Creative Mews; Authors And Their Cats
In honour of International Book Day, this month we acknowledge a few of the greatest literary cat lovers and their favourite feline muses. It seems that historically writers and cats have enjoyed a unique relationship – the cat offers quiet company, and the writer offers a warm lap(top) and these days even a mouse!
Cats make inspiring subjects and characters. As the author Lynne Truss said, “Cats are clever and totally lacking in altruism. This means you can believe almost anything of them.” The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland; Eliot’s Macavity; C.S. Lewis’ Aslan; Gallico’s Thomasina are just a few of the cat characters who we have believed almost anything of.
But backstage, how many more special cats purred along to the tap of typewriters; left their pawprints on first drafts; sat watching vigil through long nights of creative endeavour? We will never know them all, but here is a list (in no particular order) of some of the most famous and beloved cats of the literary world.
Bambino and Sour Mash Twain
“I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course.” - Mark Twain
Mark Twain allegedly owned up to nineteen cats at one time, and when he traveled away from home he would even “rent” kittens by the month from neighbouring farmers to keep him company! One of his favourite feline companions was Bambino, a black cat given to him by his daughter, who was a huge comfort to him after the death of his wife. Once when Bambino went missing for a few days, he advertised a reward with the following poetic description:
“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 returned home safely a few days later. Two of his particular quirks were that he washed his face in the basin every morning and could turn out the desk lamp on command!
Another of Twain’s favourites was Sour Mash, described as a cat who, “had many noble and engaging qualities, but at the bottom she was not refined, and cared little or nothing for theology and the arts.”
“No animal has more liberty than the cat… The cat is the best anarchist.” - Ernest Hemingway
Snowball was a white tomcat. The story goes that he was given to Ernest by a ship captain, in Key West, Florida, after a night of hard drinking. Snowball was unusual in that he had extra toes. This trait was useful for balance on rough seas (making these cats popular with sailors), and also was an oddity which charmed Hemingway greatly. He proceeded to collect more cats with the same genetic condition and today a colony of many-toed cats live at Hemingway’s old residence in Key West. For this reason, polydactyl cats are often referred to as “Hemingway cats.”
Hemingway was a profound cat lover, referring to them as “purr factories” and “love sponges”!
“What greater gift than the love of a cat?”- Charles Dickens
Bob was deaf, and a devoted companion. He would follow Charles around the garden and sit with him while he wrote. After he died, Charles had one of his paws stuffed and bound to an ivory blade for use as a letter opener to keep on his desk. As borderline creepy as this may sound, it’s worth remembering that taxidermy was much more in fashion in 1862!
“Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there. There were a great many of them who never grew old by the fire.” - Stephen King
Smucky the cat, owned by Stephen King’s daughter, was the inspiration for the character, Church, in his novel “Pet Sematary”. When Smucky was hit by a car and died, he was buried by the family. According to King, “My daughter made the grave marker, which read SMUCKY: HE WAS OBEDIANT. (Smucky wasn’t in the least obedient, of course; he was a cat, for heaven’s sake.)”
“Before a cat will condescend to treat you as a trusted friend, some little token of esteem is needed, like a dish of cream; and you might now and then supply some caviar, or Strassburg Pie, some potted grouse, or salmon paste – he’s sure to have his personal taste.” – T.S. Eliot
Of course, we can’t forget perhaps one of the ultimate cat lovers, T.S. Eliot. His work, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to create the Broadway musical, Cats. The original book is a collection of fifteen poems, written for his godchildren.
Eliot paid great attention to the naming of cats, both in his writing and his life. In his poem, The Naming of Cats, he says, “I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular, A name that’s peculiar and more dignified, Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular, Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?”
From Cats we know and love the infamous Mister Mistoffelees; Rum Tum Tugger; and Skimbleshanks, amongst others. Eliot’s own cats also had fantastic titles, including Jellylorum, Pettipaws, Wiscus and George Pushdragon.
Other cat loving authors include Judy Blume, Gillian Flynn, Jorge Luis Borges and Patricia Highsmith, among countless others.
A cat is the perfect lap-sized companion for a writer – a warm presence but self-contained and independent. Both writers and cats may often be described as contemplative and solitary individuals, keenly observant and keeping unusual hours. Perhaps these similarities are what make their relationship so successful. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. When novelist Ursula Le Guin was asked why there appears to be such a special relationship between writers and cats, she answered, “Maybe because writers don’t want to have to stop writing and walk the dog?!”
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Eschner, K. Mark Twain Liked Cats Better Than People. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved April 3, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mark-twain-liked-cats-better-than-people-180965265
Hutchinson, S. 13 Writers Who Really Loved Cats. Mental Floss. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/49302/11-writers-who-really-loved-cats
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Servant_H. Hemingway Cats: Snowball, the Beloved Six-Toed Cat. Johnny Times. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://www.johnnytimes.com/hemingway-cats-six-toed-cats
Truss, L. Top 10 Cats in Literature. The Guardian. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/07/top-10-cats-in-literature