The other day my son Matt reminded me of one of the books of his childhood, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be , by Farley Mowat, the Canadian author who died last year. When Matt was young he would read this book and laugh out loud. Mowat wrote 52 books. He was self-effacing: “I was content from the first to be a simple saga man, a teller of tales which hopefully had a moral of some sort or another, even if I was confused about exactly what it was.” That’s the way art works most of the time. The moral woman or man produces art without a thought of the goodness or lessons in it. The goodness comes out through her or his fingers, onto the page or onto the canvas, or into the notes. The same could happen with the immoral artist, although we tend not to notice immorality these days. One wonders if the category of “immoral” even has meaning in our secular world; there is no agreed-upon basis for judging something as immoral.
Mowat was a humorist, an uromantic witness to World War II (which Matt described to me) and an environmentalist. It seems that his most influential book was Never Cry Wolf (1963), a study commissioned by the Canadian government to determine if arctic wolves were the cause of a declining caribou population. Mowat determined that for their dinners arctic wolves prefer mice to caribou. Furthermore, he portrayed the wolves as social, loyal, playful and helpful as babysitters to other wolves. Mowat was a sarcastic writer, maybe like Vonnegut, but gentler, certainly gentler than Twain. Sarcasm in a writer always signals insecurity. (Reading a book about Twain now.) Mowat was a quiet and solitary man, as most writers are, who could sit still and appreciate the company and behavior of wolves. Never Cry Wolf shifted the public’s perception of the wolf from that of a monster (a large-mammal threat to everything human) to that of a creature-of-earth trying to get along, just like the rest of us.