Pick up and Read: Peter Pan

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Walt Disney released his animated film Peter Pan in 1953.  Already a beloved story with a variety of adaptations in print, on stage, and even on film, Disney’s take on this relatively young classic quickly earned a prominent place in the canon of Peter Pan lore.  Two years later, the movie was the inspiration for the Peter Pan’s Flight ride at Disneyland which was one of the few attractions that were operational on opening day. Sixty plus years later, the Disney film and theme park attraction remain as popular as ever.  We all know that on any given day, people will wait close to two hours in Fantasyland to take a ship ride in the midnight sky from London to Neverland.

There are new stories about Peter Pan being written. New movies and plays as well as revivals of old favorites are being produced.   There is a bus company that bears the name Peter Pan as well as a popular brand of peanut butter who’s marketing campaign equates our “belief” in peanut butter with the “belief” in Peter Pan.  We are culturally awash in Peter Pan, but how many of us have actually read it?  If you haven’t, put it on your list of family books to read.  I’m not suggesting you read any of  the editions adapted from the Disney film although that can be fun too.  Rather, I am suggesting that you read J.M. Barrie’s original, unabridged  story.

If you don’t already own a copy, your local library will have one or you can purchase one on a kindle device for less than five dollars.  Of particular interest to me is The Annotated Peter Pan – The Centennial Edition edited with an introduction and notes by Maria Tatar and published by W. W. Norton and Company.  Any good annotated edition will have an abundance of notes which define antiquated terms, explain customs and allusions that would be unknown to us today, and discuss themes, style, and imagery.  This edition also has biographical information, a detailed history of the literary development of Peter Pan and beautiful illustrations from varied sources including all the pen and ink drawings rendered by F. D. Bedford for the original 1911 publication.  It retails for about $40, but I found three copies on sale at an independent bookstore for $10.  I purchased all three , gave one to my son, and gifted the others to friends who love Peter Pan.  You can probably find copies online for less than retail, but had I paid $39.95 for it, I would not have felt ill-used.

At the time of publication in 2011, editor Maria Tatar was teaching courses on literature and folklore at Harvard University where she had served as dean for the humanities.  In addition to the text and illustrations, Tatar meticulously chronicles Barrie’s development of Peter Pan from secondary character in a novel to lead player in his own story.  She notes that the character Peter Pan debuted in Barrie’s novel of 1902 The Little White Bird.  In this novel, Peter Pan is a seven day old boy who has a number of adventures in Kensington Gardens.  Those adventures were subsequently published separately in 1906 under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

In between these offerings, Barrie wrote a play which premiered in 1904 called Peter Pan or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.  While the play enjoyed popular productions for years, it was not published until 1928.  Tatar notes that during that time, the script underwent many revisions by Barrie.  Happily, Peter Pan’s development did not end on the stage.  In 1911 Barrie published Peter and Wendy, which in time would be renamed Peter Pan. Ms. Tatar writes that many of his early scripts “are preserved in the J. M. Barrie archive at [Yale University’s] Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut where the bulk of Barrie’s papers are stored.”

After reading The Centennial Edition. . ., I had a little adventure of my own, which brought me very close, literally, to J. M. Barrie’s masterpiece. There is another part of the Peter Pan legacy that resides at Yale.  Before Barrie wrote any of the Peter Pan stories, he published a scrapbook of sorts chronicling the adventures he had one summer with Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his three sons.  In 1901, the Davies family was vacationing close to where Barrie and his wife were also on holiday.  Barrie was taking a break after toiling on a play called Quality Street, which was being produced in America by the great (if not infamous) theatre owner and producer Charles Frohman.

Barrie and the Llewelyn boys had numerous pretend “adventures” that summer which Barrie lovingly photographed.  These included a shipwreck, wicked pirates and tiger hunts.  These boyish frolics would eventually manifest in Barrie’s Neverland.  Meanwhile, Barrie’s scrapbook included a number of captioned photographs of their adventures.  He went on to publish two copies, crediting Llewelyn Davies’ son Peter with authorship, and himself only as a publisher.  Maria Tatar includes a reproduction of this book in  The Centennial Edition and writes that this work “offers us the first real glimpse of Peter Pan. With its lost boys and savage pirate captain, its protective dog watching over sleeping children, and its mysterious boy described as ‘the sly one, the chief figure, who draws farther and farther into the wood as we advance upon him’ it is the . . .book that gave birth to the boy who would not grow up.”

The full title of this book is The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, being a record of the terrible adventures of the brothers Davies in the Summer of 1901, faithfully set forth by Peter Llewelyn Davies.  One copy was given to Arthur Llewelyn Davies.  He claims to have lost it on a train.  The sole remaining copy resides in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

I live in Connecticut, not terribly far from New Haven.  About a year ago, I found myself in New Haven with a couple of hours to kill so I visited the Beinecke and asked if I could see The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.  Anyone can view materials at the Beinecke. You need to have two forms of photo identification and you must leave coats, bags, folders, writing instruments and any object that might plausibly be used for theft or destruction, in a locker. Had I planned my visit, I could have registered online, but the librarians helped me do that onsite. Within ten minutes of my request, they brought me The Boy Castaways. . . .

The book is stored in an archival quality box. I was given the box, the book and three pieces of foam on which to rest the book. I was then invited to enter the Reading Room where I spent a half hour with this literary treasure.

The cover was a handsome deep maroon color.  One of the front papers had a note signed by J. M. Barrie himself: “There was one other copy of this book only and it was lost in a railway train in 1901. J M B 1933.”  The photos were in excellent condition and conveyed the sense of whimsical adventure of the Davies brothers that summer.  It was terribly exciting for me to hold and peruse this extraordinary relic from the world of Peter Pan.  It seemed so new even though it was fashioned five years before my grandmother was born. For a few brief minutes, I felt like I was part of the legacy of Peter Pan.

If you might be inclined to examine The Boy Castaways. . ., assorted ephemera related to Peter Pan or any of J. M. Barrie’s papers, the Beinecke Library will welcome you.  I should warn you though, that the Beinecke Library is closed for renovations until fall 2016.  Meanwhile, before you leave for your next trip to the Walt Disney World Resort, go read Peter Pan.

The Boy Castaways. . .

The Boy Castaways. . .

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notice the signature: J M B

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The Boy Castaways. . .at rest at the Beinecki Library at Yale University

The Boy Castaways. . .at rest at the Beinecke Library at Yale University

story and photos by Martin Blanco

September 2015

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