Web Exclusives:Features

January 30, 2002:
A.A. Milne gets mimicked, again
Lit crit Frederick Crews *58, author of The Pooh Perplex, pokes the Academy once more with his new book, Postmodern Pooh

By David Marcus '92

Frederick Crews *58 has returned in his writing to several major authors, among them Sigmund Freud, Nathaniel Hawthorne - and A.A. Milne. The Viennese psychiatrist and the New England novelist have been objects of academic study for Crews, but the English children's author has been an inspiration. In 1963 Crews wrote the satire Pooh Perplex, in which he offered a set of essays by fictitious English professors about Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Readers encouraged Crews to write a successor book, but he feared a sequel would fall short of the original. "I was too dismayed by the literary academy's faddism, politics-in-the-head, and all-around hypocrisy to get myself into the proper mood for humor," says the former University of California English professor. After he retired in 1994, Crews recycled an idea he'd had as a graduate student at Princeton. In the spring of 1958, Crews and his classmates put on the annual English department play, whose theme was the "The Pooh MLA," a pun on the acronym of the Modern Language Association, a professional organization of academics. Under Milne's exegetical aegis, students spoofed their professors' critical approaches and personal mannerisms. Crews employed the same conceit in Postmodern Pooh, his recently published satire of today's literary critics. A doddering old academic, the fictitious Frederick Crews edits a collection of speeches given by literary critics at an MLA conference devoted to the Best Bear in All the World. The critics somewhat resemble their real-world counterparts. For instance, there is Crews's Marxist creation, Carla Gulag, the Joe Camel Professor of Child Development at Duke University, the school awash in tobacco money that became a hotbed of Marxist criticism in the 1980s.

The combination of Pooh and literary criticism allows Crews to skewer the critics. Gulag calls Christopher Robin "a proleptic Mao figure." Another critic bearing a suspicious likeness to Yale University's Harold Bloom compares Pooh to Falstaff.

In addition to advancing dubious propositions, Crews's critics quote from actual works. A recovered-memory expert cites an especially choice passage: "It is possible to prove how lasting and influential childhood memories can be, in lower forms of life. . . . Using his shock aversion technique on fruit-fly larvae, Tim Tully . . . has shown that childhood memories last through something as strikingly disruptive as metamorphosis."

Winnie and friends have been favorites of Crews's for decades and are a perfect vehicle for his books, he says. "Milne wrote for children, but he also aimed over their heads at an adult audience that would appreciate his portraits of the self-important pedant (Owl), the obnoxious organizer (Rabbit), and so forth. In addition, the plainness of Milne's little narratives gives them an almost mythical character, a susceptibility to interpretation from absolutely any point of view." Crews is less enthusiastic about the professors who produce increasingly incomprehensible literary theories. "The academy has turned its back on the so-called common reader," he says. "That's a mistake for which the literature departments have begun to pay a huge price in public vexation and withheld support."

The humor in Postmodern Pooh is broad enough to appeal to general readers as well as academics, but Crews admits that some Pooh fans "will be startled and offended by the raunchy themes that some of my fictitious academics purport to find in Milne." Crews's queer theorist even suggests that Pooh and Piglet are in a gay marriage, but he says such theorizing isn't implausible: "I had to be faithful to the actual tone of literary theory today, much of which could merit an X rating."