“Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” was written by Thomas Stearns Eliot during the 1930s; it was first published in 1939 and further re-published in 1940. The initial edition contains illustrations made by the writer himself. The re-published version contains illustrations made by Nicholas Bentley; a later, 1982 edition, was illustrated by Edward Gorey. The book in general consists of fifteen poems about cats: The Naming of Cats, The old Gumbie Cat, Crowltiger’s Last Stand, The Rum Tum Tugger, The Song of the Jellicles, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Old Deuteronomy, Great Rumpuscat, Mr. Mistoffelees, and others.
At the beginning of the 1990s the book became even more popular, because the poems it contained were set to music by Andrew Lloyd Weber for the musical “Cats,” the longest-running Broadways show in history. In the “Old Possum’s Book of practical Cats” Eliot treats each character with special respect turning the readers’ attention to the importance of the cats’ names and attributing to his animal characters human feelings and emotions; this book is quite instructive and children can learn new notions from different subjects, as well as manners of social behavior from it.
To begin with, Eliot treats cats with respect and believes that the name is important for each of them. For instance, in his first poem of this cycle, “The Naming of Cats,” he notes that “a cat needs a name that’s particular,/A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,/Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,/Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?” (Eliot 9). It is clear from this poem that he believes in individuality of each cat.
It is not only in this poem that Elliot displays his respect to these animals. He treats old cats with special respect. He expresses his admiration with Old Deuteronomy who “has lived many lives in succession [and] was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme/A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession” (Eliot 24). This shows that Elliot not only adores cats, like many people do, but calls to treat them with special attention and respect always remembering that each cat is an individual.
Moreover, in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” Elliot attributes to cats human qualities and emotions. When writing about cats, he often describes their feelings; he does it in a way that does not differ from the description of human feelings. For example, in “The Old Gumbie Cat” he describes the cat’s concern with the mice’s behavior: “She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice-/Their behaviour’s not good and their manners not nice;/So when she has got them lined up on the matting,/She teachs them music, crocheting and tatting” (Eliot 11).
All the protagonists of Eliot’s poems are unique and they have their own interesting story to share with the reader; they possess all the features that human protagonists may possess. They can be good and caring, like Old Gambie, or evil and unattractive, like Growltiger whose “manners and appearance did not calculate to please” and who “pursued his evil aims” “from Gravesend up to Oxford” (Eliot 13). Therefore, Elliot’s cats experience human emotions and like other human protagonists have their unique stories of life.
Finally, Elliot’s stories about cats are educational; they can teach children new words and explain new notions to them. Any kind of literature for children should be instructive this is why “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is not an exception. It helps children distinguish between good and bad characters thus formulating their perception of reality. In this book children may learn some notions from economics together with Mr. Mistoffeless: “There’s no such Cat in the metropolis;/He holds all the patent monopolies/For performing surprising illusions/And creating eccentric confusions” (Eliot 29).
In addition, children can learn more about law when reading about the mystery cat Macavity, called the Hidden Paw “For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law./He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:/For when they reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!” (Eliot 37). Therefore “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is not only entertaining, but also instructional, because it can teach children some notions from economics, law, and other subjects.
In conclusion, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” can offer young readers much more than mere entertainment. In this book, Eliot expressed all his love and respect to cats and emphasized how important it is to give a cat an appropriate name.
He attributed to his characters human feelings and emotions for children to be able to distinguish between positive and negative protagonists. In addition, the protagonists of Eliot’s poems can teach children different notions from economics, law, and other subjects in an unobtrusive manner. After reading this book, the children are likely not only to enrich their vocabularies with new words and notions, but to start paying more attention to taking care about cats being able to understand that though these animals are devoid of the gift of speech, they still can feel and, therefore, be happy, hurt, or upset.
Eliot, Thomas S. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1939.