In the beginning, the landscape of books for children was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of Dickens hovered over the publishing landscape. And publisher E.P. Dutton said, “Let there be Winnie-the-Pooh,” and there was Pooh.
Welcome to Pooh Week at Marking Time! (And thank you, Spencer Foon, for sending me the above Mark Tatulli “Lio” comic strip, which inspired this Pooh-related series.)
We shall start with a bit of background on author A.A. Milne (1882-1956), his works for children, and literary history in general. Then in the days that follow I will take a more personal and opinionated tone, during which I will alternately hug and slap around various cultural icons and sacred cows. So pull up a comfy arm-chair, fix some tea and a “little smackerel” of something, and settle in for a pleasant ride from London to visit our “friends and relations” out in the Hundred Acre Wood, then across the pond to America, and beyond.
As I’ve said, in the beginning, before there was Harry Potter and his gay headmaster, there was Pooh. Before there were graphic novels, there were the “decorations” of Ernest H. Shephard, who was already a renowned artist before he did the Pooh drawings. And before there was Disney (“Gosh, Daddy, was there ever such a time?”), there were books.
Until fairly recently, books were these hard-bound, venerable, comparatively expensive things that people bought for both education and entertainment, especially because they had so few other options for either endeavor. No movies. No tv. No radio or phonograph or iPod. No Guitar Hero, or Second Life, or even Myst. Think of it — for all those centuries, entertainment (when one even had leisure time for it, which was not often) consisted of just a few classic choices: board and card games, maybe a piano or other instrument (if one could afford it and could read music), a ball, maybe a few gadgets like the kaleidoscope (which I also know a few things about, but that’s a blog for another day), and books.
But people also bought books because they loved books, especially the way that a book lets us (as my man Garrison Keillor once put it), “live more than one life”. A work of fiction — and even some nonfiction– lets one imagine what life looks like through the eyes of another person. Thus, it helps us all to feel a little less lonely and strange. That’s probably the main reason families in England, and later in America and the rest of the world, immediately loved Winnie-the-Pooh (E.P. Dutton, 1926), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Because we all need friends, and the ones we find in books are the most faithful friends of all.
It may be a bit of a stretch to call the two main Pooh books novels, but I personally don’t think so. (I’ve been a high school English teacher, and I have a Masters degree, therefore what I say goes… nyah nyah nyahh!) For in the development of the novel as an art form, I have it on good authority that one of the first prose novels ever, if not the first, was a similarly episodic work featuring a child (and other comic characters), not unlike the two Winnie-the-Pooh books. Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in 1554 Spain, was not meant to be fiction for children. However, it does feature a little street urchin of a boy who regularly gets into trouble and has semi-realistic dialogues with various stereotypical people commonly seen in 1554 Spain. It’s a funny little book, slightly satirical, and if you want to check it out online it would be a quick read. (Before there was Robinson Crusoe, or Don Quixote —the incorrectly labeled “first novels” in Western culture– there was little Lazarillo.)
Anyway, the episodic novel, featuring characters that have a slightly symbolic purpose, was a tradition well-established by the time Milne stumbled upon the forumula for our beloved Pooh. His ingenious idea was to give his son Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals a life of their own, out in the woods, which parallels the lives of adults and children here in our world. Talking animals had been tried before, of course — as early as Aesop’s fables, or the really weird story of Balaam’s talking donkey in the Bible’s Book of Numbers. But an inanimate object brought to life? This was a more modern invention, to be sure.
I’m actually an A.A. Milne scholar, in case anyone’s interested. Not in the sense of having a PhD in children’s literature. That would be stupid… not to mention an oxymoron. I’m only an expert in the sense of having read the two original Pooh books countless times –mostly before I had a child. I’ve also studied enough other adult and children’s literature — and non-fiction history — to be able to put the Pooh books in their proper contexts as masterpieces, no less important than Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn.
Plus I’ve read the collections of Milne’s children’s poetry When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927), both of which also feature decorations by Ernest H. Shepard. It was in one of those earlier poems that Edward “Winnie-the-Pooh” Bear first appeared, within the pages of the British humor magazine Punch in 1923. That poem, “Teddy Bear”, can be found here. Note that When We Were Very Young, which collected Milne’s previous magazine-published poems, actually preceded the 1926 publication of Winnie-the-Pooh by two years… suggesting that Milne’s publishers definitely changed their original opinion of his writing-for-children as drivel, once they saw there was serious profit to be made on it.
As an amateur Pooh scholar, for example, I already knew that Christopher’s stuffed bear was named after Winnipeg, a Canadian black bear which had been the mascot of A.A. Milne’s WWI British Army regiment. (Makes one wonder how the bear went from being black to being the utterly impossible and unnatural golden color that Winnie’s taken on nowadays.) I also knew that A.A. Milne was frustrated by the fact that his popular children’s books overshadowed any writing he ever did for adults (including plays, novels, nonfiction works and poetry). In this, he is somewhat comparable to playwright J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and one of Milne’s idols.
I also know a wide range of odd little trivia about Milne and Pooh, such as a few details about the highly successful one-man-show that Patrick Stewart (a.k.a. Captain Picard) took on tour across the U.K. and U.S., performing interpretations of the original Pooh stories to packed houses of mostly grownups. I know there have been ongoing copyright issues, such as the strange California appellate court case in 2005, in which A.A. Milne’s granddaughter got all in a huff about how long her family’s copyright should remain in force (based upon the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998… go Sonny go! ). Or that A.A. Milne retired after a 1952 stroke to Cotchford Farm in East Sussex, which was where the Rolling Stones‘ lead guitarist Brian Jones would later live and be found drowned in 1969. Or that the 1982 nonfiction bestseller The Tao of Pooh is a load of crap — a thinly-veiled, opportunistic grab for cash that is neither Taoist nor Pooh-ist in spirit, and is not written very well either.
Speaking of people who have barstardized our pal Pooh: as you might expect, I barely tolerate the way DisneyCorp has prostituted those great A.A. Milne characters. While the first couple of feature-length movies were of good quality, even inventive in their own way, by now the new movies and tv show have taken those great characters well beyond the faithful portrayals in the original films. But I’m going to have to wait till tomorrow for this whole Disney debate, because today’s entry is already far too long and rambling…
kind of like one of Pooh’s patented hummy strolls through the woods! Nevertheless, we must move on. Therefore, until tomorrow, as the Disneyfied Tigger is fond of saying:
“TTFN — Ta Ta for Now!”