Cats & Old Possum

May 11:The musical Cats opened on this dayin 1981 in London, for record-setting eleven-year run. T. S. Eliot’s originalidea, as announced in 1936 by publishers Faber and Faber, was for a book ofboth dogs and cats, to be titled “Mr. Eliot’s Book of Pollicle [poorlittle] Dogs and Jellicle [dear little] Cats as Recited to Him by the Man inWhite Spats.” The eventual title of the book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), dropped the dogs andexchanged the formality of “Mr. Eliot” for a nickname given by EzraPound. Eliot sometimes signed his letters “Tom Possum,” and he gavehis real cats such names as Pettipaws, Wiscus, and George Pushdragon (this lastbeing also the name Eliot used when entering crossword competitions). But as”The Naming of Cats” makes clear, all such efforts were doomed tofall short of some pussycat-Platonic ideal:

When you notice a cat inprofound meditation,

    The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in arapt contemplation

    Of the thought, of the thought, of the thoughtof his name:

        His ineffable effable

        Effanineffable

Deep and inscrutablesingular Name.

By all accounts, Eliothimself was as hard to figure. The following is from Edmund Wilson’s letter toLouise Bogan dated this day in 1933: “He gives you the creeps a little atfirst because he is such a completely artificial, or rather, self-inventedcharacter—speaking English with a most careful English accent as if it were aforeign language which he has learned extremely well.” But Wilson notedthat, after a few drinks, Eliot lost “the million snobberies, poses andprejudices which he thinks he has to cultivate.” The other evidence thatEliot could let his hair down includes the practical jokes he played at work,his pen-pal relationship to Groucho Marx, a letter to Virginia Woolf saying hewas coming over to show her the Chicken Strut, and this self-parodying poem inthe style of Edward Lear:

How unpleasant to meet Mr.Eliot!

With his features ofclerical cut,

And his brow so grim

And his mouth so prim

And his conversation, sonicely

Restricted to WhatPrecisely

And If and Perhaps andBut….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.