- Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters
Beatrix Potter's Americans is a welcome addition to Potter's words and life. For serious Potter devotees, this selection of letters written to various American correspondents will find its appropriate place on the shelf alongside other Potter works and studies, most notably the representative collection of her art work published in The Art of Beatrix Potter and Margaret Lane's biography, The Tale of Beatrix Potter. Although best suited to readers familiar with Potter's life, the book holds some interest for anyone wishing to know more about Mrs. Beatrix Heelis—that middle-aged sheep-farmer snugly settled at Hill Top Farm, best known as the creator of Peter Rabbit and twenty other "tale of" picture storybooks. So long as one has some acquaintance with that creator—and who does not?—-Beatrix Potter's Americans will serve to widen the aperture through which both Beatrix Potter and Beatrix Heelis are viewed.
Published by The Horn Book, Inc., the book itself is a sturdy, attractive work; even Potter would no doubt have been pleased with the book's aesthetics and quality. Effectively framed by wide margins, the letters stand out in clean, clear type; twenty-two illustrations and sketches, the majority culled from private collections, are also effectively situated and exactly reproduced. Indeed, the illustrations alone constitute a valuable addition to Potter's public work: of the twenty full-color illustrations, one pencil drawing and one pen-and-ink sketch, only four have been previously published. In addition to an informative introduction, editor Jane Crowell Morse has provided explanatory blurbs appropriately interspersed among the pages in order to orient the reader as to whom is being addressed or to what circumstance elicited a respective letter. Especially welcome are an epilogue and appendix. The epilogue reprints a fine editorial/obituary published in the New York Herald Tribune shortly after Potter's death on December 22, 1943. The appendix reprints two of Potter's essays written for The Horn Book: one on the "Roots of The Peter Rabbit Tales," and one on "The Lonely Hills," a ruminative piece, sparked by a spinet's touched chords, treating the Lake Country's romantic aura.
Of course, the book's raison d'etre is the letters, begun some eight years after Potter had married William Heelis and taken up sheep-raising in the Lake District. Spanning the years from 1921 until her death in 1943, only a few of these letters have been published before. All of them were sent to correspondents in America, that "perfidiously complimentary nation," with a large number being addressed to Anne Carroll Moore, the first supervisor of children's work in The New York Public Library, and to Bertha Mahony Miller, founder of The Horn Book Magazine. What is clearly evident from even a random sampling [End Page 64] of these letters is Potter's appreciation of the Americans' appreciation of her work; it is that mutual appreciation which prompted the missives on both sides of the Atlantic and which accounts for this book's very existence. Often juxtaposed to Potter's receptive response toward the Americans is a comparative criticism of the English public, publishers, and booksellers. Writing in a letter dated December 9, 1929, she notes that Americans "treat me seriously," and laments that The Tailor of Gloucester, "my own favorite," was least successful in her own country:
I know that it was less generally cared for because it was less comic. I think the vogue of children's books in this country is far too much governed by the shop keepers; and mine have always been toy books—not literature. Certainly my English publishers consider the pictures first-, and the words a poor second. The shop keepers like something comic and showy . . . it does seem such a pity that children should be encouraged to like things grotesquely ugly.
Fourteen years later, she makes a nearly identical pronouncement, saying that Americans "really appreciate my little books; whereas in this country it is the popularity of a 'best seller' toy book—enormous sales...