The Curious Tale of Peter Rabbit
Both Cape Cod and England lay claim to the beloved childhood character
Photos courtesy of the Thornton W. Burgess Society
Imagine that an unknown American author publishing his first young adult novel in 2018 decides to name his central character Harry Potter and endow him with powers of wizardry. One can envision how J.K. Rowling—and her legal staff—might react. Yet just such a literary scenario did play out in America and England a century ago, with surprising results. The fictional character was Peter Rabbit, and Cape Cod played a role in the story.
It begins across the Atlantic in 1893, where the late Beatrix Potter (no relation to Harry!) was a 27-year-old Londoner on vacation in England’s northern countryside. There, she welcomed pet mice, lizards and other small animals into her room, where she became adept at sketching them.
When Noel Moore, the son of Potter’s childhood governess, became ill, she mailed him a picture story about a rabbit named Peter and his run-ins with Farmer McGregor. At the urging of Noel’s mother, who recognized the story’s potential, Potter expanded the plot and in 1901 published “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
Across the Atlantic, a similar story was unfolding for a boy born on Cape Cod in 1874. Thornton W. Burgess and his widowed mother lived in Sandwich throughout his childhood. Growing up, the young man who would evolve into America’s celebrated storyteller and naturalist learned to love the wildlife and terrain of his native town. He explained in his 1960 autobiography how his Cape Cod upbringing influenced his later writing:
“Man is a reflection of his environment. It exerts an influence on his character that he cannot escape. … The pride of the born Cape Codder is the land … something of pounding surf, of shifting sands, the flash of sun on distant dunes, the mingled smells of marsh muck, salt hay and stranded fish, the silver gleam of fresh waters in emerald settings, the resinous odor of scrub pines.”
Indeed, Burgess spent most of his boyhood experiencing these natural wonders. Whether fishing on Sandwich’s grist mill pond, traversing the salt marshes by Town Neck, scouring the cranberry bogs to trap muskrats, or searching an old wood for trailing arbutus blossoms, Burgess was unknowingly laying the groundwork for his Peter Rabbit’s woodland adventures. When Burgess’ Peter seeks safety in the Dear Old Briar Patch, or hops “lipperty lip” beside the Smiling Pool, it is in real-life Sandwich locales that he cavorts. These settings are now preserved by the town as part of the 57-acre Briar Patch Conservation Area under the stewardship of the Green Briar Nature Center/Thornton W. Burgess Society.
“You should see the faces of young Burgess readers when they visit the Dear Old Briar Patch,” says Mary Beers, former education specialist at the Thornton W. Burgess Society. “This is a special place, and they feel it.”
Burgess’ eccentric aunt, Arabella, further contributed to his wilderness education by her propensity to commune with fish, birds and small animals, welcoming them into her 1756 Sandwich home (until recently housing the Thornton W. Burgess Museum).
And so it was that nine years after Potter had debuted her Peter Rabbit, Burgess—by then a widower and single father living in Springfield—bonded with his young son, who was away with his grandmother, by mailing him nursery tales about a mischievous rabbit named Peter and Peter’s run-ins with Farmer Brown. When Good Housekeeping ran a few of the stories, Little, Brown and Co. asked Burgess to submit 14 more for a new children’s book. In the fall of 1910, “Old Mother West Wind” was published and the American Peter Rabbit made his debut in several of its chapters.
Both Peters became childhood icons. Potter’s tale reached the 40-million copy mark several years ago, while the adventures of Burgess’ Peter and his woodland pals appeared daily in newspaper syndication for 36 years, aired on national radio for 10, and starred in 170 books and 15,000 stories. Both characters—Potter’s Peter gobbling up Farmer McGregor’s carrots, and Burgess’ Peter munching on Farmer Brown’s peaches—still bring joy to nurseries today, albeit not as universally as a century ago.
The two Peters had somewhat different natures. Potter’s was a beloved rogue with a propensity to become trapped inside watering cans, with chamomile tea as consolation. His family’s encounters with Farmer McGregor had a dark edge, with the farmer threatening to “skin them and cut off their heads.”
Burgess’ Peter delighted children with the tricks he played on his friends, such as persuading Johnny Chuck to jump on a log which turned out to be a furious Reddy Fox. His schemes often backfired, resulting in gentle morality tales. Beers describes the lovable rabbit as “exactly what we would hope for in a friend—someone who is not perfect, who makes mistakes, but who knows how to be loyal.”
Unlike Potter, Burgess was insistent that Peter display genuine rabbit-like behavior. “Beatrix Potter showed her Peter and animal characters doing things like playing with balloons and wagons,” explains Nancy Titcomb, founder of the Thornton W. Burgess Society. “Burgess’ Peter, though, was a natural rabbit. Burgess always made sure that he was teaching children true facts about nature and the natural world.” Christie Palmer Lowrance, Burgess’ 2013 biographer, puts it this way:
“Peter’s creator strongly believed that nature and wild animals were the educational tools that children could learn best from. … Peter interacted constantly with other wildlife characters from birds and amphibians to mammals and arachnids in a credibly depicted ecosystem. He and his friends were presumably quite unfamiliar with hot chamomile tea.”
In addition to the popularity of the Peter rabbits that Potter and Burgess each created at age 36, and their early love of nature, the authors’ lives followed other parallels: both grew up with little exposure to other children, Potter spending much time with her governess and Burgess with his mother; both battled illness in their twenties, Potter suffering from the “odious low spirits” of depression and Burgess from malaria; and both transcended their storyteller roles to emerge as serious environmentalists, Potter’s efforts resulting in the conservation of one quarter of England’s Lake District in perpetuity as farmland, and Burgess’ in the preservation of millions of acres across the U.S. as bird sanctuaries.
It was Burgess’ newspaper stories on Mrs. Quack the Mallard Duck and the perils of hunting that contributed to the passage of the still-viable Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 between the U.S. and Canada. “Burgess’ obvious passion for wildlife in literature and real life made him a mentor and strong influence on a generation of New England conservationists,” says Mark Madison, historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The treaty has been the primary tool to protect native birds that migrate, [including] iconic protected species such as the snowy egret, sandhill cranes and numerous migratory waterfowl.” Fittingly, Burgess’ efforts garnered the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society’s Wildlife Protection Fund.
As for the dual Peter rabbits, Burgess was candid in acknowledging that he had borrowed the name from Potter’s well-known character. (He was not alone: British children’s writer Ernest Arias also had a Peter Rabbit in his book “The Treasure Seekers.”) Burgess, in his later stories, used the name “Peter Rabbit” interchangeably with “Peter Cottontail,” perhaps to squelch any controversy. But his conscience was clear on the topic. In his autobiography, he explains:
“When I began writing stories for my own small boy, a rabbit was already Peter and there was no changing the name. I like to think that Miss Potter gave Peter a name known the world over, while I, with Mr. Cady’s [Burgess’ illustrator] help, perhaps made him a character.”
Although notoriously prickly, Potter was publicly reticent on the matter, especially since her publishers had neglected to copyright her “Tale of Peter Rabbit” in the U.S., where pirated copies flourished. In a 1917 letter, she did refer to her imitators with seeming resignation, acknowledging, “All rabbits are called Peter, now.”
It was apparently a gentler age that better tolerated peaceful coexistence. “Children’s literature was in its infancy, and ‘borrowing’ was a more common practice,” explains Lowrance.
In 1931, Burgess’ publisher even felt comfortable sending a set of Burgess’ stories straight into the heart of Potter territory, to London’s Buckingham Palace. It was proof that the two Peters could coexist amicably when the Duchess of York—without a hint of rancor—reached out to Burgess, thanking him for his kind gift to 5-year-old Princess Elizabeth.
And so it might stand as the ultimate tribute to Thornton Burgess that the reigning queen of England was once entertained by America’s Peter Rabbit.
Visitors to the Green Briar Nature Center in Sandwich (recently merged with the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History) can view the live Peter Rabbit in residence there, as well as other engaging critters.
Diane Speare Triant is a nonfiction writer and summer resident of West Hyannis Port.