the deception which we are practising on these bees

As a graduate student studying children’s literature, I often reread books that were important to me as a child with a critical, scholarly eye.  Usually I find them complex and interesting.  Sometimes I just find them awesome.

I have been delightfully surprised that A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner in particular reward re-readings.  Milne’s creation has certainly been obscured by the unstoppable behemoth that is Disney, but I am rediscovering the original texts as they existed before that sugary theme song that opens Disney Pooh cartoons echoed through the Hundred Acre Wood.  Milne’s work is fresh and funny.  You laugh at Winnie not because he recalls the simple humor you enjoyed in the days when a fresh box of crayons (with a sharpener on the side!) was a sort of nirvana.  You laugh because Milne, and the bear he created–they’re witty.  Take this example from the first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh.  Said bear is aloft, hanging onto a balloon and disguised as a raincloud, after some delicious honey.

There was no wind to blow him nearer to the tree, so there he stayed.  He could see the honey, he could smell the honey, but he couldn’t quite reach the honey.
After a little while he called down to you.
“Christopher Robin!” he said in a loud whisper.
“Hallo!”
“I think the bees suspect something!”
“What sort of thing?”
“I don’t know.  But something tells me that they’re suspicious!”
“Perhaps they think you’re after their honey.”
“It may be that.  You never can tell with bees.”
There was another little silence, and then he called down to you again.
“Christopher Robin!”
“Yes?”
“Have you an umbrella in your house?”
“I think so.”
“I wish you would bring it out here, and walk up and down with it, and look up at me every now and then, and say, ‘Tut-tut, it looks like rain.’  I think, if you did that, it would help the deception which we are practising on these bees.”

As a self-admitted bear of very little brain, Pooh is imaginative, and optimistic, and unrelenting in his quest for what he wants.  And he is calm in a crisis.  Sure, he’s a little egotistical.  He believes, in his small plush heart, that “the only reason for making honey” is so he can eat it.  But he more than compensates for his self-centeredness with a healthy thirst for adventure and a brutal honesty.

Because I have rediscovered a love for Winnie, I am excited to teach his stories in my class this week.  I decided to do a quick survey of the criticism to see what’s out there, written about Pooh.  And you know what?  It’s not much.  I was baffled, until I read the following, from a book review by Paula T. Connelly in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly:

In 1963, while an assistant professor at UC-Berkeley, Frederick Crews wrote what he called a ‘freshman casebook,’ offering different critical readings of children’s books. The books were Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. The critical readings, ranging from Marxist to Freudian, were proffered by twelve fictional critics whose names often hinted at their perspectives. And the freshman casebook, of course, was The Pooh Perplex. There, among others, the fictional Simon Lacerous asserts that “everything Milne wrote . . . is a vast betrayal of life” (104) . . . and Myron Masterson in “Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh” does things with Roo and Tigger you don’t want to tell your children about.

Through misreadings and overreadings, foibles in logic and insularity of viewpoint, The Pooh Perplex satirizes both literary theory and academia. It was pointed, funny, and a best-seller—yet its effect on children’s literature was not as propitious. As real-life critic Alison Lurie has pointed out, “writing about the Pooh books . . . has been awkward (if not impossible) since . . . The Pooh Perplex” (11).

I have heard of the Pooh Perplex but haven’t read it, and now I really want to, of course.  And perhaps the follow-up volume, Postmodern Pooh.  If Lurie’s assessment is correct, I’m a little annoyed that this book apparently stymied a body of criticism that could be useful for my own teaching and research.  But I’m also considering how this book might work for any children’s literature courses I will (hopefully) be teaching sometime in the future.

For now, I’m going to try to convert my father back to Milne.  He has developed a deep and inexplicable distaste for Christopher Robin.

I think it’s the Mary Janes.

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6 thoughts on “the deception which we are practising on these bees

  1. I love Milne’s work, and am a very big Pooh fan. However, I must agree with dad on the subject of Christopher Robin.

    He’s just a pansy boy. :-p

    • But compared to boys in some Victorian lit, he’s pretty adventurous! If you really want to be annoyed, check out Little Lord Fauntleroy.

      Of course, Christopher Robin is nothing compared to the boy heroes of adventure fiction. Jim Hawkins can hoist a pirate corpse overboard without breaking a sweat.

    • So awesome. And I have had The Little Prince on my list FOREVER. I’d like to read it in French, but that might be a bit of a challenge right now. I need to brush up on my languages!

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