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Chloroform and Butcher Birds: Violence in Late 19th-Century Children’s Literature

It was the beginning of a new semester and Anne Shirley, heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables (1908), was walking home from class when she discovered that she was being followed by a mangy orange cat. She shooed the cat away, but it sat resolutely on the doorstep while Anne went inside. It stayed on the doorstep for a week, as Anne worried that the persistent cat would displease her elderly chaperone. Finally, Anne and her friends resorted to desperate measures to make the cat leave before their housemother returned:

We must get rid of him,” agreed Anne, looking darkly at the subject of their discussion, who was purring on the hearth rug with an air of lamb-like meekness. “But the question is—how? How can four unprotected females get rid of a cat who won’t be got rid of?”

“We must chloroform him,” said [Philippa] briskly.1

So Anne and Phil attempted to kill the cat using what they considered to be the most scientific method available: chloroform, a box, and a burlap sack. They tried twice but each time the cat was saved by a knothole in the wooden box that kept the creature from suffocating. Finally, Anne declared that the cat—now named Rusty—had eluded death enough and deserved to live despite whatever displeasure he might bring their chaperone, Aunt Jamesina. Happily, the episode ended well for all when Aunt Jamesina agreed that the old cat had proven his worthiness to live. Of course, she moralized, it was one thing to allow one old cat to live. But “all kittens must be drowned or the world would be overrun.”2

What can Anne and Philippa’s misadventures in chloroforming a cat or Aunt Jamesina’s kitten-drowning moral tell us about environmental ethics in the US and Canada in the early twentieth century?

Episodes like this in the Anne series are important and interesting because authors like Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), and L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) are often lumped together in environmental history as proponents of the nature study movement. In popular novels, poems, and essays written by these and other nature study authors, maternal metaphors of caring and nurturing shape interpretations of the natural world, inviting women and children to find both moral and scientific lessons in close study of their local environments.3

When explaining the dominant themes in the nature study movement, historians tend to focus on passages from nature study texts that illustrate the idea that close observation of nature could transform Americans (and especially children) into more moral citizens and wise protectors of the weak. Unsurprisingly, historians have not highlighted descriptions of killing cats as typical features of nature study literature. Such violent episodes would, at first blush, seem to be antithetical to a nurturing ethos. Instead, we celebrate passages like this one from Stratton-Porter’s Freckles (1904):

Nature can be relied on to work her own miracle in the heart of any man whose daily task keeps him alone among her sights, sounds, and silences. When day after day the only thing that relieved his utter loneliness was the companionship of the birds and beasts of the swamp, it was the most natural thing in the world that Freckles should turn to them for friendship. He began instinctively protecting the weak and helpless. […] the likeness of their actions to humanity was an hourly surprise. 4

Gene Stratton-Porter's 1904 novel

Freckles, the eponymous protagonist of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1904 work, learns to love nature and take care of himself through close bird observation. The trope is a classic feature of nature study children’s literature.

In this example, a one-handed orphan from the city named Freckles runs away to the swamps of northern Indiana and takes a job for a logging company that requires him to spend the winter alone in the Limberlost Swamp. Scared at first of the bogs, the animals, and the silence, Stratton-Porter’s protagonist is forced by his loneliness and proximity to nature to notice what he might otherwise have ignored—where the dry land is, the habits of birds, and the benefits of silence. In the process of this close observation of nature, Freckles grows into a hero worthy of the fortune he eventually inherits, and one who, Stratton-Porter suggests, can be trusted to guide the future use of the forest.

Figures like Freckles, protector of the forest, fit within our understanding of the nature study movement. Anne Shirley, cat-killer, does not.

But maybe she should. If we look beyond the moments when these authors write about the wonder of nature, we see more clearly both the social context of the nature study movement and begin to ask deeper questions about the environmental ethic that undergirds it.5

Celia Thaxter, as portrayed by illustrator Childe Hassam in An Island Garden (1894).

Celia Thaxter, as portrayed by illustrator Childe Hassam in An Island Garden (1894).

Examples of violence toward and between animals abound in the works of these three authors if we only look for them. For instance, environmental historians usually present Thaxter as she was painted by illustrator Childe Hassam in the classic work of nature study, An Island Garden (1894). In this work, Thaxter appeared as a white-haired woman standing in a seaside garden, serene, maternal, ready to introduce readers to the quietly nurtured world of flowers. Thaxter’s humorous poems for children get less attention, and invite youthful readers into a far less protected world. One begins:

I’ll tell you a story, children,
The saddest you ever heard,
About Rupert, the pet canary,
And a terrible butcher-bird
.6

Despite poor Rupert’s demise, the poem comes to a triumphant conclusion when the children imprison and kill the shrike and then deliver its body to Louis Agassiz’s museum: their contribution to the careful study of nature.

Among the collections of pressed flowers, seas shells, and moralizing homilies to science and domesticity that so often seem to compose nature study, these examples point towards another set of artifacts we might consider. This other collection is made up of lonely children, dead birds, desiccated insects, a forest of stumps, and poisoned pets. The same hands that selected the shells and pressed the flowers collected dead birds and chloroformed stray cats—and for many of the same reasons.

The literature on nature study has tended to emphasize the first collection at the expense of the second, occluding the very necessary, and often quite bleak, contexts in which the young protagonists of nature study literature learned about small patches of the natural world. Dissimilar in many ways, when read together these works nevertheless sketch the outline of a grimmer environmental ethic within the nature study movement. In short, the rhetoric of nurturing, maternal care, and wonder for the natural world was powerful partially because it was offered by the very same voices that calmly explained that “all kittens must be drowned,” and taught children to laugh at the fates of poor sheltered Rupert and the captured butcher bird.

The collected works of Stratton-Porter, Thaxter, and Montgomery reveal that for their readers, omnipresent violence was not antithetical to the values of nature study. To the contrary, the two were constitutive. For the young protagonists in each of these authors’ books, nature appealed because of a recurring personal isolation—the physical isolation of an island childhood, the social isolation of an orphan, or the emotional isolation of an abusive household. Within each story, the wonder to be found in nature gained potency when that knowledge was hard-won and insisted-upon: “My handful of grass was more precious to me than miles of green fields,” Thaxter explained in a memoir “and I was led to consider every blade where there were so few.”7

Featured image: Emily, the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon (1923), finds companionship in the same furry creature that Montgomery’s other characters would try to suffocate.

Kate Wersan is a graduate student in the UW-Madison Department of History where she studies early American environmental history and cultural history. Within those fields, she is most interested in microhistories of time-consciousness, land use, and agriculture. Contact.

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  1. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1915, 1992), 148-149. 

  2. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1915, 1992), 155. 

  3. See for instance, Kevin C. Armitage, The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009); Tina Gianquitto, “Good Observers of Nature”: American Women and the Scientific Study of the Natural World, 1820-1885 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007); Vera Norwood, “Women’s Roles in Nature Study and Environmental Protection,” OAH Magazine of History, 10, no. 3 (Spring, 1996), 12-17; or Kevin Armitage, “On Gene Stratton Porter’s Conservation Aesthetic,” Environmental History, 14, no. 1 (Jan. 2009), 138-145. 

  4. Gene Stratton-Porter, Freckles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1904, 1986), 20-21. 

  5. Tina Gianquitto does offers an model for what this broader perspective  might offer in her chapter on Mary Treat and evolutionary science, in which she argues that “Treat actively constructed a definition of home under the new paradigm of nature ‘red in tooth and claw.’” Tina Gianquitto, “Good Observers of Nature,” 139. 

  6. Celia Thaxter, Poems for Children (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1884), 36. Enjoy Thaxter’s entire poem here

  7. Celia Thaxter, Among the Isles of Shoals (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1873), 132. 

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