Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today feline dedicated post was a birthday gift from my good friend Eileen Travell. She acquired this precious, slim volume at a store I long to experience one day and that I wrote about in an earlier post, 3 Little Kittens, which can be found here, and describes that gift purchased there as well, The Salem, New York shop is 1786 Wilson Homestead (1117 Chamberlin Mill Road, Salem, NY; their website which can be found here). It has set me to dreaming about a future summer day digging through their wares. My copy is stamped School Library, Saranac Lake, N.Y. on both front and back fly leafs.
While this book is clearly meant for children, complete with very large and easily read text, I am not sure I would say race out and grab this book to read to your small child. Suffice it to say life was cheaper and harder in 1879 and that is evidenced in this book. The overall premise of the book is that while a little girl is away visiting her aunt she receives a series of letters penned by her puss in her absence. (Yes, the remarkable nature of a cat writing letters, however sloppily printed, is covered in the story, although never fully explained. The methods of post are detailed however.)
Sadly kit has a hard time of it in the absence of her mistress with everything from a spring cleaning of the house, which terrifies her, to an accident with a barrel of soft soap, which I assume is either lye or the lye and fat makings for soap, which almost does her in. All about the plot is is given away in the first part of the book which is penned in the voice of the young mistress now grown.
However, when the little mistress describes how much she loves her kitty and what a glorious cat she is you know that H.H. was herself a cat lover and an understander of the feline nature. (Kim speculated that the timing is right for this book to have inspired Archy and Mehitabel, first created by Don Marquis in 1916 and collected first in 1927. As many of you know, it is best known for being illustrated by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame.)
Letters from a Cat Published by Her Mistress for the Benefit of all Cats and the Amusement of Little Children has an original copyright of 1879. My edition is from 1930. It has seventeen illustrations by Addie Ledyard. The author H.H. turns out to be Helen Hunt Jackson (b. 1830 and d. 1885, née Helen Maria Fiske) a famous poet and writer of her day.
Jackson was the daughter of a minister, author, and professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College. Her mother having died when Helen was 14, she and her sister were fully orphaned three years later. However, the father had provided for Helen’s education and she attended a boarding school where she was the classmate of Emily Dickinson with whom she corresponded throughout her life. Helen Hunt Jackson was very much a part of the interesting and broad group of writers and thinkers in the greater Amherst area of the day.
Jackson begins writing after the loss of husband and sons over a handful of years and before she was much more than 30 years old. (Hunt was the surname of this husband, she eventually remarries while taking the cure for TB in Colorado years later and takes the name Jackson.) Her earliest works are published under the H.H. nom de plume. She became interested in issues surrounding the poor treatment of Native Americans after hearing a lecture in Boston by Chief Standing Bear in 1879 (interestingly, the year Letters from a Cat was published).
Her best known work, Ramona, published in 1884, is a story of a young woman of mixed Scots and Native American heritage, was hugely popular and spawned five films and even was thought to expand the tourism industry of Southern California at the time. While it may have been the romance of the story that made it so popular, Jackson wrote it as a way of showing the plight of the native people. She kept up a very real and fierce lifelong battle with Washington over the treatment of the Indians and fighting for the return of their land and rights.
Of the illustrator, Addie Ledyard, there is really no information except for the trail of books she illustrated which are still available. At a glance I would say cats were a specialty, although she seems to have illustrated at least one volume of Louisa May Alcott stories. Following my nose on her illustrations may lead to some other interesting discoveries.
I am reminded of an obscure, antique volume I had years ago and gave to my mother, written by another poet who also wrote from the perspective of her cat. If I can remember it and find it I will share it in a subsequent post. I always think of it when I see a cat watching out a window as her cat called that reading the newspaper daily.
Letters from a Cat is available on Project Gutenberg (with illustrations) and Google Books, as well as in reproduction and various earlier reprints over time. With renewed thanks to Eileen, I suggest all you cat collectors get on this one.