Although Eric Knight was the author of many well-written books, he will always best be remembered for the classic tale of a boy and his dog: Lassie Come-Home. I’ll review this beloved story tomorrow. Save the date: December 12!
Born 1897 in England, Eric Knight was the third of four sons born to Frederic Harrison and Marion Knight, both Quakers. According to Wikipedia, Knight’s father was a rich diamond merchant who, when Eric was two years old, was killed during the Boer War. His mother then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family. Knight was raised by an aunt and uncle and attended school part-time as a child. His mother later settled in America, where Knight joined her at the age of fifteen. There, he graduated from the Cambridge School of Latin in Massachusetts and also pursued art at the New York National Academy of design. Two of his brothers died in 1919, on the same day that they enlisted in the National Guard.
Chelsea-Collies reports that Knight’s varied career included service in the Canadian Army during World War I, along with spells as a newspaper reporter, university lecturer, and Hollywood screenwriter. His first love was newspaper work and over the years he worked for several. He started as a copy boy and worked his way up to writing feature articles for the Syndicate Bureau. He was also a respected film critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. For a short time, Knight even dabbled in film writing in Hollywood, where he became a favorite of the legendary filmmaker, Frank Capra.
Married twice, Knight had three daughters. His second marriage was to Jere Brylawski in 1932 with whom he settled on a farm in Pennsylvania. However, shortly thereafter, the couple gave up both their farm and their dogs to move to Hollywood so that Eric could pursue a film writing career. Knight took American citizenship in 1942 shortly before his death at the age of forty-five. As observed by Chelsea-Collies, there’s no telling what else Knight might have accomplished if his life had been longer.
When the couple moved to Hollywood, Knight purchased a female collie puppy that was to be a Christmas gift to his wife. However, Chelsea-Collies notes that it quickly became apparent that the puppy Toots was to be his dog alone. Knight spent every spare moment training her and was continually amazed by her eagerness and quickness to learn. While traveling on book tours Knight delighted in showing Toots off and her repertoire of tricks became famous. The two of them became inseparable. When Knight was away, Toots would sit patiently by the stone wall in the front of their house, awaiting her master’s return. Toots is considered the main inspiration behind Knight’s most enduring novel: Lassie Come-Home.
The Lassie Family Website notes further came while on a trip to Knight’s English homeland during the Great Depression. The entire country was enduring hard times, forcing many people to sell their belongings, including beloved dogs. After his return home, Knight and his wife relocated to New York. It was here that he began to write Lassie Come-Home. Much of the story is felt to have been drawn from his own childhood memories in England. This lush countryside was the setting for Lassie’s adventures. Knight also grew up in the mill towns where stories of “come-home” dogs were common.
The short story first appeared in the December 17, 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It was so popular that the John C. Winston Publishing Company picked up publication rights. The full-length novel has been published in over 25 languages and remained continuously in print.
Unfortunately, Knight did not live long enough to witness the legend he created. The novel was filmed by MGM in 1943 as Lassie Come-Home with Roddy McDowall in the role of Joe Carraclough and canine actor Pal in the role of Lassie. While Knight visited the movie set, where he met the original Lassie, he never saw the finished product. In 1943, as part of World War II, he was killed in action while on board a transport plane that crashed in the jungles of Dutch Guiana.
The movie went onto inspire seven other movies, a radio show, a long running television show, countless books and artifacts, and a great love for this dog called Lassie. Indeed, thanks to Knight, collies and the character “Lassie” will forever be linked. In 1994, proof of Lassie’s positive breed influence came when Eric Knight was admitted to the Collie Club of America Quarter Century Club Hall of Fame!