Getting Out Just In Time: Remembering Maurice Sendak
Beloved children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died yesterday at Danbury Hospital of complications from a stroke, not far from his long-time home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He was 83-years-old.
Much has been written about Sendak’s life and death already, but ultimately it was impossible to not write something about the passing of one of the great literary minds of the 20th century.
What set Sendak apart, made him revolutionary, was his willingness to explore the darker sides of childhood and the child’s mind. At a time when much of America still clung to the quaint 19th century idea of childhood as a period of prolonged idyllic innocence, Sendak had the honesty to depict the many torturous psychological dramas children face daily.
While many parents seek to shield their child completely from fear, pain, anger, hate and frustration, Sendak explored these aspects of the child’s psyche, and how children themselves use fantasy to act out these dark impulses. Sendak offered this explanation for his work when accepting the Caldecott medal for Where The Wild Things Are in 1964: “The fact of [a child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration — all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction. It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have of taming Wild Things.”
To say that Sendak was ahead of his time would be giving too much credit to the present. In the current children’s literature climate — which Sendak recently described as “abysmal” — his work stands out more than ever. American parents still clutch to the 19th century vision of an idealized childhood, as strong as ever (and with perhaps even more delusion). It’s far from surprising that during his career, Sendak routinely saw his books banned. Most famously, prude readers across the country objected to Sendak’s anatomically correct illustration of a young boy in 1970′s In The Night Kitchen.
Joe Fassler wrote in The Atlantic about the dangers of censoring children while addressing Bumble-Ardy, Sendak’s last book (published in 2011). “By dumbing down or censoring their libraries we deprive children of the crucial means for confronting, and then mastering, their fears,” he wrote. “We take away their hope of finally letting go.”
Sendak’s last real public appearance was a brilliant interview with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. He was branded an old grump for portions of the interview — such as when he said he liked children “as few and far between” as he liked adults (before backtracking and saying “maybe more, because I really don’t like adults at all”) — but to me he was just being refreshingly honest (maybe more honest than people could handle), which is ultimately what made Sendak great. He was always honest above all else: it seemed his writing was guided by an attempt to arrive at the truth, no matter the reception. His honesty and respect for the difficulties of childhood are what made him so adept at portraying child characters. In the interview with Stephen Colbert he said, “I think childhood is a period of great torment, where you learn all these things of what is and what isn’t, what you can do and can not do — it’s hard, it is very hard.” Sendak was astutely aware that this was something people often didn’t want to hear. “There is something in this country that is so opposed to understanding the complexity of children — it’s quite amazing,” he told Colbert.
In his last years Sendak spoke openly and often about death. He was a man at peace with the idea of his demise, even prepared for it. Last fall he expressed the desire to keep working until his death, that he didn’t have much else to live for. “Everything is over.,” he said. “Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”
Sendak also viewed death as an escape from a present and future he wasn’t sure he wanted any part of. Asked about e-books he told Stephen Colbert: “Fuck them is what I say! I hate those e-books. They can not be the future. They may well be. I will be dead, I won’t give a shit.” He also said that most children’s literature today is dreadful, reserving a special scorn for celebrity children’s book cash-ins. The first requirement for celebrity children’s books, he told Colbert, is to “be an idiot.”
Indeed, Sendak said that he was “getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We’ve lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety.” Sendak gave the impression that he was spending his last days holed up in the office of his Ridgefield, Connecticut home, toiling away in solitude while the world buzzed all around him. But curmudgeonly as he sometimes seemed, he was never free of sentiment. “I cry a lot because I miss people,” he said in a recent interview. “They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”
Now the world cries for Maurice Sendak. He has left us, but we only love him more.
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