Similar Cases – by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, with dialogue by Francis Rolt-Wheeler
“There was once a little animal,
No bigger than a fox,
And on five toes he scampered
Over Tertiary rocks.
They called him Eohippus,
And they called him very small,
And they thought him of no value —
When they thought of him at all;
For the lumpish old Dinoceras
And Coryphodon so slow,
Were the heavy aristocracy
In days of long ago.”
“Except that the Dinoceras didn’t live at the same time as the Eohippus,” put in Perry, “he came along later.”
“Poetic license,” replied his uncle, “I didn’t write the verse. Shall I go on?”
“Oh sure!” answered Perry eagerly.
So his uncle continued:
“Said the little Eohippus,
‘I am going to be a horse!
And on my middle finger-nails
To run my earthly course!
I’m going to have a flowing tail!
I’m going to have a mane!
I’m going to stand fourteen hands high
On the psychozoic plain!”
“He got away with it, too,” commented Perry, but I don’t wonder that the Coryphodon couldn’t see it coming.”
“Not only couldn’t he see it coming,” said his uncle, “but the poet represents him as being quite annoyed about it.” And he continued:
“The Coryphodon was horrified
The Dinoceras was shocked;
And they chased young Eohippus,
But he skipped away and mocked.
Then they laughed enormous laughter,
And they groaned enormous groans.
And they bade young Eohippus
Go view his father’s bones.
Said they, “You always were as small
And mean as we now see,
And that’s conclusive evidence
That you’re always going to be.’
‘What!’ Be a great, tall, handsome beast,
With hooves to gallop on?
Why, you’d have to change your nature!‘
Said the Loxolophodon.
They considered him disposed of,
And retired with gait serene,
That was the way they argued
In ‘the early Eocene.”‘
Charlotte Anna Perkins-Gilman (with dialogue by Francis Rolt-Wheeler)
Listen to the poem below:
At first we didn’t know the true author of this poem! We found it published in The Monster-Hunters, a children’s book by Francis Rolt-Wheeler. In the book, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History (incidentally where we found this book) says that the poem was written by a “clever and well-known woman.” After a bit of digging, we learned it was by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman. We decided to include the dialogue inserted throughout the poem, since that’s the format we found it in.
This is actually only the first half of a much longer poem. This part of the poem is what appeared in The Monster-Hunters, and at a glance could be read simply as a cute poem about Eocene megafauna. The second part of the poem however, is about a clever ape who aspired to be a human being (hence the title, Similar cases).
The poem is social commentary about how human society is capable of change for the better, much like how species are capable of change through evolution. Keep in mind that Charlotte was a supporter of eugenics and reform Darwinism, and her vision of social reform was largely based in racist and ableist ideas.
The natural history of this poem
In “Similar Cases,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman focuses on one of the earliest known members of the horse family (Equidae), called Eohippus. Eohippus means “dawn horse” in Greek, and it lived in the early Eocene (56-47 Ma). Unlike modern horses, Eohippus was quite small in stature, though contrary to what the poem states, it was probably not fox sized and likely being a bit bigger, more like a golden retriever. The types of horses that evolved after Eohippus gradually increased in body size throughout the Cenozoic. As well, later horses had fewer digits on their limbs. Eohippus had 4 front digits and 3 rear digits per foot, where later forms saw a reduction to 3 digits per foot where the middle digit was much longer than the rest. Finally, modern horses only have one digit per foot (or, as Charlotte puts it, the middle finger-nail).
Eohippus was also much smaller than the other Eocene herbivores mentioned in the poem; Coryphodon, Loxolophodon (now considered to be Coryphodon) and Dinoceras (now Uintatherium) were similar in size to modern rhinos but with neither closesly related to rhinos nor to each other. As stated in the conversations interspersed throughout the poem, these large herbivores did not actually live at the same time as Eohippus, but instead lived at various times during the Eocene. Ultimately though, these larger herbivores went extinct.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman is a complicated figure in feminist history. She had radical ideas about restructuring the home, observing that married women’s economic dependence on their husbands often led to women staying in abusive relationships, and leaving them financially vulnerable if they divorced or became widowed. She knew from experience; after her father left her family at a young age her family became destitute, and she grew up in extreme poverty. She also believed women shouldn’t have to rely on men for health matters. When Charlotte suffered from extreme post-partum depression, her husband and her male doctor kept her in bedrest for months, which caused her depression to worsen and later inspired her most famous work, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Charlotte’s feminist utopia novel, Herland, imagined a society entirely composed of women. These women lived communally and supported each other in all things, from feeding each other to raising children. The book reflected her views that humanity has evolved past the point of gendered traits such as male aggressiveness and female domesticity. In her eyes, all humans are capable of both, and would benefit from doing away with aggressiveness entirely. Though a mostly fun read, the book is marred with favourable depictions of eugenics.
Though her ideas of gender roles may seem progressive for the time, Charlotte was a white supremacist, so it must be emphasized that her brand of feminism is exclusive to helping white women. She believed that Anglo-Saxons were evolutionarily superior, and that the presence of non-whites in North America threatened the purity of white Americans. These deeply racist views demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of both race and evolutionary theory.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Wikipedia
- Adeline Knapp – Wikipedia
- Herland: the forgotten feminist classic about a civilisation without men – The Guardian
- Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (yes, by a great coincidence, Brigid bought Herland at a bookshop in Calgary after SVP 2018!)
- Evolution of Tertiary mammals of North America Vol 1 – Christine Janis, Kathleen M. Scott, Louis L. Jacobs
- Eohippus – Encyclopedia Britannica
- Quo vadis eohippus? The systematics and taxonomy of the early Eocene equids (Perissodactyla) – D. Froehlich
- Coryphodon – Wikipedia
- Unintatherium – Wikipedia