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Richard Wright portrait
figure 1  


bite the hand that feeds one. To be ungrateful, to turn against a friend or patron.

In June of 1940, Richard Wright published an essay titled, “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me” in the Atlantic Monthly. It was a response to David Cohn's review of Wright's Native Son. Because Wright had bluntly portrayed the life of Bigger Thomas, Cohn described the novel as “a blinding and corrosive study in hate.”reference 1 Wright does not explain the significance of his title. I find myself imagining that Cohn took something personally that wasn't actually about him. However, by taking it personally, he managed to make it about him. Cohn, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, represented the progressive literary establishment. In responding as he did, Wright was running the risk of offending his patron, of biting the hand that had fed him.

hand with bite marks visible on the middle finger
figure 2  

M.A. Hobbs says that “sometimes dogs do this, but not as often as people.”reference 2 She most likely means this figuratively, since human bites are a minor phenomenon compared to dog bites. If so, she may or may not be accurate, presuming that Hobbs is referring to the supposed loyalty of dogs. Whether dogs actually experience gratitude or ingratitude based on previous or anticipated actions is open for debate.reference 3 Equally so would be whether they attack for spite, the implied motivation for biting the hand that feeds you.

The extent to which dogs literally bite the hands that feed them is open to interpretation. Though certainly the majority of dogs do not do so, dog bites are a significant public health issue and most bite victims are of members of the dog's own household. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 4.7 million Americans (more than 1.5% of the population) will be bitten this year. 70% of these attacks occur in the dog's home and typically 60% of the bite victims are children.reference 4

Hobbs also cites a proverb: A Bargain Dog Never Bites: Said of something obtained at little or no cost that doesn't work properly.reference 5

This works better as a metaphor than as advice to those looking for a pet. In the latter case, it seems like even less useful advice than the injunction against putting your hand inside the mouth of a horse you have received as a present (i.e., don’t look a gift horse in the mouth). Something acquired for free may have many costs and certainly can present dangers if you bring it into your home. Dogs acquired cheaply are at least as likely to bite you as any other; if you got yours from the pound and it had been abused in its earlier life, then it seems to me even more likely to do so.

1. Cohn, David L. 1940. Review of Native Son. Atlantic Monthly, May, 659.


2. Hobbs , M.A. Underwood. 1999. Pure Doggerel. White Star Farm. Accessed Oct 21 2001 from http:// meanwhileback doghouse/ puredoggerel.htm.

3. Budiansky, Stephen. 2001. The Truth About Dogs. New York: Penguin Books, 148.


4. American Veterinary Medical Association. Dog Bite Fact Sheet. AVMA, 2003. Accessed Jun 29 2003 from http:// press/ publichealth/dogbite/ factsheet.asp.

5. Hobbs.




About the illustrations: Figure 1 is Richard Wright, photographed by Carl Van Vechten on June 23, 1939. This image is from the collection of the Library of Congress and it is considered to be in the Public Domain. However, the Carl Van Vechten estate has asked that use of Van Vechten’s photographs “preserve the integrity” of his work, i.e, that photographs not be colorized or cropped, and that proper credit is given to the photographer.

Figure 2 is a picture of a hand bitten by a dog is taken from the North Thames A&E Trainees Official Website in Emergency Medicine.reference 6

6. Specialty Training Committee for Emergency Medicine. 2001. Dog Bites.Trainees Official Website in Emergency Medecine. North Thames A&E Accessed Oct 21 2001 from http:// images/Hand/ Hand.htm.
see also: man's best friend; bark is worse than his bite; turn dog Last updated: June 6, 2008
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