Jane Goodall-Susan McHugh
The Animal Storyteller
I love my friend’s story of watching a toddler begin her rare bit of TV time by dancing over to the set, putting her finger on the face on the screen, and delightedly shrieking, “It’s Jane!” I know I’ve never outgrown that same fond feeling for Jane Goodall, the animal storyteller who, since my own toddler days in front of the television, has always affirmed our shared belief that all creatures are active agents in their own stories. When I grew up to become a literature professor, my continuing love for Jane’s stories about chimpanzees fostered an otherwise unlikely career in researching and teaching narratives of human-animal relationships.
Twenty-five years ago in an undergraduate literature classroom, my professor told the class that I was “insane” for thinking that a poem could be about a squirrel’s thoughts on seasonal change. He quipped, “Animals don’t think, and they certainly don’t write poetry.” That moment I share with my own students, not just to shock them but also to illustrate how a peculiar paradox in the history of literary criticism came to crisis: animals abound in literature across all ages and cultures, yet only recently have they become the focal point of systematic study as something other than metaphors or as more than just humans in animal suits. My articles and books now contribute to a growing body of new scholarship in literary and interdisciplinary animal studies that elaborates how this very different idea of animals as social actors becomes visible as a sensibility peculiar to our time in Western cultures. Reflecting on this work, I become ever-more appreciative of the storytellers at the root of it all, and of how they do so most effectively by spinning tales that share and foster affection for others.
While appreciating that it can never be easy to be the one at the center of so much love, I wish the woman behind the image on so many of our childhood screens--a media figure I call (after the Velvet Underground song of the same name and vintage) “Sweet Jane”--to feel proud of crafting stories that set in motion this positive upwelling of feeling, to appreciate that it is the driving force behind a growing movement that is changing knowledge and practices of species life for the collective good, and in ways that she may never have imagined possible.
Susan McHugh, Professor of English at the University of New England, is the author of Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines and Dog. She is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies.