Maurice Sendak, King of All Wild Things

Rolling Stone's 1976 cover story on the author and the bizarre books that for decades have captured the young at heart and terrorized fogies of all ages

May 8, 2012 1:55 PM ET
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Illustration by Maurice Sendak

This story is from the December 30th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

This is the way the fairy tale begins: "Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, 'Since our mother died we have not had one happy hour. Stepmother beats us every day and when we want to come to her she kicks us away with her foot. Come, we will go out into the wide world together.' All day they walked over meadows, fields and stony paths and when it rained sister said, 'God and our hearts are weeping together.' In the evening they came into a great forest and were so tired from misery, hunger and the long journey that they sat down in a hollow tree and went to sleep." Bewitched by the evil stepmother, Little Brother is transformed into a deer, but Little Sister promises never to leave him. Untying her garter, she ties it around his neck and leads him deeper into the forest. "And when they had gone a long, long way, they came to a hut and the girl looked in and thought, here we can stay and spend our lives. And so she collected leaves and moss to make a soft bed for the deer, and every morning she went out and found roots and berries and nuts for herself, and for the deer she brought tender grasses which it ate out of her hand and it was happy and gamboled all around her. At night, when sister was tired and had said her prayers, she laid her head on the fawn's back and that was her pillow on which she fell gently asleep. And if only brother had his human form, it would have been a lovely life."

Perhaps it is only in childhood," Graham Greene has said, "that books have any deep influence on our lives." But it is important to realize that it is exactly in those books that children have adopted as their own that our deepest wishes and fantasies are most simply expressed.

One of the most haunting of these fantasies concerns the Two Forsaken Children who, as these archetypal siblings are beautifully described by the poet H.D. in her meditative Tribute to Freud, form a "little group, a desig?, an image at the crossroads." One child, H.D. tells us, is sometimes the shadow of the other, as in Greek tragedies. Often one is lost and seeks the other, as in the oldest fairy tale of the twin brother and sister of the Nile Valley. Sometimes they are both boys, like Castor and Pollux, finding their corresponding shape in the stars. In the 19th century we discover them in the story written by Edmond Goncourt about two acrobats (actually foils for himself and his beloved brother Jules) who "joined their nervous systems to master an impossible trick," as well as in the unsurpassed visionary tales of George MacDonald. But they are most deeply imprinted in our minds in the Grimms' "Little Brother, Little Sister."

When Maurice Sendak was six years old, he and his 11-year-old brother Jack collaborated on a story called They Were Inseparable, about a brother and sister who, Maurice says, "had a hankering for each other – it was a very naive and funny book. We both idolized our sister, she was the eldest and by far the prettiest, and we thought she was the crown jewel of the family. So because we idolized her, we made the book about a brother and a sister. And at the very end of the story, as I recall, an accident occurs: the brother's in the hospital, they don't think he's going to recover, the sister comes rushing in, and they just grab each other – like at the conclusion of Tosca – and exclaim: we are inseparable! Everybody rushes in to separate them as they jump out the hospital window...Yes, you see, we did know dimly that there was something wrong, we were punishing them unconsciously.

"I imagine that all siblings have such feelings," Maurice continues. "The learning process makes children become aware that there's a taboo with regard to these feelings, but before you learn that, you do what comes naturally. My parents weren't well-to-do, and we had only two beds – my brother and I slept in one, my sister Natalie in the other, and often we'd all sleep in the same bed. My parents would come in – sometimes with my uncle and aunt – and they'd say: 'Look, see how much they like each other.' I loved my brother, and I didn't know that that could be this, and this that... kids find that out later."

Three years ago Sendak illustrated "Little Brother, Little Sister" in The Juniper Tree, a collection of 27 tales by the Brothers Grimm – with accompanying Dürer-like drawings by Sendak – in the brilliant, unadorned translations of Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell. "A story like 'Little Brother, Little Sister' says everything in metaphor," Maurice comments, "so that it isn't upsetting to anybody. It's something we've always known about fairy tales – they talk about incest, the Oedipus complex, about psychotic mothers, like those of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, who throw their children out. They tell things about life which children know instinctively, and the pleasure and relief lie in finding these things expressed in language that children can live with. You can't eradicate these feelings – they exist and they're a great source of creative inspiration."

This is, of course, what the child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out in his recently acclaimed The Uses of Enchantmentca strong, humanistic/ psychological defense against the always continuing attempts to bowdlerize and palliate fairy tales. But Bettelheim has certainly made an about-face since the time he admonished parents not to buy Sendak's immensely popular Where the Wild Things Are, warning them that little Max's dreamlike foray into the world of befangled and beclawed monsters would scare children, and that Max's rebellion against adult authority was psychologically harmful.

Sendak himself has answered these and other criticisms (my favorite comes from the Journal of Nursery Education's review of Wild Things: "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight".) in the acceptance speech he gave upon receiving the 1964 Caldecott Medal:

"[There are] games children must conjure up to combat an awful fact of childhood: the fact of their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration – all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction. Through fantasy, Max, the hero of my book, discharges his anger against his mother, and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry and at peace with himself.

"Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences.

That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.

"It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood – the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things – that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have."

Brooklyn Kids

Here are the inescapable facts of Maurice Sendak's childhood. Born in Brooklyn in 1928, he was the youngest of three children of Philip and Sarah Sendak, both of whom came to America before World War I from Jewish shtetls outside Warsaw.

One of Maurice's earliest memories dates from the age of three or four. "I was convalescing after a long, serious illness. I was sitting on my grandmother's lap, and I remember the feeling of pleasant drowsiness. It was winter. We sat in front of a window, and my grandmother pulled the shade up and down to amuse me. Every time the shade went up, I was thrilled by the sudden reappearance of the backyard, the falling snow, and my brother and sister busy constructing a sooty snowman. Down came the shade – I waited. Up went the shade – the children had moved, the snowman had grown eyes. I don't remember a single sound."

Perhaps Sendak's later interest in animated toys and transformation books begins here. His love of wonder tales certainly derives from the stories his father told him as a child. Philip Sendak was apparently an inspiring improviser of stories, and would embroider and extend a tale over a period of nights. Maurice recalls one of the more memorable of these in an illuminating New Yorker profile written in 1966 by Nat Hentoff:

"It was about a child taking a walk with his father and mother. He becomes separated from them. Snow begins to fall, and the child shivers in the cold. He huddles under a tree, sobbing in terror. An enormous figure hovers over him and says, as he draws the boy up, 'I'm Abraham, your father.' His fear gone, the child looks up and also sees Sarah. He is no longer lost. When his parents find him, the child is dead. Those stories had something of the character of William Blake's poems. The myths in them didn't seem at all factitious. And they fused Jewish lore with my father's particular way of shaping memory and desire. That one, for instance, was based on the power of Abraham in Jewish tradition as the father who was always there – a reassuring father even when he was Death. But the story was also about how tremendously my father missed his parents. Not all his tales were somber though. My father could be very witty, even if the humor was always on the darker side of irony."

Maurice's sister Natalie gave him his first book, The Prince and the Pauper. "A ritual began with that book," Sendak once told Virginia Haviland, "which I recall very clearly. The first thing was to set it up on the tablel and stare at it for a long time. Not because I was impressed with Mark Twain; it was just such a beautiful object. Then came the smelling of it... it was printed on particularly fine paper, unlike the Disney books I had gotten previous to that. The Prince and the Paper – Pauper – smelled good and it also had a shiny laminated cover. I flipped over that. I remember trying to bite into it, which I don't imagine is what my sister intended when she bought the book for me. But the last thing I did with the book was to read it. It was all right. But I think it started then, my passion for books and bookmaking. There's so much more to a book than just the reading. I've seen children touch books, fondle books, smell books, and it's all the reason in the world why books should be beautifully produced."

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