Remembering Maurice Sendak, who sublimated his unhappy Brooklyn Jewish childhood into literary success.
‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!”
That’s what the Wild Things say to Max when he abandons them to return to his mother, and his supper. It’s an expression of grief that surely rings true to countless children and former children who woke May 8 to learn that Maurice Sendak, creator of “Where the Wild Things Are” and several other beloved children’s books had died earlier that day at 83 of complications from a recent stroke.
Best known for “Where the Wild Things Are,” in which the mischievous, wolf-suited Max does his mother’s maddening power one better by becoming the king of the Wild Things, Sendak left an oeuvre.
It included “Chicken Soup with Rice,” “In the Night Kitchen” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” many books he illustrated but did not write like “A Very Special House” and adaptations of his work, such as the 2009 feature film version of “Where the Wild Things Are” directed by Spike Jonze.
He also did explicitly Jewish projects, such as the illustrations for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories.” That Sendak called his book’s hero “Max,” way before the name became so trendy is no accident. Harper & Row published the book in 1963, back when “Max” still meant a Yiddish-speaking worker like Sendak’s father, a garment district tailor, instead of today’s pampered tween.
Sendak sublimated his past into his books. This was a major achievement, said Leonard S. Marcus, the children’s book historian and critic who knew Sendak and interviewed him, as they were among the first to depict pain and rage in the pareve children’s literature of the period.
The squalor and pathology of Jewish immigrant life as he lived it and the inescapable fact of the Holocaust were chief among Sendak’s artistic preoccupations.
“He was constantly aware of the outsider status of the Jewish person in America,” Marcus said. “He told me about getting beat up in the street, being recognized as Jewish.”
Sendak grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression and the Holocaust, the son of volatile and difficult parents. The family moved house every few years, for example, because his mother couldn’t stand to have their apartment painted, Marcus said.
Max’s Wild Things, Sendak told several interviewers over the years, were based on his uncles and aunts: scary, smelly creatures from the perspective of a child who feared that they really did love him enough to “eat him up.”
A sickly child, Sendak spent much time in bed, where he would obsess over the loss of European relatives. Later, he would depict chefs with mustaches reminiscent of Hitler’s trying to cook the naked Mickey of “In the Night Kitchen.” More recently, he collaborated with playwright Tony Kushner on a picture book-and-opera project that revived the 1938 children’s opera Brundibar, which had one of its original performances in the Terezin concentration camp.
Perfect, proper blondes were ubiquitous in postwar children’s literature, and in advertising and television as well, Marcus said. Sendak made space for ethnicity, his own and that of others.
“He chose to draw children in a more realistic way. They were reminiscent of the children he knew growing up in Jewish Brooklyn. Those little kids are short, and they’re dark, and a little stubby. They’re out in the street and they’re wearing their emotions on their sleeve.”
Rosie of “The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” later adapted by Carole King into the musical “Really Rosie,” was a spunky, resourceful neighborhood Italian girl Sendak observed through his window, said Claudia Nahson, who curated Sendak’s 2005 exhibit at The Jewish Museum.
Not every educator or parent is eager to enter Sendak’s subversive world, or to let their children go there. Some say the books are too scary; others have banned them, particularly “In the Night Kitchen,” for its nudity.
Sendak had a bar mitzvah and grew up speaking Yiddish, but later rejected Jewish practice, Marcus said. He came to style himself an Anglophile, immersing himself in the English tradition of illustration and walking around with a cane that had belonged to Beatrix Potter, author-illustrator of the “Peter Rabbit” books.
“That was emblematic of his allegiance,” Marcus said. “It was important to him from an artistic point of view to be worldly, rather than ethnic. He didn’t want to be a children’s book artist. He didn’t want to be a Jewish artist.”
Of course, most of the books Sendak made were for children, and many had clear roots in his Jewish heritage, Marcus added. Sendak also gave over $1 million in 2010 to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in memory of his partner, Eugene Glynn, a psychiatrist who worked at the board for 30 years, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Even as an adult, Sendak never told his parents he was gay, he told the New York Times in 2008. Indeed, his overriding concern, he often said, was the everyday plight of the generally powerless human being trying to survive childhood. Through his books, he sympathized with children, and expressed his admiration for them, Nahson said.
“Max goes out and comes back, but you know he’s going to go out again,” Nahson said. “Nothing is resolved, because life is not resolved.”
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