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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Maurice Sendak

I never thought of Maurice Sendak as a writer for children. Possibly this is because I did not read his books when I was a child. I don't know why we never had many picture books in our house, but for whatever reason we didn't. We had Dr. Seuss and Mercer Mayer and a handful of miscellaneous titles, but no Sendak. I went straight on from The Lorax to the Bobbsey Twins, and, as I grew, did my best to fake the cultural literacy I'd missed. In college I often rewarded myself after surviving exams with a trip to the children's section of Wordsworth, where I marked the hardest moment of my senior year by purchasing two paperback copies of Where the Wild Things Are. I cut away the bindings and funtacked up the entire book on my dorm room wall, page by page. The monsters were familiar to me as the back of my hand; Jim Henson and Maurice Sendak only officially collaborated on a few animated shorts for Sesame Street, but the Muppet monsters (especially the full-sized ones, like Sweetums) and the Wild Things were clearly kin. But, Muppet associations aside, Max mastering the monsters wasn't comfort so much as it was company. Self-mastery is a journey one must make alone, but the wild things remind us that one's travels are fully populated nonetheless. I ate many a solitary supper under those illustrations, in Max's company.

Company, not comfort. I never found anything about Sendak comforting. Not just the explicitly upsetting texts, like We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy (with its rats and starving brown children), or Outside Over There, with its terrifying Holocaust subtext. All of his books were so heavy with dislocation and strangeness, which I recognized then and now as the way the world distorts itself when seen through the telescope of suffering. Even the rollicking books teetered back and forth on the edge of an abyss. Mickey in his cake, sturdy child, was only a nightmare without the screaming, a nightmare yanked into happy ending by sheer force of animal health. We all know, don't we, that some sorrows respond to nothing but fat and sugar. In the Night Kitchen was the only one of Sendak's books that we read with any frequency here when the children were small. "Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake and nothing's the matter!" We chanted that over and over again to general glee, and pretended for a moment that cake would cure our many small disasters, when we knew it was only keeping us company with its promise that the world contained always the possibility of sweetness and love.

Sendak was never a comfort, but, oh, he was brave company. He saw and felt and represented with an unflinching eye. Mary McCarthy once said about Elizabeth Bishop, "Not that I want to have written her works but that I would like to have had her quiddity, her way of seeing that was like a big pocket magnifying glass. Of course it would have to hurt to have to use it for ordinary looking: that would have been the forfeit." That is how I think of Sendak; I cannot read his books without feeling also the hurt that was the forfeit. In fact, that is how I place him, in a line with the poets of looking, like Marianne Moore (who, according to Tony Kushner in The Art of Maurice Sendak, wished that she had written Chicken Soup with Rice!) or Bishop. I do not think it is a stretch to place Sendak in that lineage. He associated himself with it when he illustrated the poet Randall Jarrell's last work, an achingly beautiful fable called The Animal Family, which should have a far more prominent place in the canon of children's literature than it does — or, at least, in the canon of literature that we say is for children because it gets far closer to the heart of being than most grown-ups can bear.

Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for keeping us company with the things for which we have no comfort.


Blogger Martha Spong said...

First, what a gorgeous eulogy.
Somewhere among my mostly silent mother's books, I found a two-volume set of Grimms' Fairy Tales, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Sendak. Have you seen it? I think this is a link to a one-volume version. It's breath-taking, not like a sunset but like an avalanche.

12:14 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

No, I've never seen it. Wow, wow, wow. Something new to haunt used bookstores for. Did you remember ever seeing it yourself as a child, or had your mother bought it for herself?

12:27 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Diane said...

beautiful! I still remember my aunt singing the praises of Where the Wild Things Are, when she was studying for her elementary education degree.

12:28 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger liz said...


12:55 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous susan said...

so wonderful to read your words again....a beautiful eulogy.

1:02 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous magpie said...

just perfect.

1:38 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous lucy said...

I was wishing I had my beloved childhood copy of Higgledy Piggledy Pop! here, but I found the complete audiobook on youtube. How did I miss that there was a Spike Jonze/Meryl Streep version?

Some other awesome Sendak links:
Pierre set to music by the Dresden Dolls

Sendak on the Colbert Report Part 1 and Part 2.

Neil Gaiman just posted a conversation between Sendak and Art Spiegelman.

1:39 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger jo(e) said...

Beautifully said.

2:01 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and such an interesting viewpoint, PS

2:20 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wait, what is the Holocaust subtext of "Outside Over There?"

2:54 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Arwen said...

I'm sorry, but I seem to have gotten your words in my eye.

I did have Sendak around as a child, and certainly always felt braver when reading him. It was like we shared a secret about truth. He was a huge comfort to me, in that. Not comforting like a promise, but comforting like a conspirator.

3:06 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous Rachel H said...

Damn, woman.

4:09 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous Genevieve said...

Just gorgeous. Thank you, Phantom.
(I think I found Chicken Soup With Rice comforting. But agree on all the rest.)

4:46 PM, May 08, 2012  
Anonymous Heather Woodward said...

Lovely and perfect, as always.

10:13 PM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger elswhere said...

This is the most lovely and perfect thing I've read about Sendak today. Or possibly ever. Thank you.

12:19 AM, May 09, 2012  
Anonymous Jody said...


That Juniper Tree book is still in print in the UK. The Book Depository has gone out of stock, but as of 8am on Wednesday, Amazon.co.uk had three copies available.

8:08 AM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger Tall Kate said...

Fantastic. The only one I ever knew was Where the Wild Things Are, and I read it late, too (my mom admitted that it scared her so we didn't have it when I was a kid.) Then my lovely friend Ms. Phantom gave us In the Night Kitchen for a child's birthday somewhere along the line. We bake cake and nothing's the matter FTW.

8:43 AM, May 09, 2012  
Anonymous Nicole said...

Your words are beautiful! I knew only Where the Wild Things Are, too, and it was when I was both too old (how I felt at the time!) and too young for picture books. My son and I were remembering another one that Sendak illustrated: What Can You Do with a Shoe? Someone gave that to my daughter when she was three, maybe.

9:26 AM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger Suniverse said...

So lovely.

Thanks for sharing this.

I keep sing-songing "Chicken soup with rice" in my head. And maybe a little bit out loud.

3:32 PM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger Martha Spong said...

Phantom, I think she must have, because it appeared on the shelf when I was older. I'm looking at the volumes right now.

5:09 PM, May 09, 2012  
Anonymous Lisa V said...


12:00 AM, May 10, 2012  
Blogger liz said...

Thank you for writing this, Phantom.

11:12 AM, May 10, 2012  
Blogger Queen of West Procrastination said...

Beautiful as always, Phantom.

3:50 PM, May 11, 2012  

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