A 1996 appreciation of Maurice Sendak

Book illustrators are enthusiasts and exegetes. We probably all make mental pictures out of what we read, but only illustrators go public with their visual responses, laying out scenes that the rest of us can’t quite see or, if the book is an old one, filling in the styles and the manners of an earlier period. When an illustrator’s responses don’t jibe with our own, we may wish that the pictures didn’t exist. But if the pictures are a step ahead of us, we feel exhilarated—especially when they bring an original sensibility to dated or esoteric material, or offer a fresh perspective on an overly familiar text.

In recent decades, only one significant artist has had a huge popular success in this crossover genre that’s about inventing images that mirror words. Maurice Sendak has observed of the early twentieth-century illustrator Claud Lovat Fraser that “he was free of aesthetic snobbery.” That can be said of Sendak, too. He’s spent much of the past thirty years working on children’s books, and he’s brought the same intensity to his interpretations of nursery rhymes as to stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Randall Jarrell and the Brothers Grimm. When Sendak illustrates a book he builds a fantasy, and his fantasies are as rapturously complete as the ones that kids spin for their own satisfaction.

Time and again, Sendak has seized opportunities, bringing a wide swath of readers along with him as he’s packed his pictures with all sorts of out-of-the-way allusions—to Biedermeier graphic art, to early English romanticism. He’s a restless, passionate artist who goes where his instincts lead him, and his latest offering, an illustrated edition of Herman Melville’s little-read 1852 novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (HarperCollins, 449 pp., $30) is just the next leap in a career full of leaps. It’s essential Sendak: a meditation on Melville’s tornado of a book, a new interpretation of nineteenth-century graphic styles, and the latest and most catastrophic of Sendak’s accounts of growing up.

Melville wrote Pierre, a portrait of the emotional coming-apart of a romantically aristocratic young American, in the winter of 1851, just as Moby-Dick was being published. As the book opens, Pierre Glendinning is in manic good spirits. He’s pampered by a rich, domineering mother, who’s perfectly happy that he’s going to marry the quietly beautiful Lucy. Mrs. Glendinning pulls the strings, and if she has her way they’ll all live happily ever after amid the luxuriant New York state scenery. It’s been Glendinning country for generations, and Pierre’s children will carry on the name of his long-dead father, who so far as Pierre knows is nothing but a handsome face in a gold frame.

The early chapters of Melville’s novel are so zanily exuberant that they can get on a reader’s nerves; it’s no wonder that the book was a failure when it first appeared. The story only comes into focus when young, dark-haired Isabel appears in the village and rips the idyll wide open by announcing to Pierre that she’s his half-sister. Pierre, who’s been living in a bubble, can’t accept the thought that Isabel and her mother were abandoned by his father, and he decides that nothing any longer matters except taking care of Isabel. In trying to make amends for his father’s behavior, which was probably both pragmatic and heartless, Pierre behaves in ways that would strike most of his friends and family as worse than anything his father ever did in secret. With scarcely a word of explanation, Pierre breaks his engagement with Lucy, for he has decided that he’ll protect the secret of Isabel’s illegitimacy by announcing to the world that he and Isabel are man and wife. Mrs. Glendinning responds by disinheriting Pierre. By then the story has shifted to New York City, where Isabel and Pierre, impoverished and alone, are eventually joined by Lucy. Somehow, she’s comprehended the nobility of Pierre’s motives, but she’s the only one. There’s no hope for these young idealists, and Melville brings down the curtain on Pierre with the grand-opera gesture of a triple suicide.

Pierre has had its advocates since the Melville revival of the 1920s, but the book’s hyperbolic treatment of family relationships and its raging, over-the-top moodiness have never made much headway with the reading public. Sendak, who reportedly owns one of the finest collections of Melville first editions in private hands, has been a Pierre enthusiast for years, and if he’d done nothing but put his name on the title page he’d have given the book a lift. He’s done a lot more. The stylized histrionics of Sendak’s illustrations underline the fascination of this psychological fable of deluded innocence and suicidal experience. Sendak embraces the book’s dark, loopy mood and makes it his own.


BOOK ILLUSTRATION happens to be a subject in Pierre. Early in the novel the young hero, looking forward to an evening with Lucy, imagines them studying John Flaxman’s illustrations to Homer, with their “clear-cut outlines . . . full of unadorned barbaric nobleness.” In the early nineteenth century, Flaxman’s austere linear illustrations to Homer and Dante sat on many drawing-room tables—they were family entertainment—and Flaxman is certainly one of the inspirations behind some of Sendak’s work for Pierre. That a mid-nineteenth-century novelist would describe looking at illustrations as an evening’s amusement isn’t especially significant, but the intensity of Pierre’s reactions to Flaxman may take readers by surprise. For although Pierre thinks fondly of the Homer illustrations, he worries about looking at Flaxman’s Dante, in which yowling monsters emerge out of the cool twists and turns of a neoclassical line. Pierre has already encountered Isabel, and something in Flaxman’s treatment of Dante’s beautiful, damned Francesca reminds Pierre of Isabel’s mysterious, sad face. Pierre is afraid that looking at Flaxman’s Francesca will arouse all his anxieties about that haunting face, will “evoke it wholly,—make it present in lines of misery—bewitching power. No! I will not open Flaxman’s Dante!”

Melville assumes that a picture in a book can provoke a person, and that may be difficult to believe today. But if there is anybody who can make us believe it, it’s Sendak, whose biggest sellers—including Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen—have demonstrated the invincible power of the picture book, even deep in the Age of TV. There are people who think that Sendak has never really surpassed the unvarnished truthfulness of early books such as A Hole is to Dig and The Sign on Rosie’s Door. There’s an unforgettable immediacy to those recollected scenes from his youth—the Brooklyn kitchens with the dishes stacked in the glass-fronted cabinet, the row-houses with the mothers leaning out of the windows, calling to the kids. But Sendak is every bit as much himself when he’s presenting historical styles as fantasy objects, when he’s dreaming his way into a moonlit Bavarian forest (in The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm) or a garden house where Mozart sits at the keyboard (in Outside Over There). There’s certainly nothing dry or scholarly about Sendak’s work on Pierre.

I had never read Pierre, and it’s been a terrific experience, getting into the book and Sendak’s illustrations. The small color pictures are done in a rough, sketch-like style, with strong dark outlines and loosely watercolored areas; they achieve a compact monumentality. There are occasional dead spots in the drawings. Sendak has trouble with feet and sometimes with the way a neck connects to a head, but these aren’t especially disturbing. The informal, almost doodled quality of the line turns Pierre’s bulging muscles into interesting calligraphic curls, so that Sendak sometimes almost seems to be scribbling on the margins of the nineteenth-century tale. A reader knows that Sendak isn’t presenting definitive interpretations so much as ruminating on a book he loves—and wants us to love.


IT’S THE FIRST fifty or seventy-five pages that are really hard on a reader, because Melville presents Pierre’s relationship with his widowed mother, Mrs. Glendinning—they refer to each other as brother and sister—with such flowery extravagance that you can’t see how you’re meant to take it. Pierre, Melville explains, “does in truth illustrate that fine saying of his father’s, that as the noblest colts, in three points—abundant hair, swelling chest, and sweet docility—should resemble a fine woman, so should a noble youth.” That’s the kind of line that makes readers give up on a book which can initially sound more like Ronald Firbank than Herman Melville. Love, Melville writes, is “a volume bound in rose-leaves, clasped with violets, and by the beaks of humming-birds printed with peach-juice on the leaves of lilies.”

Sendak, who brought full-frontal nudity to children’s books, underlines his gonzo-psychological interpretation of the novel by depicting Pierre not in the street clothes of his time but in a neck-to-toe blue bodysuit that leaves no anatomical detail to the imagination. This outfit, complete with a red cape that Pierre wears around his shoulders, may at first remind some people of the pajamas that Max wears in Where the Wild Things Are. It also recalls a Superman outfit. I doubt that Sendak would mind those associations, but surely he’s thinking of other cape-twirling heroes, of the sleek classical demigods in the Flaxman illustrations and the nineteenth-century Shakespearean actors, with their elegant, body-hugging costumes (Hamlet figures in Pierre). Pierre’s hard-to-place yet absolutely revealing outfit may be the biggest risk that Sendak takes in these illustrations; it's his way of announcing that he's not hiding behind historical correctness. The costume frees Sendak to turn out a cycle of illustrations that’s formally consistent but stylistically eclectic. That’s a good response to Melville’s text, which is the oddest possible amalgam of pastoral, gothic, romantic, realist and tragic conventions.

In the early parts of the novel, when Melville is giving a stylized, almost lunatic-comic view of early nineteenth-century aristocratic gentility, Sendak responds by imagining this absurdly virile mama’s boy hero as a hyperbolic figure, the sort of impossibly poetic creature that was drawn by Blake and Fuseli. One of the key influences on Sendak’s Pierre, with his cape floating behind him, is an ink sketch of a man and a woman in the clinch by a contemporary of Blake’s, the late-eighteenth-century Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, which is quoted line for line in the plate “A hug all round again!” Sendak may have seen the Sergel in Hugh Honour’s Neo-classicism, where it’s meant to suggest a dark, libidinous underside of the classical ideal, and that fits in with one of the themes in Pierre, which is the disasters that befall those who take an unconventional view of conventional idealism. Pierre, who’s been a head-in-the-clouds dreamer, can hardly accept the demystified portrait of his father that Isabel offers during a late-night meeting, with the sky illuminated by the lightning of a heat storm. And with all the speed of an oncoming summer deluge, Pierre’s life—and the book—turns dark, fierce, fiery.

At this point a reader begins to understand that Melville intends those early pages to sound exactly as whacked-out as they do. And from then on over-the-top keeps being topped; it’s just the way things are. Pierre is about obsessions and distorted perceptions, about trying to honor one’s sense of connectedness to other people and oneself—and failing miserably. It’s the very desire to set things right that turns everything upside down and brings on the disasters. Beyond the romantic foolishness of confused identities, whereby Pierre calls his mother his sister and his sister his wife, you have a young man’s wild urge to figure out what those relationships are all about. Melville digs deep into the experience of desperation. The book is an amazing, sustained description of a psychological crash-landing. The last third, set in New York, is an allegory of hopeless, desperate independence. Melville gives a beautiful, precise portrait of an unforgiving city, a picture of rapacity and indifference to set next to “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the early pages of Moby-Dick.

Sendak responds to Melville’s shifting moods by shifting his visual frame of reference from early nineteenth-century classicism to late-nineteenth-century expressionism. He borrows a number of iconic images from Edvard Munch: an almost skeletal Isabel seated on a bed, and the blank-eyed stares of the anonymous city crowd. These adaptations, which may seem arbitrary if you haven’t actually read the whole book, turn out to be daringly perfect, because Melville and Munch are getting at the same kind of anomie. Sendak’s cross-references are so unabashed, so heartfelt, and so apt, that eventually I began to wonder if Munch’s tortured art-nouveau line wasn’t in some strange way descended from Flaxman’s almost surreally elegant neoclassical line.

Pierre is a novel of bold, decisive strokes, and each stroke is elaborately ornamented. Melville goes in for Elizabethan theatricality. Nobody says “No!” when they can say “Nay, nay, nay!” “Oh! Oh!”—Isabel exclaims—“Pierre, Pierre; it is my fault—mine, mine!” There are endless interior monologues, with multiplying metaphoric constructions suggesting feverish mental states. “Hitherto I have hoarded up mementos and monuments of the past,” Pierre thinks; “been a worshipper of all heir-looms; a fond filer away of letters, locks of hair, bits of ribbon, flowers, and the thousand-and-one minutenesses which love and memory think they sanctify:—but it is forever over now!”

Initially, there’s something off-putting about the feverishness of the writing. This is a great frustration to the people who believe in Pierre, and they quite naturally look for ways to convert skeptical readers. Hershel Parker, a Melville scholar, has made a number of radical cuts in the present edition, and he hopes that they will help readers recapture what Parker believes was Melville’s original vision of wonderful, headlong speed. Experts have long thought that a number of full chapters in the later parts of Pierre, in which Melville suddenly backtracks and announces that ever since boyhood Pierre has been a published author, are late additions to the manuscript. Parker’s opinion is that these interpolations, which include Melville’s complaints about a writer’s treatment at the hands of publishers, were written in response to what the author felt was his rough handling by his publishers. Certainly the people at Harper’s were worried by their famous author’s sinking sales on Moby-Dick; they wanted to cut their losses, or his advances. Parker in turn believes that by cutting all of three chapters and other passages here and there, he’s presenting something closer to what Melville originally wrote and delivered to his publisher in January, 1852.

Pierre is by anybody’s reckoning a strange, unpredictable book, and there’s something unnerving about even the most judicious editorial effort to correct what may indeed be the missteps of a genius. Certainly, excising all mention of Pierre’s career as a writer leads to some awfully bumpy passages toward the end of the novel. And even if you admit that some of the material is irrelevant to the overall trajectory of the book, you’re still losing a lot of beautiful writing, not to mention a fascinating account of the trials of the writer’s life. Whose business is it to decide how many baroquely confused themes-within-themes Melville ought to have permitted himself, anyway?

It can be argued that Parker creates as many problems as he solves. It doesn’t really make much sense that Pierre, now disinherited, evinces so little concern about earning a living, especially considering that Lucy talks about selling crayon portraits and Isabel proposes to give guitar lessons. Pierre’s literary career fits into the urban bohemian atmosphere of the later part of the book, which seems to overlap with the milieu that we know from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Yet there is some truth to Parker’s argument that his excisions reinforce the book’s careening, nightmare speed. (And the excised passages are available in several other in-print editions.)

I doubt, however, that this streamlined Pierre is going to attract new readers, since by the time that you’re far enough along in the book to see what Parker has cut, you’re most likely a convert already. I found the book addictive, and by the time I got to Parker’s excisions, I just wanted more—more! more! I had become bewitched by the elaborate language, by what D.H. Lawrence, inStudies in Classic American Literature, calls “the old American art-speech [which] contains an alien quality.” Lawrence loved that alien, hyperbolic quality, and he believed that people tended to shy away from it by thinking “of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books”—which is, Lawrence hastened to add, “Just childish, on our part.”


SENDAK IS CERTAINLY aware that his involvement with this project is going to lull people, at least initially, into somehow thinking of Pierre as a kid’s book. Some will note that one of the volumes in Sendak’s 1962 Nutshell Library is about a wryly independent boy named Pierre. And Sendak may relish that connection even if it’s just a coincidence, because then it’s all the more dramatic when he shows us that so far as Melville’s Pierre is concerned our initial dismissive reactions are “just childish, on our part.” Sendak pulls us up sharp, by transforming motifs that we associate with his earlier work into expressions of an absolutely grown-up sensibility. For Sendak, Pierre is more and less than a character; he’s a musclebound psyche that exults, rages, broods. Sendak isn’t interested in narrative flow so much as in the knotted-up, emblematic core of Melville’s book, and there’s an exacting, complex intelligence to the way that he chooses to emphasize particular elements in the story.

While Pierre contains many beautiful impressions of the Northeastern landscape, Sendak, who has in the past shown a special feeling for streams, meadows and woods, rejects the breathing space of a vista. Sendak doesn’t illustrate particular scenes so much as create a series of variations on Pierre’s darkening atmosphere. When Lucy sends her fiance up to her bedroom to fetch a portfolio, the illustration isn’t of Pierre going in and looking around the room as he does in the book, but of Pierre deep in thought, a virile but virginal youth enveloped in the soft undulations of Lucy’s bed. In general, Sendak avoids sensational, melodramatic events. He doesn’t illustrate the murderous final pages of the book, when Pierre goes out into the streets of New York to shoot Lucy’s brother and her suitor, who are trying to break up the bohemian menage a trois. And his final picture isn’t the obvious choice of Pierre, Isabel and Lucy’s triple suicide in the city jail. Instead, there’s a portrait of Pierre as a pathetic giant imprisoned in a cave, a man tried beyond reason, like Count Ugolino in Flaxman’s illustration for the Inferno.

Melville wrote a tragedy without catharsis; no wonder it never found many readers. A crazily good-hearted American boy has broken all society’s rules and ended up as a nobody in the anonymous city. He may be a better man, but what does better mean when he’s spread disaster in his wake and there’s nothing left except misery and death? For Sendak, whose great subject has always been the adventuresome, rule-breaking exuberance of childhood, Pierre is something new: a no-win situation. Our memories of all Sendak’s slyly exultant heroes and heroines are buried deep inside Pierre’s wild-eyed, incredulous look in the book’s last, awful illustration. While it would be a mistake to imagine that this master of devilish fun is at last revealing his mature—or true—self, Sendak surely believes that by now we know him well enough that there’s no need for ingratiating formalities. He’s responding as wholeheartedly to tragedy as he does to jokes and craziness and fun. The kid has grown up and lost, and Sendak is right there by his side.

This article appeared in the March 18, 1996 issue of the magazine.