A Dark Brown Dog by Stephen Crane, 1901
The magic trick:
Using a metaphor to comment on a major historical time period with a story about a dog
First things first: I don’t like this story. Not a bit. I don’t do well with animals in peril, nor do I like broad, generalized historical comparisons. Ostensibly, the little brown dog in this story is supposed to represent Black America in the Reconstruction South. Whoa, whoa, whoa – you say – what? I know, I know. But I’m not kidding.
Let me stop here, though, and focus on the positives here. The idea that one can write a story about a boy taking in a stray dog and in fact be commenting on a major event or time period in American history is really quite remarkable. I like that idea a lot; the notion that an author can be telling you one thing but really be talking about something entirely different. That’s art, right?
In “A Little Brown Dog,” the metaphor simply doesn’t work for me. The idea that former slaves, as a people, were naive, innocent, eager to please, kind and good and loving, as the dog is in this story? Well, it’s just stupid. I’d argue that such a generalization, no matter the good intentions, is actually just as racist and ignorant as someone who is on a White-Power trip. The metaphor is a dud, and without it, the story has little else on which to prop itself.
Credit Crane at least for attempting such an ambitiously symbolic tale. I suspect his heart was in the right place. And that’s quite a trick on Crane’s part.
The affair was quickly ended. The father of the family, it appears, was in a particularly savage temper that evening, and when he perceived that it would amaze and anger everybody if such a dog were allowed to remain, he decided that it should be so. The child, crying softly, took his friend off to a retired part of the room to hobnob with him, while the father quelled a fierce rebellion of his wife. So it came to pass that the dog was a member of the household.