With the passing of Maurice Sendak earlier this summer, AFA SoHo in Manhattan mounted a modest retrospective of the artist’s original sketches and prints. Where the Wild Things Are dominates the selection. Attendees are greeted with familiar imagery of Max and his curmudgeonly gaggle of monsters in various stages of development. Although I wasn’t a Sendak fanatic as a child, revisiting these illustrations as an adult prompted several revelations.
Sendak began illustrating for others in the 1950s, most notably with Ruth Krauss between 1952 and 1957. Krauss was praised for propelling children’s literature into a more pictorial realm with books like The Carrot Seed (1945) and The Growing Story (1947). This allegiance to young readers, providing a gateway into an enhanced imagination while suggesting the complications of reality, is an unquestionable strength of Sendak’s as well. Despite the fancy-free dreams that his characters often inhabit, the difficulties they overcome reflect Sendak’s self-awareness, his attempt to unmask the basis of emotion and impulse. He presents vulnerability and doubt while being a proponent of courage and transcendence. It is almost as if Sendak was breeding my generation for the hardships to come, for uncertain times that are both mentally and physically exhausting. His digestible drawings and allegories may have rubbed off on me more than I thought.
Born the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1928, one can imagine Sendak’s dialogue with mortality began at an early age. Anger and despair are common emotions in the struggle to cope with death, and the Holocaust is no small pill to swallow. A multitude of scenarios might fertilize such emotions, however, and Sendak thankfully provided less confrontational stories where children might explore these extremes. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max transitions from a gracious king to an awkward scapegoat in his imaginary forest. His evolution from a fearless monger, invigorated by power, to a toiling outcast infiltrated with doubts is completely self-propelled. He sinks into these extremes as easily as he finds his way to the imaginary forest, and also as easily as he finds his way back to his bed and to the long-awaited dinner that is still warm. He pursues his own destiny. Sendak illustrates that, despite our incredible vulnerability, the ability to transcend even the most ferocious pain is possible.
Furthermore Sendak’s support for diversity is gargantuan. He encouraged children to seek out the unknown, regardless of girth, homeland, or species. His protagonists are excited by dissimilarity rather than fearful of it. This courage fuels the journeys of his most notable characters, including Mickey from In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Max. Rather than dwell on doubt, Sendak’s protagonists absorb each threat in their path and continue to roll on. They exude mental dexterity. Sendak does not try to reassure the young reader of the tangibility of such fantastical environments, and thus the adroit compromises each protagonist makes is the real centerpiece. Family, happiness, and engagement with the world at large are elevated priorities Sendak shares with his malleable audience.
Sendak preached potential: the potential to dream and the potential to overcome any obstacle in the face of adversity. Imagination, however, was never a simple escape. In fleeing the physical world, emotional realities remained. Sendak’s protagonists often returned to reality with a newfound comprehension of their blessings. Sendak, thus, assumed the role of both good cop and bad cop but without the resultant cavities or tears. In this era of uncertainty, where mental anguish has swamped many burgeoning adults with seemingly unanswerable questions about the future, perhaps Sendak was more of a spirit guide than anyone anticipated.
Maurice Sendak: Retrospective, AFA SoHo (54 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013), June 10 through Labor Day.
Article will be published in the August/September issue of Pork&Mead