In Civilized Creatures, Jennifer Mason challenges some of our most enduring ideas about how encounters with nonhuman nature shaped American literature and culture. Mason argues that in the second half of the nineteenth century the most powerful influence on Americans' understanding of their affinities with animals was not increasing separation from the pastoral and the wilderness; instead, it was the population's feelings about the ostensibly civilized animals they encountered in their daily lives.
Americans of diverse backgrounds, Mason shows, found it attractive as well as politic to imagine themselves as most closely connected to those creatures who shared humans' aptitude for civilized life. And to the minds of many in this period, national prosperity depended less on periodic exposure to untamed, wild nature than it did on the proper care and keeping of such animals within suburban and urban environments.
Combining literary analysis with cultural histories of equestrianism, petkeeping, and the animal welfare movement, Civilized Creatures offers new readings of works by Susan Warner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles W. Chesnutt. In each case, Mason demonstrates that understanding contemporary relationships between humans and animals is essential for understanding the debates about gender, race, and cultural power enacted in these texts.