At Play Among The Wild Things: On the Death Of Maurice Sendak
Author: Victoria Brownworth
May 9, 2012
Maurice Sendak, the most celebrated American children’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,” 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 Jeff comic strip and ended late in 2011 with his last book, “Bumble-Ardy,” which he wrote and illustrated. The book was on the New York Times children’s bestseller list for several months.
It’s impossible to quantify the impact Sendak had on children’s literature, but it was immense and quotes from his books have become part of the American zeitgeist. Few of us didn’t read–or haven’t had read to us–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 “Chicken Soup with Rice” and “Alligators All Around.”
Sendak’s drawings were engaging and his prose accessible, yet both conveyed more complexity than was seen at first glance. That complexity–and the fact that his stories were not always tales with happy endings–was what made Sendak’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 “terrible situation” and “mostly fearful.” 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 “roar their terrible roars” and “gnash their terrible teeth.” But soon, Max has tamed and befriended them and declares, “let the wild rumpus start!”
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 couldn’t remember when he didn’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 PBS’s Bill Moyers in an interview, “I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerrilla warfare in my best books.”
When he was 20, Sendak was hired to do windows at the famous F.A.O. Schwarz children’s store. It was a job that would change his life. Befriended by the book buyer for the store, he was introduced to Harper & Row’s Ursula Nordstrom, one of the most fabled and powerful children’s book editors in post-War New York. Through her, he began illustrating books for other children’s authors until he started doing his own.
Sendak’s career is truly mesmerizing in its breadth and volume. He had an expansive artistic vision, and it’s seen in the scope of his work which ranged from children’s books to commentary, plays to opera, comics to TV. His children’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 Bettleheim’s ground-breaking work ran parallel to Sendak’s, for example. (Although interestingly, Bettelheim wrote a scathing review of Wild Things which he found unsettling and “punishing.” Later he would admit he hadn’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 children’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 child–like Max, who Sendak said was himself–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 wasn’t afraid to present children as angry or vengeful because he recognized their complexity as people. Children were never “just” children to Sendak.
Nor were animals just animals. Sendak wrote many books featuring animals, and he wrote several about the adventures of his beloved dog, Jennie, in which she goes off to work on the stage.
Nevertheless, it doesn’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, 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 Sendak’s best-known works, In the Night Kitchen (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 Sendak’s characters were, so too was the artist himself. His queerness was kept closeted during his parents’ lifetimes and in a 2008 interview with the New York Times Sendak said, “I’m gay. I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business. All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
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: “Zletah, the Goat.” The book won a Newberry Award in 1966.
It was one of many awards. Sendak’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 art–along with Disney, Herman Melville and Mozart–with being able to calm him. In an interview with PBS, he said, “And 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.”
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 old–and God knows there are few graces–is that if you’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 what’s happening to me.
Sendak’s books were not just for children–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,
We’ve educated children to think that spontaneity is inappropriate. Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren’t. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they’re really protecting themselves. Besides, you can’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 we’d all lived it in our own childhood lives.
It’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 survivors–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, “Please don’t go. We’ll eat you up. We love you so.”
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. It’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 Rosenbach’s relationship with Sendak was nearly as long as his relationship with Glynn. A year after Glynn’s death, the Rosenbach presented a year-long retrospective of Sendak’s work, “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak.” Nearly 150 pieces taken from the museum’s collection of “Sendakiana,” which is the largest in the world, has become a traveling exhibit with “original artwork, rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials and exclusive interview footage.”
What’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. It’s a moving and almost overwhelming testament to the life’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 detailed sketches for unpublished editions of stories including Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Henry James’ 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 NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross (the show originates in Philadelphia) can be heard here.