A lone voice of sanity. That was the subject line in an email I sent out in January after watching Maurice Sendak’s relentlessly honest and refreshingly impolite and impolitic two-part interview with Stephen Colbert. Sendak, who died today at age eighty-three due to complications of a recent stroke, has spent much of his celebrated career creating illustrated books embracing the untamed beauty of the anarchic impulses raging within us all, from birth to death.
Though his work is generally regarded as “children’s literature,” Sendak defies classification (figuratively and literally in the aforementioned video) through his unwillingness to buy into the sanitized and sanctified notions of childhood promoted throughout much of modern storytelling by, for, and about kids. Instead, by refusing to pander or protect the underage characters populating his books from the full range of human emotion and experience, Sendak’s most celebrated works — Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen — are also his most subversive. On second thought, when looking at the scope and impact of his work, a subject line calling Sendak “a sane voice of insanity” might have been more apt.
Growing up, his books had always been a source of comfort and reassurance that I was not alone in my desire to slide naked into a milk bottle or sail off to secret societies populated by Yiddish-inflected hedonists and mischief-makers. Then, I was lucky enough to meet Sendak at a pivotal time in my life, when I was pregnant with my first child. Sendak had partnered with my then-husband’s boss to produce film adaptations of his work. This was over a decade before Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers would crack the code to translating Sendak’s celebration of the id into a feature-length film. Back then, Sendak was just warming up to the idea that the integrity (and intent) of his work might survive the treacherous journey from page to screen. Over the years, there had been plenty of offers and inquires, but none worth the risk of some development executive making Max a little more “relatable.”
Sendak took it upon himself to act as custodian — in the vein of the favorite uncle who seems to understand things other family members don’t — for the messy truth of our inner lives. He often spoke about how his unhappy childhood provided the source material for many of his books — he’d modeled one of his Wild Things after a “loathed” relative — and that he saw it as his responsibility to offer a child’s-eye view of adult misbehavior. “I used to worry about the kids terribly and think that the purpose of my work,” Sendak told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in a 2007 interview, “was to simmer parents down or make them aware or protect [the kids].”
However, unlike many artists fueled by a sense of injustice or indignation, Sendak’s work hummed with deeply resonant humanity. That may have something to do with the big-hearted Romanticism that lay just beneath the picaresque surface of his work. I remember Sendak talking about the significance of the letter M in his life, rattling off a few of his lifelong passions: Melville, Mickey Mouse, Mozart. Looking back, it’s not hard to envision how his list might be extended to include, Max, mischief, mayhem. And for all of us, that list begins and ends with Maurice.