The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing

John Miles, Gloucester Old Spot, 1834


Toby is one influential pig. As the very first learned pig to turn his tricks upon the stage, he provided a template for countless subsequent acts at fairs and festivals throughout the nineteenth century, and following this proliferation, a richly evocative motif for poets and sundry satirists. He is also, of course, the inspiration for this little online magazine, and – as we found out shortly after announcing our launch – for a 2011 novel by American writer and professor Russell Potter.

The book, entitled PYG: The Memoirs of a Learned Pig, purports to be the autobiography of Toby, with Potter positioning himself as editor of a new edition. An editor’s note and “Endorsement” by real-life Scottish physician William Cullen form the kind of prolegomenon much loved by satirists such as Swift (who is a prominent influence on both Potter and Toby). Following the narrative, a series of historical notes continue the parody of verisimilitude, as does the use of Caslon Antique typeface, designed in the 1890s (we’re told in a final note) to mimic the effect of early metal type, which, like all imitation perhaps, “became chipped and worn through repeated use”.

Potter tells his tale with warmth, charm
and a certain wry tricksiness.

The story will be more or less familiar to anyone who knows Toby’s tale, and Potter tells it with warmth, charm, and plenty of imaginative embellishment. Most satisfyingly perhaps is the level of wry tricksiness. Real-life figures like William Blake, Anne Seward and William Wilberforce, as well as texts by the likes of Dr Johnson are expertly woven into the narrative. What Potter does though on several occasions is invert the original context of the text. So the famous quotation by Southey (attributed by Toby to Sheridan) becomes not so much a damning indictment of the English nation, as, entertainingly, a lavish tribute to Toby’s act.

As such playfulness hints, the role of language is critical. There’s a kind of complex non-linearity to the way we’re told of Toby’s gradual engagement with language, with the early pages combining professions of ignorance with the learning both of the present and of hindsight. If the human is defined in opposition to the animal as, in Aristotle’s words, ζώον λόγον έχον (the animal having logos – language, speech, reason) then at one point does this singular point of rigorous division arrive?

I asked Russell Potter a few questions to find out more.

The Learned Pig

TJ: PYG seems quite different to your other works in terms of subject matter. What attracted you to the story of the learned pig to the extent that you wanted to write about it?

RP: Well, as one pig to another, I think I’d just say that the mere fact of there having actually been a “learned pig” who’d received such accolades, and at the very height of the ‘Age of Reason,’ seemed to me a perfect epitome of that age, and perhaps our own as well. I actually first encountered the learned pig in Richard Altick’s magisterial volume The Shows of London, which was the same place I’d learned of Arctic panoramas and other such spectacles, the subject of my previous (nonfiction) book. So, in a sense, it was both the existence of such a pig, and the manner in which he was exhibited to the public, that I found irresistible.
PYG: The Memoirs of Toby the Learned Pig

TJ: Could you talk a little about the research process?

RP: It’s much the same for me with both nonfiction and fiction projects. You have to steep yourself in the history of the period, in its texts and material culture, as much as possible. In the case of PYG, I had the advantage of having spent a year, just out of college, editing a vast collection of eighteenth-century texts on microfilm. There’s nothing quite like staring at images of almost random texts from a period – bills for enclosure, political panegyrics, gallows confessions, funeral tickets, occasional verse – to put one’s mind in the proper historical frame. And for PYG, I had the advantage of what’s become an even vaster archive – that of Google Books – along with research databases such as British History Online. But of course you can’t just stop there; you have to let the knowledge soak in, and ferment a while before you can draw from it. The trick is to do so without pausing to think too much about it, or getting all show-offy.

Unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, marriage, fortune,
and family aren’t really open to Toby.


TJ: Why did you opt for a novel – rather than straight history? And what prompted you to approach it as faux-autobiography?

RP: Well, the history of such pigs is fairly well-known – besides Altick, Ricky Jay has written at length about them. So it wasn’t until I discovered that, in the early 1800s, one showman had decided to promote his act by printing a facetious autobiography of his pig, that it suddenly occurred to me: what might an actual pig, given the chance, have had to say about the humans he found himself among? But of course, having only eighteenth-century models to draw from in his reading, such a pig would write in a manner, and a genre, known at the time. So the idea of a picaresque novel – which some wits have dubbed “pig-aresque” in my case – seemed altogether natural. And, as Toby gains in knowledge and experience, it’s also a sort of bildungsroman – although, unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, the ‘happy endings’ of marriage, fortune, and family aren’t really open to him.

TJ: To what extent is PYG aimed as a comment on the relationship between humans and animals?

RP: Oh, absolutely, to a very great extent – insofar as a novelist can “aim” things. It was vital to me that Toby not be some sort of anthropomorphic mouthpiece, but a full and present narrator, with all the depths and complexities we assume humans to possess, but who was in fact a pig. And it’s hard to imagine being a member of a species that was – and still is – routinely slaughtered in vast numbers to satisfy human appetites – without having some very strong feelings about that relationship. That said, it’s not meant to proselytise – Toby is, for the most part, fairly generous-spirited, and enormously grateful to those particular humans without whose love and assistance he would have never lived, let alone learned. Humour is also a key element – without it, the story might have been a tract or a treatise, but not – at least in the proper period sense – a novel.

If reason is something we’ve acquired,
then why might not another animal acquire it as well?

TJ: To me, the book has quite a complex relationship to satire – pitching itself as autobiography and pretending to read several instances of contemporary satire as straight-forward accounts. Would you see PYG as a satire?

RP: Satire cuts both ways, I think. Toby, as a reader, begins as most readers do, by being rather literalistic and naïve. He learns that texts can sometimes be deceptive at nearly the same time he learns that humans, too, tend to dissemble. So, as did Swift, he treads – and at times, dances upon – the line between satire and literality; like Gulliver, he’s actually quite patient with the peculiarities of his various hosts, though unlike Lemuel, Toby’s distaste for human manners is the first, rather than the last thing he learns. So of course, in that sense, it’s a satire – we’re meant to know better than to take it as literal truth – but it’s also a very serious one, in which the reader will feel (or so I hope) considerable empathy for Toby.

TJ: At least part of the humour, I feel, relies on the fact that, despite his great learning, Toby is always still a pig. Does that risk reinforcing certain things – human’s perceived superiority over animals, for example – that the book elsewhere might seem to undercut?

RP: Yes, he’s still a pig – and there are plenty of humans who, despite their learning, are more pigs than he. That’s why, to me, a porcine narrator has a peculiar advantage: he comes from a species that is at once both despised (as ‘unclean’, or at least greedy) and adored (with cute figurines and in children’s books and films such as Babe). The reader can’t help but be caught in one or both of those attitudes, and as such, ought to feel (I think) both a heightened awareness of the folly of humanity, as well as a sense of the humanity, if you will, of pigs. So I very much hope that, in the balance, PYG will work against the conceited view of some humans; that of themselves as in some sense “higher” creatures. As Toby himself paraphrases Swift’s apothegm: we ought not dub ourselves homo sapiens – wise humans but homo rationis capax – humans capable of reason. And if reason is something we’ve acquired rather than inherited, then why might not another animal acquire it as well?


The Learned Pig