King Machush The First And The U.S., Part 2.

In the first part, I tried to convey a sense of Janusz Korczak’s children’s novel.  In this part, I will attempt to show why this novel has not gained acceptance in the U.S.

Polish history is a major factor in this lack of acceptance.  Towards the late eighteenth century, Poland was seized and divided into three parts by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  It remained occupied until 1918.  Whatever Polish government there was, was regulated by the desires of the three countries.  It is not a coincidence that Korczak mentions three foreign kings in the Machush novel.  Furthermore, Korczak himself stated he would never marry, because he didn’t want his family to be prisoners.  This notion of an intruder taking over is deep in the Polish conscience, but has no parallel in American culture.  There is almost a kind of paranoia in Polish culture that any individual at any time can take over and bring the country to chaos.  In the U.S,. the individual is a sign of hope.  There is a feeling that one person can change the world for the better.  This was especially true in the 1970s.  American and Polish cultures could not be more different.  The news reporter destroys King Machush’s attempts to create a better world, but when John Merrick enters his nieces’ life, in L.Frank Baum’s series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces, he brings support and love.  Chaos in government is also a major theme in Polish thinking.  A government out of control occurs in many of Korczak’s works.  In one of Korczak’s later works, Kaitush the Wizard, Kaitush is attacked by his own government after attempting to do good.  But in the U.S., government has been relied on and it’s strength has always been emphasized.  Polish government has been seen as chaotic and weak, while American government has been seen as possessing order and stability.  The contrast is evident.  Korczak also believed in introducing children to the harsh realities of life: poverty, cruelty, injustice.  King Machush disguises himself as a peasant, so he can learn about the reality of war in his kingdom.  Machush, although a child, is never spared taunting, hunger, pain, abandonment, betrayal.  American culture has tried to protect children from such indignities.  Indeed, in the 1950s, one couldn’t mention child abuse in many schools.  Even today, certain topics are considered taboo and reasons for a teacher’s dismissal if they are brought up by the teacher.  There could not be a greater difference in outlook towards childhood.  Finally, Korczak was a firm believer in children’s rights.  He believed children should have their own parliament, their own form of government.  However, he never idealized children and emphasized that order comes from discipline and hard work.  In the 1950s and later, America was one of the few major countries to refuse to sign the United Nations Charter on Children’s Rights.  Public schools in America have been largely totalitarian in nature with strong centralization.  Corporal punishment was a given through the 1950s.  Student government was limited to one token representative who had absolutely no power.  Matters are improving, but Korczak’s manifesto of children’s rights would still strike a dagger in many a parent’s heart.  I would argue that for an American to fully appreciate Korczak, s/he would need to be aware of the many inherent differences that exist between Polish and American culture and have the desire and the openness to look beyond them.

Another Look At King Machush The First By Janusz Korczak

King Machush the First is regarded in Poland as one of the noteworthy contributions to Polish children’s literature.  It has been translated into many different languages, has inspired an opera, plays, and much criticism.  Korczak was one of the leading children’s rights activists of his day, and his book about the psychology of the child, Jak lubic dziecko, is as applicable today as it was when he completed it.   King Machush becomes a kind of philosopher-king as he learns about other children’s impoverished lives and struggles to bring about reforms.  Perhaps the character that most resembles Korczak is the Melancholy King, who is sad, reflective, and all too aware of the obstacles one must face to bring about reform.  The following excerpt from Act 1 Scene 8 gives some idea of the major theme in the work.

Machush:  And why is one King?

Melancholy King:  Not just to wear a crown.  But to give happiness to the people of his kingdom.  And how do you give happiness?  You introduce different reforms.

Machush(aside):  Oh-ho!  This is interesting.

Melancholy King:  And reforms–they are the most difficult.  Yes, the most difficult.(Melancholy King plays a sad melody on his violin.)  You are surprised, because you think that Kings can do anything they want.

Machush:  I don’t think that at all.  I know that protocol forbids many things, and so does the law.

Melancholy King:  Oh, you know already.  Yes, we alone issue bad laws, and then we have to follow them.

Machush:  Isn’t it possible to issue good laws?

Melancholy King:  It is possible, and one should.  You are still young, Machush.  Learn, and issue good, wise laws.(King takes Machush’s hand, and places it on his own, stroking it very tenderly.)  Listen, Machush.  My grandfather gave people freedom, but the outcome was bad.  They murdered him, and afterwards the people weren’t happy.  My father raised a great monument to freedom.  It is beautiful, but wars go on.  Then there are the poor and unfortunate to consider.  I ordered this great parliament building to be built, but what of it?  Things are the same as before.(Suddenly, he remembers something.)  You know, Machush.  We have always done badly when we have given reforms to adults.  If you try with the children, maybe you will succeed.  Now sleep, my dear child.  You came here to have fun, and I’ve disturbed you.  Good night.

A Reversal Of Eden In The King Machush Novels Of Janusz Korczak

An analysis of of Janusz Korczak’s most famous Polish children’s novels, the King Machush novels, reveals a reversal of the Eden motif so prevalent in much of children’s literature.  If it was Eve who tempted Adam, and caused the subsequent banishment from the garden, it is the boy, Fellek, who tempts Machush into a close friendship while eating cherries in the king’s garden, leading to Machush’s exile and eventual destruction.  Fellek is the son of a platoon guard, whom Machush envies because of his independent nature and ability to lead.  Machush never acknowledges Fellek’s devious nature, lack of desire to truly learn, and immense ego.  His trust in his “beloved” Fellek becomes his undoing.  It is the Young King’s spy, posing as a reporter for the children’s newspaper, who realizes that Fellek can be an instrument to get rid of Machush.(The Young King is Machush’s greatest enemy, because Machush defeated him in a war.)  Machush’s kingdom is forced to surrender to the young king because of Fellek’s betrayal and Machush himself is sent to an uninhabited island.  So, the first Machush novel comes to an end.  Towards the end of the second novel, Fellek appears  again as a threat to Machush’s good will.  Machush’s trust in Fellek results in his giving Fellek a factory job.  When Fellek’s laziness and lack of initiative  reveal themselves in an altercation, it is Machush who is killed in the factory accident.  Thus ends the second and last Machush volume. Although Machush grows to respect adults, children younger than himself and older children, he fails to see the danger posed by his “beloved” Fellek.  Illustration of Machush’s thoughts by Waldemar Andrzejewski from King Machush on an Uninhabited Island.