Mad Dogs, Mud Turtles & Escaped Pigs:

Thoreau as Storyteller in the Journal

By Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

Thoreau Reader: Home - Journal Writing

In his “Class Autobiography,” written as he graduated from Harvard College, Henry Thoreau apparently predicted his future as a writer: “I see but two alternatives, a page or a volume” (Early Essays 114). As we well know, Thoreau opted for the second choice, leaving not one — but 47 — volumes of a manuscript Journal. Scholars continue to debate how we should read and interpret this massive text, but most concur with Walter Harding that “the Journal was the result of a professional concern with writing as an art” (71). Eco-critics in particular have recently valorized the form of authorship Thoreau cultivated in his Journal. For Scott Slovic, Thoreau’s “appreciation for rough form and artless expression . . . suggest[s] . . . that Thoreau valued the crude form of his Journal above the more crafted form of his published works” (23). Steven Fink and others have argued that despite the relative commercial failures of A Week and Walden, Thoreau cared passionately about his identity as an author; throughout his life, he regarded his profession to be a serious literary one, this despite Joseph Krutch’s jest that Thoreau “had no intention of becoming so committed to authorship as to discover too late that it also was a profession” (Fink, “Thoreau and His Audience 79; Krutch 46). Conventional wisdom has it that after Walden’s lukewarm reception, the Journal became Thoreau’s “all purpose” literary work in progress, a “writer’s storehouse,” according to Leonard Neufeldt (116) — the site where William Howarth claims we can best track the process of Thoreau’s “development” as a writer (9).

[2]    Thoreau’s evolution as a writer in his Journal eventually led to this prodigious record of natural history. But another author was at work here too. Nestled in among the Journal’s vast records of natural and cultural history emerge several examples of Thoreau’s penchant for telling stories — for finding “drama every day in the streets” as William Ellery Channing put it (108). As a child, Edward Waldo Emerson revered Thoreau “as a born story-teller . . . telling of woods and waters and the dwarfkin that peopled them” (38). Thoreau had an author’s intuitive sense for good copy, deliberately choosing themes based on what he called “homely every-day phenomena and adventures” (JIX, 160). Although Sharon Cameron argues that the Journal’s length and disparate nature “prohibit . . . many interpretive procedures ordinarily taken for granted” (4), the discrete segments — the stories — residing within this intermittence can and should be studied as self-contained literary works — glimpses of Thoreau’s ongoing self-development as an author.

[3]    Neufeldt observes that in early American literature, the creation of an anthology — a “gathering” of various literary forms — allowed an author to “venture toward a mythologizing of the identity of an imagined American self” (121). When we examine Thoreau’s Journal by focusing on one episode — one animal — one phenomenon — one local farmer, we find Thoreau trying out various modes of narration and characterization, one American story at a time. Drawing on Neufeldt’s conception of the Journal as an “anthology” (120), I’ve selected three stories from the 1850s Journal: a potential-tragedy of a rabid dog on the loose; a comic tale of Thoreau trying to capture and sequester the family’s escaped pig; and an extended, fragmented meditation in which Thoreau relates his summer preoccupation with mud turtles. These detached episodes reveal Thoreau altering the traditional notion of a hero, incorporating aspects of Native and African American folk tradition, and endeavoring, as always, to position and valorize Nature — rather than humanity — as the central concern of narrative.

[4]    On November 29, 1853, sandwiched in between the Journal’s discussion of a rare beetle and a local boy’s find of a Native American artifact, Thoreau records a story told to him by local farmer George Minott — a tale of a rabid dog which met its demise in Concord many years before. Francis H. Allen included this tale in his 1936 Men of Concord, a compilation of the Journal’s character sketches. As a way of leading in to it, Thoreau relates the fact that recently a boy in nearby Lincoln had been fatally bitten by a rabid dog. Thoreau — who calls what he’s about to write a “story” — justifies the digression as “worth telling for it shows how much trouble the passage of one mad dog through the town may produce” (Journal V 522).

[5]    In classic storytelling fashion, Thoreau begins by establishing the time and setting: “It was when he [Minott] was a boy and lived down below the Old Ben Prescott House — over the Cellar Hole on what is now Hawthorne’s Land.” The following excerpts summarize Minott’s description of the dog’s progress through town:

When the dog got to the old Ben Prescott Place. . . there were a couple of turkies — [it] drove them into a corner — bit off the head of one . . . . They then raised the cry of mad dog. . . .his [Minott’s] mother and Aunt Prescott . . . coming down the road — & he shouted to them to take care of them selves — for that dog was mad —  Minott next saw Harry Hooper — coming down the road after his cows . . . & he shouted to him to look out for the dog was mad — but Harry . . . being short the dog leaped right upon his open breast & made a pass at his throat, but missed it. (522-523)
[6]    the name of Fay — dressed in small clothes” was waylaid by the dog and bitten twice because he failed to heed Minott’s warning that the oncoming dog was mad. Thoreau writes that “Fay . . . well frightened,  kicked the dog, “seized [it] . . . held him . . . fast & called lustily for somebody to come & kill him.” Unfortunately, when a man named Lewis “rushed out” to help, his axe was somewhat “dull,” and after a worthless “blow across the back,” the “dog trotted along still toward town” (523-524).

[7]    The dog proceeded to bite two cows, both of which later died, to grab “a goose in the wing” and “kept on through the town” (523). Finally, however, it met its demise at the hands of the story’s unlikely hero: “The next thing that was heard of him — Black Cato . . . was waked up about midnight . . . he took a club & went out to see what was the matter — Looking over into the pen this dog reared up at him & he knocked him back into it & jumping over — mauled him till he thought he was dead & then tossed him out” (524-525). Unfortunately, Cato discovered the next morning that the dog was in fact not dead and had disappeared. Later that day, he encountered the dog again, “but this time having heard the mad dog story he . . . ran — but still the dog came on & once or twice he knocked him aside with a large stone — till at length . . . he gave him a blow which killed him — & lest he should run away again he cut off his head & threw both head & body into the river —” (525). Cato succeeds where esteemed white citizens fail; his heroic act rids the town of danger.

[8]    From the vantage of our safe hindsight, the story’s humor is inseparable from its potential tragedy. Anyone who comes in contact with this dog could, of course, be killed. Nevertheless, Thoreau has a bit of fun at the expense of the townsfolk. Mr. Fay was possibly Grant Fay, a local farmer whose son Addison was a contemporary of Thoreau.  As “a large and stout old gentleman . . . dressed in small clothes,” twice bitten by the dog largely through his own ineptitude, Fay suffers at Thoreau’s hands. Moreover, Thoreau concludes with the information that “Fay went home . . . drank some spirit . . . went straight over to Dr. Heywoods . . . & . . . was doctored 3 weeks. cried like a baby. The Dr cut out the mangled flesh & . . . Fay . . . never experienced any further ill effects from the bite” (525).

[9]    Thoreau’s recording of this incident may have been influenced by his reading of Henry Schoolcraft’s Oneóta, a book he had read two years prior, that details many customs and traditions of the Chippewa and Algonquin Indians (Sattelmeyer 266). Within it, Schoolcraft inserts a brief sketch entitled “The Rabid Wolf,” in which a diseased wolf enters a small town, and like Minott’s mad dog, bites various farm animals before sinking its teeth into “a gentlemen of standing . . . who came to a melancholy end.” The wolf, according to Schoolcraft, “seemed to have a perfect ubiquity — it was everywhere.” Finally, “old Colonel S.,” the town’s Revolutionary War hero, shoots and kills the animal (375-379).

[10]    Like Schoolcraft, Thoreau also posits a Revolutionary War veteran as the mad dog’s nemesis, except that his story’s hero is a black man rather than a venerated white citizen. Who was “Black Cato?” The former slave of prominent Concord citizen Duncan Ingraham, he had fought in the Revolution, after which he continued to live in Concord, dying there in 1805 (Bartlett 129-130). Cato had obtained his freedom in 1795; from then on, like most free blacks in Concord at this time, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Thoreau memorialized him in the “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” chapter of Walden as one of a handful of blacks who had preceded Thoreau in Walden Woods (257). J. Lyndon Shanley has documented that Thoreau amplified this chapter in 1853, the same year he writes down the story of the mad dog (66-67, 87, 196-197). Prior to Thoreau’s portrayals, Cato had been depicted as a hapless albeit lucky slave: in one anecdote, he manages to avoid being shot during the war when British Major Pitcairn put a gun to his head; and in another, he begs for sustenance from his former master (Brooks 58-59, Bartlett 129).

[11]    That Thoreau casts as his hero a free black man who lived — literally and figuratively — on the margins of town appears a purposeful decision — one that possibly modifies the details Minott told. Although of course we can’t know if Thoreau changed any of the particulars as Minott related them, it is certainly conceivable that Thoreau elevated Cato’s stature as he recorded the events. To be sure, little effort was needed to heroize Cato: he did kill the dog after several others failed to halt its progress. Yet Thoreau seems to juxtapose Cato’s bravado with the panic and incompetence of the white characters. In contrast to their near hysterics, Cato acts decisively to hinder and, at last, to decapitate the dog. Although he doesn’t realize initially that he’s wrestling a rabid dog, when he learns this fact, Cato has the wisdom (unlike Mr. Fay) to try to get away from it. But when forced to deal with the dog literally head-on, Cato deals it a death blow. His swift, instinctual response to the dog reflects Cato’s connection to a way of life that Thoreau respects — to a culture that lives closer to nature than do the white townsfolk.

[12]    What other reasons might Thoreau have had in the fall of 1853 for enthroning a black man as the hero of his narrative? At this time, Concord’s antislavery residents — including those in the Thoreau household — were in the throes of revolt against the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. That July, the Thoreaus had hidden a runaway slave in their home; and just weeks before Minott’s story, the Thoreau family provided lodging to a free black woman who was attempting to raise the money needed to purchase her husband, enslaved in Virginia. And six months later, in May and June 1854, Thoreau ranted in his Journal against the slave power when fugitive slave Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston (Journal 4 113, Journal  V 472, Journal 8 163-210). Unquestionably, Thoreau was affected by the heroism of these black people whose lives were on the line in ways that he and Concord’s other white citizens could never comprehend. In his study of the black folk hero, John Roberts argues that authors usually create “heroes . . . who . . . appear to possess personal traits . . . that exemplify our conception of our ideal self” (1). Roberts believes that “folk heroic creation occurs because groups, at critical moments in time, recognize in the actions of certain figures . . . qualities or behaviors that they have reason to believe would enhance culture-building” (5). At the juncture of what Thoreau may have perceived to be just such a “critical moment,” he elevated Cato to the status of a black folk hero, countering previous depictions of him in the annals of Concord history.

[13]    This next episode has been singled out by critics as one of the Journal’s most comic scenes (Richardson 275, Moller 76, Howarth 124). At the very least, it strains J. R. Lowell’s assertion that “‘Thoreau had no humor’” (qtd. in Krutch 284). On August 8, 1856, Thoreau has patiently waited for a rainstorm to end so that he can “go a-meditating along the river.” His afternoon plans go awry when he finds that:

to my chagrin . . . Father’s pig was gone. He had leaped out of the pen some time since his breakfast. . . .Here was an ugly duty not to be shirked,--a wild shoat . . .  to be tracked, caught, and penned,--an afternoon’s work, at least . . . quite different from what I had anticipated. . . . . the responsibilities of the case all devolved on me, for I could run faster than Father. Father looked to me, and I ceased to look to the river. (JVIII 451)
[14]    Mary Moller’s contention that this “story takes on a mock-heroic quality” (76) is easily discerned. Thoreau imagines that the pig is “many miles off . . . Perhaps he has taken the back track and gone to Brighton, or Ohio!” Soon, Thoreau spies the pesky creature, and he conveys its whereabouts with melodramatic flair: “But, now I speak, what is that I see pacing deliberately up the middle of the street forty rods off? It is he” (452). He parrots Shakespearean dialogue in recounting that he hears, but does not see, the pig: “But hark! I hear a grunt. Nevertheless for half an hour I do not see him that grunted” (453).

[15]    Inevitably, the canny pig goes where Thoreau would not have it go: “Now he starts again, seeing me twenty rods [off], deliberates, considers which way I want him to go, and goes the other.” Thoreau admires the creature: “I cannot but respect his tactics and his independence. . . .He is not unreasonable because he thwarts me, but only the more reasonable. He has a strong will. . . . . Is he not superior to man therein?” Thoreau eventually wins the contest by convincing the pig to run into the open door of a building. Not content to end with his own success, however, Thoreau now chronicles the pig’s attitude toward its capture: “He is resting quietly on his belly in the further corner, thinking unutterable things” (454).

[16]    Howarth describes this episode as “a brilliant picaresque in miniature” — a tale in which Thoreau “made ordinary scenes and events seem extraordinary” (124). J. Golden Taylor, who has compared Thoreau’s humor to Mark Twain’s, finds here that Thoreau “had developed that rarest of all gifts, the maturity not to take himself too seriously” (13-14), a claim made by others as well (Moller 78, Paul 24). Although as the story commences, the pig is the antagonist who impedes Thoreau’s plans, the animal metamorphoses into a protagonist-hero of sorts whose motives and thought processes handily outwit, if only for a few hours, its eventual conqueror. Beyond the slapstick that results from Thoreau’s efforts to catch the pig, the humor derives in large part from his admiration for its resourcefulness.

[17]    An interesting feature of both the pig and the dog stories is the “trickster” dimension of both animals. According to Jeanne Smith, Native American tricksters “challenge the status quo and disrupt perceived boundaries” (2). Lewis Hyde explains that “in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction” (7). Likewise, Robert Pelton describes West African tricksters as “altogether lawless” animals whose nature is “essential[ly] comic” (1, 11). “Subversion” “Disruption.” “Making trouble — messing up the order.” These are the trickster’s M.O. (Hillman 6, Ammons vii).

[18]    While the Journal’s pig and dog do not morph into human shape or speak with a human voice as do the tricksters of Native and African American mythology, Thoreau does bestow upon his animals a few trickster skills, and he calls attention to their seeming supernatural abilities. The dog rises from the presumed dead and is unstoppable until bested by Cato, who cuts off its head to ensure its destruction; and Thoreau implies that he’ll never catch the pig because it preternaturally senses what its human pursuers are going to do even before they do. And although Thoreau’s pig is not endowed with the facility of language, it has been furnished with consciousness; Thoreau speaks for it, interpreting its subterfuge as evidence of the pig’s talent in obstructing Thoreau’s human strategy. Trickster-like, the pig and the dog upset both the town’s and Thoreau’s individual sense of order; they introduce randomness and cause disarray, deterring the attempts to harness them. Ultimately, the humans triumph, but it takes Cato two valiant assaults to kill the dog. And Thoreau takes a whole afternoon to nab the pig, which ruins his entire day.

[19]    What would Thoreau have known of the trickster? He could have heard about such a figure from his black acquaintances in Concord: Peter Hutchinson, a pig butcher, and the Dugan family — Thomas, a fugitive slave, his wife Jenny, their son Isaac — all appear in the Journal as sources of natural lore. It’s plausible that the Dugans and/or Hutchinson could have made reference to tales emanating from an African folk tradition that would have included the trickster’s antics. In addition to the African trickster, Thoreau’s voracious reading of Native American culture and history would have acquainted him with various Indian superstitions regarding the transformative powers of particular animals. Lawrence Buell points out that “even a casual reader of traditional Native American tales notices the frequency of conversations and identity exchanges between animals and humans” (212). By the mid-1850s, Thoreau had been working for years on what would eventually number a dozen manuscript notebooks documenting his extensive knowledge of American Indians (Sayre x). He likely would have known that animal tricksters enabled storytellers to weave mythic tales from the everyday occurrence of a pig on the loose or a rabid dog on the prowl. Applying the trickster’s behavior to his animal characters may have been an unconscious choice, but it allowed Thoreau to continue adapting his concept of the heroic even as it furthered his erstwhile goal of exalting the natural over the civilized, human world.

[20]    I’d like to touch just briefly on one more example of Thoreau’s Journal storytelling, this one an ongoing saga about mud turtles that Thoreau composed largely in the summer of 1854, although he added to it in subsequent years. This one requires that we expand the definition of story to enfold an interrupted narrative that, when pieced together, progresses in a chronicle of nurturance and mythologizing. Thanks to Walter Harding, many of these Journal fragments have been compiled in a 1967 pamphlet entitled Thoreau’s Turtle Nest. Regardless of whether it’s read as a whole, or in its discursive Journal format, the record of the turtles reveals some of the Journal’s finest meditative prose.

[21]    As some of you have doubtless noticed in your own reading of the Journal, in the mid-to-late 1850s Thoreau becomes — and remains throughout the decade — obsessed with turtles. Robert Khun McGregor has characterized these scenes as “small dramas of survival” where Thoreau attempts “to find the meaning in a mud turtle’s lunch” (2). In 1854, Thoreau’s turtle endeavors include paternally watching over a nest of eggs that he’s stumbled on; struggling to lift the unobliging and unwieldy creatures into his boat; and sleeping with a large turtle shell in his bedroom — an event that occasions pure delight. Recalling in the morning that the shell lies near him, Thoreau exclaims, “That the first object you see on awakening should be an empty mud-turtle’s shell!! Will it not make me of the earth earthy? or does it not indicate that I am of the earth earthy?” (Journal 8 300).

[22]    As these turtles hatch, struggle, and survive their infancy, Thoreau is intrigued with the dichotomy of their seeming awareness versus their reptilian behavior. Ultimately, many hours of study culminate in a lengthy tribute in which Thoreau invokes Homer to draw attention to the creature’s epic stature: “If Iliads are not composed in our day, snapping turtles are hatched and arrive at maturity” (296). These turtles, unlike the characters in the earlier stories, are not dynamic figures which enter or act upon the human world. Until Thoreau inserts himself into the narrative as an observer of their struggles, they bear no relation to humanity, enduring in a realm all to themselves. But just as he had boasted of himself as a world traveler in Concord, so, too, does Thoreau now exalt his own backyard as a fit habitat for the subjects of the myths he’s composing.

[23]    In the Journal, Thoreau’s incessant scientific notes are inseparable from his constant inquiry regarding the philosophical significance of his observations. To tell the turtle’s story credibly — to capture the moment when their gazes locked — Thoreau creates an ongoing narrative that combines the naturalist’s itemizations of facts with the thinker’s concern for ultimate questions. His format is unavoidably sporadic; each new sighting and season necessitates that he return to the same story — the same creature — time and again, adding details that amplify both the facts and the meaning. The Journal’s account of the turtles does not ever, really, end.

[24]    Toward the end of his life, Thoreau the author/critic communicated in its pages what we might regard as one of his goals in writing his Journal: “Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told, and it depends chiefly on the story-teller . . . whether that is interesting or not” (JXIV, 330). And the focus, he wrote, should be on “the actual hero who lived from day to day.” Thoreau’s experimentation with a myriad of styles and subjects produced a Journal that abounds with entertaining and thought-provoking stories, many with outlandish characters (often Thoreau himself) who struggle with the conflicts that arise from coexistence with human society. More often than not,  as Richardson points out, these tales satirize humanity’s inability to control the natural world while valorizing the animals or those such as Cato who live closer to nature. But The Journal does not typically offer up “wholeness” or “continuity,” and it can frustrate the reader and critic who insist on looking for them. As we’ve seen in these three types of stories, I’ve found that the Journal becomes most accessible when we draw on Neufeldt’s model of it as an anthology, a miscellaneous repository of incidental narratives that affords ample possibilities for critical investigation.

Works Cited

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  • ---. Journal V, VIII and IX. Ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. 1906. New York: Dover, 1962.
  • ---. Journal 4: 1851-1852. Ed. Leonard N. Neufeldt and Nancy Craig Simmons. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • ---. Journal 6: 1853. Ed. William Rossi and Heather Kirk Thomas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • ---. Journal 8: 1854 (page proofs) Ed. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2002.
  • ---. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

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