Babović on Pearson, 'Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans Made Modern New York, London, and Paris'

Author: 
Chris Pearson
Reviewer: 
Jovana Babović

Chris Pearson. Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans Made Modern New York, London, and Paris. Animal Lives Series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 265 pp. $23.95 (pdf), ISBN 978-0-226-79704-5; $24.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-79816-5; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-79699-4.

Reviewed by Jovana Babović (SUNY Geneseo) Published on H-Urban (May, 2022) Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57797

Chris Pearson’s book Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans Made New York, London, and Paris explores the coevolution of dogs and humans in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban life. While it fits comfortably among recent scholarship on human-animal relations and urban history, it also relies on the emerging field of the history of emotions. Pearson argues that it was much more than an attachment to pets that drove Europeans to accommodate dogs in cities. Instead, he suggests that a broad range of human emotions, from love and compassion to fear and disgust, shaped the terms of dogs’ inclusion in urban spaces. Dogopolis focuses on the distinctly Western and middle-class negotiation of human-canine relatedness, and, in doing so, it also highlights the transnational trends of urban modernity.

One of the main claims Pearson makes in Dogopolis is that dogs were repositories for the middle-class experience of cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and that they can offer us a unique lens into the broader social dynamics of the modern metropolis. For instance, Pearson details how bourgeois urbanites projected their fears about “dangerous” classes and vagabonds onto stray dogs. While they endowed their own pedigree and pet dogs with civilization, domesticity, and purity, they positioned strays as a source of filth, disease, and disorder. Few readers will be surprised to learn that middle-class urbanites used a similar rhetoric to discuss stray dogs as they used to discuss poor, immigrant, and minority communities. Indeed, as Pearson points out, they directed the same moralistic tone about public health, sanitation, and order toward strays as they did toward the urban underclasses. The contribution that Dogopolis makes is that it shows how an emotional response—in this case, fear—drove middle-class urbanites to rant and rave about strays in the public discourse and then address that fear by creating a scaffolding to survey and control dogs. Moreover, the book shows that middle-class sensibilities changed over time, prompting a renegotiation of emotional responses toward dogs as technology debased animal labor, as knowledge about parasites evolved, and as the built environment grew. The focus on emotions is novel; the few scholars who address it in human-animal relationships examine the bonds between pets and their handlers, which tend to emphasize positive emotions. Pearson, by contrast, shows that negative human responses were just as important in dictating how modern urbanites engaged with animals (and other humans) around them.

Pearson’s work also provides compelling evidence for how dogs shaped the modern city. Scholars of animal studies often struggle to capture animal agency in history because there are few traditional sources that provide access to voice, intent, and reflection of the animal actors themselves. While most scholars accept that animals had an impact on shaping the past, they maintain that it is only possible to write a history of human representation of human-animal interactions. There are some exceptions. In her Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus (2013), historian Susan Nance argues for the symbiotic relationship between humans and circus elephants by studying the traces of these animals in the equipment they wore, the objects they destroyed, the footprints they left, the dung they deposited, and the bystanders they amazed. Aaron Herald Skabelund similarly proposes the use of photography and taxidermy as primary sources that place animals in the role of co-producers of history, in his Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World (2011). Pearson approaches something similar in Dogopolis by centering dogs as agents of actions, such as straying, biting, and defecating. Urbanites built confinement and impound spaces for stray dogs, passed legislation that mandated the registration and leashing of pets, and engaged in passionate debates about muzzling and curbing urban dogs, and they did so in conversation with multifaceted canine agency. Dogs did not just drive humans to make history, Pearson suggests, they made history themselves.

Dogopolis is as accessible as it is pleasurable to read. The text is occasionally repetitive, but this is most apparent when moving through the book quickly. Pearson provides succinct coverage of the spectrum of dog-related questions that plagued middle-class urbanites around the turn of the century. He discusses topics like rabies scares, anti-vivisection movements, and the founding of humane societies. Readers without much background in the historiography of human-animal relations will find the text informative and easy to navigate. They will also find it a valuable addition to the recent scholarship on the history of emotion, not unlike Bathsheba Demuth’s excellent recent piece in the Journal of American History that details the emotional bonds between humans and dogs in the North American Arctic borderlands.[1] The book is of particular interest to scholars and students of urban history. Dogopolis relies on municipal and police archives, humane society records, and published periodicals from New York, Paris, and London. Using these sources, Pearson makes the case for a Western urban modernity without erasing the particularities of the national and local context of each city. More than that, he makes a case that dogs had a notable role in shaping that modernity.

Note

[1]. Bathsheba Demuth, “Labors of Love: People, Dogs, and Affect in North American Arctic Borderlands, 1700-1900,” Journal of American History 108, no. 2 (September 2021): 270-95.

Citation: Jovana Babović. Review of Pearson, Chris, Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans Made Modern New York, London, and Paris. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57797

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.