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Maurice Sendak, King of All Wild Things

Page 3 of 6

The Hunger Artist

Although Sendak has an apartment in New York City, he works and spends most of his time in the country just outside a small Connecticut town which, ironically, is the birthplace of Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793 – 1860) – perhaps the best-known and most influential figure in 19th-century American children's literature. Goodrich's Peter Parley books (about 116 of them) sold 7 million copies – not including the thousands of imitations and pirate copies printed and sold in the United States and England. Illustrated with wood engravings, they were generally nationalistic but occasionally tolerant utilitarian schoolbooks written in the compendious and moronic style that has served as the model for generations of first-grade primers: "Here I am! My name is Peter Parley! I am an old man. I am very gray and lame. But I have seen a great many things, and had a great many adventures, and I love to talk about them... And do you know that the very place where Boston stands was once coyered with woods, and that in those woods lived many Indians? Did you ever see an Indian? Here is a picture of some Indians."

Aside from the fact that – a century apart – they resided just a few miles down the road from each other, two creators of children's literature more dissimilar than Goodrich and Sendak would be hard to imagine.

At the age of 12, Goodrich read Moral Repository by Hannah More (1745 – 1833), an ill-tempered, evangelical English educator and writer, and was instantly bowled over. (To counter what she considered "vulgar and indecent penny books" popular among young people at the time, More produced amiable-sounding works such as The Execution of Wild Henry. It is frightening to remind ourselves that 2 million of her Cheap Repository Tracts – sobering and moralistic tales largely designed to keep the poor in their place – were sold in their first year of publication, and this at a time when the population of England numbered fewer than 11 million.) So, when Goodrich visited More in Bristol (he was 30 and she was 78), he was thrown into a state of ecstasy. As he recalled this meeting in his Recollections of a Lifetime: "It was in conversation with that amiable and gifted person that I first formed the conception of the Parley Tales – the general idea of which was to make nursery books reasonable and truthful, and thus to feed the young mind upon things wholesome and pure, instead of things monstrous, false and pestilent."

Goodrich particularly objected to the moral obliquity of Puss in Boots and Jack the Giant Killer ("tales of horror, commonly put into the hands of youth, as if for the express purpose of reconciling them to vice and crime") and he detested nursery rhymes, declaring that even a child could make them up. To prove his point, he produced the following nonsense on the spot: "Higglety, pigglety, pop!/The dog has eaten the mop;/The pig's in a hurry,/The cat's in a flurry,/Higglety, pigglety, pop!"

Irony upon irony. A century later, Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated perhaps his most mysterious and extraordinary work, Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967), a modern fairy tale about Jennie the Sealyham terrier – modeled after one of Sendak's own dogs – who packs her bag, goes out into the world to look for something more than everything, and winds up as the leading lady of a theatrical production (costarring Miss Rhoda, Pig, Cat and a lion) of the "Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!" nursery rhyme itself. "Hello," Jennie begins the letter to her old master that concludes the book: "As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don't worry. I can't tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder because I don't know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me... Jennie."

The morning I was supposed to take the train up to visit Sendak in Connecticut, I received a call from him. Visit postponed, I thought.

"My dogs aren't well," Maurice said sadly. "But I think it will cheer me up to have company... It's my birthday today."

"What would you like as a present?" I asked.

"Well, if it's no trouble, some sandwiches from a deli. Any kind. Anything. It's hopeless around here."

"What about hot pastrami with coleslaw and mustard on rye?"

"Fantastic."

"And pickles?"

"Fantastic. And perhaps a really gooey chocolate layer cake for dessert?"

When Maurice picked me up at the station, he apologized for being late. "There are hundreds of children parading through town," he said incredulously. And as we began to drive slowly back to his house, I saw hordes of kids marching silently along the roads, as if they were following an invisible and inaudible Pied Piper. "What's going on?" I wondered aloud.

"I live here," Maurice grimly replied.

Sendak's house is hardly grim, surrounded as it is by beautiful ash, sugar maple, dogwood and locust trees, and with irises, lilies, phlox and roses growing near a little wood hut, the whole scene reminding me of a German landscape.

"Mahler went into the woods to write his symphonies in his little Waldhütte," Maurice says as he shows me his cottage. "And in the first movement of his Third Symphony, you can almost hear him in those woods, with those menacing trees and ferns that turn into fingers – like the trees that catch Snow White. You get a sense of that forest in the first movement – very ambivalent to the artist: is it going to give him something or frighten him to death? [See Sendak's cover illustration for RCA's new recording of Mahler's Third, which depicts a silhouetted Mahler in his Waldhütte receiving the gift of inspiration from an angel.] And Mozart, too. When he was alone in Vienna writing The Magic Flute, he was invited to live in a tiny summer cottage outside the theater grounds to continue his work... The only way to find something is to lose oneself: that's what George Mac-Donald teaches us in his stories. And that's what this little hut, where one can be alone, means to me."

Sendak takes me back to the main house, which is filled with the most wondrous, imaginative and variegated things. On the walls are posters by Penfield, Will Bradley, Lautrec and Bonnard; a glorious Winsor McCay triptych showing Little Nemo and a princess walking down a resplendent garden path surrounded by daffodils with smiling faces; children's toys, a pillow in the shape of the Night Kitchen's Mickey and his bottle of milk, and a bunch of stuffed Wild Things; and, in almost every room, books by James, Melville, Dickens, Stifter, MacDonald, Blake, Beatrix Potter, Palmer's illustrated Milton... as well as art books (Dürer, Grünewald) and books on music (Mahler, Wolf, Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart).

Birthday presents from friends are lying on the dining room table: a Mickey Mouse mirror and Mickey Mouse music box, an 18th-century tin coach from Germany, miniature bottles of Dry Sack, a floral bouquet, a T-shirt inscribed "Some Swell Pup" – the title of his recently published cartoon book – and three little scissors for cutting cloth, paper and letters. I add the sandwiches, and we begin lunch.

"Maurice, this is as good a time as any to ask you about the idea of incorporation in your work."

"While I'm eating the sandwich?"

"In Pierre the lion eats Pierre. In As I Went over the Water a sea monster ingests a boat. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! Jennie eats a mop. Things and people get swallowed, and out they come again. And in one of your best fantasy sketches, you show a mother eating a baby and then the baby eating the mother. This happens a lot in Grimms' tales and especially in Winsor McCay's early animation films about dinosaurs. What's this all about?"

"Well," Maurice says, "I'm certainly not going to disgorge this sandwich – it's delicious, and I feel better already. You know, I used to love biting into my first books when I was a child, so maybe it's a hangup from that time... but a pleasant one: things being eaten and then given out again, it's an image that constantly appeals to me, and to most children, too. It's such a primary fantasy of childhood – the pleasure of putting things in the mouth, of chewing, of swallowing, of shitting and pissing. Before children are told it's not a nice thing – the whole toilet training process – there's nothing nicer."

"Sometimes, though, it can be scary," I add, remembering how Maurice once described his feelings as a child when grown-ups would endearingly lean over him and say: Oh, I could eat you up! "I was very nervous," Maurice had then recalled, "because I really believed they probably could if they had a mind to. They had great big teeth, immense nostrils and very sweaty foreheads. I often remember that vision and how it frightened me. There was one particular relative who did this to me, and it was really quite terrifying. I immortalized him in Wild Things."

"In the fantasy sketch that shows the child devouring his mother," Maurice now adds, "... of course that's what children must feel: that great big luminous breast hanging over its head is sent there by God. Obviously it's there for you, why not? Until you're told differently, how are you going to know? There's something both monstrous and poignant about it: the poignancy comes from the fact that a child's going to realize soon enough that it's not so, that he's mortal, that he'll have to compete for it, but that for the second's worth that it's there it's a glorious pleasure. And all I'm saying is, what's wrong with the pleasure? Why must we assume that the knowing is the correct thing and that the pleasure is the bad thing, which is what most people do feel.

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