When Jill Abramson took over as the executive editor of the New York Times back in September 2011, among the many criticisms thrown at the first woman to have that top-dog job at the paper was the fact that she was just about to publish “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.” No matter that it was a warts-and-all evaluation of self and a rumination on death; the prevailing criticism was that surely Abramson (who was fired in May of last year for reasons Abramson claims were partially tied to her demand that she be paid as much as her male predecessor) was not serious enough to run “the gray lady” if she was writing about her fucking dog, right?
We return to this specific, depressing moment in media criticism because Mikita Brottman’s “The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals” begins with a series of questions—including “Why is a woman’s love for her lapdogs considered embarrassingly sentimental when men bond so proudly with their well-built hounds?”—that seek to dismantle the same bullshit-ass binary that wouldn’t allow Abramson and others to be both very serious and very sentimental.
“The Great Grisby” which could not be accused of being less than serious, is all at once a history of smart, important women and men and their dogs, a lit-crit trip through pups popping up in the arts, a brutally honest investigation into what the hell it means to be a human that owns an animal, and a plain and simple “OMG I LUV MY DOG” expression of joy. When Brottman talks about Grisby, her beloved French bulldog (who was famous around MICA, where Brottman teaches, and died four months after she finished writing the book), it might get too saccharine for smarmy smarty-pants who’ll dig the idea of a book about Schopenhauer or Freud’s dog and only that, and when it speeds through, say, a radical reinterpretation of Anton Chekhov’s “Kashtanka,” those expecting a conventional, doting dog book might get a little lost, and both sides will be affronted by the real talk Brottman delivers to dog owners. It’s a book for every kind of dog owner and no kind of dog owner and that’s great.
Consider the chapter on Hachiko, a golden-brown Akita that belonged to Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agricultural science at Tokyo Imperial University (each chapter is devoted to the famous dog of a famous person). We begin with the incredibly touching tale of how Hachiko met his master every day at Shibuya Station and continued doing so for 10 years after Professor Ueno’s death. From there, Brottman investigates other dogs that were “miraculous in [their] devotion” and then unravels this doggy dedication trope by proving that it is well, almost entirely bullshit.
“On further investigation,” Brottman writes, “these miraculous hounds often prove rather less marvelous than they first appear.” In the case of Hachiko, it seems that the dog’s supposed dedication, which made him a local celebrity very quickly while Ueno was still alive, perpetuated itself. Brottman points out that Hachiko “spent less than two years meeting Professor Ueno at Shibuya and another eight years repeating the behavior.” So, it’s more likely that Hachiko was coming back to Shibuya for the treats commuters gave the famously devoted dog than he was sadly waiting for his long-dead owner to return.
Following that tiny truth bomb, the chapter runs through an investigation of the problems that come with projecting human emotion onto animals and ends with dog owner Brottman, a little terrified, wondering if Grisby wouldn’t “be better off with someone who gives off fewer nervous vibrations” than her, and then adds, devastatingly, “perhaps this is what I’m truly afraid to face: that as long as he’s got food and company, he might barely notice I’ve gone.” Brottman worries that she doesn’t matter to her dog or maybe to anybody, which should be a feeling that pokes and prods any existentially aware person. All this in a dog book!
Each chapter has the same discursive structure as the one on Hachiko and Professor Ueno: We begin with a famous person’s dog or a fictional dog that appeared in their work (mostly literary), which lets Brottman connect the dots to other similar dogs in the lives of artists and art, and from there, a pontification on some element of the human-dog relationship and then, a smart wrestling with some element of her own dog’s personality, which usually finds Brottman hesitantly reaffirming even her flaws as an owner—a heartening thing for the thinking sort with a dog who spends too much time wondering what they’ve done to fuck this living thing up or if it’s even happy at all.
This systematic structure—which recalls Michael Kimball’s “Galaga,” another expressive quasi-memoir from last year that similarly explored very serious topics through the supposedly unserious—means that by the middle of the book, you can anticipate how a chapter will wander around, which makes the middle of the book sag a bit, if only because the transitions are occasionally specious, but it also gives the book its own rickety rhythm and leaves room for delightful diversions. Two favorites: one, on the rebellious chic appended to the French bulldog thanks to its association with prostitution and bohemia in the nineteenth century; and two, a riff on the forgotten surrealist Dorothea Tanning (who appears in a quick laundry list of female surrealists in the chapter on Frida Kahlo’s dog Xolotl) that celebrates a stunning, witty Tanning collage in which the artist put a dog’s face on her body that you should totally Google right this moment.
Despite all of the ideas flying around, this heavily researched and end-noted book is also an aggressively breezy read by way of Brottman’s lean, conversational prose and any reader who takes the time to put aside dog-book expectations will love it for the way it can both move you and challenge you. Better yet, each bemused chapter generally shows us that these big brains, including Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alexander the Great, Roman poet Martial, and 22 others, were just as bat-shit crazy about their dogs as the rest of us. For example, Thomas Hardy’s dog Wessex was a spoiled dick that was allowed to stand on the table and eat food from people’s plates and, according to Hardy, just loved listening to the radio (I leave NPR on for my dog when I leave my apartment, convinced he loves the soothing sounds; I know a number of people who do the same).
Isn’t it heartening to learn that king of the sads, Thomas Hardy, was a silly-ass softy to his dog? Like, the kind that would probably annoy the hell out of you if you went to his house for dinner? Brottman even quotes a letter from Virginia Woolf (who wrote “Flush: A Biography,” about the cocker spaniel that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning) that bemoans hanging out with the Hardys and enduring Wessex talk the entire time. If being a dog-loving doofus was good enough for Hardy, hero of miserablist fiction, then it is good enough for Brottman and Abramson and the rest of us. And in that sense, like most dog books, “The Great Grisby” is a life-affirming book for dog owners, but it is also one that affronts both sentimental and serious readers.