Monday, January 25, 2010

Burgess names the animals

Burgess's third Bedtime Story book, culled from his newspaper stories, is titled The Adventures of Peter Cottontail (1914). This has caused a great deal of confusion over the years, as the character's name in Burgess's stories is actually "Peter Rabbit." The first three chapters of the book attempt to explain the title.

Here is the complete story as excerpted in a 1920 reader.

Peter Rabbit believes his current name is "too common" and desires one that is "fine sounding." Peter decides on "Cottontail" (suggested by Ol' Mistah Buzzard) and refuses to acknowledge anyone who hails him with his old name. The animal community finds a great deal of humor in Peter's foolishness and teaches him a lesson by withholding important information (Reddy Fox is nearby) until he responds to his old name. And thus, after a total of two stories as "Peter Cottontail" he returns to "Peter Rabbit."

I am almost certain that this temporary name switch was due to publication considerations. The majority of the stories collected in The Adventures of Peter Cottontail were originally run in 1912. The first three "Cottontail" chapters were written in 1913, around the same time that the first book in the series, The Adventures of Reddy Fox was being published. And the point of possible confusion should be very clear--Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902. (Potter's pet rabbit, the basis for the tale, was named "Peter Piper," after the tongue-twister).

In his autobiography, Burgess publicly recognizes his debt to Beatrix Potter but offers a curious explanation. "When I began writing stories for my own small boy, a rabbit was already Peter and there was no changing the name." (p. 120) This, of course, this is not strictly true. Plenty of other children's authors have managed to create rabbit characters not named "Peter." On the other hand, thanks to Potter, the name "Peter Rabbit" had particular cultural currency.

In some cases, this led to egregious pirating. A good example is the Wee Folks Peter Rabbit series.

A quick glimpse at When Peter Rabbit went to School reveals a bounty of swipes, from character names (Mr. McGregor, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail) to traces of the original Beatrix Potter art.

Potter reportedly did pursue copyright infringement cases against this series, but only after it flooded the British market during WWII.

Of additional interest, a 1906 (pre-Burgess) book by "Peter Rabbit" titled "Brier-patch Philosophy."

This book by William J. Long strongly exerts the claim that animals can think. (These kinds of claims caused Long to be labeled a "nature faker" earlier in the century. Note that Theodore Roosevelt, Long's adversary, owned a pet rabbit named Peter.)

Burgess defends himself against the charge of swiping: "I like to think that Miss Potter gave Peter a name known the world over, while I with Mr. Cady's help perhaps made him a character." (p. 120) And in fact, Burgess's Peter Rabbit is the only Peter Rabbit who has chosen to be called "Peter Rabbit," perhaps echoing William J. Long's ideas. (We'll discuss the crucial role of Harrison Cady, Burgess's illustrator, in future posts as well as Cady's own comic strip version of Peter Rabbit).

Burgess's names themselves entered the common culture, sometimes "borrowed" by other authors. Here's a particularly striking case: Harvey J. Sconce's The Romance of Everifarm, a 1922 book that populates its world using many of Burgess's animals' names. See excerpt below.

The name, "Peter Cottontail," of course, was itself put to use in the secularized 1940 Easter song, "Here comes Peter Cottontail." (For other commercial Easter uses of Burgess, see this report of a particularly elaborate retail display.)

The most intriguing aspect of the Burgess names is the way they connected with the real world. Generations of Burgess readers would apply these names in the field. Skunks became "Jimmy," woodchucks became "Johnny," muskrats became "Jerry." (When obviously female, "Mrs." was attached--we'll discuss his outmoded social ideas in a future post.) Thus Burgess's names permeated the culture, mediating the public's relationship with animals themselves. This naming was an important ingredient in the socio-emotional connection Burgess was trying to make between his readers and the natural world; it's hard to shoot a squirrel named "Happy Jack". This also contributes to the anthropomorphization of animals, a charge against Burgess that would contribute to the decline of his books in the 1970s.

Tomorrow: Burgess and nature-faking.

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