Wednesday, March 30, 2011
March 29, 2011 1655 words
Dear Miss Potter,
I know you have a married name, but I and the world know you as Beatrix Potter, writer of famous children’s tales, and so I write you in that character. I have not seen the movie about your life starring Rene Zellweger, so that will not muddy up my image of you, which is of a young woman who had the courage to write and self-publish an illustrated children’s tale, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. You also loved nature and the country side of the Lake District in England, which you spent much of your life and income trying to preserve from the ravages of industrialism.
I did not, however, know all this when I carried a tattered, much thumbed The Tale of Peter Rabbit home from the public library sometime in the 1940s. What a wonderful thing, a new book to read, ponder, and drowse over, with pictures that stirred my imagination. In those days children could do that—grow in heart and imagination by exploring tales that had no reason for being other than being good tales! I know now that unlike many of your counterparts in that time, you did not write lecturing, moralistic stories designed to shape little kids into priggish adults. If you lived now, I am sure you would be equally horrified to find that children’s literature today has been taken over by equally priggish adults intent on creating stories that inculcate political correctness. Publishers create iron grids of expectations, and the writers of children’s literature follow them slavishly to win prizes and the endorsements of politically correct magazines. Your stories, I might add, as well as the stories of Joel Chandler’s Uncle Remus, which you very much loved, would not pass editorial muster today. In fact, children are now denied the beauty and wisdom of those stories because they are “offensive” to some people, probably the same people who want to burn The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
How sad, and even, how predictable. Soaked in the political correctness of public school and the daily drumbeats of the ”media,” children today do not have the escape that old tales and fairy stories gave me—and great minds like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote compelling stories that continue to intrigue the minds of the young. You followed the poetics of Aristotle, and in a few broad brushstrokes created imitations of life that carry images that go straight into the heart.
Dear Miss Potter, it is about that very thing that I now write you. Over and over I read the The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and I have remembered it ever since. To set the stage for the image I want to focus on—the one that has stuck with me more than any other—let me recall the way you begin your story. The four little rabbits—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter—live with their mother in a sand bank. Right away we learn that these child rabbits are fatherless and that they became fatherless when their father ventured into Mr. McGregor’s garden where, as the mother tells it, he had an “accident” and was “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”
Mrs. McGregor does not linger on this grisly detail, which undoubtedly would be expunged by today’s super-sensitive theorists of child-raising. These are the facts as she tells them, though it is interesting that she calls it an “accident,” but nevertheless warns the young rabbits against going into that garden and getting into “mischief.”
Now all four rabbits heard the warning and three of them obeyed. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail—the kind of horrible names one now sees on name cards at Walmart—are immediately good little bunnies who “went down the lane the gather blackberries.” When I read this now, two bells go off for me. In my perhaps jaded view, I immediately dislike these good little obedient bunnies. The other bell went off in Peter, “who was very naughty,” and who immediately “ran straightaway to Mr. McGregor’s garden and squeezed under the gate. “
Peter, who has a good solid Christian name and not a simpy Walmart name, immediately captured my sympathy as someone like me, who would do the stupid but naughty thing and risk punishment to pursue the momentary attraction of freedom and adventure. Most often in my childhood and youth, I did not follow the lure Peter follows, but it was always there, and I believe it is always there in most of us, eh? Freedom isn’t freedom unless we have the possibility of breaking the rules or trespassing the boundaries set for us. At the moment, I am not interested in pursuing the theological truths that lie behind this. Suffice to say, there would be no good stories if heroes and heroines did not often resemble Peter and his mad dash for the forbidden fruits and vegetables.
These soon pall since, as is very real also, Peter eats too much and becomes sick. Rounding the cucumber frame, he meets Mr. McGregor head on, who calls out, “stop thief.” Miss Potter, you portray Mr. McGregor as neither a bad man nor a rabbit-hater. He’s simply a farmer guarding his hard-earned produce. He is nemesis for Peter, but simply because that is the way things are: rabbits are thieves and gardeners are people much put upon and who defend themselves by every means possible. Peter, following his father’s footsteps, is about to meet some realities he had not figured on: i.e., the hardness of an unforgiving world that enjoys carrying rabbit’s feet on key chains and would be happy to bake him into a pie.
As a child reader, I am in complete identification with Peter: crying, lost, worried about his torn clothes, and terrified. To make matters worse he hides in a watering can and is soaking wet. McGregor gives up the chase but Peter is desperate, having no idea of which way to go. Like Dante at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, he finds himself alone and confused, unable to find the way. Dante is fortunate, however, in meeting his guide Virgil, while Peter has no such luck or grace at the moment.
Instead—and here, Miss Potter, is the point at which you most engaged my imagination—Peter is really lost and miserable. Looking all around, Peter cannot find a way. Who, as a child, has not found himself in such a bind? Some story writers would immediately introduce a miracle or happy happenstance, and Peter would be delivered, though he would most likely be lectured to for the benefit of every child that ever tried the boundaries set by his home and parents. O bad Peter!
An old mouse was running in and out over the stone doorstep, carrying peas and beans to her family in the wood. Peter asked her way to the gate, but she had such a large pea in her mouth that she could not answer. She only shook her head at him. Peter began to cry.
Miss Potter, this image of Peter made a profound impression on me when I was a child, an impression made deeper by the accompanying picture of a fat old mouse too busy with her own life to even respond to a question. As children we are always seeking answers to our questions and demands, but don’t always get them. But that does not explain the real depth of response I had to this brilliant image. That would simply be “interpretation,” and God be praised, young children’s imaginations are spared of that literary curse.
In appreciation of what you did in creating that image, what I can say is, simply, true! True right down to my imaginative toes! My life has since been filled with meeting mice with peas in their mouths, but I have had to learn that there is nothing malevolent in them as there was no malevolence in Mr. McGregor. Both were busy trying to feed their own families, and sometimes I, like Peter, am a nuisance to them.
Peter does have learn the hard way (and it is interesting in a later tale you showed Peter as the manager of his own garden!) but not by being beaten to death with easy moralisms. He learns directly from his experience that one has to be smart in other people’s gardens. Nor is Peter made immediately a good little bunny like his siblings. In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, he is coaxed into another venture into McGregor’s garden by the guileless Benjamin (he’s the kid down the block who is always trying to talk you into something), but he is very wary and afraid this time. More, there is a very telling detail: when Benjamin assures Peter that there is no danger because the McGregors are not at home, and Mrs. McGregor went off wearing her best bonnet, “Peter said he hoped it would rain.”
That’s not a sadder but wiser Peter, but a Peter that is, well, capable of a bit of honest rancor. Peter had also gone along with his crony Benjamin because, for one thing, he thought his mother was about to give him another dose of chamomile tea. In the end, Peter is able to recover the clothes Mr. McGregor has used for a scarecrow and is forgiven by his mother despite the fact that he has again been naughty in getting those clothes back. No great moral final scenes, no nostrums!
No wonder, Miss Potter, that you have been hailed as a “modern” writer and classed with Ernest Hemingway. While not exactly an anti-hero, Peter is definitely “one of us,” in Joseph Conrad’s terms, a fellow we know because we know what it's like to be him, instead of those goody-goodies Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. Let them eat their blackberries and milk and prattle about Peter’s misfortunes.
We Peters, we may be exhausted and unwell after a forbidden adventure, but we know a thing or two. As did you, Miss Potter.