At Play Among The Wild Things: On the Death Of Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak, the most celebrated American childrenâ€™s illustrator since N.C. Wyeth, died in Danbury,Connecticut on the morning of May 8th from complications of a recent stroke. He was one month shy of his 84th birthday. Sendak was predeceased in May 2007 by his partner of 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn, a noted child psychiatrist.
Sendak, best-known for his iconic 1963 masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are,â€ť wrote and illustrated more than 100 books. His career as an illustrator began when Sendak was in high school and illustrated backgrounds for All-American Comics, for books of the Mutt and JeffÂ comic strip and ended late in 2011 with his last book, â€śBumble-Ardy,â€ť which he wrote and illustrated. The book was on the New York Times childrenâ€™s bestseller list for several months.
Itâ€™s impossible to quantify the impact Sendak had on childrenâ€™s literature, but it was immense and quotes from his books have become part of the AmericanÂ zeitgeist. Few of us didnâ€™t readâ€“or havenâ€™t had read to usâ€“his many books. The Nutshell Library was a particular favorite, with its four small books in a slip case and its clever, catchy rhymes about â€śChicken Soup with Riceâ€ť and â€śAlligators All Around.â€ť
Sendakâ€™s drawings were engaging and his prose accessible, yet both conveyed more complexity than was seen at first glance. That complexityâ€“and the fact that his stories were not always tales with happy endingsâ€“was what made Sendakâ€™s work so compelling. He depicted the world in which children live as well as the one they visit–reality and imagination–as visceral, wild and sometimes dark places. In interviews over the years, Sendak repeatedly expressed his sincere and serious regard for the perspective of children, while his work reflected the myriad facets of the child world.
Sendak was born in Brooklyn into an immigrant family of Polish Jews. Many of his extended family had been killed in the Holocaust and Sendak described his childhood as a â€śterrible situationâ€ť and â€śmostly fearful.â€ť Those fears–of being taken away, as his relatives had been–were later reflected in some of his books. Children are often lured away by predatory monsters or encounter them on their travels and must defeat them or stand up to them. When Max arrives at the place where the wild things are they â€śroar their terrible roarsâ€ť and â€śgnash their terrible teeth.â€ť But soon, MaxÂ has tamed andÂ befriended them and declares, â€ślet the wild rumpus start!â€ť
A sickly child in the Dickensian world of Depression-era, tenement-filled New York, Sendak became enamored of books at a very early age and said he couldnâ€™t remember when he didnâ€™t want to draw. He loved Disney movies and cited Fantasia as one of his most important influences. At 12, he decided that he wanted to be an artist and pretty much just did so. As Sendak told PBSâ€™s Bill Moyers in an interview, â€śI wasnâ€™t gonna paint. And I wasnâ€™t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I wasnâ€™t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. Iâ€™m like a guerrilla warfare in my best books.â€ť
When he was 20, Sendak was hired to do windows at the famous F.A.O. Schwarz childrenâ€™s store. It was a job that would change his life. Befriended by the book buyer for the store, he was introduced to Harper & Rowâ€™s Ursula Nordstrom, one of the most fabled and powerful childrenâ€™s book editors in post-War New York. Through her, he began illustrating books for other childrenâ€™s authors until he started doing his own.
Sendakâ€™s career is truly mesmerizing in its breadth and volume. He had an expansive artistic vision, and itâ€™s seen in the scope of his work which ranged from childrenâ€™s books to commentary, plays to opera, comics to TV. His childrenâ€™s books resonated, impacting the work of other writers. His books came on the scene in tandem with a host of works in the 1960s and 70s devoted to the child mind. Bruno Bettleheimâ€™s ground-breaking work ran parallel to Sendakâ€™s, for example. (Although interestingly, Bettelheim wrote a scathing review of Wild Things Â which he found unsettling and â€śpunishing.â€ť Later he would admit he hadnâ€™t read the book when he wrote the review. And Sendak said the book is anything but punishing of young Max.)
Sendak incorporated the European traditions of somewhat scary childrenâ€™s tales into his own unique tradition of Otherness. He viewed children as living in the parallel realities of real life and imagination and his work epitomizes the layering of text and subtext. The real world is often unmanageable, enraging, or even terrifying, but the world of imagination awaits to take children to another place that can be warmer and more welcoming or fraught with dangers and quests that must be undertaken. That other world can send the childâ€“like Max, who Sendak said was himselfâ€“back from both his punishment from his parents and his adventures with the wild things to a better place where anger is dissipated and happiness and contentment are restored and Mother, who sent Max to bed without supper, has left food out for him. Reality is tamed by, but also broadened by imagination.
Sendak wasnâ€™t afraid to present children as angry or vengeful because he recognized their complexity as people. Children were never â€śjustâ€ť children to Sendak.
Nor were animals just animals. Sendak wrote many books featuring animals,Â and he wrote several about the adventures of his beloved dog, Jennie, in which she goes off to work on the stage.
Nevertheless, it doesnâ€™t always work out in the end in a Sendak story. His 1993 book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, for example,Â is a dark tale about homeless kids in the era of AIDS. A decade later he illustrated Brundibar, a book on which he worked with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Tony Kushner. The book is based on a opera performed by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Sendak also worked with Kushner, who became a close friend, on a stage version of the opera. The show debuted in New York in 2006. Sendak spoke a great deal in interviews about the Holocaust and about what it meant to be a Jew after WWII.
Another of Sendakâ€™s best-known works, In the Night KitchenÂ (1970) has been banned frequently from both libraries and schools because its main character, a young boy, runs through the nocturnal adventure story naked. According to Sendak, some librarians and teachers would draw pants or a diaper on the boy, much like former Attorney General John Ashcroft clothed the naked statues in the Washington Capitol building.
As conflicted as Sendakâ€™s characters were, so too was the artist himself. His queerness was kept closeted during his parentsâ€™ lifetimes and in a 2008 interview with the New York Times Sendak said, â€śIâ€™m gay. I just didnâ€™t think it was anybodyâ€™s business. All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.â€ť
Sendak also noted, in another interview, that the one time he was certain his parents approved of him was when he illustrated a story by Nobel Prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer: â€śZletah, the Goat.â€ť The book won a Newberry Award in 1966.
It was one of many awards. Sendakâ€™s other awards include the Caldecott, the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and, in 1996, the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton. Twenty-two of his titles have been named New York Times best illustrated books of the year.
Sendak suffered from depression and anxiety, and he credited Emily Dickinson, one of a handful of significant influences on his artâ€“along with Disney, Herman Melville and Mozartâ€“with being able to calm him. In an interview with PBS, he said, â€śAnd I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a passionate little woman. I feel better.â€ť
Sendak was an immensely interesting man, and as he got older, he developed a deeper appreciation for his own talent. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times after the release of The Big Book for Peace, Sendak said,
One of the few graces of getting oldâ€“and God knows there are few gracesâ€“is that if youâ€™ve worked hard and kept your nose to the grindstone, something happens: The body gets old but the creative mechanism is refreshed, smoothed and oiled and honed. That is the grace. That is the splendid grace. And I think that is whatâ€™s happening to me.
Sendakâ€™s books were not just for childrenâ€“he wanted to open the door to imagination that he believed most of us closed too soon. In an interview with the New York Times in 1987, Sendak said,
Weâ€™ve educated children to think that spontaneity is inappropriate. Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We arenâ€™t. Grownups always say they protect their children, but theyâ€™re really protecting themselves. Besides, you canâ€™t protect children. They know everything.
It was that belief that made his books work so well. Sendak told the story we knew was true, because weâ€™d all lived it in our ownÂ childhood lives.
Itâ€™s difficult, even painful, to imagine a world in which Maurice Sendak is not creating some new vision of our collective and individual interior child life for us to devour.
Sendak left no survivorsâ€“just his phenomenal work which brought us so close to our most vivid imaginings. To quote the wild things when Max is leaving them to head back home, â€śPlease donâ€™t go. Weâ€™ll eat you up. We love you so.â€ť
When you enter the Rosenbach Museum on quiet, brick-paved Delancey Street off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, you are lured immediately to the Sendak section. In his early 40s, Sendak contacted the museum and bequeathed all his papers to them. The museum has over 10,000 pieces of various Sendak papers, books, memorabilia, sketches, photographs, ephemera. Itâ€™s absolutely breath-taking. Last year the museum inherited an entire section of wall that Sendak had illustrated for the children of friends in New York. The wall was cut out and shipped to the Rosenbach for permanent exhibition.
The Rosenbachâ€™s relationship with Sendak was nearly as long as his relationship with Glynn. A year after Glynnâ€™s death, the Rosenbach presented a year-long retrospective of Sendakâ€™s work, â€śThereâ€™s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak.â€ť Nearly 150 pieces taken from the museumâ€™s collection of â€śSendakiana,â€ť which is the largest in the world, has become a traveling exhibit with â€śoriginal artwork, rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials and exclusive interview footage.â€ť
Whatâ€™s so compelling about the Rosenbach collection of Sendak is the coziness factor. Sendak was an intensely private man for much of his life and the interviews done at and by the Rosenbach with Sendak provide entre into Sendak the man, Sendak the artist, Sendak the lover of Glynn, children, dogs, his family, art, music. Itâ€™s a moving and almost overwhelming testament to the lifeâ€™s work of the artist and the man. Some of the most amazing things at the Rosenbach are the original color artwork from Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, The Nutshell Library, Outside Over There and Brundibar. There are detailedÂ sketches for unpublished editions of stories including Tolkienâ€™s The HobbitÂ and Henry Jamesâ€™ The Turn of the Screw. There are also these incredible stories told by Sendak on topics like Alice in Wonderland, his struggle to illustrate his favorite novels, hilarious stories about growing up and living in Brooklyn and then a poignant explanation of the way his work helps him exorcise childhood traumas.
Any devotee of Sendak or books must stop at the Rosenbach when visiting Philadelphia. You can check out a lot of the Sendakiana at the Rosenbach website.
Also, an extraordinarily moving interview on NPRâ€™s â€śFresh Airâ€ť with Terry Gross (the show originates in Philadelphia) can be heard here.
Photo by John Dugdale