When most college graduates toss their caps, they have no idea what they want to do with their life. That wasn’t the case for A.A. Milne: He knew exactly what he wanted to do when he left Cambridge’s hallowed halls, so he packed his bags, left rural England, and moved to London.
There was precisely one problem with Milne’s grand plans: It wasn’t easy to be a professional writer in the early 20th century. (READ MORE: Be Ethnic: What Schomburg and de Pareja Teach Us About Identity)
Milne had always known he wanted to write. His parents were both schoolteachers, and his father eventually became the headmaster at the school where H.G. Wells taught. The family story was that Milne learned to read at age 2. As a schoolboy, he was known to have formed an incorrigible habit of composing humorous verses instead of attending to his education.
But having ink in his blood did not make it any easier for Milne. He picked up odd jobs here and there for a few years before finally making it as the editor of the magazine Punch.
It was 1906, the world was a brilliant place, and hope for a new century was in the air. Milne’s schoolboy-esque verses were all the rage, and his humorous essays even more so. His first book, written while he was still working for the magazine, was also decently popular. Milne’s professional life was blossoming, so he eventually did what most men do. He began courting a woman. He and Daphne were married in 1913.
Two years later, Milne’s fairytale came to an abrupt and sudden end. The brewing pot that was Europe in the early 20th century finally boiled over. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia and France, Great Britain declared war on Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, and the French and British declared war on Austria-Hungary. The world was at war in less than 15 days, and Milne was packing his bags and leaving Punch behind. (READ MORE: Pursue Culture, Not Death, This Vacation)
Living in trenches in France didn’t slow Milne’s pen. While most war poets mused despondently about death, Milne’s poetry is a prayer for silence ensconced in a joke. He rattled off verses and plays — Mr. Pim Passes By became incredibly popular worldwide. In 1920, Milne’s fairytale resumed; not only was Mr. Pim popular enough to provide financial security for the Milnes, but Daphne was also pregnant.
On Aug. 21, 1920, Christopher Robin was born.
Five years later, the Milnes moved to Cotchford Farm in Sussex on the edge of what became known as the “Hundred-Acre Wood.” Milne never saw himself as the author of children’s literature. He wanted to be taken seriously as a political commentator — hard to pull off when your most famous book is about a stuffed bear. Today, the world remembers Milne for Winnie-the-Pooh and his insatiable appetite for honey rather than for any of the wisecracks Milne aimed at transient politicians.
This article originally appeared on Aubrey’s Substack, Pilgrim’s Way, on Aug. 20, 2023.
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