As reported on The Writer’s Almanac, today is the birthday of A.A. Milne, the man who created the most famous fictional teddy bear in the world: Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was born today in London in 1882.
A young H.G. Wells was once his schoolteacher and Milne went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship, but his passion was writing, particularly light verse and plays. Milne was a lifelong pacifist, though he served in World War I, enlisting in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and then working in the Royal Corps of Signals. Milne was also an atheist and he once said, “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf courses.”
He wrote for the British humor magazine Punch for a number of years, played cricket on the same team as Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie — called “The Allahakbarries” — and penned several plays, like Mr. Pim Passes By (1921) and Toad of Toad Hall (1929), before the pudgy bear took over his life and became a worldwide sensation.
Milne was on holiday with his son, Christopher Robin, whom the family called “Billy,” when he began playing around with poems about the stuffed animals in his son’s nursery, particularly a teddy bear his son called “Edward the Bear.”
The world of Hundred Acre Wood, which Milne based on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, was quickly populated with a gloomy donkey named Eeyore, an excitable entity named Tigger, a piglet named Piglet, and a fussy owl named Owl. They were shepherded by a little boy with a bowl haircut who carried Milne’s son’s name, Christopher Robin. Winnie-the-Pooh was first featured in a Christmas story, “The Wrong Side of Bees,” published in the London Evening News in December of 1925. By 1931 Winnie-the-Pooh was a million-dollar business and an American magazine had named Milne’s son the most famous 11-year-old in the world.
Milne wasn’t altogether happy that the “bear of very little brain” had overshadowed what he considered his more serious writing. He said:
“It seems to me now that if I write anything less realistic, less straightforward than ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ I am ‘indulging in a whimsy.’ Indeed, if I did say that the cat sat on the mat (as well it might), I should be accused of being whimsical about cats; not a real cat, but just a little make-believe pussy, such as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh invents so charmingly for our delectation.”
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are now considered classics of children’s literature. In 2022 the character Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain.