River & Road

Kenneth Grahame died on this day–or, as his gravestone in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford, England, puts it, he “…passed the River on the 6th of July 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.” The allusion is to his children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, which celebrates the River life–“messing about in boats” or, for the more adventurous wayfarer, hitting the open road:

And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company….

The immense popularity of The Wind in the Willows did not come until Grahame’s last few years, when A. A. Milne staged it (1929) and E. H. Shepard illustrated it (1932). The first reviews of the book were lukewarm or worse; this is excerpted from the famous thumbs-down that appeared in the London Timesin 1908, the year of first publication:

The chief character is a mole whom the reader plumps upon on the first page whitewashing his house. Here is an initial nut to crack; a mole whitewashing. No doubt moles like their abodes to be clean; but whitewashing? Are we very stupid, or is this joke really inferior?

Others found it hard to make the leap. Elspeth Grahame’s First Whisper of The Wind in the Willowsdescribes how the novel began as a story her husband told and wrote to their son, Alastair. It also tells the story of a real mole Grahame found one night in the garden–how he put it in a hamper in the kitchen so he could show it to his son in the morning, how it got out, and how the Grahames’ housekeeper killed it with a broom.

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.