The Passing of a Childhood Hero: Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Today marks the passing of one of my childhood heroes, Maurice Sendak, a gay man whose beautiful books brightened the lives of millions of children.  His partner of 50 years (!), Dr. Eugene Glynn, died in May 2007, and Sendak publicly came out in an interview with the New York Times 2008.

As a child, I was positively obsessed and enchanted with Where the Wild Things Are . . . I completely identified with lonely and imaginative Max.  Sendak’s description and illustration of when “the walls became the world all around” was a perfect description of my own flights of fantasy and imagined adventures within the four walls of my own room.  I can’t imagine a child out there who couldn’t relate to the line, “Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

Even now, as an adult, my current writing journal has Max on the cover:

Chicken Soup with Rice and Alligators All Around were likewise favorites, and I still remember dancing around in my Superman pajamas-with-feet to the Carole King song Sendak illustrated/animated for a TV special:

And let’s not forget the gorgeously illustrated Outside Over There, which was Jim Henson’s inspiration for Labyrinth (one of my two favorite childhood movies, along with Alice in Wonderland), and which Sendak said drew from his own haunted childhood memories of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which he worked through by inserting into the narrative the protective older sister, Ida, who was based on his own sister.

In college, Pandora and I took a course in Children’s Literature taught by Dr. Hamida Bosmajian, a renowned scholar and personal mentor of mine.  We analyzed the archetypal imagery and astute psychology of Where the Wild Things Are and the delightful In the Night Kitchen (another childhood favorite), but it was Dr. Bosmajian’s award-winning analysis of Sendak’s lesser-known book Dear Mili that blew me away (see her essay Hidden Grief:  Maurice Sendak’s Dear Mili and the Limitations of Holocaust Picture Books).

The Wikipedia bibliography only lists Sendak as the illustrator of Dear Mili, since the text comes from a fairy tale by Wilhelm Grimm which was rediscovered in 1983.  However, Sendak’s powerful illustrations completely transform the tale into a nuanced reflection on the Holocaust.  As Bosmajian describes:  “Though he follows Grimm’s narrative line, Sendak tells an altogether different story by means of a hidden pattern through which he expresses his grief over two losses that are mutually dependent:  the first is the Holocaust in which members of his extended family were murdered; the second is the loss of naiveté with which he could cherish his affection and affinity for German romanticism”.  Sendak subverts the narrative by subtly inserting a complex web of images (including Anne Frank, Auschwitz, and Mozart) into the text.  Sendak’s Dear Mili is ultimately a profound and disturbing work of literature.

Also, like nearly every other artist and writer in Western civilization, Sendak was certainly influenced by ancient Greece.  This is exemplified in his strange and intense illustrations for Heinrich von Kleist’s lyrical drama, Penthesilea (based on the battle between Achilles and the Amazons during the Trojan War), which are an excellent example of Sendak’s mature work intended for adults:



But Sendak, who had no children of his own (and who, remarkably, answered ALL his fan letters from kids!), is mostly known and justly praised for his compassionate understanding of children, as the following lovely quotes by Sendak show:

“There is no such thing as fantasy unrelated to reality.” – Maurice Sendak

“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.” – Maurice Sendak

“And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.” – Maurice Sendak

“Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.” – Maurice Sendak

“We’ve educated children to think that spontaneity is inappropriate. Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren’t. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they’re really protecting themselves. Besides, you can’t protect children. They know everything.” – Maurice Sendak

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” – Maurice Sendak

And while Maurice Sendak is often described as an atheist, I find the following quote especially relevant to my post on the subject of Poet-Heroes yesterday:

“Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain.” – Maurice Sendak

May Maurice Sendak be reunited with his life partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, and may they join the illustrious company of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mozart somewhere in the Western Lands.

“Let the wild rumpus start!”

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for that, my love. You expressed perfectly what I have been feeling all day since I read the news of his passing this morning. Here’s to a beautiful light that graced our presence and is no doubt now shining amongst the wild things of the heavens.

    Reply
  2. brian

     /  May 8, 2012

    ive never seen any of the other art, only where the wild things are, thank you. i saw an interview of him by jon stewert (for the wild things movie). its such a great book and everybody i know has read and enjoyed it.

    Reply
  3. A marvellous post and tribute to this man. I had totally forgotten about him until he died, and it brought back deep childhood memories. I am young, but I had the chance that my parents had “The Wild Things Are” at home. I remember looking at it when I was very young… where now children or adults would be afraid of his style. It’s really … I don’t even know how to describe it, it’s an experience, it’s deep. Deep beyond measure, in style, in content, in the story-telling fashion.

    I wish I could have read more stories about him. I learned many thing on your blog, it completes the picture very well along the interview Sannion gave us.

    Reply
  4. Wilhelm Grimm’s tale of “Liebe Mili” (“Dear Mili” in English translation), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, will forever leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. First coming to my attention in 1988, when the illustrated book was on display at the Morgan-Pierpont Library in New York, I eventually wrote a dissertation ( in 1991) on the book from a literary-Mariological-Jungian psychological perspective in which I argued that Wilhelm Grimm’s perplexing yet intriguing tale could be interpreted as a tale of human individuation — the growth and development of the human soul to experience its fullest potential; and the archetypal difficulties encountered during that process (symbolized in one instance in the story as ‘war’)– yet the intangible fulfillment experienced symbolized by the blooming of the rose toward the end of the story suggestive in many ways of ‘death’ or transformation of that which must take place in order to facilitate a newer and higher sense of ‘Unselfish Self’ distinguished from the common sense of everyday ‘self’ associated with ego and persona.

    My doctoral dissertation was entitled: “An Analysis of Wilhelm Grimm’s ‘Dear Mili’ Employing von Franzian Methodological Processes.” In writing the dissertation I worked at ignoring the magnificent illustrations employed by Maurice Sendak (not an easy task), since I considered his incomparable illustrations to be in their own right an interpretation of Wilhelm Grimm’s tale; and I wanted to discover for myself what the story could reveal to me.

    Is this a children’s tale? I believe that it is a tale with a psychological, social, religious, historical, and cultural perspective that may be subjected to several layers of interpretation — all intended to be transformative in nature; and which can be of benefit to individuals of all ages, genders and cultures . Sendak’s powerful evocative illustrations could be viewed as reflective of his own ethnic and cultural heritage and experiences — an example of how the tale can be interwoven with any reader’s human experience. This is a tale that has a clear, if unsteady or uncertain beginning, but whose ‘true’ ending is left for the reader to complete.

    Karl C. Folkes, Ph.D.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your insightful comments on Dear Mili! I would be very interested in reading your dissertation on the subject. Are you familiar with Hamida Bosmajian’s essay, “Hidden Grief: Maurice Sendak’s Dear Mili and the Limitations of Holocaust Picture Books”?

      Reply
    • I thank you along with Ryan for these elements. I’ll be very delighted to read your dissertation too.

      Reply
  1. I don’t do Miscellanea posts anymore « The House of Vines

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