In May 1981, Maurice Sendak, who died at the age of 83 on May 8, confided to his journal: “I hate May, everything seems to begin and end in May. May 3 I had my coronary. The dreadful May, 14th anniversary of my coronary. I count myself 14 years old, I was born with my coronary. Death has the features of Mozart’s face and is my waiting friend.”
Sendak began keeping a journal in 1967, when he was in an English hospital recovering from “his” coronary. With such a self-aware man, it couldn’t just be “a” coronary or “the” coronary; it had to be Sendak’s coronary. Picture Max in the Night Kitchen bellowing “It’s my Coronary!” at the moon instead of “Cock-a-doodle-do!” Of course coronary in itself is the word a poet prefers to heart attack, and Sendak was a poet.
If you have ever “been” Sendak, which is how it is to share Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen with your children, you should be sure not to miss the online interviews with Hank Nuwer (1980) and, especially, Bill Moyers (2004). Although there’s an NPR anthology of the Fresh Air conversations on the Web, Sendak becomes more interestingly engaged with Nuwer and Moyers. The most unique — and maybe the last — interview aired this January on Comedy Central and is a minor comic masterpiece in which an under-the-weather-looking Sendak resists and then begins grouchily enjoying Stephen Colbert’s infectious idiocy (one of the highlights is the exchange on Night Kitchen Max’s controversial nudity, Colbert having cut out all images of the lad’s offending member and put them in a cellophane bag). Every time the seemingly grim and grizzled Sendak laughs in spite of himself (at one point he gets high sniffing his marker) is like the moment in Where the Wild Things Are when Max cries, “let the wild rumpus start!”
The Lindbergh Baby
In November 1932, when the radio is “always on” with news of the Lindbergh kidnapping, a sickly four-year-old boy in Brooklyn identifies with the infant. His immigrant parents, who have spoken openly and frequently of the possibility of his dying from one illness or another (“I knew I was mortal from a very early age”), have assured him that that “rich, gentile baby” who lives in “a place called Hope-well” can’t die. This must be the safest, most protected infant in the world and look what happened. “Who could climb up the wall, climb in the room and take the baby out and nobody know? How defenseless could babies be even among the rich?” As Sendak tells Bill Moyers in the PBS interview, the kid in Brooklyn figures that the blond, blue-eyed son of “Captain Marvel” and “the princess of the universe” is a good bet to make it. When the child’s body is found, the impact is life-changing, “I could not bear the thought that that baby was dead. My life hung on that baby being recovered. Because if that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? I mean, it doesn’t make much sense to say it. But, that’s the equation. And when the baby was found dead, I think something really fundamental died in me.”
Almost 50 years later Sendak projects the kidnapping into the goblins’ abduction of the baby in Outside Over There (“That’s what Outside is about, vomiting that up”). Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are among the greatest books for children ever written. Outside Over There is a work of art on another level; to call it a childrens’ book is like calling Moby Dick a sea story. Children who “get” the other two books are usually baffled and disturbed by Outside Over There. What does the title mean, for a start? What would their parents tell them? Just another way of saying the Land of Makebelieve? My wife and I must have read the other two books a hundred times over to our child. We read Outside Over There to him once when it came out and never again. He knew only too well what was “over there.”
“I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”
—Sendak to Bill Moyers
Asked by Bill Moyers how he calms his demons and finds “a separate peace in a world that’s so full of scary things,” Sendak admits being “anxious about … coming here today,” wondering “Would I be all right?” What gave him the lift he needed? A “little tiny Emily Dickinson … that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong ….I feel better …. Art has always been my salvation.”
When Nuwer asks him if he believes in heroes, he says, “Not many,” and names Mozart, Kleist, and Herman Melville as “the core group.” In Kleist’s plays it’s the “imbalance in Nature” he responds to; in Mozart, it’s “the most quintessential perfect balance.” In Melville he finds “a more comprehensible … readable … lovable Kleist.” Sendak tells Nuwer that if a book is by a philosopher, he’ll “reject it out of hand.” If it’s by Melville, he’ll “buy it.”
While Sendak thinks of Mozart as more than human, a force of nature as large as life itself, he loves Melville both as a god and a benighted mortal, too humanly touching, lost and lonely to be merely “the lodestar of his literary heaven,” as Tony Kushner puts it in The Art of Maurice Sendak 1980 to the Present (Abrams 2003). There are deeply felt references to Melville toward the end of both the Nuwer and Moyer dialogues. Speaking of himself at 76, Sendak quotes Shakespeare (“Ripeness is all”) and Keats on the ecstasy of savoring a peach, but it’s Melville he loves and feels for, even in the context of his own life. “I’ve had my career. I’ve had my success. God willing, it should have happened to Herman Melville who deserved it a great deal more, you know? Imagine him being on Bill Moyers’ show. Nothing good happened to Herman Melville.”
Toward the end of his talk with Nuwer, when the subject comes round to Melville’s “great and ingenious work of art,” Pierre, a controversial edition of which Sendak illustrated in 1995, he’s still venting about Hawthorne’s apparent rejection of Melville’s loving friendship: “I’ll never forgive Hawthorne for Herman…. I’ll take that up with him someday. I’ll never forgive him for having so misunderstood. Mrs. Hawthorne understood better. Her journals have intuitive little things about what this poor man needed from her husband and how incapable her husband was of giving.”
Knowing and Caring
Sendak has admitted having Melville’s Pierre in mind when he composed his own story for the Nutshell Library about a boy whose thoughtless mantra for everything in life is “I don’t care.” Compared to the bellowing, forthright, fearless Max of Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Pierre is a perverse, ambiguous fatalist-in-the-making. For the sake of his young readers (and perhaps their parents), Sendak gave his Pierre a happy ending in which the lion who ate him vomits him up. My guess is that the Sendak who hates May, loves Melville, and never got over the death of the Lindbergh baby would foresee an adulthood for his Pierre nearly as tortured and fatal as that of Melville’s Pierre. Like poor mad little Pip after his near-drowning submergence in Moby Dick, and Melville after the rejection of Moby Dick, the after-the-lion Pierre will never be the same.
“Things of mine, when I’m no longer in this world, I intend to leave in my will that they be auctioned off again,” Sendak tells Nuwer. “I don’t want to leave them to anybody because I had so much fun getting them, I’d like them all dispersed.” In fact, a great many of Sendak’s “things” (a collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books, and ephemera) have found their way to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, a repository for his work since the early 1970s. “From Pen to Publisher: The Life of Three Sendak Picture Books” will be on display until July 15 at the Rosenbach, 2008-2010 Delancey Place. The books are: The Sign on Rosie’s Door(1960), Outside Over There (1981), and Brundibar (2003).