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Farewell to Maurice Sendak, a Democratic Artistic Genius

The great popular artists have an instinctive relationship with the audience. That was true of Maurice Sendak, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83. He followed his gut. He kowtowed to no one. He knew that when pop culture really matters, it’s grounded in personal experience—in something the artist feels so strongly that other people cannot help but feel it too. Sendak had been involved with more than 50 children’s books by the time he became a national sensation in 1963 with Where the Wild Things Are. But even after Max in his white pajamas became part of modern mythology, right up there with the Beatle’s Nowhere Man, Sendak refused to take the audience for granted. He was resolutely independent to the end, and he expected the same of the public that had made him famous. There was something of the nineteenth-century reformer about Sendak—an old-fashioned optimism about the capacity of popular art to change public opinion and make the world a better place. He worked hard to provide public theater for children. He took on the subject of homelessness in 1993, with We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, his old familiar cast of adorable child-gremlins now living in hideaways jerrybuilt from cardboard boxes.

Sendak never became a prisoner of his fame. Of course, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen (which came out seven years later) are the books everybody knows. Their reputation is richly deserved. With them, Sendak reclaimed for children’s literature all the strangeness and disquietude early-twentieth-century educators had ruled off limits. And in the nearly half-century after Where the Wild Things first appeared, he remained an explorer, going into areas of experience that many surely regarded as out of bounds for an author and illustrator of children’s books—and that posed serious risks for any artist. Sendak created illustrations for two of the most bizarre and still controversial monuments of nineteenth-century romantic literature: Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities and Kleist’s play Penthesilea. These are works written by adults for other adults, but they have often been dismissed as camp or kitsch on the basis of what many see as their psychological perversity. Here—and in his work on productions of Mozart operas—Sendak aimed to reconcile the one-upon-a-time magic of his achievements in children’s literature with the saturnine imagination of the middle-aged Jewish intellectual who had dreamed up those kid’s books in the first place. With his illustrations for Pierre and Penthesilea—which are wildly, hyperbolically erotic—Sendak may have wanted to suggest that even the most sophisticated artist is never more than an overgrown child, alternately monstrous and adorable. Sendak’s romantic imagination was never given fuller rein than in the illustrations for Pierre, where unruly passions take on a heraldic power in scenes that bear comparison with Balthus’s illustrations for Wuthering Heights.

I cannot say I really knew Sendak, but I did talk with him a little over the years. The one time I visited him in Connecticut, he was involved in a Mozart project, and when I arrived there was an L.P. of some vintage performance on the turntable near where he was working. The house was a cabinet of curiosities, with rare editions of Melville and magnificent nineteenth-century children’s books and toys. I remember Léger’s Cirque, with the modernist’s ebullient lithographic inventions, lying on top of a pile of books that seemed to have been crowded out of a bookcase. I felt that Sendak was a man who knew a great deal about a great many subjects, but all the while believed there was one particular vein of experience he had the power to investigate. Writing in 1973 about Winsor McCay, the creator of the Little Nemo comic strips which he so admired, Sendak said that “McCay and I serve the same master, our child selves.” This child self contained many different selves, and Sendak was a fearless investigator. He was a master of gentleness, in his early illustrations for the Little Bear books, written by Else Holmelund Minarik. He played with scale, creating with The Nutshell Library a tiny box that enclosed a quartet of adorably pintsized volumes. He could be unabashedly goofy, as in some of the wonderful vignettes for Iona and Peter Opie’s collection of children’s rhymes, I Saw Esau. He had a kind of Pre-Raphaelite style, which he brought to his collaborations with the poet Randall Jarrell. Of Jarrell’s The Animal Family, Sendak recollected that it had at first struck him as “impossible” to illustrate. “There are certain books I cannot illustrate,” he said, “books which in my opinion should never be illustrated. This was one of them, because the images were so personal and so graphically created in the writing that Jarrell didn’t need me.” Is there another illustrator who has spoken so eloquently about the times when illustrations are unnecessary? And is there another illustrator who has then found someone of the stature of Randall Jarrell persuading him to think otherwise?

Sendak may have collaborated with Randall Jarrell and Isaac Bashevis Singer, but he never condescended to the public. Although he recognized that there were projects he was passionate about that would never reach a wide readership, he brought the same searching intelligence and sophisticated daring to his work on Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen as he later lavished on an esoteric text by Kleist. Sendak was a democratic elitist when it came to the arts. He believed there is a big audience that’s eager to embrace the very best—if only the artist and the audience can find some common ground. His own working class background had not prevented him from embracing the subtleties of Mozart and Blake, so why shouldn’t that be possible for everybody else? More than fifteen years ago, preparing to write about Sendak’s illustrations for Pierre, I was sitting on the subway reading the novel when I realized somebody was speaking to me. I looked up to find a disheveled man, a battered and overburdened shopping bag in each hand, engaging me in a discussion about the novel. He looked as if he might have just been let out of a mental hospital. But he knew all about Melville’s strange novel, and the various theories as to whether its absurdities were intentional or unintentional, whether it was a masterpiece of high camp or a misbegotten attempt at a Victorian potboiler. When I got home I immediately called Maurice and told him about the madman on the subway. I knew it was a story he would appreciate. There on the rush-hour subway—in the city where Sendak had grown up and made his mark—a wild-eyed stranger was expostulating about Melville’s most controversial book, a book Sendak held dear to his heart. Why should we be surprised? After all, there are people riding the subway every day who hold close to the heart some memory of another madcap mischief-maker, Maurice Sendak’s Max.

Jed Perl is art critic for The New Republic.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, the piece originally stated that Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1964, not 1963. We regret the error.