Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 15 1998 3:30 AM

Winnie-the-Pooh

The bear belongs to America.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

The British, whose two principal hobbies seem to be slobbering over small animals and waxing nostalgic about their past, found a way to do both last week. They demanded the repatriation of Winnie-the-Pooh.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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The sideshow to last week's Bill Clinton-Tony Blair summit, the Pooh flap was touched off when British MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, a Pol of Very Little Brain, visited the five original Pooh dolls displayed in the New York Public Library. Dunwoody beseeched the United States to liberate the "Pooh Five" from their "glass prison" and send them home. The dolls, she said, were America's Elgin marbles, a cultural treasure stolen from overseas.

Within 48 hours, Pooh had made the front page of the New York Post; New York Gov. George Pataki had told Dunwoody to buzz off; Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., had introduced a congressional resolution declaring that the "Brits have their head in a honey jar if they think they are taking Pooh out of New York City"; Mayor Rudy Giuliani had brought Pooh a jar of honey and praised him as "the very best in immigration"; and Clinton spokesman Michael McCurry had called the idea of Pooh's repatriation "unbearable." (This was, believe it or not, one of the week's better puns.) Blair, recognizing that discretion is the better part of absurdity, relented and withdrew Dunwoody's demand. The "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom was saved.

There's no doubt that the law favors the American side in the Pooh flap. Pooh and friends have been here since 1947, when author A.A. Milne loaned them to his American publisher, E.P. Dutton, for a publicity tour. When Milne died in 1956, Dutton bought the dolls from his estate for $2,500. Pooh hero/Milne son Christopher Robin Milne expressed his satisfaction with Pooh's American home before his own death in 1995.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

The law favors the Americans, but does justice? To whom does Winnie-the-Pooh belong? Who is Winnie-the-Pooh, really?

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There are two camps in the Pooh feud: nativist and internationalist. The nativist (Dunwoody) logic: Pooh was born in Britain in 1926, his creator A.A. Milne was British, his owner Christopher Robin was British, he was raised in Britain's Hundred Acre Wood, and he played Poohsticks in a British river. Ergo, Pooh is an Englishman (Englishbear, whatever). Americans counter with an internationalist view: Pooh is a "citizen of the world," as Giuliani put it. Hundred Acre Wood is not identifiably British. What kind of English forest has a wild kangaroo and a tiger? Besides, say the internationalists, Milne's language is universally charming ("a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness"), and his moral lessons are universally applicable (if you visit a friend and gorge yourself on honey, you are likely to end up stuck in his doorway for a week while he uses your legs as a towel rack--how true!).

But there is a third view of Pooh: that he is neither British nor global. He is American. If you could summarize what an American is (or a Brit's idea of what an American is), it would be Pooh. He is a Very American Sort of Bear, a bear without a single English quality. Like the pioneers of the Old West, Pooh is endlessly greedy, and he is cunning in pursuit of that greed. Winnie-the-Pooh is, at bottom, the story of Pooh's quest for honey (honey = money?). His appetite cannot be sated. He eats Rabbit's honey; he eats the honey meant for the Heffalump trap; he eats the honey that is Eeyore's birthday present; he tries to eat a beehive's honey. Pooh is naive and ignorant: He spells poorly ("honey" is "hunny"), and he is impressed by the pretentious wisdom of Owl. But when it comes to avarice, Pooh has a native intelligence. He can't reach a beehive by climbing, so he jury-rigs a balloon to raid the hive from the air. Owl and Eeyore, the two most obviously British characters, are talkers. Pooh is a doer.

Pooh's greed is tempered by an all-American friendliness. Of Britain's most memorable children's-book characters--Toad and Badger in The Wind in the Willows, Aslan in the "Narnia" books, Alice and the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--Pooh is by far the sunniest. There is no dark side to Pooh, no complicated European soul. Pooh is guileless, blithe, good-natured, democratic. He is the best friend to all. (There is also a brash self-confidence to Pooh: He composes songs of praise to himself that would have done Whitman proud.)

Pooh's world, too, is far more American than British. Hundred Acre Wood resembles an idealized vision of America's pioneer past, a wild, empty land populated by a few hardy pioneers who band together when danger threatens (Heffalumps!).

And Pooh belongs to America for economic reasons as well as literary ones. Where would he be today without American commercial know-how? For the first 50 years of his life, Pooh was a modest franchise--a pair of books that sold fairly well to British and American parents. America rescued him from minor cult status and gave him to the world (at a not-insignificant profit). Pooh has now sold more than 20 million books, most of them in the United States. Penguin, which holds the U.S. copyright on the original Pooh books, has published black-and-white Pooh books, color Pooh books, miniature Pooh "storybooks," Pooh in Latin (Winnie ille Pu), Pooh for New Agers (The Tao of Pooh and its companion volume, The Te of Piglet), and even Pooh for managers.

Disney, which owns Pooh's merchandising rights, has done even more to spread his gospel. Disney has produced four short animated features, one of which won an Academy Award. It has also aired more than 80 episodes of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. "Disney Pooh" horrifies Pooh traditionalists ("abhorrent," says one young mother I know). He wears a red jacket ("Classic Pooh" was naked) and speaks with an American accent. He fights movie monsters, sings in a musical Western, and celebrates Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving?). But Disney Pooh reaches the world. Pooh videos from Disney have sold nearly 20 million copies, and Disney Pooh decorates books, blankets, albums, bedding, slippers, calendars, backpacks, and cookie jars sold to impressionable children everywhere. There are even Disney Pooh CD-ROMs. When Pooh is on CD-ROM, you know he really has it made. And you know he really is American.