15 November 2008

Gaiman on Milne on Grahame

With the twentieth anniversary of The Sandman comics, new novels coming out, an upcoming gig on the last days of Batman, and a movie adaptation of Coraline under way, Neil Gaiman is on a roll. But this 2001 interview with the online magazine January shows he has a keen sense of how popular authors can be forgotten:

1930. Probably the most prominent English essayist was A. A. Milne: the editor of Punch, famed for his comedic essays, and a man with several plays running in the West End concurrently. A man who had bestselling books with titles like The Daily Round and hilarious collections of essays and sketches. One of the funniest writers of his generation and an accomplished playwright.

I did an Amazon search several months ago just out of interest to see just what of his was actually in print. And it listed 700 books: all of which, as I went down page after page, were variant editions of the two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of comic verse for children that he wrote. And that's all that we have left of A. A. Milne, and he's in better shape than most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all. . . .

There's one other thing we remember [Milne] for. His attempt to revive something forgotten which, again, worked brilliantly. To the point now where we didn't even know that it ever was forgotten. He wrote Toad of Toad Hall as a stage play, because he loved--and was furious that it had been forgotten--The Wind in the Willows.

And Kenneth Grahame's book came out [in 1908] and was a huge dud. Kenneth Grahame's other two books--Dream Days [1898] and The Golden Age [1895]--now completely forgotten. Portraits of sort of being a child in early Edwardian, Victorian days--were seized on and loved by the Edwardians as these beautiful, sentimental portraits of childhood. These were Grahame's bestselling books.

And The Wind in the Willows was a dud: it was completely forgotten to the point where A.A. Milne wound up writing an essay in the 1920s saying: Let me tell you about one of the best books in the world, and you have never heard of it. It was called The Wind in the Willows, and [Milne] went on and did Toad of Toad Hall, the theatrical adaptation, which then revived the book to the point where it's now considered one of the great children's classics.
Actually, I own Grahame's Dream Days and The Golden Age, with Maxfield Parrish illustrations. Gaiman is right that the text hasn't survived as well. The same sentimentality plays better with water rats and moles.


Sam said...

I didn't know all that. Very interesting ...

...but Pooh and poems isn't ALL we have of Milne, unless his murder mystery has gone out of print.

I've always found it facinating that the two men most famous for writing about stuffed British bears with a liking for sticky breakfasts also wrote murder mysteries.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point. The Red House Mystery is still in print and, given Milne's celebrity and the fact that it's in the public domain in the US, will be available for the foreseeable future.