Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Learned Pig in Providence

Mr Pinchbeck, whose advice on how to train a Learned Pig was featured in one of the more popular posts on these pages, enjoyed enormous success with his own sapient animal in the northeastern states of America in the late 1790's. And, among the numerous cities and towns on his itinerary, I was delighted to discover that my longtime home of Providence, Rhode Island, was indeed visited; man and pig appeared there late in 1798 at a venue described as "the Sign of the Golden Ball," whose proprietor was one "Mr. Ammidon." On researching this fine establishment, I was amazed to discover that it was located at 159 Benefit Street, adjacent to the present site of the George Earle Building at whose longtime tenant, Geoff's Superlative Sandwiches, I had just eaten a sandwich yesterday! Thank heavens it was pork-free.

A bit more research revealed that the "159" address was originally assigned to a neighboring lot, site of the original inn known as the "Golden Ball" and later as the Roger Williams Hotel and lastly the "Mansion House," which had hosted many luminaries, George Washington, James Russell Lowell, and Edgar Allan Poe among them. Alas, it was demolished in 1941, not long after these photos were taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey. The storefronts adjacent to Geoff's are currently vacant -- I am tempted to rent one and open a "Learned Pig" emporium of some kind -- but for now, I am content simply to know that, by some strange and random miracle, my footsteps and those of Pinchbeck's Pig of Knowledge trod the same streets.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pigs and Politics

On my recent appearance on the fabulous Litopia After Dark, I was asked if there were any points of comparison between the pig in my pages and those in Parliament at the moment. I quipped that Toby would take offense at such a comparison, adding that, among their other good qualities, pigs care nothing for austerity. Which is all true enough, but in point of fact, the comparison has been made on numerous occasions, many of them implying either that the Government were pigs, or that their intelligence was no greater than that of a "Learned" one.

In first of the cartoons shown here, we see John Rolle, an MP who had been among the reliably faithful supporters of Pitt the Younger; a man of great size and "few words," he was described by Nathaniel Wraxall as a man whom "nature had denied all pretension to grace or elegance. Neither was his understanding apparently more cultivated than his manners were refined." These qualities, apparently are what earned him a cartoon comparison to a pack of trained animals, among them the "Surprising Monkey," the "Wonderful Hare," and the "Learned Pig." And yet his more loquacious political enemy, Charles James Fox, suffered an even worse comparison when he was lampooned as being the "Learned Pig" himself, who will "show the most surprising feats of Knowledge," among them "explaining many Passages in late Acts of Parliament ... the like never before having been even attempted in these our Realms!!!"

The third of our political cartoons depicts David Lloyd George, here not as a Pig but as the Pig's Proprietor. His recalcitrant subject is the Irish leader Eamon De Valera, who despite what the cartoon suggests is the prime minister's persistent prodding , seems unable to spell "Home Rule" for Ireland, a reference to the debates over the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill. Other historical events, as it was to turn out, rendered that bill moot, but it's interesting as evidence that the "Learned Pig" act was still familiar to readers of Punch in the 1920's.

Of course these images far from exhaust the subject of pigs and politics, not to mention related expressions such as "pork barrel politics" -- so I'm sure I'll return with more in the near future. But for now, at least, let it be said still that, when compared to most politicians, pigs come out by far the cleaner.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dickens and the Learned Pig

With the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, everything Dickens is being celebrated, from the trivial to the Gigantic; we are about to be blessed with duelling versions of Great Expectactions, still more Christmas Carols than we are usually inundated with, and even a Scottish Falsetto sock-puppet tribute (I'm not making this up).

But the man who, by many lights, was the greatest novelist Britain ever produced, also possessed a whimsical side. That he was was acquainted with the history of learned pigs is clear from his early reference to the pig, a rival to our "Toby," exhibited by Mr. Fawkes, in an early piece for Bentley's Miscellany:
The earliest account that we have seen of a learned pig is to be found in an old Bartholomew Fair bill, issued by that Emperor of all conjurors, Mr Fawkes, which exhibits the portrait of the swinish pundit holding a paper in his mouth, with the letter Y inscribed upon it. This ‘most amazing pig’ which had a particularly early tail, was the pattern of docility and sagacity: the ‘Pig of Knowledge, Being the only one ever taught in England’. He was to be visited ‘at a Commodious Room, at the George, West-Smithfield, During the time of the Fair’ and the spectators were required to ‘See and Believe!’ Three-pence was the price of admission to behold ‘This astonishing animal’ perform with cards, money and watches, &c. &c. The bill concluded with a poetical apotheosis to the pig, from which we extract one verse:

A learned pig in George’s reign,
To Æsop’s brutes an equal boast;
Then let mankind again combine,
To render friendship still a toast.
And there's more: just recently, I came upon an account in an 1880 issue of The Graphic, which concerned the practice of concealing a door within a library behind panels covered with imitation spines bearing dummy book-titles. Thomas Hood, the author of the "Lament of Toby," was commissioned to prepare such a door for the Duke of Devonshire; among his titular facetiæ were such drolleries as "Lamb on the Death of Wolfe," "On Sore Throat and the Migration of the Swallow," and "Johnson's Contradictionary." Apparently, Dickens himself took up the idea, and had a doorway in his study at Gad's Hill Place so covered, inventing the titles himself. Among them: "The Quarrelly Review," "History of the Middling Ages," "Lady Godiva on the Horse," and -- here's the kicker -- "The Life and Letters of the Learned Pig."

This portmanteau portal is still in place, and can be seen 'round about 3:42 seconds into this video tour of the house, although Toby's letters, alas, are not visible.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Friends of Toby: Anna Seward

Among Toby's most intimate friends was the writer Anna Seward, known as the "Swan of Lichfield." She attended at least two of Toby's public performances, and served as a member of the "jury" at Toby's contest with a rival pig in London --Toby's invitation to her, and her reply, are given in full in his Memoir -- and so affecting was her letter, that Toby had it stitched within the lining of his waistcoat, so as to keep it always near his Heart.

Yet today, even though many women writers of the 18th century -- one thinks at once of Fanny Burney, Hester Thrale, or Mary Wollstonecraft -- have made their way back into publication and a presence in literary anthologies, Miss Seward has remained on the periphery. This may soon change, as there have, within the past two years, been both an excellent critical biography by Teresa Barnard and a broader historical study, Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century, by Claudia Kairoff. Time will tell whether this renewed interest in Seward as an historical figure will translate into a revival of interest in her literary output.

As Toby notes, Anna Seward was a child prodigy, said to be able to recite passages from Milton's L'Allegro when she was only three years old. Her father had been Dr Johnson's old schoolmaster (and was ill-remembered by his most famous pupil for his fondness for the lash), and her sister Sarah had been engaged to the learned Doctor's stepson. Alas, she died on the eve of their wedding.

According to Toby, Seward and Johnson had a most lively correspondence; he quotes Johnson referring to her as a "jousting-partner of the Pen," and expresses the wish that their correspondence be published. If indeed such friendly letters were written, they seem not to have survived, and most of the references to Johnson in her published correspondence are sharply critical ones. After his death, she called him a "despot" and spoke of his "strange compound of great talents, weak and absurd prejudices, strong but unfruitful devotion, intolerant fierceness, compassionate munificence, and corroding envy." Boswell, who had solicited her recollections for his Life, understandably felt disinclined to draw from them. Never the less, during his lifetime, they were often in company, and carried on the appearances of a social friendship. Indeed, it is in recalling these meetings that Boswell makes his one mention of Toby, attributing remarks very similar to those Toby records him having made directly to him, but here attributed to a conversation with Miss Seward:
‘Then,’ replied the doctor, his great face a-bloom with ruddy indignation, ‘is the Pig a race unjustly calumniated! Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig. Why, we hardly allow time for his education, killing him at a year old!’
Seward was the author of a novel, Louisa. as well as a considerable volume of poetry. She was best known for her elegies, including those on David Garrick, Major André, and Captain Cook; so strongly was she associated with them that Sir Walter Scott, who edited her Poetical Works, was said to be unwilling to start his work while she lived, lest he die first and she end up writing his elegy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Pig Visits the British Museum, 1784

As a complement to my learned Colleague, the Georgian Gentleman's account of a visit to the Museum in 1760, I thought I'd post a brief excerpt from Pyg: The Memoirs of a Learned Pig, where a visit in 1784 is described:


Dr Adams had written, with great flourish, to Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, whose offices were but a short distance away at Montagu House in Great Russell street. We were a little abashed to call upon such a Luminary, but were assured he would receive us; the other letters were addressed to John Sheldon, a leading Anatomist, Richard Kirwan, the Chemist, and William Aiton, the superintendent at Kew Botanical Gardens. I declared then and there that I would rather meet with Banks than with any of the others, having no desire as yet to be Autopsied, Analysed, or served up with a Garnish; besides, were Banks to take my case in hand, surely the others would follow, whereas if I had my first audience with lesser men, their fellows might still require Persuasion.

Having no other pressing Business, we headed out on foot the next morning, which we were relieved to see had dawned clear and crisp, the pestilent Fog having lifted, and autumnal breezes scoured the City of its effects. it was but a walk of perhaps ten minutes to Montagu House, which was home to the British Museum as well as the Royal Society; we ascended the front steps, and my Benefactor handed his Card to the uniformed doorman, mentioning that he had with him an introduction to Mr Banks.

"Very well, sir, you may go inbut your pig must remain outside," added that gentleman, as we moved to enter.

"Hes not my pig, sirhe is entirely his ownand it is he, specifically, that Mr Banks will most want to see," Sam insisted.

"Is he then a Specimen?"

"Certainly not! Ill have you know Toby is an Educated pig; he has just completed a year of study at Oxford."

This was too much for the doorman, who concluded that our visit must be some sort of Prank; he laid his hands on both of us, and forcibly escorted us down the stairs and out of the gate. I urged Sam to make the attempt alone, assuring him that I would not be in the least inconvenienced to Wait for him outside, but a glance from the doorman seemed to threaten even that attempt, and we backed off and slunk away down the street.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Friends of Toby: William Blake

Among the most luminary of Toby's friends, the poet William Blake looms large. By Toby's own account, they met very early on in Blake's career, before he had undertaken his illuminated books, through the offices of a mutual friend, John Flaxman. Flaxman, a young and gifted sculptor, lived at his Aunt's house just a few doors down from the Lyceum in the Strand, where Toby gave his final London performances. According toToby, it was the Aunt who paid for the printing of Blake's first -- and only non-illuminated -- book a verse, Poetical Sketches, in 1793. This book was not sold to to public, but given only as gifts to friends, and apparently Toby was among them.

The young poet doubtless either attended, or had heard of, Toby's performances, although his only written reference to them occurs in his notebooks of 1808-11, where the following quatrain is found:

Give pensions to the Learned Pig
Or the Hare playing on a Tabor
Anglus can never see Perfection
But in the Journeymans Labour.

The mention of the Hare, along with a reference to "virtuous cats" in An Island in the Moon, has been taken by Blake scholars such as Nick Rawlinson as evidence that Blake must have been aware of Bisset's show. He notes that, when Blake lived in Lambeth, he was "just around the corner" from Astley's Ampitheatre, although we now know, thanks to Toby's own memoir, that the pig who appeared at Astley's London establishment was his rival. All the same, since by Toby's account Blake personally presented him with a copy of his book, it seems likely that Blake regarded him as the original Pig of his kind, and had him in mind when he penned his verse. The notebook verses remained unpublished until 1957, which accounts for earlier biographers and critics being unaware of Blake's connection with Toby.

By his own account, Toby continued to take an interest in the works of Blake, whose genius was very imperfectly recognized during his lifetime, and who died in poverty, his last work a small engraved business-card for an old friend, George Cumberland.

N.B. The word "Anglus" has caused some confusion -- it's sometimes misread as "Angels" -- most editors of Blake gloss this word as meaning "bunglers" -- it has no entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, but may possibly be related to the Latin "angulus," meaning bent or crooked. Read this way, Blake's poem might seem to suggest that only dolts and bunglers would be impressed by a learned pig's act, though it could also be read as implying that a literate pig, as a "journeyman's labor," was a sort of rough sketch for that which the master's hand alone could truly shape, i.e., humans.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pigs in Literature

Until I started in on the work editing Toby's memoirs, I must confess I had never paid much attention to the field of pigs in literature. If I had been pressed on the subject, I would have probably named Piglet from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and Wilbur from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, but that might have been it. And yet now, having helped bring Toby back to the public Eye, it seems only fitting to look about at other literary pigs, and I must confess myself amazed at their number and variety. One of them, at least -- Gub-Gub (shown here), who featured in Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle books -- was also an author, in his case of a cookbook, entitled Gub-Gub's Book: An Encyclopedia of Food. This was described as the first of 20 planned volumes, the rest of which were, alas, never published. Another lesser-known but significant creature is Hen Wen, the oracular white sow in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. She proves, in fact, to be a pig of extraordinary powers, and her white coloration is that long associated with the Celtic otherworld. Still another storied pig was Walter R. Brooks's Freddy, whose adventures took him as far as the North Pole in a series of 26 books published between 1927 and 1958. Freddy is, I fear, not so widely known as he once was, and Brooks is more commonly remembered for another of his creations, the talking horse "Mr. Ed," who starred in his own television series in the 1960's. Lastly, I would be remiss indeed not to mention the Empress of Blandings, who cavorted through ten volumes issuing from the pen of that singular wit, P.G. Wodehouse, beginning the same year as Freddy (1927) and carrying on through Sunset at Blandings (1977).

Of course, people will always bring up Orwell's Animal Farm, but much as I admire many of his essays and other fictions, the allegory of that volume has always felt a bit heavy-handed to me. And it's impossible to leave out Babe, who debuted in Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig in 1983 and was the basis for the 1995 film Babe and its sequel. The book and the films are endearing enough, but all of them -- as with Orwell's and Blanding's tales -- require that we imagine that pigs could talk. Talking animals are perfectly fine, of course, but it breaks the mold of realism to include them. To my mind, talking pigs belong in the world of mythic and fantastical tales, where they can take their place with magic swords and one-eyed giants; they are right at home there, and can speak all they like. Whereas pigs in this world, it seems to me, must -- if they are to find a way to make their thoughts known -- do so in a manner consistent with their capacities.

Of course, all fictions are, to put it bluntly, made up, whether they march under the banner of "fantasy" or that of "realism." Whereas Toby's singular career, as plainly documented by the most reliable of witnesses, is a matter of fact, albeit his story is told from his personal perspective, and is therefore subject -- as with any human memoir -- to a certain bias, as well as to the vagaries of memory and the capacities of the writer. And yet, perhaps because they are only familiar with sentient animals in fairy tales and fables, many people have written to ask me what the "moral" of Toby's story is! -- but I have no answer for them. Whoever it is that first decided to reduce the pleasure of stories -- whether factual or fictional -- to some idiotic truism or platitude, ought to be sentenced to eternity watching Jay Ward's "Fractured Fairy Tales" or "Aesop & Son," where this device is so aptly skewered. What, after all, is the lesson of a life? That it was lived, and that, via the curious incantatory power of language to conjure up shadows of this experience in our own minds, we may know of creatures and times other than our own, and -- if we have the talent for it -- expand our sympathies.

And so I would say this: Pigs in literature have, whether fictional or not, exhibit a sort of kinship with us. When they talk, we listen. We seem to have travelled the world together, and there is something of us in them, and them in us. This, I think, is the principal reason that pigs feature so often in literature and film -- the Wikipedia lists 37 pigs in fiction, 46 in television, 11 in music, and 23 in video games (not to mention Angry Birds!). There will be, I am certain, more to come.

But have I left out a personal favorite pig? If so, let me know.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Toby?

The Editor of these pages, giving a brief respite to their Author -- who, after 227 years, finds he requires more Rest than he did in his former Life -- would like to take up a question often asked: why is it that the original Sapient Pig, along with nearly every other following act of a similar kind, were all named "Toby"? In The Giant, O'Brien, a brilliant novel based on of the career of Charles Byrne, the novelist Hilary Mantel has the Giant, who has been offered a place on a double bill with a sapient pig, ask "What is the name of it?" -- to which the showman's answer is, "Toby. All sapient pigs are called Toby." "It is one of the few facts I had not taken under my cognizance," the Giant replies.

The resulting pairing led the reviewer for the Independent to give her review of Mantel's novel the headline, "Upstaged by Toby, the sapient pig." The exact identity of this particular "Toby" is unknown, and I know of no direct evidence that a pig appeared with the giant, although both were the subject of comic engravings by Rowlandson early in 1785. Toby himself describes in his Memoir the career of one of his earliest Rivals, and how he helped rescue him from his cruel master; this pig, too was "Toby" -- named to take advantage of our Toby's fame. Nicholas Hoare, who was responsible for the facetious autobiography of Toby, apparently exhibited several pigs with that name; according to G.E. Bentley, there was a "Toby" seen by Harrison Weir (b. 1824) at the Camberwell Fair when he was a lad. There appear to have been dozens of such pigs in Britain and America, exhibited right up through the early twentieth century, and in almost every case, they too are named "Toby." The most recent example I know, a "flying pig" named Toby whose act is to dive from a platform into a tub, appears in Kim Deitsch's marvellous graphic novel Shadowland (2006).

But why "Toby" in the first place? It's a familiar form of "Tobias," which itself is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Toviyah," which means roughly "God is Good." In Nicholas Hoare's specious autobiography, it's punningly derived from the pig's master's quoting from Hamlet the line "To be or not to be." The name occurs in the Bible and in Shakespeare (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night); in the antebellum South it seems to have been associated with servants and slaves -- perhaps, most famously, when in Alex Haley's Roots, his ancestor Kunta Kinte is given the name "Toby" by his new master, a humiliating substitution. In Tolkien's Middle Earth, Toby is said to be derived from "Tobold," and "Old Toby" is a popular type of pipe-weed. Unbeknownst to Tolkien, this was also one of the names of a Shoshone Indian chief who died in 1858.

So how fare "Tobias" and "Toby" today? According to the Baby Center, "Tobias" ranks #477 in popularity today, with "Toby" at 359; the name also appears to be on the rise in Google's nGram corpus of English words.