PREAMBLE: A few years ago, the New York Public Library had an exhibition of all the most famous and unusual collectibles in their archives–which was much more than “just” books. Many of these, including the original Winnie the Pooh and friends), can be seen on a rotating basis at the 5th Avenue flagship library near Bryant Park (the one with the lions). I always tell people visiting New York to stop by the NYPL Swartzman building because a) it’s free and b) you never know what you might see. You might run into an old friend…
Taken at the New York Public Library. Copyright D.I. Gervasio 2011
As fascinated as I was by Malcolm X’s Koran, Charlotte Brontë’s travel writing desk, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener, and Virginia Woolf’s cane, one curiosity–or family of curiosities– caught me by surprise and left me unexpectedly amazed and aglow.
There was a children’s area of the New York Public Library’s 100 Years exhibit that included large prints from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, playing cards and comic strips. In the middle of this section was a display case with some very worn stuffed animals from the early 20th century. I didn’t have to get too close before I recognized them. It was Winnie the Pooh with his friends Tigger, Kanga, Piglet and Eeyore. Not the Disney-fied Pooh Bear with his monstrous red tee-shirt or the retro-Pooh made in a softer tan and modeled after the illustrations in Milne’s classic. The real Winnie the Pooh that belonged to Christopher Robin.
The Library acquired the stuffed animals in the 1940s after a wealthy New Yorker who’d bought them at auction donated them to the Library. Winnie looks like a Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear. Piglet is impossibly small. Kanga has a lovely pouch and a slightly crooked neck. Tigger’s stripes are still plainly visible after all the years but he looks more like a cat than the blaze-orange, slinky-tailed buffoon of the Disney film. Eeyore is patched with drooping head and–sure enough– a little nail holding his tail on.
I think one of the Pooh video cassettes we had when I was a kid had some footage of the original toys, because they looked familiar to me. But it wasn’t just the video, which I must have watched over 20 years ago and, truth be told, was not one of my favorites. I believe these particular stuffed animals felt so familiar to me because it was clear they had been loved and played with (this is the key to the existential merit of a toy, according to the philosophy of Toy Story 3), and in a way, anyone who has read the books has played with them. My mother would call this a “Proustian moment” but the petite madeleine I bit into did not open up a locked-away memory so much as kindle a childlike excitement, a sense of recognition, a kinship with these toys.
Children visiting the Library exhibit took interest in this display but with more puzzlement and curiosity than elation. The stuffed animals are so old that some of the kids didn’t immediately understand that they were toys, let alone whose toys they were. I’m sure the Disney images have altered kids’ vision of what Pooh looks like as well. But I was struck by the reverence that parents and older visitors passing by gave to Winnie the Pooh. In this exhibition were manuscripts from the 1300s, published letters from Christopher Columbus, and a draft of the Declaration of Independence (in which Jefferson condemns slavery–but that part was stricken to appease the Southern Colonies). There was a Gutenberg Bible and a handwritten Beethoven sonata. But of all these amazing manuscripts and objects, Winnie the Pooh, little Piglet and the others seemed to be the most fascinating and evocative to people, provoking physical reactions of glee.
Nostalgia plays a part, I’m sure, but I don’t think the way Pooh was commercialized or the pop culture aspect of the Pooh stories (as opposed to classic literature like Brontë, Dickens, Woolf, Borges, etc) are responsible for the tenderness onlookers felt when seeing the inspiration for these fictional characters. I don’t think their appeal lies in pop art or nostalgia. Rather, these stuffed animals embody the creative process and what literature can be more tangibly than a writer’s personal journal or scribbled notes.
A.A. Milne took inspiration from a bear that his son played with. He gave that bear a personality, a name, and a story. He gave the bear life in the imagination. Now the bear has outlived the boy. In “Bird by Bird” Anne Lamott describes writing fiction as ‘listening to the dolls talking.” I think that’s what Milne did. He listened to what the bear had to say to the donkey. He let them talk. If not for this process–for writing– Pooh would just be any other bear. But now, he’s the most famous teddy bear in the world. So much so, in fact, that people visiting the New York Public Library of all ages recognize him and smile as if they’d just found something from their childhood in the attic. So many of the pieces in the exhibit take the viewer back in time– decades and centuries ago–but Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals take us back further, to childhood and to the beginning of what it meant to read.