THE literary career of A.(lan) A.(lexander) Milne (1882-1956) ranged over five decades and included everything from humorous essays and light verse to political pamphlets, novels, and a long philosophical poem. Before the advent of ``Winnie-the-Pooh,'' Milne was best known as a successful playwright, whose sparkling adult comedies delighted London audiences looking for diversion in the wake of World War I. ``When there is nothing whatever to say,'' remarked one critic, double-edgedly, ``no one knows better than Mr. Milne how to say it.'' But it was the four children's books about a boy and his bear written in the 1920s that would win him the most lasting fame. Two were collections of light verse: ``When We Were Very Young'' (1924) and ``Now We Are Six'' (1927); the other two - ``Winnie-the-Pooh'' (1926) and ``The House at Pooh Corner'' (1928) - were collections of stories about the eponymous Bear of Very Little Brain, his fellow stuffed animals, and their resourceful child owner, Christopher Robin.
The real Christopher Robin, born in 1920, an only child known to the Milnes as ``Billy Moon,'' became an instant celebrity. His father was surprised that the public seemed more interested in the child who had inspired the books than in the author who had written them. As the adult Christopher Robin testified in a pair of memoirs written in the 1970s, being fixed in the public mind as the golden-haired little boy kneeling to say his ``Vespers'' (``Hush, hush whisper who dares/ Christopher Robin is saying his prayers'') was to be a legacy of embarrassment as the boy grew up.
Published after both his parents had died, the younger Milne's criticisms of his upbringing received considerable attention in the press (``The Enchanted Places,'' 1974; ``The Path Through the Trees,'' 1979. A.A. Milne himself wrote an autobiography concentrating largely upon his own childhood: ``It's Too Late Now'' (1939). The title, as his first full-scale biographer, Ann Thwaite, explains, is an allusion to Milne's belief that most of what we become we already were as children.
The profound implications of this idea had already been explored by the poet Wordsworth, summed up in his oft-quoted line, ``The Child is father of the Man.'' But where Wordsworth stressed the importance of the adult's ability to retain something of the child's sense of wonder and joy in life, Milne - in Thwaite's view and by his own admission - was burdened by an additional sense of indebtedness, believing that what gifts we have are not truly our own, but products of heredity and environment.
Milne had a happy start in life, even if it was far from the complacent, upper-middle-class upbringing some of his critics (including his son) later accused him of having enjoyed. The youngest and brightest of the three sons of J.V. Milne, Alan was reading at two and soon displayed an unusual flair for advanced mathematics. At Cambridge University, Alan got a head start on his literary career, editing the student magazine Granta. Short on contributions, he proceeded to fill the gaps with light, amusing pieces of his own. After graduating with a disappointing ``Third,'' he set out to make his way in the literary world, with the usual difficulties. He eventually found his way to the British satirical magazine Punch.
Milne was aware of the gap between his childhood precocity and his later performance. All the stories about his infant feats, he later declared, would have been more appropriate if told about a two-year-old Abraham Lincoln.
In 1913, Milne married Dorothy de S'elincourt (``Daphne'' or ``Daff''). Although it lasted until death parted them, it was not a union of soul mates. Each sought other outlets for their affections. Thwaite, who is nothing if not cautious, furnishes the known facts and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the extent of these involvements.
Milne was a pacifist, but felt it right to serve his country in World War I. This deepened his conviction of the folly of war. In 1934, he wrote a book, ``Peace with Honour,'' that became a veritable pacifist textbook. But when faced with the ``criminal sadism'' of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, he dismayed more doctrinaire pacifists by becoming a strong advocate of World War II. A lifelong liberal, he hated communism and fascism, and surprised himself - and others - by voting against the prevailing Labour tide, for Churchill's Tory party in the postwar election.
Thwaite, author of two previous, well-received biographies (of the Victorian man-of-letters Edmund Gosse and of children's writer Frances Hodgson Burnett), portrays Milne as a man and a mind worth taking seriously. She provides detailed accounts of his political positions, gleaned from his pamphlets and the numerous letters-to-the-editor he got into the habit of writing. She writes insightfully about his personality and intellect. She is less successful in conveying a sense of what his everyday life was like. One also misses the convenience of a chronology.
Herself an author of children's books, Thwaite is sensitive to the special talent necessary to produce the seemingly effortless lightness that characterized so many of Milne's writings, for adults as well as children. Without making extravagant claims for him, she has written an engaging and thoughtful biography that gives Milne his due.