Cats and writers seem to have an affinity for each other, and the list of famous writers who owned, were fond of, and in many cases, wrote about cats would be long indeed. From Lord Byron to Mark Twain, from Henry James to Ernest Hemmingway, Dickens, Wordsworth. Baudelaire – the names span the history of poetry and prose on every continent.
During medieval times, animal stories were popular, as they had always been – and still are today. Many of these stories were collected in Bestiaries, collections of descriptions of the habits of various animals, each followed by a ‘signification’ that drove a Christian moral from the story. One of the few fragments remaining of the Anglo-Saxon Physiologus is the story of the Panther, and a complete Middle English Bestiary contains ‘The Lion’.
The first text devoted entirely to the domestic cat appeared during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Chaucer mused on the cat’s preference for mice over milk in the Manciple’s Tale.
Cats pop in and out of literature for the next three centuries, gradually becoming more likable as time goes on. Cervantes has Don Quixote accuse a group of cats of witchcraft – a reference to the horrors of the Middle Ages, as is the witches’ invocation of Graymalkin in Macbeth. In John Gay’s fable ‘The Rat-Catcher and Cats’ the two factions eventually arrive at a working agreement. There are three rather important cats in Dicken’s Bleak House (1852), belonging to Krook, Mr. Jellyby, and Mr Vohles. And who could forget Dinah in Alice in Wonderland or the Cheshire Cat in Through the Looking Glass?
Cats play starring roles in many more modern works by famous writers. Even the briefest list would have to include Kipling’s The Cat That Walked By Himself; Poe’s masterpiece of horror, The Black Cat; Hemmingway’s short story, Cat in the Rain; The Cat by Collette; and The Malediction by Tennessee Williams; not to mention Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis; and a number of excellent books by Paul Gallico.
Poets have been no less inspired by their pets: Thomas Gray wrote Ode in 1742; Horace Walpole’s unfortunate cat Selima drowned in a tub of goldfish; Edward Lear immortalize the marriage of The Owl and the Pussycat. Wordsworth, Blake (The Tyger), Yeats, Swinburne, and Hardy are just a few of the many others whose cats moved them to poetry
The poetry of TS Elliot is justly famous for its erudition and social consciousness, but not often for its humor. In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, however, he reveals an entirely new side of his character in a witty,
but always thoroughly sympathetic and knowledgeable series of poems about cats.
The poems address two very important topics, The Naming of Cats (‘…a difficult matter, (that) isn’t just one of your holiday games’) and the Ad-dressing of Cats.
We are then introduced to a number of cats, all of whom are immediately recognizable. There is the Gumble Cat, the tabby ‘on whom well-ordered households depend…’ and the Rum tum Tugger, a perverse animal who ‘…will do as do do and there’s no doing anything about it!’ The rather small, black and white Jellicle Cats rest up all day so that they can dance all night; the Great Rumpus Cat single-handedly routs a whole army of Peke and Pollicles; Mr Mistoffeless, the original Conjuring Cat, not only spirits away various household items, but magically produces seven kittens. Maccivity, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ baffles Scotland Yard while Gus the theatre cat reminisces about his past triumphs on the boards. Bustopher Jones saunters toward one or another of his clubs in St James’s and Skimbleshanks rides the Midnight Mail. And last, but never least, is Growltiger, a bargee known as ‘The Terror of the Thames’ who is finally forced to walk the plank by a gang of dastardly Siamese.
Furthermore, one of the best examples of indirectly using cat images to establish a mood is a stanza in T S Elliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
The study of cats literature per se can be a time-consuming but rewarding occupation. Anyone seriously interested in pursuing this topic would be well advised to consult Clair Necker’s Four Centuries of Cat Books. 1500-1970, published by Scarecrow Press in 1972 – an annotated bibliography of cat books published in English.
The range in cat literature is enormous, There are adventurous cats like Dick Whittington’s friend or Puss in Boots, and there are long-suffering cats as in Susannah Patterson’s Pussy Meow. There are musical cats (The King of Cats by Stephen vincent Benet), talking cats (Tobermory by Saki) and even cats who are FBI agents (Undercover Cat by The Gordons).
The largest number of cat books are written for children; the next largest subdivision covers cat care. There are also many general cat books (of which Agnes Repplier’s The Fireside Sphynx, first published in 1901, is an excellent example), fiction, anthologies, picture books, cartoon boos, and scientific book – anything in short, that stikes a reader’s fancy.