By Bud Boccone
Recently I was cleaning out my files of possible story ideas. Amid the clippings, printouts, and Post-its I found the results of an online poll the AKC conducted a few years back. The question: Who was literature’s greatest canine character?
The slate of nominees was diverse. Kids voted for Clifford. Horror buffs picked Cujo. For nonfiction readers there was Marley. Choices ranged from old-school (Big Red), to really old school (The Odyssey’s Argos), to literally old-school (Spot, from the “Dick and Jane” readers).
Scanning the list, I thought of just how fleeting literary fame can be—“In one era and out the other,” as a wise old writer once said. Consider the case of Richard Harding Davis and his 1903 story “The Bar Sinister,” which for most of the 20th century was ranked among the great dog tales. It has since vanished with barely a trace, and Davis himself has become as obscure as his once-celebrated work. But a hundred years ago he was, after Mark Twain, America’s most famous writer.
Born in Philadelphia in 1864, Davis was a storytelling machine. As the most famous and fearless war correspondent of his time, Davis’s account of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and their charge up San Juan Hill was the stuff of legend. Between wars Davis banged out bestselling novels and story collections, and as a playwright he once had three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. His vast output, along with his dashing manner and good looks, made Davis a media darling at the dawn of our celebrity culture.
“The Bar Sinister” is the story of Kid, a feisty Bull Terrier born of a show-dog sire and a dam of “doubtful pedigree.” (The title refers to a medieval term for “illegitimacy.”) Kid is separated from his dear mother as a puppy and overcomes a series of tribulations—including a foray into the nefarious underworld of pit-dog fighting—before achieving a surprise mother-and-son reunion. The story’s charm, though, isn’t so much in the Dickensian plot but in Kid’s first-person narrative. Davis found just the right voice for his protagonist: plucky, but not arrogant; simple, but street smart.
“The Bar Sinister” was an immediate success. One reviewer predicted, “It will live … because there is human sympathy in it of a delicate and most appealing kind.” And live it did. For decades it was collected and re-collected in “greatest dog tales” anthologies. By 1955 “The Bar Sinister” was still familiar enough to rate a film version, called It’s a Dog’s Life. It failed to find an audience in its initial release but maintains a loyal cult following. Among the movie’s virtues are Vic Morrow’s terrific voiceover performance as Kid, and a ringing denunciation of the evils of dogfighting.
Kid has receded into the rearview mirror of literary history. He won’t be topping online polls anytime soon, but if you like a sentimental dog yarn well told, do a little cultural dumpster diving and salvage “The Bar Sinister” for your reading pleasure.
You can read “The Bar Sinister” for free at readprint.com.