In a follow up to Vegan & Vegetarian Authors of Classic Literature: 20th Century Edition, we’re going back in time and exploring the work of a few notable animal activists from the 19th century! Though the term “vegan” was not coined until 1944, many activists were still abstaining from animal products well before the 20th century. Let’s take a look at just a handful of these early advocates!
Famous for his monumental literary works, including Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Tolstoy spent approximately 25 years of his life as a devout vegetarian. Tolstoy even went so far as to subsist entirely off of oatmeal porridge at one point in his life. Lesser known of Tolstoy’s works is his essay “The First Step”, in which he shares his eyewitness account of the operations in a Russian slaughterhouse.
Known for his existentialist writing and surrealism, Kafka was a strict vegetarian. Kafka once famously visited a Berlin aquarium, looked into a fish tank and said, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more”. Given the philosophical nature of much of Kafka’s work, it is easy to view his stories through the lens of animal rights. How might this lens change one’s interpretation of The Trial or The Metamorphosis?
Percy Bysshe Shelley
A giant of the Romanticism movement, Percy Shelley was an avid vegetarian. In fact, Shelley wrote multiple essays related to his opinions of animal agriculture which are notably modern. Shelley often reflected on animal agriculture being both morally absurd and a waste of arable land.
Mary Shelley was also a practicing vegetarian. In fact, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature abstains from meat in Shelley’s endlessly influential Frankenstein: as the creature explains, “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment”.
George Bernard Shaw
Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw was inspired to become a vegetarian by his idol, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Shaw once wrote, in reference to his meat consumption, “I was a cannibal”.