Digging to the Roots of Maurice Sendak’s Vision
|Credit James Nieves/The New York Times|
THERE’S A MYSTERY THERE
The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak
By Jonathan Cott
Illustrated. 242 pages. Doubleday. $30.
Children, the artist Maurice Sendak once observed, are “small, courageous people who have to deal every day with a multitude of problems, just as we do,” and “they are unprepared for most things, and what they most yearn for is a bit of truth somewhere.”
That intimate understanding of what it is to be a child, and the ardent refusal to condescend to children, are just two of the elements that help explain why Sendak’s books — like “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” (1967) — possess such immediate and enduring power. Sendak — who died five years ago this month — remained in touch with the tumultuous emotions he experienced growing up as a sickly boy in Depression-era Brooklyn, and through his endlessly inventive imagination he turned them into transformative and magical art.
He captured not just the pleasures of childhood — easy access to the realm of fantasy and imagination, an untamed capacity for wonder and surprise — but also its dark side: fears of abandonment and loss; a sense of vulnerability in a chaotic world where control, even understanding, feels elusive. At the same time, he captured children’s resilience — their spirit and pluck in the face of danger and their remarkable resourcefulness, whether it’s Max facing down the wild things with their “terrible teeth” and “terrible claws” with “the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once”; or the children in “Brundibar” (which he and the playwright Tony Kushner adapted from the Czech children’s opera), who manage to outwit the town bully.
In his new book, “There’s a Mystery There,” Jonathan Cott — who wrote a 1983 study of children’s literature, “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn” — looks at Sendak’s art mainly through the prism of “Outside Over There,” a 1981 work that, Cott argues, “most fully expresses and illuminates the complex and manifold nature of his creative being.”
“There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak” is lazily written — it’s less a scholarly or journalistic essay than a kind of assemblage of Cott’s conversations with Sendak, and with various experts (including the psychoanalyst Richard M. Gottlieb and the Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck) about Sendak’s work. It’s also heavily seeded with quotations from interviews that Sendak did, over the years, with Terry Gross, Nat Hentoff and Emma Brockes, among many others.
What makes this volume worth reading, in the end, are Cott’s genuinely thoughtful insights into his subject’s work, and Sendak’s own wise, sometimes cantankerous musings about the relationship between words and pictures in illustrated books; the artists who inspired him (including Mozart, Melville, Blake and Emily Dickinson); and the kinetic dynamic between his life and art.
Sendak’s reluctance to sentimentalize childhood and his melancholy awareness of the precariousness of life that haunts so many of his books were rooted in his boyhood bouts with illness (diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever), which often left him confined to bed, and his fraught relationship with his abrupt, rejecting mother and the rest of his “cuckoo family.”
His siblings, he said, protected him. His brother, Jack, read him stories, and the pair spent hours drawing, copying comic strip characters and making their own little books. Fantasy, Sendak would remain convinced, “is the best means children have for taming wild things,” that is, all the emotions that “are an ordinary part of children’s lives — fear, anger, hate and frustration — and that children can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces.”
Sendak was haunted throughout his life by the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Though Sendak was only 3 at the time, the boy’s abduction and death came to signify all the perils that could befall a child, and “Outside Over There” would become an “exorcism” of that memory. In the book, a baby girl is snatched by goblins while her sister, Ida, is distracted for a moment. As in so many of Sendak’s books, the parents play a marginal role — Ida’s father is away at sea and her mother seems oddly absent, almost narcotized. It is Ida who must use her golden wonder horn to subdue the goblins and bring her sister home, safe and sound.
Cott recounts how it took Sendak more than a hundred agonizing drafts to get the book right, and while Cott relies heavily on secondary sources here, he provides an illuminating window into the creative process — and the countless inspirations, influences, ideas and serendipitous encounters that fed into the creation of this work of art: In this case, Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” a Grimm fairy tale, nativity paintings, old photographs of the Lindbergh baby and the Dionne quintuplets, and color schemes borrowed from William Blake and Eric Rohmer.
Cott’s close reading of “Outside Over There” — given a big assist here from Kushner (himself the author of a book on Sendak) and the art historian Jane Doonan — leaves us with a lucid understanding of how Sendak’s words and drawings came together to create an immensely layered story, at once a dark fairy tale, a heroic quest narrative and an elaborate homage to the many artists Sendak loved.
It’s a tale that also shares a narrative structure with many of Sendak’s best-known books. As in “Wild Things” and “Night Kitchen,” a child embarks on a night-time journey, has a strange, dreamlike adventure, and returns safely home in the end. And as in “Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life” — a captivating tale about a restless Sealyham terrier named Jennie (just like the author’s beloved pet), who leaves home in search of Experience, and becomes a star with the World Mother Goose Theater — that odyssey turns into a quest for self-knowledge and self-mastery. By the end of “Outside,” Ida has become a strong warrior girl, charged by her absent father with watching over her sister and mother, and at home, now, in the world.
As usual, Sendak said it best: “Children surviving childhood,” he observed in an interview, “is my obsessive theme and my life’s concern.”
Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani