The Everyday Miracle of the Mail

Samuil Marshak, Pochta. Illustrated by Mikhail Tskekanovskii. 5th edition. (Leningrad: GIZ, 1930). Cover title. Cotsen 35487.

In 1927 Samuil Marshak wrote the poem Pochta to praise the efficiency of modern communications with some droll humor and a little dash of wonder.  The plot is brilliant in its simplicity.

A little boy writes a letter to the children’s book author Boris Zhitkov, but Postman Number 5 delivers it to his Leningrad apartment after Zhitkov has left for London.  The letter is forwarded to London, where it misses him again.  It doesn’t reach him in Berlin and has to be redirected to Brazil.  The letter goes around the world before catching up with Zhitkov in Leningrad.  When he receives the letter, covered with cancelled stamps and addresses crossed through, he is amazed at the remarkable network of postmen in different countries connected by trains, airplanes, and ships it represents.

The letter’s voyage can be tracked on the map to the left.

Pochta is such an inspired collaboration between author and illustrator that it is hard to imagine the text being brought to life anywhere as well by another illustrator.   But the late Vladimir Radunsky, a wildly creative Russian-born American artist, conceived a delightful interpretation all his own that pays tribute to his brilliant predecessors.  Hail to the Mail (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1990) is not a literal translation of Marshak’s poem, but a cleverly expanded version with an American spin by Richard Pevear. Pevear, as you’ll see below, gets top billing on the Radunsky’s title page, with its clever allusions to the design concept of the Soviet one.Here is the first attempted delivery of the letter to one John Peck, which Radunsky dramatizes as an encounter between Postman Tim and an unidentified gentleman who seems to be living in Peck’s New York apartment (his portrait is hanging on the wall to the left).  The letter now travels west across the vast North American plains to Boise, Idaho.

Peck has decamped for Zurich, so the letter flies west across the Pacific and Asia to Switzerland.  Of course he has left for some place else–Brazil.  The letter, safetly stowed in the special cabin in a transatlantic ship, arrives after his return home to New York City.Peck the world traveler is amazed that the letter has followed him from place to place, thanks to the dedicated mailmen.  When Postman Tim finally places it in his hands Peck sings “Glory to them, I saw, and Hail / To their heavy bags that bring the mail.”

It is incredible, Internet or no Internet, and Pevear found the right English words to recreate Marshak’s:

A letter can travel / Without / Any trouble / Take a stamp / And lick it — / No need for a ticket — / Your passenger’s sealed / And ready to whirl / On a few-penny / Journey / All over the world. / And it won’t eat or drink / On the way / and there’s only one thing/ It will say/ As it comes down to land: / Certified.

So with only ten shopping (and shipping) days until Christmas, let us carol “All hail to the mail” and give thanks to those tireless folks at USPS, FEDEX, and UPS who process and deliver the packages that do so much to make the season merry and bright!

Children Naughty and Nice for St. Nicholas’s Review

Christmas comes but once and year and when it does it brings….annual performance appraisals of children. This belief  that St. Nicholas passes judgment on us may evaporate soon enough, but not before planting the idea that December means the person in authority decides if you have been productive/nice or unproductive/naughty.   In the spirit of the season, let’s put under the microscope some child characters in eighteenth-century books, who were very, very good or very, very bad.

Kindness to animals often indicated a good heart in an age when cruelty to animals was tolerated to a degree unimaginable today.  In this illustration, Jacky Lovebook is buying a cat from a man, who had stolen it while it was playing on the steps of its house.  Afraid that the cat will be abused by its abductor, Jacky runs after the man and offers to take it off his hands.  The man names a shilling as the price, so Jacky gives him the sixpence in his pocket plus a top worth twelve pence (seen in his hand).  Even though he made a bad deal, Jacky happily returns the cat to its owner.  The second illustration shows a fly, who is the story’s hero and narrator, entangled in a spider’s web in a shop he flew into, lured by the delicious smell of barley sugar and molasses.  The little girl rescues him with her brush, only to nearly kill him with kindness by kissing him, unaware that exposure to the blasts of her hot breath would be unbearable to such a small creature.

Stephen Jones, The History of Tommy Lovebook and Jacky Playlove (London: E. Newbery, 1783) p. 46. Cotsen 6732.

Stephen Jones, The Life and Adventures of a Fly (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1787), p. 53. Cotsen 6777.

Sad but true, the bad children are more interesting than the tender-hearted ones, at least in fiction.  Despicable little girls are highlighted today in the interests of equal opportunity, horrid little boys having been the subject of a previous post. 

Here is six-year-old Fanny Dawdle, who has been coddled all of her short life.  Considered a delicate child, she has spent so much time lounging on the sofa that her legs and body have grown crooked.  Her mind has been completely uncultivated so she has not yet learned the letters of the alphabet or how to thread a needle.  Having nothing to do, she orders the servants around all day and they hate her.  She ought to make the acquaintance of Miss Fiddle Faddle who spends her time  “eating, drinking, gossiping, dressing, undressing, and sleeping.”   An eighteenth-century fashion victim, she sits in front of her mirror trying to place a beauty patch on her face.  If she can’t do it to her satisfaction after an hour, she may get so angry that she will break the mirror.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 22. Cotsen 5362.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 62. Cotsen 5362.

Literary critics usually turn up their noses at characters like Miss Fanny and Miss Fiddle Faddle as completely unbelievable compared to the rounded ones in today’s children’s books.   It is as if they believe children have no ability to distinguish the realistic delineation of character and the distortion of it for satiric purposes.  But lots of children find the grotesques in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory absolutely hilarious.  The young ladies from the eighteenth-century novels are surely sisters under the skin to Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregard: they are funny because they are all so awful.  And readers can congratulate themselves for being free from such obnoxious traits.

But will St. Nicholas give them a pass?  Probably not…  It will be switches and coal in their stockings for eternity.