A paradox: while a parent might hope for sanity and stability in their child’s life, the best children’s books celebrate lunacy and mischief. Their authors are often dubious role models — cranks and weirdos, for the most part. T.S. Eliot’s eccentricities were most noted (and sometimes resented) within the sphere of High Literary Criticism, where he tore down Milton and scoffed at Hamlet, while baffling peers with his bleak and abstruse poetry. The unbeatable mix of controversy and opacity ensured Eliot literary fame. Eliot's bibliographies generally mention 1939’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in passing. Yet this collection of verse about cats, originally written to entertain his godchildren, reveals how charming he could be when he wasn’t taking himself too seriously.
His cats are of all sorts: "some sane and some mad / some good and some bad." Luckily, the mad and the bad take center stage, such as the disreputable McCavity, the cat who wasn’t there (like Godot, McCavity is one of the few literary characters who's famous for his absence). A more conventional author might have anthropomorphized his cats, making them puppets of human dramas or comedies, but the delight of this book lies in its refusal to do so. As Old Possum, Eliot writes the psychology, anthropology, metaphysics, and high epic history of the cat — all of which fail to grasp cat quiddity. "A CAT IS NOT A DOG," Eliot warns his reader, for "a dog is on the whole / a simple soul." The cat remains gloriously inscrutable.
Eliot's book wasn't a publishing gimmick. Mungojerrie, Rumpelteazer, and Bustopher Jones were the names of some of Eliot’s own pets; his tribe also included Bubbles, Xerxes, Wiscus, and George Pushdragon. He catered to their whims, even when one of his beloveds cost him quite a lot of money by refusing to eat anything but rabbit. He belongs to a long tradition of cat-mad artists. Mysterious and remote, cats have long been associated with "creative types," in contrast to the dog’s role in white-picket-fence happiness.
Unfortunately, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats may be best known today as the source material for the second longest-running musical of all time, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Forget the story's clashing, banging second life, and go straight to the book. A book of cat poems may seem off-puttingly cute, but the whimsy doesn’t dilute the droll and at times macabre verses. For maximal appreciation, pick up a copy illustrated by the incomparable Edward Gorey, whose drawings might have made even The Waste Land a smash hit.