Monday, February 07, 2011

Thurber Tonight: "Look Homeward, Jeannie"


Thurber had a lifelong intimate relationship with dogs, and like all his intimate relationships, or his relationships, it tended to be complicated.

According to the introduction to the 1948 Thurber collection The Beast in Me and Other Animals, "Look Homeward, Jeannie" appeared originally in the New York Sunday Times, and while I haven't been able to find a date, an Ohio State University listing of its holdings of "The James Thurber Papers" includes a "holograph draft" of the story dated 1948. It was reprinted in book form not just in The Beast in Me but in Thurber's Dogs (1955). -- Ken

"In the presence of the 'lost' dog in the next block, [Professor Evans] is clearly on insecure ground. He assumes that the dog does not come back from the next block because it can't find its way. If this reasoning were applied to the thousands of men who disappear from their homes every year, it would exonerate them of every flaw except disorientation, and this is too facile an explanation for man or beast. Prince, the dog, has just as many reasons for getting and staying the hell out as George, the husband. . . ."
-- Thurber, in "Look Homeward, Jeannie"

Look Homeward,

THE MOOT AND MOMENTOUS QUESTION as to whether lost dogs have the mysterious power of being able to get back home from distant places over strange terrain has been argued for years by dog owners, dog haters, and other persons who really do not know much about the matter. Mr. Bergen Evans in his book, "The Natural History of Nonsense," flatly sides with the cynics who believe that the lost dog doesn't have any more idea where he is than a babe in the woods. "Like pigeons," wrote Mr. Evans, "dogs are thought to have a supernatural ability to find their way home across hundreds, even thousands, of miles of strange terrain. The newspapers are full of stories of dogs who have miraculously turned up at the doorsteps of baffled masters who had abandoned them afar. Against these stories, however, can be set the lost and found columns of the same papers, which in almost every issue carry offers of rewards for the recovery of dogs that, apparently, couldn't find their way back from the next block." Mr. Evans, you see, touches on this difficult and absorbing subject in the uneasy manner of a minister caught alone in a parlor with an irritable schnauzer.

Now I don't actually know any more than Mr. Evans does about the dogs that are supposed to return from strange, distant places as surely as an Indian scout or a locomotive engineer, but I am not prepared to write them of as fantasy on the strength of armchair argument. Skepticism is a useful tool of the inquisitive mind, but it is scarcely a method of investigation. I would like to see an expert reporter, like Alva Johnston or Meyer Berger, set out on the trail of the homing dog and see what he would find.

I happen to have a few haphazard clippings on the fascinating subject but they are unsupported, as always, by convincing proof of any kind. The most interesting case is that of Bosco, a small dog who is reported to have returned to his house in Knoxville, Tenn., in the winter of 1944 from Glendale, Calif., thus setting what is probably the world's distance record for the event, twenty-three hundred miles in seven months. His story is recorded in a book called "Just a Mutt," by Eldon Roark, a columnist on The Memphis Press-Scimitar. Mr. Roark says he got his tip on the story from Bert Vincent of The Knoxville News-Sentinel, but in a letter to me Mr. Vincent says he has some doubts of the truth of the long trek through towns and cities and over rivers and deserts.

The dog belonged to a family named Flanigan and Mr. Vincent does not question the sincerity of their belief that the dog who turned up on their porch one day was, in fact, Bosco come home. The dog bore no collar or license, however, and identification had to be made on the tricky basis of markings and behavior. The long-distance record of Bosco must be reluctantly set down as a case that would stand up only in a court of lore.

Far-traveling dogs have become so common that jaded editors are inclined to turn their activities over to the society editors, and we may expect before long to encounter such items as this: "Rex, a bull terrier, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Thompson of this city, returned to his home at 2334 Maybury Avenue yesterday, after a four months' trip from Florida where he was lost last February. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson's daughter, Alice Louise, is expected home tomorrow from Shipley, to spend the summer vacation."

Incidentally, and just for the sake of a fair record, my two most recent clippings on the Long Trek deal with cats, as follows: Kit-Kat, Lake Tahoe to Long Beach, Calif., 525 miles; Mr. Black, Stamford, Conn., to Atlanta, Ga., 1,000 miles.

The homing dog reached apotheosis a few years ago when "Lassie Come Home" portrayed a collie returning to its young master over miles of wild and unfamiliar terrain in darkness and in storm. This million-dollar testament of faith, a kind of unconscious memorial to the late Albert Payson Terhune [author of Lad: A Dog and countless other collie chronicles -- Ed.], may possibly be what inspired Bergen Evans' slighting remarks.

I suspect that Professor Evans has not owned a dog since Brownie was run over by the Chalmers. In the presence of the "lost" dog in the next block, he is clearly on insecure ground. He assumes that the dog does not come back from the next block because it can't find its way. If this reasoning were applied to the thousands of men who disappear from their homes every year, it would exonerate them of every flaw except disorientation, and this is too facile an explanation for man or beast. Prince, the dog, has just as many reasons for getting and staying the hell out as George, the husband: an attractive female, merry companions, change of routine, words of praise, small attentions, new horizons, an easing of discipline. The dog that does not come home is too large a field of research for one investigator, and so I will confine myself to the case history of Jeannie.

Jeannie was a small Scottish terrier whose nature and behavior I observed closely over a period of years. She had no show points to speak of. Her jaw was skimpy, her haunches frail, her forelegs slightly bowed. She thought dimly and her coordination was only fair. Even in repose she had the strained, uncomfortable appearance of a woman on a bicycle.

Jeannie adjusted slowly and reluctantly to everything, including weather. Rain was a hand raised against her personally, snow a portent of evil, thunder the end of the world. She sniffed even the balmiest breeze with an air of apprehension, as if it warned of the approach of a monster at least as large as a bus.

Jeannie did everything the hard way, digging with one paw at a time, shoving out of screen doors sideways, delivering pups on the floor of a closet completely covered with shoes. When she was six months old, she tried to bury a bone in the second section of The New York Times, pushing confidently and futilely at the newsprint with her muzzle. She developed a persistent troubled frown which gave her the expression of someone who is trying to repair a watch with his gloves on.

Jeannie spent the first two years of her life in the city, where her outdoor experiences were confined to trips around the block. When she was taken to the country to live, she clung to the hearth for several weeks, poking her nose out now and then for a dismaying glimpse of what she conceived to be God's great Scottie trap. The scent of lawn moles and the scurry of squirrels brought her out into the yard finally for tentative explorations, but it was a long time before she followed the woodchuck's trail up to the edge of the woods.

Within a few months Jeannie took to leaving the house when the sun came up and returning when it began to get dark. Her outings seemed to be good for her. She began to look sleek, fat, smug, and at the same time pleasantly puzzled, like a woman who finds more money in her handbag than she thought was there. I decided to follow her discreetly one day, and she led me a difficult four-mile chase to where a large group of summer people occupied a row of cottages near a lake. Jeannie, it came out, was the camp mascot. She had muzzled in, and for some time had been spending her days shaking down the cottagers for hamburgers, fried potatoes, cake and marshmallows. They wondered where the cute little dog came from in the morning and where she went at night.

Jeannie had won them over with her only trick. She could sit up, not easily, but with amusing effort, placing her right forefoot on a log or stone, and pushing. Her sitting-up stance was teetery and precarious, but if she fell over on her back or side, she was rewarded just the same, if not, indeed, even more bountifully. She couldn't lose. The camp was a pushover.

Little old One Trick had a slow mind, but she gradually figured out that the long trip home after her orgies was a waste of time, an unnecessary loop in her new economy. Oh, she knew the way back all right, Evans -- by what improbable system of landmarks I could never guess -- but when she got home there was no payoff except a plain wholesome meal once a day. That was all right for young dogs and very old dogs and spaniels, but not for a terrier who had struck it rich over the hills. She took to staying away for days at a time. I would have to go and get her in the car and bring her back.

One day, the summer people, out for a hike, brought her home themselves, and Jeannie realized the game was up, for the campers obviously believed in what was, to her, the outworn principle of legal ownership. To her dismay they showed themselves to be believers in one-man loyalty, a virtue which Jeannie had outgrown. The next time I drove to the camp to get her she wasn't there. I found out finally from the man who delivered the mail where she was. "Your little dog is on the other side of the lake," he said. "She's staying with a school teacher in a cottage the other side of the lake." I found her easily enough.

The school teacher, I learned, had opened her door one morning to discover a small Scottie sitting up in the front yard, begging. The cute little visitor had proceeded to take her new hostess for three meals a day, topped off now and then with chocolates. But I had located her hiding place, and the next time she disappeared from home she moved on to fresh fields. "Your little dog's stayin' with some folks over near Danbury," the mailman told me a week later. He explained how to get to the house. "The hell with it," I said, but a few hours later I got in the car and went after her, anyway.

She was lying on the front porch of her current home in a posture of truculent possession. When I stopped the car at the curb she charged vociferously down the steps, not to greet the master, but to challenge a trespasser. When she got close enough to recognize me, her belligerence sagged. "Better luck next time," I said, coldly. I opened the door and she climbed slowly into the car and up onto the seat beside me. We both stared straight ahead all the way home.

Jeannie was a lost dog, lost in another way than Evans understands. There wasn't anything to do about it. After all, I had my own life to live. Before long I would have had to follow her as far as Stamford or Darien or wherever the gravy happened to be thickest and the clover sweetest. "Your little dog" -- the mailman began a few days later. "I know," I said, "thanks," and went back into the house. She came home of her own accord about three weeks later and I think she actually made an effort to adjust herself to her real home. It was too late, though.

When Jeannie died, at the age of nine, possibly of a surfeit of Page & Shaw's, I got a very nice letter from the people she was living with at the time.

TOMORROW NIGHT: "The Figgerin' of Aunt Wilma"
(from Thurber Country)

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