Dogs As I See Them
(Harper Collins, 2015 Reprint)
In a small cabin with low ceilings a short walk uphill from the Homer Noble farmhouse, Robert Frost is reported to have spent a great many of his later summers in Vermont. The cabin is intimately proportioned and, lacking for electricity, dependent for light and warmth on the sun’s location in the sky. In recent years, administrators of the Bread Loaf School of English saw fit to relocate a marble bust of the poet from the lobby of a central campus hub to the cabin’s humble parlor, miles away. There, visitors are now free to imagine a ghostly governing spirit rocking in a rocking chair, sheaf of poetry in hand, his own visage tortuously wrought in stone across from him. It seems like some sort of dark parable for artistic hubris—yes, yes, your ghost will sit with your bust, sit with your bust forever—and that is probably at least halfway intentional: Frost in his later years, per Joyce Carol Oates’s 2013 flashpoint of a short story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” had a reputation for being a bit of a lech with young women, a bit of a bounder; his status as the most famous American poet of the 20th century notwithstanding, or maybe inevitably intertwined with that rumored behavior.
In her story, which all but literally drags the poet through the mud, a young female reporter arrives to the cabin uphill from the Homer Noble farmhouse to conduct with Frost the interview to end all interviews. Oates conveys the ugliness of the journalist’s desire to pop his bubble. Overtly, the fiction takes swipes at Frost, while, more sneakily, casting as demonic the intention to judge retrospectively a celebrated man by the standards of our present mores. “Lovely, Dark, Deep” seems to have pleased no one: its salacious accusations were drawn from a Frost biography generally regarded as a hack-job by a writer with a grudge, meaning the short story’s slings and arrows were not news. Hence, not actual fodder for tearing Frost down—if such a thing were even possible: little brings renewed attention so much as controversy. And the characterization of the journalist in all her fury is hardly flattering. It is a difficult story, leaving its readers almost nothing to hang on to. That’s the point, apparently.
And here is where dogs come in. Who doesn’t love them? Some people, yes, but maybe they just haven’t met the right one yet. Dogs! In our time where identity politics permeate seemingly every screen, a certain comfort is available, as there must have been for the British portraitist Lucy Dawson in the 1930s, in honing in on considerations of another species altogether. And a fairly loving species at that, whose enthusiasms, fears, rambunctiousness, and routines all mirror our own. Dogs romp, and we applaud them—or, even if we don’t, we understand. Because, hey, you know: They’re dogs.
Lucy Dawson’s Dogs As I See Them arrives in time for the holiday season and that’s no coincidence. Books about pets are hot items. In the earliest days of social networking’s mass permeation, when users found themselves circling obsessively through more information than can possibly be synthesized by any one individual—coursing from site to site in so many mad loops—those who elected to distance themselves from the virtual parade would often post a profile picture prominently featuring a pet. Perhaps a human family would have gathered around the pet, or perhaps the pet would stand entirely alone.
Most often these creatures are dogs. (Cats, America’s other most popular pet, come off as somehow more secretive by nature, indifferent to attention.) The dog, in a way, offered itself as a symbol for the scurrying mind drawn to and unable to quit a social networking info stream. ‘I am both like and unlike my dog,’ the dog-owner with a dog-profile seems to declare, ‘in that I fathom, accept, and govern my dog’s behaviors, as I have mastered my own obsessive tendencies and, in fact, humorously risen above them: Let’s call it, adulthood.’
It should be added that the literary impulse itself—the intention of telling a story that acutely captures a character, someone’s habituated selfhood facing a choice that draws that self from habitual circumstances—in some great way resonates with pet ownership. An author decides how to treat her characters and, based on that treatment, readers arrive at a sense of literary merit; an author puts herself in the mind of her characters as if from above, exploring the characters’ wants and fears—the shaken treat-bag become metaphor. We all have one, presumably, whose sound we bound toward. An author lives with her characters through their lifespans, recognizing every notable instance of excitement and of frustration.
Look no further than the dog owner’s tendency to narrate her pet’s consciousness—“Oh, he likes you!” “Marlow’s really been into slippers lately;” “Look, she’s scared, she’s freaking out, she thinks we’re leaving”—which interpretations often appear to a guest more convincing than not.
Lucy Dawson’s artwork in Dogs As I See Them likewise relies on interpretations of character, each featured pet brought to life via a series of sketches, a written blurb, and a formal portrait. There is Nanki Poo; there, Oonagh; there, Jane. Don’t forget Red Prince of Wu Sung, a “super show dog,” or Berbay’s Lad and his companion the Siamese Cat, Nong Tai. “Very healthy and happy and unspoiled,” Dawson adjudges one of her subjects. A dachshund is of “some distinction.” Of little Scotties, Dawson comments: “the industry and perseverance of their race are illustrated by the way in which they beg for hours on end—to the very last biscuit.” (It does sound much like a class judgment, Dawson’s linking, even in humorous fashion, of hard work and dependency—but then, remember, this was England in the ’30s, and Brits, like novelists at large and writers of reviews, have historically cherished their assessments of character, however solipsistic.)
A bulldog named Joan hides beneath furniture as soon as her mistress leaves, compelling Dawson to flush out her subject from one hiding place after another so that she might arrive at a composite portrait of Joan on her belly looking droopy.
A German shepherd named Wanda “likes classical music and dislikes anything of a jazzy nature. She will lie quietly for hours listening to music that she enjoys.”
The favorite trick of a female terrier named Patch “is to stalk some unwary dog and suddenly and noiselessly pounce upon him—just as a joke. All dogs are perfect little gentlemen and take it very well, but it wasn’t quite such a joke the day she selected one of her own sex!” Whether or not all male dogs are truly “perfect little gentlemen,” a reader does get a sense of Dawson’s own thrill at female vigor.
Among those who commissioned the artist to paint her dog was the Queen Mother herself, whose cherished corgi, Dookie, subsequently took a star turn on the Royal Family’s Christmas cards of that era.
Lucy Dawson’s drawings speak with the urgency many a pet dog has brought to bear, each in his or her own fashion; each image was composed in the moment, dashed off in abeyance with the overarching inclination of most dogs, even of the well-behaved, to move. In her introduction to Dogs As I See Them, novelist and dog-owner Ann Patchett accounts for the timelessness of Dawson’s work, by writing, “While telephones have been improved and travel has been improved, dogs have not been improved. Dogs were perfect to begin with and so have been spared man’s insistent impulse to modernize.”
The dogs recline; they stand at attention; they scamper; they sleep, and Dawson evokes it all. “That hot day!” she writes beneath one sketch of a lolling spirit.
Those hot days.
In Frost’s summer cabin, on the doorframe to the pantry immediately across from the bedroom, the great poet jotted in pencil a record of temperatures over a series of summer weeks. The first names of presumed guests are there alongside a list of jotted numbers with tiny degree marks above them. It is left to us to imagine those fluctuations in heat, what it was like to be their subject.