented most historians from considering connections between smaller and more mundane institutions like animal shelters and stockyards and sweeping historiographical themes like American exceptionalism or expansionism. Executed well, then, both Gibson’s and Davis’s accounts should ultimately persuade readers that more flexible and agile approaches to the problem of scale are necessary. Their experiments in recalibrating human-animal histories demand a depth and breadth of knowledge not typical in our specialized scholarly training—but they yield fascinating and eye-opening results. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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