Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The Humane Crank

London Daily Herald, 1921

SEVENTY YEARS AMONG SAVAGES. By Henry S. Salt (Allen and Unwin.)

For thirty years past I have, with distant admiration, watched HENRY SALT moving along his chosen course of beneficent protest against this brutish world—unhastening, unresting. I have counted him among the noble and devoted spirits who, by deeds as well as words, have attempted to redeem the inert and torpid masses around them from our deeply-engrained savagery. I still cannot decide for which of his unpopular causes I admire him most—for his denunciations of flesh-eating, of “blood-sports,” of vivisection, of furs and feathers in dress, of the use of pit ponies, of flogging, of prison treatment, of war, of the desecration of mountains for “profit.” And my admiration may seem the more remarkable because he would probably reckon me among the “savages” with whom he has spent his seventy years.

In this volume he passes nearly sixty of those years in rapid review, with humour and even with tolerance, in spite of the underlying indignation at the abominations among which most of us live so carelessly. We see him as a boy at Eton, as a classical scholar at Cambridge, at Eton again as a master, until his great awakening or “conversion” came with the realisation of the horrible fact that he was living chiefly upon the putrifying carcasses of slaughtered animals and birds. That was the turning point of his life, he being then something over thirty. The rest followed.

The Times would say that it followed inevitably, for in reviewing this book lately it observed that a crank in one thing is always a crank in all. It is not literally true. Salt himself, for instance, can hardly surpass me in my love for wild animals, wild birds, and wild mountains, and yet I remain a carnivore, though with qualms. But certainly the crank is likely to be cranky at many points, for the crank is merely the man with a more sensitive and more highly-developed soul than the savage crowd has attained to in his time. He is the imaginative and sympathetic man, the poet in action, the salt of the earth, the one hope to which we miserable sinners may look. And so he is very likely to go right, not on one point only, but on all, as the Times insists.

It is indeed remarkable, in reading this book, to discover how many of the greatest men within his lifetime Henry S. Salt can count upon his side. From George Meredith and Thomas Hardy, and Bernard Shaw, and Edward Carpenter downwards, there is scarcely one really conspicuous figure in the world of intellect and imagination who has not stood his friend and supporter against the savage hosts around. If it had been otherwise, one might well despair of the world, so hideous has been the revel of hatred, bloodthirstiness, greed, and beauty’s desecration within the last thirty years. The sight of the bloody chaos into which the rulers of our own and other countries have sunk us, and in which from Ireland to Russia we wallow still, ought, I suppose, to arouse compassion rather than savage rage.

Henry Salt quotes from his friend, Ernest Crosby, the lovely sentence: “Is not the fact of being born a man or a woman an all-sufficient extenuating circumstance?” He also quotes from Schopenhauer, the most attractive of modern philosophers: “Boundless compassion for all living beings is the surest and most certain guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry.” It is a hard doctrine for us savage unregenerates to live up to. But I know that only through the gradual influence of poets of life such as Salt and similar cranks can we ever hope to escape from the barbarism often spoken of as our civilization.

Henry W. Nevinson