Tuesday, July 17, 2012

From the Gallery of Heroes - Beatrix Potter

As an only child (until the age of 13), growing up in the 1950's in suburban California, I was the focus of my parents' expectations regarding my future potential as a well-rounded adult. As "respectable" lower middle-class Midwesterners who had grown up before World War II, they were raised in an atmosphere of deprivation and social embarrassment, which they thought of a a normal state of affairs. Nevertheless, following the prevailing social mores of the time, they believed that reading to children constituted almost a christian duty, something good for its own sake, and a crucial element in juvenile education. Perhaps this is one reason that reading had so official and important place in our sense of daily life; it was something you could do in privacy, and it didn't involve any interaction with society. Reading, as a form of cultural enrichment, was a discipline and a pleasure all parents should strive to pass on to their children. They had both been avid readers in their youth, though my mother tended to read books less often as she aged.

Hence, from the age of 3, I was introduced to the world of juvenile literature, mostly by being read to, out loud, on a regular basis.

Among the many titles I was read was Beatrix Potter's classic children's story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Like many children, I learned the words to stories by heart, through repetition and emphasis, and could anticipate nearly every sentence or phrase as it was read to me, as I was encouraged to do. As each page was turned, and I saw the illustration, I would begin to speak the next sentence before Dad would say it, a kind of anticipatory proof of memory, and interest.

A lot of stories for children are "softened" to make them less frightening, but Peter Rabbit, like the Pooh stories, or Raggedy Ann, weren't particularly strong stuff to begin with. I'm not sure why, but I rather imagined as a child, that the author, Beatrix Potter, must be a late middle aged matronly sort of woman, modest and reserved, perhaps even a bit smug. But I was surprised to learn, looking her up lately on Wikipedia, that she was a rather liberated 19th Century woman, self-supporting, forward-looking, with wide interests, an active life, and a great talent for writing as well as drawing and painting.

There are artists who lead lives of outward simplicity, but whose inner life is busy and fascinating. Then there are artists (or writers) whose artistic endeavors are but one facet of a varied personality. In Potter's case, her art work and her interest in biology and farming and (what would one day become known as) "ecology" (conservation) were melded into an integrated life of purpose and value and meaning. Upon her death, her considerable real estate holdings in the Lake District were donated to the National Trust, and her land became the basis for the Lake District National Park. But my purpose in addressing a child's tale--a genre which some of my readers may think I fail to appreciate, based on my criticism of Tolkien and Rowling--is to explore the feelings this story inspired in me as a small child.

I have reprinted the whole story here--without most of Potter's exquisite illustrations--since it's such a model of economy and concision. Rhythmic language and the characteristic intonements of grammar and syntax are employed with great subtlety, to manipulate a child's emotions in ways that are powerfully persuasive and effecting.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
by Beatrix Potter 
Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names
and Peter.
 They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a
very big fir-tree.
  'Now my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into
he fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden:
your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs.
McGregor.'  'Now run along, and don't get into mischief. I am going out.'
  Then old Mrs. Rabbit took a basket and her umbrella, and went through
the wood to the baker's. She bought a loaf of brown bread and five
currant buns.
  Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, who were good little bunnies, went
down the lane to gather blackberries:
  But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor's
garden, and squeezed under the gate!
First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate
some radishes;
And then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley.
But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr.
  Mr. McGregor was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages,
but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out,
'Stop thief!'
  Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden,
for he had forgotten the way back to the gate.
He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages, and the other shoe
amongst the potatoes.
After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I
think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately
run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his
jacket. It was a blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.
  Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were
overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great
excitement, and implored him to exert himself.
  Mr. McGregor came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the
top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket
behind him.
  And rushed into the tool-shed, and jumped into a can. It would have
been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it.
  Mr. McGregor was quite sure that Peter was somewhere in the
tool-shed, perhaps hidden underneath a flower-pot. He began to turn
them over carefully, looking under each.
  Presently Peter sneezed--'Kertyschoo!' Mr. McGregor was after him in
no time.
  And tried to put his foot upon Peter, who jumped out of a window,
upsetting three plants. The window was too small for Mr. McGregor, and
he was tired of running after Peter. He went back to his work.
  Peter sat down to rest; he was out of breath and trembling with
fright, and he had not the least idea which way to go. Also he was
very damp with sitting in that can.
  After a time he began to wander about, going lippity--lippity--not
very fast, and looking all round.
  He found a door in a wall; but it was locked, and there was no room
for a fat little rabbit to squeeze underneath.
  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 the 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.
Then he tried to find his way straight across the garden, but he
became more and more puzzled. Presently, he came to a pond where Mr.
McGregor filled his water-cans. A white cat was staring at some
gold-fish, she sat very, very still, but now and then the tip of her
tail twitched as if it were alive. Peter thought it best to go away
without speaking to her; he had heard about cats from his cousin,
little Benjamin Bunny.
  He went back towards the tool-shed, but suddenly, quite close to him,
he heard the noise of a hoe--scr-r-ritch, scratch, scratch, scritch.
Peter scuttered underneath the bushes. But presently, as nothing
happened, he came out, and climbed upon a wheelbarrow and peeped over.
The first thing he saw was Mr. McGregor hoeing onions. His back was
turned towards Peter, and beyond him was the gate!
  Peter got down very quietly off the wheelbarrow; and started running
as fast as he could go, along a straight walk behind some
black-currant bushes.
  Mr. McGregor caught sight of him at the corner, but Peter did not
care. He slipped underneath the gate, and was safe at last in the wood
outside the garden.
  Mr. McGregor hung up the little jacket and the shoes for a scare-crow
to frighten the blackbirds.
  Peter never stopped running or looked behind him till he got home to
the big fir-tree.
  He was so tired that he flopped down upon the nice soft sand on the
floor of the rabbit-hole and shut his eyes. His mother was busy
cooking; she wondered what he had done with his clothes. It was the
second little jacket and pair of shoes that Peter had lost in a
  I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening.
His mother put him to bed, and made some camomile tea; and she gave a
dose of it to Peter!
'One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.'
  But Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and
blackberries for supper.

Critics of children's literature have observed the division between some of Potter's illustrations, and the course of the narrative text. But that kind of observation isn't something that would occur to a child to notice. I'm not sure why children accept anthropomorphic projections with such ease, but I never saw anything unusual about dolls or animals having human characteristics, such as higher cognition or the ability to perform complex human movements. Animal or doll characters become stand-ins for the childhood identity projection, they live through these personifications, and experience their world as if they were living inside the character's bodies. Their travails and pleasures and perceptions become theirs, and they suffer or delight right along with them.

The idea that animals might be sympathetic creatures, whose plight humans could appreciate, was a fairly new idea in the 19th Century. Children's Literature, as a distinct literary genre, was just getting its start when Potter began to conceive of turning her own efforts into publications with a wider audience. The "child market"--which we think of today as a major commercial enterprise--was a novel notion in 1900. Potter herself ingeniously understood this untapped market, and copyrighted knock-offs of all kinds based on her popular children's books, authorizing the production of dolls, toys, board games, wallpaper, etc.; it was an early version of the merchandizing of paraphernalia which has become commonplace since the 1930's, and has grown into the huge advertising machines of our day, which play off of movies and popular genre books like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Spiderman.

Peter Rabbit departs from the manageable child story in several respects, which is one reason why it became so popular, and has endured. To begin with, Peter is a "bad" little rabbit (or boy). Ignoring his mother's advice to avoid Mr. McGregor's garden, he heads straight for it and immediately puts himself into jeopardy. In my mind, this meant two things: One) Peter was naughty, but much in the same way that adventuresome children often are, insisting on following their curiosity where it will lead them, and Two) Peter was a brave boy, who was willing to face danger head on in order to seize pleasure or excitement wherever it lay. I rather assumed that Peter's three sibling bunnies were girls, which would explain why they were timid and did their mother's bidding, avoiding mischief. Too, though I identified with Peter (as if he were a kind of hybrid "human" boy--in rabbit's habit) his entering the "human world" of Mr. McGregor was like entering foreign territory, an alien precinct. I was thus identifying with the non-human world, siding with "nature" against mankind's ordered appropriation of landscape. The rabbits exploit their environment in much the same spirit as mankind, though they also "steal" the gardener's product. This parasitic dependence never entered my mind as a child, but it conditioned me to think in terms of wild, undomesticated animals (like rabbits) as having their kind of integrity (their own discrete domesticity). Peter's family has a home, and tasks and responsibilities.

Peter's father, who has been caught, killed, and eaten by the McGregors--"put into a pie" as Peter's mother puts it--is gone, no longer able to provide for, or watch over, his family. Peter is thus, in a way, the "man in the family," who must step up and become the brave man we imagine his father must have been. Peter's adventures therefore are an admixture of foolish derring-do, and masculine heroism--not qualities, obviously, which Victorian parents would be likely to encourage in their children, for whom obedience and devoutness and mindfulness were the prevalent, preferred virtues. One can see Potter's own independence of mind and identification with nature in Peter's character, though his innocence and unmanageable temper are aspects of his youth and daring.

I can still recall clearly my sense of fear and loathing, feeling Peter's terror as he rushes into the tool shed, and jumps into a watering can full of cold water. No matter how many times I read the story, I felt near hysteria as Mr. McGregor began turning over pots trying to locate Peter. McGregor tries to step on Peter, but misses. Did I think about what fate might befall him if the gardener actually caught him? Did I imagine that Peter could be killed? Probably unconsciously.

As a child, Beatrix Potter had had rabbits (as well as other non-domestic animals) as pets. She and her brother Bertram were raised by enlightened, well-to-do parents, both artistically inclined. The children were encouraged to follow their interests, she becoming absorbed by natural history. Beatrix kept an intimate diary, in which she records her growing interests in nature and science. She became an expert in the study of mushrooms (fungi), and wrote an illustrated paper, which was submitted by proxy to the Linnean Society (because she was not allowed to attend due to her sex). (Were she to have been born a hundred years later, there's little doubt that she could have had an important scientific career.) Potter was born in 1866, seven years after Darwin published The Origin of Species. Much of the anthropomorphic content and meaning of stories like Peter Rabbit derive from the unified ecological theory of nature which Darwin's theories embody. Potter clearly understood the symbiotic interconnectivity of life forms, both as a force and as a principle.

Though Peter Rabbit appears to us now as a straightforward narrative combining elements of the adventure story and classic nature myth, it had a revolutionary quality in its time. Rather than a mysterious, hostile context, nature for Potter is "home"--not just an external precinct filled with danger and hostility. The human world of Mr. McGregor and his cultivated garden is in open competition with the rabbits for food, and control of the environment, but though they vie for common ground, they are part of a whole system, none of whose inhabitants have moral superiority over another. The birds, and the cat, and the mouse all belong to a world whose ultimate reckoning of life potential is shared. Animals (and plants) aren't provided merely for man's enjoyment and exploitation, but as different forms of organic development with equal claims to survival.

Though Darwin didn't know how genetics works, he understood the inter-relationship of environment and evolution. With enough time and pressure, and the occasional favorable accident (mutation). . . .

The lessons which Peter is learning will enable him to survive to adulthood, provided he isn't caught or killed in the process. Mr. McGregor, and the cat (a carnivorous predator), are the savage cannibals in the world of this story. The rabbits are vegetarians. But they're also opportunists--thieves. They see garden vegetables simply as part of nature's bounty, which exists for the taking. They don't comprehend ownership, or trade, or private property. Peter wears a little coat, and shoes, but he doesn't wear any pants! He's a little rascal, but as children we want him to succeed. With him, we suffer danger, discomfort, fear, illness, and the relief of home and a nurturing mother. But these are all presented as perfectly natural conditions, within a context that is not limited to human ingenuity and invention.

As a fable of Man versus Nature, The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a cautionary moral tale, but ambiguous in its message. As products of a liberated "new (British) woman," and a frustrated would-be scientist (biologist/botanist), Potter's juvenile stories are seen in the context of a campaign to husband in a new view of life. Her intended marriage to her publisher, Norman Warne, ended in tragedy, as he died a month after their engagement. Later, she would marry the town solicitor in Sawrey, who had helped her acquire properties in the area she had marked out for preservation. She became an accomplished farmer, and was active in community affairs, while continuing to publish numerous juvenile titles with Warne. Peter Rabbit was published when Potter was only 36, an age in Victorian times when a woman's life would be well-established in habit and role. But for Potter, it was just a beginning. Her art, her skills, her mercantile instincts, her scientific interest in nature and domestic cultivation and conservation, her marital alliances--everything was coordinated and fed into an integrated purposeful life.

Peter's return from the danger of the alien human world to the comfort of home and its homely virtues parallels Potter's destiny as a skilled country wife, dedicated to regional improvement and preservation. She had previsioned her own future life, which would be a fulfillment of her early interest in nature and science.

As a child of 4, I could hardly have dreamed of how worldly and accomplished Beatrix Potter had been. I doubt that my parents did either. All I knew, or needed to know, was that a little Rabbit wore shoes and a coat with brass buttons, and mischievously stole carrots and lettuce from grouchy old Mr. McGregor's garden. Would Peter survive into adulthood, or fall prey to a hunter's gun? Would he one day father a generation of his own "-opsies" in the British countryside?

1 comment:

Conrad DiDiodato said...


your "Peter the Rabbit" is (certainly as I read this) emblematic of a childhood literacy ideal that's perhaps all but vanished. "Harry Potter" (pace its faithful followers) is really a craftily engineered validation of the usual Hollywood "idols of the tribe": personality, spectacular "effects" and life-sequences reduced to "sound-byte" narrative. Ted Striphas (in his "The Late Age of Print")refers to "Harry Potter and the Culture of Copy". Zizek's made the interesting point that Rowling's spectacular success can be due to a type of "political" engineering purposely made to deal with a single-mother crisis in the U.K.

What a contrast to an age of "Peter Rabbit" and my own "Hardy Boys" series, which I devoured as a child and that too enjoyed a similar "Harry Potter" fame except that the book (imo)couldn't have been as heavily "mediatized" and was bound to be more highly prized as a more significant "cautionary moral tale" suitable for children.