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Who Named Peter Rabbit?

If you have been introduced to a delightful animal character named Peter Rabbit in the works of both Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess, you may have wondered which author named him. It is a sticky and confusing question, sometimes raised with the suggestion of copyright infringement. Here’s what my research for Nature’s Ambassador showed:

In his autobiography Thornton Burgess clearly and unmistakably identifies Beatrix Potter as first to use the name Peter Rabbit when she self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901. Its instant success led Frederick Warne & Company to publish her charming little book in England. Her popularity spread across the Atlantic, but because Warne did not properly secure a U.S. copyright, both authorized and unauthorized versions appeared. Like countless other parents, Thornton Burgess read the captivating story of a naughty bunny to his young son Thornton W. Burgess III, for whom all rabbits soon became Peter.

In 1910, nine years after Beatrix Potter’s book came out, Thornton Burgess’ first children’s book, Old Mother West Wind, was published by Little, Brown & Company. It introduced an American rabbit that Burgess, then a hard-working journalist, had named Peter to please his three-year-old son whose mother had died the day he was born.

Both The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Old Mother West Wind became children’s classics, but neither had been composed as a literary effort. Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated her Peter Rabbit story to comfort a sick child. Burgess wrote the chapters of Old Mother West Wind as bedtime stories sent to Thornton who was away from home visiting relatives for a month. The headstrong English Peter Rabbit was a central Potter character from the beginning, but the naïve and inquisitive American bunny did not get his own book until 1914. Burgess’ character lived in the wild in a credibly depicted ecosystem with other mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. He and his friends and neighbors Jimmy Skunk, Grandfather Frog, Reddy Fox, and Sammy Jay, among dozens of other creatures, were presumably quite unfamiliar with hot chamomile tea.

Did Burgess plagiarize the Potter character? That assessment depends on what standards you apply. According to some children’s literature and library science authorities, such borrowed usage is unacceptable and would be considered plagiarism by today’s publishers. Others, however, note that Burgess borrowed a name, not a character, not an uncommon practice in the early days of children’s literature when Burgess began writing. Incidentally, children’s literature historian David Mitchell says he knows of use of Burgess’ Peter Rabbit in a 1914 school reader. The story of “How Peter Rabbit Ran Away” by R. H. Bowles also mentions “Farmer Brown’s Boy,” another main Burgess character.

Regardless of how you see the issue, one Smithsonian researcher told me that Nature’s Ambassador is one of the few books in which the controversy over Peter Rabbit’s name is discussed in detail. Let me know what you think about the naming of Peter Rabbit!

… A note from my research files:

Suzanne Price, an Oregon bookseller who specializes in children’s books, references the 2012 A Bibliography of Unauthorised American Editions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in citing 308 instances by 80 publishers of “piracy” of Beatrix Potter’s children’s classic. “Warne (Potter’s authorized UK and US publisher) made some errors in registering the copyright correctly for the US in their New York office,” says Price, “and they were not able to rectify their mistake fast enough. Altemus was first to issue an unauthorized version in 1904. People commonly call these unauthorized versions ‘piracies,’ but they are legal, as Peter Rabbit remained in the public domain.”

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