His Dog Tulip

Having just acquired a puppy of our own, I thought it time to read My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. I have a 1999 reissue with an introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, of The Secret Lives of Dogs fame.

I vaguely knew that J.R. Ackerley was a contemporary of folks like E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood (they have blurbs on the back of this edition), gay, upper class, British, literary. There’s a lovely picture of him and Tulip on the cover of my edition: a thin, older man, round glasses, sweater vest with tie and jacket, corduroy trousers. Looks gay, something about the way he’s leaning coquettishly, cocking his head to one side.

His writing is beautiful, slow and deliberate, nice pedantic words I don’t know and have to look up in the dictionary. You can tell he’s a big grump, a misogynist, a classist bigot, a darling romantic, an empathic and sympathetic observer of natural life.

At the same time I was exclaiming over how much dog ownership has changed since Tulip graced Ackerley’s life (he had her for 16 ½ years starting sometime in the 1940s; the book was first published in 1956), it was gradually dawning on me that all the gorgeous observation and loving detail he pours into this description of Tulip is gorgeous observation and loving detail he could not, at the time (at least not publicly) pour into descriptions of his gay life and love.

Everything about Tulip is beautiful to him: the second chapter (they’re really more like essays), “Liquids and Solids” is all about Tulips bodily functions, and makes surprisingly entertaining and interesting reading (this was, of course, long before pooper scoopers), especially the scene where’s he’s trying to get Tulip to go before they get on a train, and says encouragingly, “Come on, Tulip, be a sport. Shitsy-witsy, you know.”

The third chapter, “Trail and Error”, begins, “Soon after Tulip came into my possession, I set about finding a husband for her. She had had a lonely and frustrated life hitherto; now she should have a full one.” Later in the chapter, he goes on to a seriously sensual description of Tulip coming into heat, which he finds completely enchanting: “That small dark bud, her vulva, became gradually swollen and more noticeable amid the light gray fur of her thighs as she walked ahead of me, and sometimes it would set up, I supposed, a tickle or a trickle or some other sensation, for she would suddenly squat down in the road and fall to licking it. At such moments I could see how much larger it had grown and the pretty pink of its lining. Then there were spots of blood on her silvery shins. She did not bleed much, nor did she smell; I should not have minded either. I was very touched by the mysterious process at work within her and felt very sweet towards her.”

How loving and supportive he is of his pet’s sexuality – a sexuality that is, without any doubt, natural and a part of natural life. His own sexuality? The sexualities of his friends and lovers? Near the end of the book, he details how he attempts to get Tulip through her heats as painlessly as possible by letting her run wild after rabbits in a nearby wilderness area, saying several times that he is able to give her everything she wants, but not what she needs (he does not want her mated again, as it was incredibly distressing trying to find good homes for the pups the one time she did mate and get pregnant).

This particular wilderness area was the site of a tragic suicide many years earlier: “And young Holland, where did he die? Where is the swamp into which he drove his face? Lost, lost, the inconsiderable, anguished deed in the blind hurry of time. The perfect boy face downwards in a swamp… The doctor who performed the autopsy remarked that the muscles and limbs were absolutely perfect, he had never seen a better developed boy in his life, nor, when he split open the skull, such deep gray matter. Ah, perfect but imperfect boy, brilliant at work, bored by games, traits of effeminacy were noticed in you, you were vain of your appearance and addicted to the use of scent. Everyone, it seemed, wished you different from what you were, so you came here at last and pushed your face into a swamp, and that was the end of you, perfect but imperfect boy…” (He references The Times, June 30, 1926 in a footnote, perhaps having preserved the clipping for over 20 years).

Ackerley laments the state of dogs’ lives, that they cannot just be dogs and do what dogs naturally do because for untold generations they have been inextricably linked to human beings, and the two species, as much as they can love each other, know very little about each other and have a hard time living peacefully together. Humans are always trying to make dogs be not-dog: not letting them have sexual freedom, not letting them be who they are. Ahem.

Don’t you think that in 1999, when this book was reissued, they could have had someone like, oh, I don’t know, some well-respected literary fag writer like Mark Doty or Michael Cunningham write the introduction? Someone queer, someone who gets what’s going on? Ok, yes, My Dog Tulip is ostensibly a dog book, and a rather wonderful dog book at that, so I can see why they might have thought of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and her introduction is ok, but it says nothing about the deeper waters of the book. Nothing of the above incredibly moving passage – gee, why is that in there when this is a dog book? Oh, I dunno, I’ll just skip over it. Just like that part of Ackerley’s life was undoubtedly skipped over his entire literary career.

Ok, I actually know nothing about his life. Maybe he was completely out and had lovers and was deliriously happy. He’s just got one published novel, according to the information from my edition of My Dog Tulip, called We Think the World of You, as well as two other memoirs, one about his father and one called Hindoo Holiday, and I haven’t read any of them. I also know nothing about The Listener, the BBC magazine for which he was literary editor.

And I know I could look all this stuff up in just a few strokes of my keyboard, but I don’t feel like it. I mean, I really don’t feel like it! Today, I just feel like reacting to an actual book I have in my actual hands. I would like to enjoy feeling outraged, sit around and ponder, talk to other people and see what they have to say without mucking things up by flitting about on the stupid internet and finding sound bytes of information on Wikepedia and allowing them to dilute and dissipate my thoughts. Fuck that. And fuck the publisher, New York Review of Books, for falling so disastrously down on the job of reissuing this integral piece of queer history without putting it in context and honoring it like the brave and desperate work that it continues to be.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 1:30 AM  Comments (3)