A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

'A cat is more intelligent than people believe,' and other just-so stories.

Mark Twain liked cats more than people, Smithsonian reported the other day.

This is old news — Twain’s lifelong affinity for cats is not a new revelation — but just because it’s old news doesn’t make it old. Twain had a way with words, after all, and there’s never a bad time to revisit Twain’s writings and sayings.

Twain is reputed to have made a home for as many as 19 cats at a time, according to Livius Drusus in Mental Floss, “all of whom he loved and respected far beyond whatever he may have felt about people.”

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He gave them colourful names, too: Blatherskite, Apollinaris, Satan, Tammany, Soapy Sal, Beelzebub, Zoroaster, Sin, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, and that old reliable, Satan (presumably a black). The naming of cats can be a difficult matter, as T.S. Eliot can attest. It isn’t just one of your holiday games.

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Twain was hardly an outlier in the literary community, where his affection for cats was concerned. Ernest Hemingway, Patricia Highsmith and T.S. Eliot all suffered a touch of the old ailurophiles — a highfalutin’ word for “love of cats” — and several notable authors of the day incorporated cats in their fiction. Hemingway devotes an entire chapter to cats in his posthumous Bimini-set novel Islands in the Stream.

Twain’s most famous — or perhaps that should be infamous — was arguably Bambino, a cat originally owned by his daughter Clara. Twain famously posted a cash reward in the New York American for the return of Bambino, after the irascible but loveable critter vanished one morning “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.” Bambino eventually found his way home on his own — so like a cat — but not before several persons of marginal scruples and loose morals turned up at Twain’s doorstep, proffering cats that matched the description in his notice.

“Some people scorn a cat and think it not an essential; but the Clemens tribe are not of these,” the artist formerly known as Samuel Clemens was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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“The person that had took a bull by the tail once had learnt sixty or seventy times as much as a person that hadn't, and said a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn't ever going to grow dim or doubtful,” Twain noted in Tom Sawyer Abroad.

“You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does — but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use,” Twain wrote in A Tramp Abroad.

“A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime,” he wrote in Notebook, in 1895.

There were longer passages, too, as told to himself in Autobiography of Mark Twain:

“I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. . . . She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree — independence. Also, she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies — and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis — reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: 

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‘Other Christians is always worrying about other people's opinions, but Sour Mash don't give a damn.’

Indeed, she was just that independent of criticism, and I think it was her supreme grace. In her industries she was remarkable. She was always busy. If she wasn't exterminating grasshoppers she was exterminating snakes — for no snake had any terrors for her. When she wasn't catching mice she was catching birds. She was untiring in her energies. Every waking moment was precious to her; in it she would find something useful to do — and if she ran out of material and couldn't find anything else to do she would have kittens. She always kept us supplied, and her families were of choice quality. She herself was a three-colored tortoise- shell, but she had no prejudices of breed, creed, or caste. She furnished us all kinds, all colors, with that impartiality which was so fine a part of her make. She allowed no dogs on the premises except those that belonged there. Visitors who brought their dogs along always had an opportunity to regret it. She hadn't two plans for receiving a dog guest, but only one. She didn't wait for the formality of an introduction to any dog, but promptly jumped on his back and rode him all over the farm. By my help she would send out cards, next day, and invite that dog to a garden party, but she never got an acceptance. The dog that had enjoyed her hospitalities once was willing to stand pat.“

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And this, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

“I urged that kings were dangerous. He said, ‘Then have cats.’ He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive and finally, they would have as sound a divine right as any other royal house. . . 

“The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so, because it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”

And finally this, from Notebook, in 1894, and as good a note as any to end on:

“Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

Alrighty, then.