Samuel Marshak’s Letter that Went Around the World: A Tribute to the Post Office

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!