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
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.
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."