The Curious Tale of Peter Rabbit
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.
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