Americans have always loved elephants, perhaps because they embody our national leaning toward the outsized and the grandiose, perhaps simply because they are such unlikely and engaging beasts. James Agee, the brilliant author of A Death in the Family, shared this love, as is evident in the following excerpt from a letter to his close friend, Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye. In it he sketches the sad and wistful plot of a possible movie about elephants in America. It was the last letter Agee ever wrote. Before he could mail it, the author died, on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-six.
A the beginning, elephants converge from all over Africa, towards a disembodied voice, the voice of God, which addresses them roughly as follows: “My beloved children: you know you are my chosen people. You know that—to you alone —I have given my secret: I do not regard myself as omnipotent. I gave that up when I gave to Man the Will to love me or to hate me. or merely to disregard me. So I can promise you nothing. What little can I tell you is neither encouraging nor discouraging. Your kind is used already for work; and the men who use you are neither markedly improved nor disimproved by contact with you. Nor have you been improved, or disimproved in that process. But now, a new age begins. Soon, now, you will be taken to be looked upon , to be regarded as strange and as wonderful and —forgive me, my dear ones —as funny. As I said, I am not omnipotent; I can’t even prophesy: I ask only this: be your own good selves, always faithfully, always in knowledge of my love and regard, and through so being, you may convert those heathen, those barbarians, where all else has failed. ”
During this admonition, and blessing, the oldest elephant sadly leaves the assembly, and walks away to the great, secret, elephant cemetery, and dies there.
Soon after, men come among the elephants, and capture them for circuses.
We move, then, from fiction to fact.
This is what happened; a matter of record; when elephants were brought among civilized men:
1824: The first American circus elephant.
She was bought by a man whose headquarters was at Somers, N. Y. She was called Old Bet . She was exhibited locally. In a small town in Western Connecticut, religious people decided that she was the reincarnation of Behemoth, and shot her dead. She was buried at Somers. A statue was raised above her grave. Ever since, it has been a shrine for circus people.
Late 19th Century: Jumbo.
The most famous and beloved of elephants, he died as follows:
He was led across the railroad yards to his private car. A gap was left, in a long line of freight cars, for his crossing. But for this gap, the tracks were hemmed in by linked cars. This was at night. No train was scheduled. But an express came through. Jumbo, seeing it, remembered the gap and turned and ran for it. He ran so hard he overshot it. He turned again, and met the locomotive head-on. He was instantly killed; the locomotive was derailed.
1916: Tennessee: Mary.
In a small Tennessee town —out of what charming provocations you can imagine—Mary went berserk, and killed three men. The general populace decided, accordingly, that she should be hanged. They strung her up to a railroad derrick; she broke it down by sheer weight. They got a stronger derrick: after two hours, Mary died, hanged by the neck, while 5,0OO oafs looked on.
1934: Grand Finale.
The greatest choreographer of his time. George Balanchine, instructs the greatest elephant corps of any time, in ballet. The elephants are embarrassed, but dutiful. The big night comes. They dance to music by Stravinsky, in pink tutus. They do very nicely; hardly a mistake. But all through the performance, people roar with joy at their clumsiness, and their dutifulness. The elephants are deeply shamed. Later that night the wisest of them, extending his trunk, licks up a dying cigar-butt, and drops it in fresh straw. All 36 elephants die in the fire. Their huge souls, light as clouds, settle like doves, in the great secret cemetery back in Africa—
And perhaps God speaks, tenderly, again; perhaps saying: “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding …” etc. …