I’m mildly unsure if I should mention this, but I am not the world’s biggest Maurice Sendak fan. I like his work, certainly, but it didn’t transform or influence me in the same way it did so many of my peers. I’m even a big fan of the general genre he worked in — I just favor Czech or German tales such as Struwwelpeter. It’s kind of like Bruce Springsteen. I like him, and the live show I saw back in the late 1990s remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. And yet I know that I don’t appreciate him in the way so many friends do.
When Sendak’s death was announced yesterday morning, the New York Times had ready a gorgeous eulogy of a man the writer clearly adored. It was a great tribute. For our purposes here at GetReligion, I noticed this portion:
As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.”
I naturally became a bit more curious about the Jewish part and whether there was anything worth reading that explored these influences on him. If you are likewise curious, I’d recommend this essay headlined “‘Vilde khaye!’: Maurice Sendak’s not-so-cautionary tale” via the Yiddish Book Center. Here’s a relevant bit:
Sendak was born in Brooklyn to Polish immigrants. His father was a tailor who told his children biblical stories in dramatically embellished form. His mother was psychologically unstable. His parents; the experience of watching Walt Disney’s Fantasia at an early age; and the presence, visible and invisible, of relatives whose lives had been touched by the Holocaust defined the young Sendak’s world view. The parents spoke Yiddish to him. They often sent him to his room. And his mother called him vilde khaye, wild beast.
Some read Wild Things as a tale about innocence and courage, manliness, or even the rite of passage of a child seeking to define his limits in a world he doesn’t yet understand. Others seek a psychoanalytic explanation, looking at the disparity between the authority of the outside world and Max’s subconscious desires. A third interpretation, tangentially inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, approaches the plot through the prism of colonialism and abandonment. Like Prospero the magician, Max is exiled in a distant land surrounded by the sea. He becomes the ruler of the natives, subduing them, until he decides to leave them behind. Whatever interpretation one chooses (to me, they all seem forced), the book’s memorable title invites us to understand Max’s otherness at home and abroad.
The volume forms a triptych with Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Wild Things has been adapted as opera and recast as a musical as well as a film (with a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, and directed by Jonze). None of these variations comes remotely close to the power of the original.
Apparently, the first draft of Wild Things featured horses instead of monsters. Sendak’s editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, realizing that the author couldn’t draw horses very well (the original title was Where the Wild Horses Are), asked him to change the characters into creatures he could ably depict. Sendak opted for lovable monsters that, in his own words, resembled the immigrant aunts, uncles, and cousins who visited his childhood home in Brooklyn and for whom he felt both affection and disdain. He saw them as rowdy and impolite: they “could eat you up.” In the opera, these monsters have names: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.
In the realm of children’s literature, Sendak’s method is revolutionary. He shows only what Max experiences and refrains from moralizing or reflecting on the events. Jewishness is implied: although no reference is explicitly made to it, the entire book is permeated with Jewish sensibility. Max inhabits his own universe; he resists outside authority; he arrives in alien lands but assimilates the inhabitants’ culture so well that he becomes a leader. Most of all, he longs for a return to his origins, the only place he feels truly at home.
Just great. I love the part about the embellished Bible stories. Here we have another reminder of what might lurk behind those ghosts you pick up in news stories and obituaries. This Guardian piece also gives a flavor of Sendak and his dark sense of humor.