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Volume 11, No. 7October 2001
"'TRACKS,' SAID PIGLET. 'PAW-MARKS.' HE GAVE a little squeak of excitement. 'Oh, Pooh! Do you think it's aaa Woozle?' 'It may be,' said Pooh. 'Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. You never can tell with paw-marks.'"
Winnie-the-Pooh aficionados will recognize the episode. While walking in the snow, Pooh happens upon some suspicious-looking tracks. Surmising that these must be Woozle tracks, he and Piglet embark on an out-and-out Woozle hunt. They walk and walk, but the farther they go, the more sets of paw marks they see. It is only when Christopher Robin arrives and asks why the two are walking around and around the same thicket in a loop that they understand their blunder.
To hear Frederick Crews talk, literary criticism has become one unending Woozle hunt. And with Postmodern Pooh (North Point Press), a successor to his 1963 best-seller, The Pooh Perplex, Crews seems intent on playing Christopher Robin, exposing the fallacies he believes have deluded his theory-hunting colleagues.
The Pooh Perplex, Crews's original satire of lit crit's trends and personalities, was modeled after then-popular freshman casebooks, which anthologized critical approaches to a given work of literature. Crews, a young assistant professor in UC-Berkeley's English department at the time, mimicked his colleagues with a set of articles offering everything from Marxist to Christian interpretations of Pooh.
Although several Pooh Perplex essays parodied actual scholars, Crews's barbs were gentle, aimed mostly at strained leaps of logic and overinflated egos. It is hard, for example, to find much real animosity in his Freudian parody, "A.A. Milne's Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex." Indeed, with his 1966 book, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, Crews himself soon became a prominent Freudian critic.
Things have changed. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Crews did a critical about-face, disavowing Freud in a series of books and harsh attacks. Before long, he had also become an outspoken critic of the abstruse theoretical fads and political sloganeering he feared were overtaking literary scholarship.
Postmodern Pooh reflects Crews's increasingly combative stance. It is arranged as a set of outlandish papers from a special Pooh panel of the annual Modern Language Association conference, with each panelist standing in for a well-known individual or school of criticism. The presentations are embellished with detailed references to real scholarship, and their cumulative effect is far from flattering to contemporary critics.
To the fictitious New Historicist Victor S. Fassell, Pooh's ill-fated visit to Rabbit's burrowwherein Pooh eats too much honey and becomes stucksignals the eternal return of "the body." In a deliriously wide-ranging presentation, Fassell declares Pooh a virtual "proctological exhibit protruding into Rabbit's none too capacious dining area." But the Marxist Carla Gulag believes the episode depicts "inflammatory class differences between the possessive homeowner Rabbit and the itinerant beggar Pooh." She proceeds to heap praise on her mentor Fredric Jameson, devotedly quoting him at length. (Among the choicer tidbits: Jameson's assertion that Martin Heidegger's "political commitment" to Adolf Hitler was "morally and aesthetically preferable to apolitical liberalism.")
For his part, the rather Harold Bloomlike Orpheus Bruno speculates that Milne's books were actually written by Kafka or Virginia Woolf and describes a holy trinity of "three exceptional souls": Pooh, Falstaff, and himself. Other speakers offer postcolonial, feminist, and Derridean perspectives on Pooh.
As the panel wears on, the critics veer off on more obscure tangents, introduce progressively more contorted reasoning, and spend increasing amounts of time impugning one another. The real fighting, however, is left to the final two panelists: Dudley Cravat III (who bears an unmistakable resemblance to New Criterion editor, and dissenter from all things P.C., Roger Kimball) and the panel's moderator, N. Mack Hobbs (a dead ringer for Stanley Fish). They share thoughts on Pooh (Cravat considers it a repository of "Western Values," whereas Hobbs characterizes Milne as "a ruthless, cynical author""my kind of guy," he says), but most of their sparring concerns the state of literary criticism. Cravat slams the "Modish Languid Association," asserting that the papers on Pooh "read like parodies of academic literary criticism at its worst." An unfazed Hobbs follows, happily touting himself at length before declaring the panel a smashing success and thanking his critics for dubbing him "an enemy of reason." "That's celebrity that money can't buy," he gloats.
Postmodern Pooh is not exactly a gentle satire. But perhaps the scholars Crews lampoons can take heart from the book's difficult road to publication. In the mid 1990s, the president of Dutton Children's Books, publisher of Milne's Pooh stories, encouraged Crews to produce a sequel to his original parody. "What with structuralism, semiotics, deconstructionism, postmodernism, feminism, political correctness, etc.," he wrote, "there must be a number of novel ways the Best Bear of All might bend to the critical will." Crews replied that such a project would be "a very wild ride indeed, with hair-raising quotations from critics who shouldn't be sampled before the age of reason." It would not, in other words, be a children's book. Dutton's president was undeterred.
But by 2000, when Crews completed Postmodern Pooh, the guard at Dutton had changed. Dutton's staff rejected the book, explaining that a parody of the "ideological squabbles and jealousies of the academic world" had "a somewhat limited audience," and adding that they were particularly troubled by its "sexual content." (Dutton did not respond to Lingua Franca's request for comment.)
Ultimately, Farrar, Straus and Giroux's North Point Press accepted Crews's manuscript. But there were complications yet to come. As originally written, Postmodern Pooh, like The Pooh Perplex, relied heavily on Ernest H. Shepard's original Pooh illustrations. But Dutton, which owns the images, refused to lease them to North Point. North Point appealed the decision to the Trustees of the Pooh Properties, but they supported Dutton, writing that they had enjoyed The Pooh Perplex and were "saddened that Professor Crews ha[d] now produced something which leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth."
Certainly, Postmodern Pooh is no children's book. But neither was The Pooh Perplexparticularly not with regard to "sexual content." Why, then, the hostile response? Leasing the illustrations for inclusion in Postmodern Pooh, Dutton wrote, would be "disrespectful to A.A. Milne and Ernest H. Shepard as well as damaging to the brand." Yes, the brand: In 1964a year after The Pooh Perplex was first publishedDisney acquired the film and merchandising rights to Milne's books and proceeded literally to redraw the characters. Although the results were decried by some as vulgar corruptions, lacking the charm or intelligence of Shepard's originals, they have proved fantastically lucrative. Disney's Pooh is even more successful than Mickey Mouse, and the company recently paid $350 million to renew its rights through 2026, when copyright expires.
In denying permission to reprint the Shepard illustrations, the trustees explained that Disney has contractually prohibited them from doing anything that "would detract from the reputation which the Pooh books currently enjoy" and warned that Disney had previously "taken steps against various uses of the Pooh material which the general public would find distasteful."
Presumably, takeoffs like Dutton's Winnie-the-Pooh on Management qualify as tasteful, whereas Karen Finley's recent Pooh Unplugged (Smart Art Press), which portrays a Hundred Acre Wood rife with sexual dysfunction, would qualify as distasteful. Still, it's hard to see how a spoof of literary theorywith its "somewhat limited audience"might damage the Pooh brand. Perhaps Crews should have taken a cue from Finley, whose book comes with a warning: "Not meant for children or stupid adults."
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Copyright © 2001 Lingua Franca, Inc. All rights reserved.