Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are
American illustrator, essayist, critic, librettist, and author of picture books and nursery rhymes.
The following entry presents commentary on Sendak's picture book Where the Wild Things Are (1963) through 2003. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volumes 1, 17, and 74.
Sendak, one of the most acclaimed creative forces in twentieth-century children's literature, has illustrated over seventy books—primarily works for children and young adults—and has authored a successful series of nursery rhymes and picture books. Drawing on the great tradition of nineteenth-century book illustration, Sendak has forged a unique visual vocabulary and artistic style, at once rooted in the past yet contemporary in spirit and approach. While many of Sendak's works have won international recognition, including In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside over There (1981), his 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are remains his most critically and commercially popular work to date. The story of a disgruntled young boy who travels to an island of wild creatures after being sent to his room without supper, Where the Wild Things Are not only communicates with its readers on multiple levels, incorporating surprising visual and verbal allusions, but also offers dramatic social commentary about the nature and psychological developments of childhood. Where the Wild Things Are is often referred to as "the first modern picture book" and, due to the appeal of Sendak's engaging text and exuberant illustrations, it has remained an international best-seller since its initial release. In addition to numerous other honors, Sendak has been presented three of the most important international awards for excellence in children's book illustration—the Caldecott Medal in 1964 for Where the Wild Things Are, the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1983 for his overall body of work. In 1980 composer Oliver Knussen staged an opera based on Where the Wild Things Are, with a libretto authored by Sendak, and a film adaptation of the picture book, directed by Spike Jonze, is scheduled for a 2009 release.
Sendak was born on June 19, 1928, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest child of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Sendak, his brother Jack, and his sister Natalie, were raised in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. His upbringing was shaped by both his parents' old-country mores and the cultural milieu of America in the 1930s, as well as by his family's frequent moves from apartment to apartment. Sendak was a sickly child, suffering from measles, double pneumonia, and scarlet fever over a two-year period. He spent a great deal of time in bed, watching other children play outside, but was unable to join them due to his parents' worries about his health. The young Sendak found a way to express his creativity, despite these physical limitations, by drawing and writing. Sendak was educated at Lafayette High School in New York, where he wrote an original comic strip for the school newspaper and illustrated a physics book for one of his teachers. While in high school, he illustrated backgrounds for the comic strips "Mutt and Jeff," "Tippy," and "Captain Stubbs." Following his high school graduation in 1946, Sendak worked at a warehouse in Manhattan until 1948, when he began designing wooden toys with his brother Jack. Their plan to market the toys to the famous New York toy company F.A.O. Schwartz did not succeed, but Sendak was hired to work on the store's window displays. Noted illustrator Leonard Weisgard saw one of Sendak's displays and offered him a commission to illustrate Good Shabbos, Everybody! (1951). The head of the children's book department at F.A.O. Schwartz introduced Sendak to Ursula Nordstrom, an editor at Harper & Brothers, and Nordstrom arranged for Sendak to illustrate Ruth Krauss's A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions (1952). Named New York Times Best Illustrated Book for 1952, A Hole Is to Dig won enough critical acclaim to enable Sendak to quit his job at the toy store and focus all his ener- gies on illustrating. Sendak was such a prolific children's book illustrator during the 1950s that he had little time to write, however, he published his first original picture book, Kenny's Window, in 1956, and a second, Very Far Away, in 1957. Many of Sendak's best known books were written during the 1960s, including The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960), which was later made into an animated television special and a stage production, Where the Wild Things Are, and Higglety Pigglety Pop!; or, There Must Be More to Life (1967). Sendak suffered a heart attack in 1967, the same year his mother and his beloved Sealyham terrier, Jennie, died. His father died two years later. After this difficult period, Sendak left New York and moved to Connecticut, where he continued illustrating a wide body of children's works. He served as an instructor in Children's Literature at Yale University from 1974 to 1975 and as an instructor at the Parson School of Design in New York City from 1974 to 1979. In 1980 Sendak began his first opera project, designing the sets and costumes for a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! have both been adapted into operas with the author's involvement. In 1990 Sendak co-founded The Night Kitchen, a national theater for children, with fellow writer Arthur Yorinks. In 1997 Sendak received a National Medal of the Arts, awarded by President Bill Clinton, and, in 2003, he received the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature from the Swedish Government.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
Utilizing pen-and-ink drawings with watercolor washes, Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a small boy, Max, clothed in a wolf costume, who is sent to bed without supper by his mother for misbehaving and acting like a "WILD THING." The text reads: "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another / his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ / and Max said ‘I'LL EAT YOU UP!’ / so he was sent to bed without eating anything." Max's bedroom soon transforms into a tropical jungle, complete with an ocean, and he sails on a "private boat for Max" to "where the wild things are," i.e., the island of the Wild Things—an island inhabited by huge, menacing-looking creatures. After Max tames the Wild Things by "staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once," the creatures call Max "the most wild thing of all" and make him their king. Max cries for the "wild rumpus" to start, and the Wild Things and their new king proceed to dance and romp across the island. Following the rumpus, Max sends the Wild Things to bed without their supper and finds himself lonely, longing for a place "where someone loved him best of all." He smells "good things to eat" across the globe and decides to head home, a decision that angers the Wild Things who beg and threaten to eat Max up. However, Max still steps back into his boat, waves goodbye, and leaves. He makes it back to his bedroom "where he found his supper waiting for him / and it was still hot."
Where the Wild Things Are presents a vivid picture of a child's frustrations when dealing with anger and emotional turmoil, the role of rules and accepted behaviors, and the need for maternal love and approval. Max is acting in opposition to the household rules and behavioral expectations, so his mother punishes him by sending him to his room without supper. Max, unable to escape this punishment, instead creates an imaginary land that he can escape to—the island of the Wild Things. Here Max revels in his wildness, and he and the Wild Things create a "wild rumpus," essentially completely giving into his tantrum. When the emotional impetus of his anger cools, Max realizes that he prefers the structured and caring environment of home, a place where "someone loved him best of all." This desire for maternal love and approval leads him to consciously leave his imaginary, anarchic world and return to the calmness of his room. In his acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal, Sendak stated 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." However, although the trappings of Where the Wild Things Are are unquestionably fantastic, Sendak offers several visual cues that ground the fantasy in reality, which creates an entrance mechanism for young readers. Sendak's illustrations show the definite relationship between the real world and the fantasy world—Max's bedposts grow into trees and his rug turns into grass as his journey to the land of the Wild Things begins.
Sendak has endured as one of the twentieth-century's most lauded children's book creators and was the first American illustrator ever to receive the presti- gious Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Where the Wild Things Are has remained a critical and popular favorite since its release and has developed the reputation as one of the canonical works of modern children's literature. When the book was first released, some reviewers expressed concern that the monstrous Wild Things might scare young children or make them emulate Max's early bad behavior. In an interview with Horn Book Magazine, Roger Sutton references a story in which a mother told Sendak that, "My kid screams every time I read her Where the Wild Things Are." Sendak's response was: "And I answer, did she hate her kid? Is that why she was tormenting her with this book?" One of the most often-cited criticisms of Where the Wild Things Are came from noted child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim in the March 1969 issue of the The Ladies' Home Journal. Bettelheim—who had only been told the plot of Sendak's book—criticized the author for failing "to understand … the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper … by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother." However, Bettelheim did later reverse his opinion in his 1974 book The Uses of Enchantment. In his critical reexamination of Sendak's most famous work, Leonard S. Marcus has stated that "Wild Things has yet to shed its initial fascination as an epic staring match in which the reader gets caught in the crossfire. In the primal logic of the book, seeing and being seen become synonymous with eating and being eaten, loving and being loved, and, as in a sort of Blakeian bargain, all sources of nourishment are revealed as potential sources of annihilation. As has so often been pointed out by now, even the illustrations as they ratchet up and then back down in trim size seem first to devour and then to disgorge the available white space of successive pages. Form becomes content and matter matters. Everything works."
As Author and Illustrator
Kenny's Window (picture book) 1956
Very Far Away (picture book) 1957
The Acrobat (picture book) 1959
The Sign on Rosie's Door (picture book) 1960
*Nutshell Library. 4 vols. (picture books and nursery rhymes) 1962
Where the Wild Things Are (picture book) 1963
Hector Protector and As I Went over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1965
Higglety Pigglety Pop!; or, There Must Be More to Life (picture book) 1967
In the Night Kitchen (picture book) 1970
Ten Little Rabbits: A Counting Book with Mino the Magician (picture book) 1970
Pictures by Maurice Sendak (illustrations) 1971
Maurice Sendak's Really Rosie (picture book) 1975
Some Swell Pup; or, Are You Sure You Want a Dog? [with Matthew Margolis] (picture book) 1976
Seven Little Monsters (picture book) 1977
Outside over There (picture book) 1981
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures (picture book) 1993
Mommy? [scenario by Arthur Yorinks; paper engineering by Matthew Reinhart] (pop-up book) 2006
Selected Works as Illustrator
Atomics for the Millions [by M. L. Eidinoff and Hyman Ruchlis] (textbook) 1947
Good Shabbos, Everybody! [by Robert Garvey] (juvenile fiction) 1951
A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 1952
Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas [by Ruth Sawyer] (juvenile fiction) 1952
The Giant Story [by Beatrice S. de Regniers] (juvenile fiction) 1953
A Very Special House [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 1953
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm [by Betty MacDonald] (juvenile fiction) 1954
Charlotte and the White Horse [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 1955
The Little Cow and the Turtle [by Meindert De Jong] (juvenile fiction) 1955
Singing Family of the Cumberlands [by Jean Ritchie] (juvenile fiction) 1955
What Can You Do with a Shoe? [by Beatrice S. de Regniers] (juvenile fiction) 1955
The Happy Rain [by Jack Sendak] (juvenile fiction) 1956
The House of Sixty Fathers [by Meindert De Jong] (juvenile fiction) 1956
Little Bear [by Else Holmelund Minarik] (juvenile fiction) 1957
Along Came a Dog [by Meindert De Jong] (juvenile fiction) 1958
No Fighting, No Biting! [by Else Holmelund Minarik] (juvenile fiction) 1958
Somebody Else's Nut Tree and Other Tales from Children [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 1958
Father Bear Comes Home [by Else Holmelund Minarik] (juvenile fiction) 1959
The Moon Jumpers [by Janice Udry] (juvenile fiction) 1959
Seven Tales [by Hans Christian Andersen] (fairy tales) 1959
Little Bear's Friend [by Else Holmelund Minarik] (juvenile fiction) 1960
Open House for Butterflies [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 1960
What Do You Do, Dear? [by Sesyle Joslyn] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present [by Charlotte Zolotow] (juvenile fiction) 1962
The Singing Hill [by Meindert De Jong] (juvenile fiction) 1962
Griffin and the Minor Canon [by Frank Stockton] (juvenile fiction) 1963
Nikolenka's Childhood [by Leo Tolstoy] (juvenile fiction) 1963
Sarah's Room [by Doris Orgel] (juvenile fiction) 1963
She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not [by Robert Keeshan] (juvenile fiction) 1963
The Bat-Poet [by Randall Jarrell] (poetry) 1964
Pleasant Fieldmouse [by Jan Wahl] (juvenile fiction) 1964
The Animal Family [by Randall Jarrell] (poetry) 1965
Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories [by Isaac Bashevis Singer] (juvenile fiction) 1966
The Golden Key [by George Macdonald] (juvenile fiction) 1967
The Big Green Book [by Robert Graves] (juvenile fiction) 1968
A Kiss for Little Bear [by Else Holmelund Minarik] (juvenile fiction) 1968
The Light Princess [by George Macdonald] (fairy tales) 1969
The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm [by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm; translated by Lore Segal, with four tales translated by Randall Jarrell] (fairy tales) 1973
Fortunia: A Tale by Mme. D'Aulnoy [by Marie Catherine Jumelle de Berneville Aulnoy] (fairy tales) 1974
Fly by Night [by Randall Jarrell] (poetry) 1976
King Grisly-Beard: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm [by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm; translated by Edgar Taylor] (fairy tales) 1978
The Nutcracker [by E. T. A. Hoffman; translated by Ralph Manheim] (fairy tales) 1984
In Grandpa's House [by Philip Sendak; translated and adapted by Seymour Barofsky] (juvenile fiction) 1985
Dear Mili: An Old Tale by Wilhelm Grimm [by Wilhelm Grimm; translated by Ralph Manheim] (fairy tales) 1988
I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book [edited by Iona and Peter Opie] (nursery rhymes) 1992
The Miami Giant [by Arthur Yorinks] (juvenile fiction) 1995
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities [by Herman Melville] (juvenile fiction) 1995
Penthesilia: A Tragic Drama [by Heinrich von Kleist; translated by Joel Agee] (verse drama) 1998
Swine Lake [by James Marshall] (juvenile fiction) 1999
Brundibar [retold by Tony Kushner; from the opera by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister] (juvenile fiction) 2003
Bears! [by Ruth Krauss] (juvenile fiction) 2005
Where the Wild Things Are: The Opera [composed and staged by Oliver Knussen] (libretto) 1980
Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (essays and criticism) 1988
The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present [text by Tony Kushner] (illustrations) 2003
*Includes Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months, One Was Johnny: A Counting Book, Alligators All Around, and Pierre: A Cautionary Tale.
Maurice Sendak and Roger Sutton (interview date November-December 2003)
SOURCE: Sendak, Maurice, and Roger Sutton. "An Interview with Maurice Sendak." Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 6 (November-December 2003): 688-99.
[In the following interview, Sendak discusses his body of work, the impact of the success of Where the Wild Things Are on his career, and his writing process.]
In July, Horn Book Editor Sutton talked with the artist in his Connecticut home in a conversation that covered life and death, ego and excavation, dreams and nightmares, Melville and Homer, and … plankton.* * *
[Sutton]: Last night on that show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," one of the makeover experts made a joke about how the guy's wallpaper looked likeWhere the Wild Things Are. How does it feel to realize that your work—Wild Things in particular—is so much a part of public culture?
[Sendak]: So you watch trash TV, too. Well, it's been true for a fairly long time now, and, honestly, it doesn't have any effect whatsoever. I see that book almost entirely in personal terms: I think about what I was like at that time, I think about Ursula [Nordstrom]. I'm not very impressed with being a catchword every time someone needs something to be "wild." But then, it's my book, right? So maybe I'm due the right to take it a little bit for granted. I certainly have a right not to be impressed.
I wonder, too, if not being impressed and taking it for granted are both symbols of the same thing: that for you it's also become part of the background.
I do realize that Where the Wild Things Are has permitted me to do all kinds of books that I probably never would have done had it not been so popular. I think I took good advantage of that popularity to illustrate books that I passionately wanted to do without having to worry if they were commercial or not. That was a great opportunity. I can still do it based on that book. I've always wished that Herman Melville weren't so afraid that he would be remembered for the popular Typee instead of Moby-Dick. He said, I just know that on my tombstone it's gonna say, "Herman Melville, the author of Typee: The Land of the Wild Naked Women," or something. Well, that's what happened. But the fact is that Typee got him through a lot of books; it sold extremely well. You know, his first two novels were terrific boy-on-the-island sex novels. It's only when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne that he decided to allow himself to be driven and passionate and write a serious work of art. His subsequent work, the books we honor him for, were "failures" and cost him his popularity. I don't think Wild Things is my best book. But I don't care what they put on my tombstone; God knows I'm no Herman Melville, but I've been blessed with having been taken seriously and having profited from my work financially and personally. It's good.
Does it ever feel like it gets in the way? Do you ever wish that like Doris Lessing you could publish something under a different name and see what people would think if they didn't know it was by you?
I fantasize that all the time. I guess most authors do. But I know that when In the Night Kitchen came out it was a disappointment to people because it had nothing to do with Wild Things. Why couldn't I have just stayed put? The style was different, everything about it was different. The cartoons, the nakedness, everything seemed to be a rebuff of what I had "accomplished." But I had Ursula, who would never have let me do another Wild Things. Never. Never. She never suggested it, to her immense credit. And then the other books were notorious in one way or another, but they've all finally settled in nicely, couched on top of the Wild Things. When I first discussed Wild Things, Night Kitchen, and Outside over There as a triumvirate, people said, "What's he talking about, he's just trying to pull his not-so-good books into the good book," but I always knew there would be three. It was a triumvirate.
I think that those three books, in lots of different ways, allow people to use them as a lens on you. This is what matters to him. This is what he's about. These are the kinds of things he's afraid of; here's what makes him laugh. Obviously you've done lots of other books, but those three give people a way into the work as a whole.
Everything is in those three books. Over the longevity of a man's life and work you get a sense of where his mind is, where his heart is, where his humor is, where his dread is. It's the best thing you could ask, that this kind of understanding of an artist doesn't happen posthumously. What more can you ask? Herman would have settled for a quarter of that.
So what it's like, then, at midlife to have publishedOutside over There, what you acknowledge as your capstone achievement? What happened after that?
Outside over There was the most painful experience of my creative life. It brought on a catastrophe. It was so hard it caused me to have a breakdown. I left the business. I didn't think I could finish it. At that point in my still-young life, I felt I had to solve this book, I had to plummet as far down deep into myself as I could: excavation work. Wild Things was excavation work, but I got up and out in time, like a miner getting out just before the blast occurs. Night Kitchen was a deeper run, and that was troublesome. But I did not anticipate the horror of Outside over There, and so I fell down. I lost my belief in it, I didn't know what I was doing, and so I quit; I stopped the book right in the middle and I stopped work. That's when opera director Frank Corsaro called out of the blue and said he loved my books, especially Juniper Tree, and would I work on an opera with him? That was The Magic Flute…. After that, the books I did were rehabilitation from Outside over There. I was ill. I was just meant to keep working and pro- ducing, but the joy and the great passion went into the opera now where I felt as if Mozart were the nurse taking care of me.
What do you think happened?
I think I went over my head. I went into a subject I thought I had some knowledge of or some control over as I did the other two books, but I fell off the ladder that goes down deep into the unconscious. Herman Melville (again I have to refer to him because he's been my patron saint) called it diving. I mentioned it in the Arbuthnot speech, that you dive deep and God help you. You could hit your head on something and never come up and nobody would even know you were missing. Or, you will find some nugget that was worth the pain in your chest, the blindness, everything, and you'll come up with it and that will be what you went down for. In other words, you either risk it or you sell out. In Melville's terms there was only that way. So it was with John Keats, who also believed in the diving. It is my best work, Outside over There. But I can take no pleasure in that.
When did you realize that it was going to be more than you had bargained for?
When I did the drawings. I always do a set of accomplished drawings before I get into painting. I did all the drawings for the book and there was something—Roger, if I knew what happened, I'd tell you, but I don't. Something went amiss in me, a kind of panic, a kind of fear. I had touched on a subject, which is not in the book, but which had to be touched on to do the book. I couldn't face painting the pictures. I could not face seeing them all over again and painting Ida. It made me sick to do that. I waited six months between the finishing of the drawing and the very feeble start of that book in paint. I went back into therapy, which didn't help—but by that time I had really lost my faith in therapy. Anything but self-therapy I'd lost my faith in. So I just did it. I could do it, but it was heavy, heavy slogging. This book I'm doing now, Brundibar, is twice, three times as long as Outside over There, but I'm just painting pictures and having a good time. I chose Brundibar because it's another place in me that needed a solution, but it's not as deep as Outside over There, neither as quixotic nor as potentially lethal. That's not hyperbole, that's just how it feels.
It's interesting to me to hear you talk aboutOutside over There in that way because the pictures are so light-filled. Even those goblin babies, the planes of their faces. It's art that doesn't seem frightened or in despair.
That's the artist's good luck and grief.
You can link that toBrundibar —there's nothing in the story that suggests it was an opera performed by children at Terezin—you aren't leaning really heavily on the context.
No. To have leaned heavily on the context would have pushed the whole thing out of shape, and it would have been a sentimental thrust of no value whatsoever, because the opera was written to amuse the children; it was written to take their minds off the worst elements of their lives and it was meant to be cheerful. However, if you get to know the work very well, as I have had to, there are elements in the opera that are extremely brave in the face of the circumstances: the tyrant will come down, all bullies will be put away, and we must stick together, brothers and sisters. Who is Brundibar, who is this bully who's been threatening you this way and making you do what you don't want to do? I don't know how the prisoners got away with that. Except it was in the form of a children's opera, the superb music is fairly simple, sweet, Kurt Weill-ish. And you know we can get away with things in children's books that nobody in the adult world ever can because the assumption is that the audience is too innocent to pick it up. And in truth they're the only audience that does pick it up. Kids' reaction to all my books has been pretty "for" or very much against. There is a tone, there is a smell, there is some chemical thing going on, and if they don't like that they go away from it. That's happened in every important book I've done. But it wins the Caldecott, and people think their kids have to love it. Hello.
You told Selma Lanes a story about that. "My kid screams every time I read herWhere the Wild Things Are …"
And I answer, did she hate her kid? Is that why she was tormenting her with this book?
Outside over There brought some hostility from childrildren, but it was a book that made them chew. It works; that's all I know. It just works and whatever that means, that's what you've gotta do. You've gotta make it work. On whatever level, you gotta aim that arrow even though you don't know the target, really, you don't even know why you're so vehement. I hate being this mysterious, but I can't help it because I don't get it; I've never understood this—process, impulse, intuition, subject matter, what pulls me here and not there, what will unleash an enormous excitement in me while other things that I thought would, don't.
Things that you don't think are going to take you as deep or as darkly as they end up doing.
Or as tremendously happily, as Esau did. It wasn't just being able to work with Iona [Opie]. That book was cruel in a way that is so human and dear. Kids can be so hard on each other—and you know that these little buggers are just going to be worse when they grow up—but that is the human condition. And the kind of lovingness they still can convey in all of that, and sweetness. I'm reading a new translation of the Iliad, and I'm in great pain because I'm finishing. I'm right near the end, and I can't bear it. I chose the Iliad because, working on Brundibar, I'm so tired I can't see straight. I know the story of the Iliad; I'm reading it now for the depth of the poetry. I read two or three pages a night, like reading the Bible. It's exactly what we're talking about, which is the sense of the sheer inanity of life, the stupidity of it—and the gods are worse than the people. Just when Agamemnon thinks they're on his side, it turns out they're on Hector's side. The gratuitousness—I want Troy to win today, says Hera; well, no, says Zeus—and then the rest of it is the killing that goes on and on. I don't know why it touches me this way. There's the point where Hector is coming up behind this young man—say his name is Ajax—and Hector's flashing sword is aimed at his neck, young Ajax who spent his own money to come all the way to Troy, he needn't have, he lived on the rolling plains of Corinth and he had a farm and his wife stood holding her big pregnant belly as she saw him off, this young man so promising, so beautiful, so brave—the sword strikes him just under the lobe of his ear, cuts his major artery and the head topples off and he falls into his smoking foggy death and he goes clattering on the floor and everybody grabs for his armor. It's like the cruelty of children. Homer never sits in judgment: Achilles is such an egomaniac, Agamemnon such a cheap bugger. But they don't get chastised; they just get memorialized; that's who they are. That's what Esau was like, too. It's that kind of nonjudgmental observation, with a big heart. Who are we to judge other crazy humans? It's like King Lear—one of my favorite plays in the whole world. I cannot bear to read it because every time I do it's got to end differently. That one brave daughter can not be killed at the last minute. It's just too much.
But what else could have happened to her?
Yes, anything else happening would have been false. But during the entire eighteenth century it was performed with Cordelia coming back to life: "Oh, here she is!" Shakespeare, however, understood the need to go to the nth degree. I'm not claiming that I'm one of the nth degree people, but I am claiming that I believe in the nth degree. I believe in going all the way and being so ferociously honest because otherwise it doesn't work, it's contaminated. Why would you bother?
Do you ever question yourself—can I go this far, should I go this far?
No. I see myself as a fairly weak person. I've gotten better with age. Age has really done well by me. It's calmed the volcanoes down considerably. Age is a form of kindness we do ourselves. But I don't feel like I've been misunderstood. Honestly, I don't feel like my work is that important. I have no brilliant conceptual gift for drawing or any really exceptional gift for writing. My gift is a kind of intuitive sense that I often think you would find in a musician, of knowing just what the music sounds like and knowing where to put your fingers. My talent is knowing how to make a picture book. Knowing how to pace it, knowing how to time it. The drawing and the writing are good, but if my whole career counted on that I wouldn't have made it very far. I truly believe that, because I took forever to learn to draw. It took up to The Juniper Tree to really draw.
I think my work is miraculous in that it has kept me alive and kept me employed. Constantly, since I've been about fifteen. I have to work, that's who I am, that's how I live, that's how I protect myself. I do it for me, it keeps me living, and it's gotten me over the worst of my personal life into a period of time in which I look around carefully and can say, "It's not so bad now."
So it's the working, not the work.
Being Jewish in the strict sense is to make your life purposeful. Otherwise, there's no purpose for you to be here at all. I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I was brought up as one and that lingers, the business of making your life purposeful. Actually, you can't make your life purposeful, it just is. And it was from childhood on. Why am I here, all that. But then you get over all that ego crap. I learned so much from Keats when he's writing to his big brother George, who's immigrated to America, about how you have to defeat your ego before you can become an artist who can be considered seriously. Keats says Shakespeare is the only artist who dumped his ego. He's Rosalind, he's King John, he's everybody, but we don't know who he is. (Not like Wordsworth, who was brilliant and tried very hard to submerge himself, but if you look very carefully you can see the shadow of his finger in everything.)
Does happiness follow purpose?
I don't know. I've led an unhappy life, but I needn't have. Growing up poor in Brooklyn was just like everybody else. My parents were no better or worse than everybody I saw around me. I had two wonderful siblings, which not a lot of kids had, older siblings who took care of me and protected me and really loved me. There was nothing like what you hear about today, the suffering of children. Yet I did suffer. There was something wrong, always. Why did I spend so many years in therapy? Whatever was wrong was ingested then and only manifested itself when I was becoming a teenager and then going to live on my own in New York. I was permanently frightened. And when you go to the therapist and he says, "Tell me what frightens you," you say, "That's why I'm here. I don't know." I never did find out. What happened was, hey, I got older, and the fear drooped, the fear got Alzheimer's before I did.
Cheap psychology says, Okay, he was this scared and anxious child and he took this fear and he made art.
Yes, that's way too easy.
So when you allude, as you did inOutside over There, to something that terrified you as a child, like the Lindbergh kidnapping—
Even now. You just said those words and a little zingo went through me. It's a sickening feeling. Like a lightning strike.
—does it heal?
It helps. I sometimes say I was trying to change history. Ida finds the baby. I refused to let the Lindbergh baby die. I changed history. And that is part of it—but it's a very superficial part, because I'm not crazy, the baby was dead, and I don't believe books bring people back to life. There's a stubbornness in me that resists some ways of taking comfort.
I had a recurring nightmare when I was a kid—I must have been four-ish—a nightmare about being chased by a very frightening something and my heart is beating out of my chest. In the dream I'm desperate to get the cellar door open, but this thing is right behind me. And I finally turn. And it's my father. And his face is hot on my face and his hands are out: murder. That's all it is: he will kill me. And that went on and on and on. And then just this week, here I am seventy years later, and the dream came back, and even in the dream I was stunned to be dreaming this again! The same thing happened and—this sounds like a TV movie of the week; can't be helped—I did something I never did before. I turned around and there he was, but I stood my ground and his face was so close to mine and his nose was pressing my nose and then I saw that he was laughing—that it was a joke. He wasn't trying to kill me, he was playing with me. Now, does that reach all the way back—like that Gregory Peck movie with Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound—and say, "That's your answer" (seventy years too late, but what the fuck)? I don't think so. I don't think it's an answer to anything. It's probably just a release on my part. I can't claim now that my father really wanted to kill me and that he really hated me.
But I don't think the dream is an indication that, Oh, all along your father was laughing. He's laughing now, when you're seventy-five.
Precisely. Because I'm laughing now. Because I've decided these issues don't matter anymore. They cannot be solved. Even more important, they needn't be solved.
My worry, if I have any worry, is am I dodging? Have I found a way to fool myself, to ease myself out of the pressure-cooker life I've always had? Is it too easy?
I want to be plankton. Plankton is so under the radar, and they look real busy. You watch the Discovery channel and they're bubbling and burbling away and right behind them is Moby-Dick. Plankton are too small to harbor ego, yet they seem to have plenty to do. You stand on top of the Empire State Building and look down and everybody looks like plankton. That suits me, to be plankton, not because I'm pretending modesty but because I'm hoping that the big answer is there ain't none, so cut it out.
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about how writers need to turn off the little radio station in their heads—station KFKD, she calls it—which broadcasts endless praise into one ear and infinite criticism into the other.
Yes, you need to get out of the center of attention. You need to stop obsessing. Am I a believer? Am I not a believer? Should I have won the Caldecott three more times? How come? Why not? When you pull out of that orbit—and you can—that's when you're plankton. Then you're just swimming in life. Sure, even if you're plankton you can be afraid that someone you love is going to die. I live in dread of my sister dying; she's older than I am. I don't want to be an official orphan. If that's ego, well …
You once said to me you wished you could believe in something—you said you wished your dog Jennie was up there waiting for you.
More poignantly and painfully, my brother. I still can't believe I won't see him again. I can't even talk about it. But death is a comfort because that's what saves you. Suffering, cancer, some horrible disease, I'm terrified of pain. Death will just take you away from that. So what's to be afraid of? It's a cessation of pain. What more could you ask? It's like the good nurse.
Well, since we've established that you're not a believer, there's the basic fear of unconsciousness, intellectual extermination …
I think the most graceful thing offered us is sleep without dreams. That is so sensible.
I have a passion for that cable TV show "A Baby Story." I watch it all the time. People say, "They're all born the same way, Maurice, why do you go on?" But here's the thing: you can see the baby's head, you can see the baby coming out. I cannot get enough of that, I cannot get enough of seeing the baby come out. There was one show where it was a C-section and there was a lot of trouble because the baby was huge. And you're right there—you see them slit her belly open, and then they part her belly and grab whatever is there. They get this boy and the doctor is like "My God! Look at his head! No wonder!" and they get his head out and his head now is just over the slit. He's looking around. His shoulders are stuck he's so big. Just his head out and he's looking around. It looked kind of like a Beckett play, but it was so beautiful, so moving.
That reminds me of Julie Vivas's book The Nativity, which has some really wonderful pictures of the Babe's first look at the world.
It is astonishing. I could look at it over and over. It's that first moment, the uncontrollable gesturing, the legs—you know, babies show us that we're really frogs. A torso, a penis or a vagina, and then the legs bow—it's so basic, so elemental. It's that first moment—we've been talking about mysteries today; you could headline this whole interview "The Mystery." There's nothing to solve. Why am I obsessed with birth? I have to see it, night after night, and obviously there are lots of people like me, because the show is always on. It's the face. And the other moment is when this messy little thing is dried off. And the mother's face is still in pain, and then it dawns on her she hasn't heard the cry. The eyes sharpen, she comes out of herself and then she looks at her husband who she hasn't looked at at all, that detestable scumbag over there who brought this on her. And he's just standing there taking pictures.
"Look this way, honey."
Almost the first thing she says is "I don't hear the baby cry." Sometimes there's trouble, they have to clean out the baby's lungs, sometimes they die, but oh, ninety percent of the time they cry and then her face is relieved, and she wants it, she wants it, and they put it in that little blanket and the baby is struggling with its eyes—and this must be some incredible chemical thing—and the baby looks at her quietly and mostly stops crying and then the look on her face and the transference of something and then her face just melts. She has given in entirely. It's nature; she has no choice, perhaps. But to see it on a human being's face, see the softness enter and the pact agreed upon; they sign right on the dotted line, the two of them, right at that moment. It's then that she looks to her husband. He's allowed to come into the picture. It's so primitive.
All this is corny, right?—the baby being born. But I feel about that the way I feel about death. I've seen many people I love die. I was with them for that transference, that look, peaceful, really peaceful.
Coming in and going out?
Yes, you come on a wisp of air and you go on a wisp of air. Emily Dickinson is accused of morbidity because she loved being close to dying people; she loved to be there to watch, this little ghoul of a genius. She invested all her energy into looking into the person's face and wanting to see "the Passing"—as she called the moment from life to death. It was almost as though she could see somebody step out and go that way.
Do we know what she believed?
She was basically a nonbeliever. How could she be a believer and be Emily Dickinson? Here's what she believed in: the need to stop calling everything by its name, like when her sister comes out and says, "Emily, it's time to put up the batter for mother's bread. It is Tuesday, you know." I'm making up this conversation, but it's what happened. And Emily would mutiny. "No. Why are you calling it Tuesday? How dare you call it Tuesday, that nails me to Tuesday. And I don't want to bake bread today. I want to be free, I want to sit here in the garden." The fact that we call it Tuesday drives her crazy. It's no day, it's any day; if we make it Tuesday that means it came after Monday, which means it's a very short ride to Sunday, and the week is fucked. If we could live that way without saying, Oh, just two more weeks to finish Brundibar, gotta go to the dentist next Monday, all of that.
But when you're working away, putting something down on paper, you're saying, here's something that needs to be kept for the future. It's not enough just to have the picture in your head—you're placing it in time as soon as you put it down.
Because I signed a contract, and got money—
Oh, come on.
Listen to me. I am a commercial artist. I told them I would do this work for a certain amount of money by a certain time. My own needs to do this have nothing to do with that. Yes, I need Tuesday. I hope I get old enough to dump it, but I need it. Meanwhile they have given me the privilege of spending so much time in this Brundibar world, where I need to be. I don't know why I need to be there, but that's the joy of all this. The real mystery is, why does this make me so happy? Why does this free me of every inhibition? Why does this allow me to be normal? I know, from experience, that I'm good at this. Really good at it. I'm not ripping it off, I'm not fucking it up, I'm doing it as delicately and carefully as I can.
So the absorption in the creating is the actual reward.
Totally. In that period of time, I don't need the Iliad, the baby show, or Ricki Lake. I am stirred to the top of my last brain cell because I'm working. I am stirred into life by my labor.
"Look this way, honey."
James Holt McGavran, Jr. (essay date winter 1986-1987)
SOURCE: McGavran, Jr., James Holt. "‘The Children Sport upon the Shore’: Romantic Vision in Two Twentieth-Century Picture Books." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 4 (winter 1986-1987): 170-75.
[In the following excerpt, McGavran compares Where the Wild Things Are with the works of various poets from the Romantic era, particularly William Wordsworth and William Blake.]
Wordsworth's outrageous, profound inversion, "The Child is father of the Man" ("My Heart Leaps Up"), may not by itself have created the generation gap; but it epitomizes the Romantic tendency to polarize childhood and adult life—a tendency still present in late twentieth-century visions of childhood as either dream or nightmare or both. The enduring Romantic image of the child—whole, pure, radiant, unbroken, almost unspoken—emphasizes by its very sublimity the abyss both Blake and Wordsworth discovered between their chimney-sweeps and cottage girls and the worlds and words of the grown-up. Major gaps open between the two visionaries themselves, however, regarding the nature and extent of their dependence on their powers of perception.
Preferring the spiritual reality of his visions, Blake repudiated the material world: "We are led to Believe a Lie, / When we see With not Thro' the Eye" ("Auguries of Innocence"); nevertheless, he commanded the visual arts of drawing, painting and engraving as well as poetry for the exploration and communication of his visions. The laborious copper-engraving process he learned as a youth must have seemed the antithesis of the visions themselves; yet it afforded him both a discipline and a means of expression denied to Wordsworth, who had no other recourse if words failed him. Furthermore, Blake typically played the visual against the verbal in his illuminated works, creating rich ambiguities that ultimately enhance his ability to communicate his visions. At least partly for these reasons Blake could confront his contrary states of innocence and experience with relative serenity and pass beyond them to higher levels of imaginative vision. In the verse letter to Thomas Butts, Blake articulates his double vision in a well-known description of a thistle:
With my inward Eye 'tis an old Man grey;
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.
And he concluded the same letter:
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me.
'Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah's night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision and Newton's sleep!
Blake's fear of the scientific observer's supposedly unbiased objectivity—"Newton's sleep!"—is aptly enough a fear of solipsism a well; there must be a dialogue between internal and external realities, the old man and the thistle, before visionary advancement is possible, before one can hope to build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.
Wordsworth knew this fear also: indeed for him and most other Romantic and post-Romantic writers the gap between subject and object tended always to widen, the elusive "celestial light" of early vision increasingly shadowed in adult life and language by the "light of common day" ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood," Brooks 128). Bound to the material world by the love his mother taught him before her early death (Prelude 2 : 232-84), the orphan Wordsworth was condemned to search in and through nature—the material world of death that Blake despised—for those few shining moments, "Gleams like the flashing of a shield" (Prelude 1: 586), that might show him his path back and down time and space while simultaneously lighting his way into the future as man and poet. Although heavily dependent upon his own power of perception—and the eyes and words of his more observant sister Dorothy—Wordsworth, like Blake, knew physical sight alone to be extremely limiting, reductive; it was better understood as a metaphor descriptive of a deeper, more creative level of contemplation. In "Tintern Abbey" he praises "That serene and blessed mood" through which
we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Wordsworth remembers these moments of vision—"spots of time," he names them in The Prelude) 12: 208-23)—hoping to recreate them subsequently in poetry through the process he referred to, in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, as "emotion recollected in tranquility."
It may have been his combined dependence upon and sublimation of the visual eye, along with his inability to work creatively in a visual medium, that led Wordsworth at crucial moments in his writings to doubt his powers of either sight or insight or both. The section of "Tintern Abbey" quoted above begins with a strange juxtaposition of landscape and blindness:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye …
Wordsworth is ostensibly asserting the power of his imagination over time and distance as he journeys from youth to adulthood; but this assertion is undercut by the uncertain location of the landscape, which may exist in nature, in the mind, or on canvas. Nor is it certain whether the blindness is to be taken literally or figuratively: Wordsworth seems uneasy about both the limits of the visual eye and the validity of the sublimated vision he perceives and describes in the poem. Several years later, in the "Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm," Wordsworth positively rejects as "blind" and therefore "to be pitied" (line 56) his own earlier, innocently tranquil vision of the castle reflected in the sea. Widely regarded as his farewell to his imaginative powers, the "Elegiac Stanzas" show Wordsworth yielding to what he now sees as the greater accuracy and power of Beaumont's painting after lines that specifically lament his inability to make a visual as well as a verbal response:
Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter's hand,
To express what then I saw: and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet's dream …
Longing to possess and control a "Painter's hand," Wordsworth raises but leaves unanswered the fundamental Romantic question Blake also faced: whether work in either or both media could fully express his vision, "the light that never was"; whether "the Poet's dream" could ever be painted or spoken.
Perhaps Wordsworth came closest to articulating the inexpressible in the ninth stanza of his ode on childhood recollections. Earlier in the poem he sounds like a man groping blindly in the dark as he asks, "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" (lines 56-57) But when he took up the ode again after a gap of two years, Wordsworth rediscovered the power to look inward and create in words his most compelling picture of his own interior landscape, affirming the continuing presence of the child in the adult's consciousness in lines that have haunted thought and expression in English ever since:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Authoritatively penetrating the limits of physical perception that often frustrated his visions even while nourishing them, Wordsworth joins interior and exte- rior landscape; his lines of verse move readers syntactically through interior space and time from the inland entrapments of adult self-consciousness in the material world to the shores of the greater life they have unconsciously possessed in childhood but inevitably lost in growing up. Wordsworth's mighty seascape-psychodrama not only anticipates Jung's designation of the sea as the archetype of death, rebirth, and consciousness; the passage seems also to prefigure the work of the phenomenologists, philosophers of consciousness such as Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, and Poulet writing on the primacy of perception, the discovery of interior spaces, and the traversing of interior distances (Merleau-Ponty, 47-63; Bachelard xi-xxxv, 3-37; Poulet vii-viii). And recent literary criticism has abounded in metaphors of "crossings" between earlier and later authors or their texts, of "secrets" lurking in the spaces between a text and its interpreter, and of "border territory" "where the persistence of alternatives seems to offer promise of the soul's freedom" (Bloom 375-406; Kermode vii-xii; Swingle 271, 283).
But long before psychology, philosophy, and criticism caught up, Wordsworth had established a central metaphoric setting suggestive not only of psychic division and crisis but also of psychic integration, a place in the mind where contraries of childhood innocence and adult experience, of youthful vision and adult attempts to visualize, can be met and transcended. His "immortal sea" reappears throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in innumerable subsequent literary recreations of growing up, works as different superficially as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, or as James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Wolf's The Waves. It was inevitable that writers for children and adolescents—and thus for their parents and teachers—would also be drawn to the shoreline where Romantic vision meets material visual reality: two recent, rich, darkly complex but quite recognizable variations on the theme of blocked vision are Theodore Taylor's The Cay (1969) and Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved! (1980). But no more enchanting or profound explorations of childhood and the seashore are to be found than in two classics of the American picture book, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and Robert McCloskey's Time of Wonder (1957).
Doubly empowered, like Blake before them, Sendak and McCloskey can explore and attempt to express their visionary consciousness both verbally and visually; studied together, they establish a paradigm of the seashore as Wordsworthian topos while extending his vision into the visual medium. For Sendak and McCloskey make opposed but complementary uses of this setting, in accordance with their verbal and visual styles as well as the ages of their intended readers. Sendak, like Blake, focuses on internal realities and conflicts, examining contrary states of the soul and their effects on behavior; thus little Max, sent to his room without supper for being what his mother calls a "wild thing," sails off across the sea of his own consciousness to join and conquer the imaginary creatures that he, like his creator, loves to draw. Blakean too is Sendak's tendency to play the visual against the verbal, thus more fully expressing his Romantic vision through apparent discrepancies between text and pictures. On the other hand, McCloskey, like Wordsworth in the "spots of time," begins with external visual realities and subtly moves from these into the minds of the overs to suggest transcendent reality within and beyond scene and self. Instead of contrasting, words and pictures reflect and reinforce each other as the two vacationing sisters—actually McCloskey's own daughters Sally and Jane—trade school-bus schedules for the rise and fall of the Atlantic tides. With them, readers too can find nourishment for the imagination simply by exploring the union of verbal and visual in McCloskey's Maine coast, seeing into the life of its trees, its people, and its weather.
The visionary quality of Maurice Sendak's illustrations for other authors, and for his own picture books, is especially apparent in the wild luminescence of The Moon Jumpers, which recalls the early work of the nineteenth-century British painter Samuel Palmer, and in little Ida's psychic struggle to be both mother and father to her baby sister as she climbs backwards out of the windows of domestic realities into the seas of consciousness in Outside over There. In interviews Sendak has acknowledged that "Blake is the mainstay of my background" (McAlpine 139)—as he was for Palmer; Sendak believes that "The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience tell you all about … what it is to be a child—not childish, but a child inside your adult self—and how much better a person you are for being such" (Haviland 36). For Sendak, as for Blake and Wordsworth, the grownups' material world of experience, imaged in Blake's "forests of the night," shadows but never totally obscures the innocence of the child enthroned in clouds of glory. Analyzing parallels between Blake and Sendak, Jennifer R. Waller has argued that Blake is not remembering but recreating childhood in his Songs, and thus that a lack of nostalgia for lost innocence separates his view of the child from Wordsworth's. But elements of memory and vision appear in both writer's work; Waller herself notes that sadness is not a characteristic of the Songs of Experience alone, but "has already been present in Innocence," and also that a "jealous nostalgia invades" Songs of Experience such as the "Nurse's Song" (137). More thoroughly Blakean is Sendak's concept of the relationship between text and images in the picture book: Sendak believes Blake "created the perfect illustrated book because he enhanced and compounded his verbal meanings in his images" (McAlpine 139). Sendak has also said, "You … must not ever be illustrating exactly what you've written. You must leave a space in the text so the picture can do the work. Then you must come back with the word, and the word does it best and now the picture beats time" (Lorraine 326). Paradoxically he goes on to insist that the overall effect of the picture book must be of a "seamless" wholeness, of "a complete and total entity" where "one stitch showing and you've lost the game" (Lorraine 327). But it is precisely his awareness of what he calls "pastings together" that places his work in the border territory of Romantic tradition, where crossings and secrets abound. Sendak's works indeed provide clear parallels to Blake's: discrepancies such as that between the terrifying but fascinating "tyger" of Blake's poem and the anesthetized, almost stuffed look of the animal in the engraving recur in Sendak's "wild things," which in both text and illustrations seem simultaneously malignant and cuddly: "We'll eat you up—we love you so!" Further gaps open also in Blake's picture and poem when considered separately: in the engraving, where the benign beast contrasts with the bleakness of the forest setting; and in the text, in the intense, secret allusiveness of questions like these, with their classical, biblical, and Miltonic echoes:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Similar gaps open both within and between images and text in Sendak's book.
As Wild Things opens, it is late in the day, and, restless and probably hungry for his supper, Max is well on the way towards open conflict with his mother's rules for acceptable indoor behavior. Attired in a "wolf suit"—is the time near Hallowe'en?—complete with whiskers and long bushy tail, Max makes "mischief of one kind and another"; Sendak shows Max hammering a huge nail into a cracking plaster wall in order to hold up a tent like the one he later acquires after subduing all the wild things in his imagination. Next he terrorizes the family dog, yelling and chasing it with a fork. Does he threaten to eat the dog, as he threatens his mother—"I'll eat you up!"—and as the wild things later threaten him? And what is the connection? Has Max's mother threatened, either in anger or affection, to eat him? Sendak's books are full of gaps like this one, open to readers' interpretation. When his mother sends him to bed hungry as punishment, outward action yields to interior drama. First, his imagination turns confinement into escape, his hunger into a feast of images, by changing his room into a magic forest where he can be a "moon jumper" like the "wild thing" his mother called him. But this borderline moment, halfway between the truth of the imagination and materialistic reality, is not enough for Max: so "an ocean tumbled by" where Max has already been sporting on the shore, and he takes a sea journey "through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year" to the far shore where the wild things of his imagination come to life. That Max has been there before is implied by the fact that he has drawn one of these creatures already, before this journey begins; the picture hangs on the wall by the stairs in the second illustration to the text of the book. Waller (133) and others have noted that as Wild Things progresses, the pictures get bigger and bigger, until during the "wild rumpus," which follows Max's coronation as "king of all wild things," they entirely overflow the written text; then text gradually reestablishes a beach-head in the last pages of the book. Thus Max's imaginative interaction with his creatures takes him beyond words—or before words—and the kinds of distinctions they insist upon making: friend-foe, joy-fear, self-other. Yet King Max seems entirely in control of the situation: he passes among his subjects, dominating them as easily as earlier, when he was a naughty boy, they dominated him. The three wordless illustrations show Max, first, jumping and howling at the moon, surrounded by the wild things; second, swinging ape-like through the trees, second in line; and third, riding masterfully on the back of what had been the most intractable of the creatures, with all of their terrible eyes rolling deferentially towards him. These wide inner spaces of Sendak's visionary seascape form, as he says, a seamless unity; yet also they become almost endlessly suggestive. The three pictures may document evolutionary stages from lower animal to anthropoid ape to human being. Or Max may represent a self, a Freudian ego, caught between the temptation of the id and the restraints of the superego, between pleasure and morality. Or again, Max perhaps undergoes a symbolic rite of passage, a psyche-strengthening confrontation with the unconscious as described in Jung's writings on persona, shadow, and anima. Or do hunger and the smell of supper cooking simply bring this particular episode of mind-travel to a stop? In the delightful climax Max sends "all the wild things off to bed without their supper"; readers may conclude that he is simply banishing them, or perhaps that he wishes them to advance like him in self-knowledge, but Sendak leaves all possibilities open.
Retreating from the far shores of the sea of consciousness, Max now only longs to be inland far again, safely within the boundaries of his social identity in his family, "where someone loved him best of all." Perhaps there is a Coleridgean echo here, from the lesson the Ancient Mariner Learns: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small"; but more in touch with his imagination than Coleridge's haunted wanderer, Max learns his lesson without killing a bird—or eating a dog. So back the young mariner sails to his bedroom, and the supper his mother has kept hot for him. Max has had his imaginative piece of cake, and now he gets to eat it too—it is waiting for him on his bedside table. Sendak has remarked that any child frightened by his picture book should not be forced to hear it read (Lorraine 336); but Where the Wild Things Are, like Sendak's illustrated nursery rhyme As I Went over the Water, would more likely provide children a comforting reassurance that the creatures within one's consciousness can be met, known, and mastered. What Sendak has produced, finally, like Blake in his engraved Songs, is a complex metaphor of the Romantic artist's pursuit of his vision, armed with his powers of seeing, drawing, and naming.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947.
Haviland, Virginia. "Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author" (interview with Maurice Sendak), QJLC, October 1971; rpt. The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children. Ed. Virginia Haviland. Washington: Library of Congress, 1980. 24-45.
Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979.
Lorraine, Walter. "An Interview with Maurice Sendak," Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1977; rpt. Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley. Toronto and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980. 326-36.
McAlpine, Julie Carlson. "Sendak Confronts the ‘Now’ Generation." ChildL 1 (1972): 138-42.
McCloskey, Robert. Time of Wonder. New York: Viking, 1957.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences." Trans. James M. Edie; rpt. The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty. Ed. Alden L. Fisher. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. 47-63.
Poulet, Georges. The Interior Distance. Trans. Elliott Coleman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1959.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Swingle, L. J. "The Romantic Emergence: Multiplication of Alternatives and the Problems of Systematic Entrapment." MLQ 39 (1978): 264-83.
Waller, Jennifer R. "Maurice Sendak and the Blakean Vision of Childhood." ChildL 6 (1977): 130-40.
Mary Lystad (essay date March-April 1989)
SOURCE: Lystad, Mary. "Taming the Wild Things." Children Today 18, no. 2 (March-April 1989): 16-19.
[In the following excerpt, Lystad characterizes Where the Wild Things Are as a book that realistically addresses the psyche of children by highlighting conflict and resolution between a child and the world around him.]
Twenty-five years ago the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the most distinguished American picture book for children, was presented to Where The Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
This book has sold over a million hardcover copies and over two million paperback copies in the United States and continues a best seller. It has been reprinted in many foreign languages, including Danish, Japanese, Afrikaans and Welsh. Recently it was made into an opera, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version is available on videocassette. Wild Things ' publisher, Harper and Row, has marked its 25th year with an anniversary edition of the book and an anniversary poster of wild things and the wild-boy tamer, Max.
Where The Wild Things Are (1963)1 is a warm and witty fantasy, sparse in words (338 in all), enriched by formidable drawings in which the wild things grow larger and larger as the plot thickens. It marks a critical point in American literature for children because it dares to present openly anger, conflict, and rage, and because it resolves these issues satisfactorily for the child, so that he is reconciled with himself and his world.
The book begins with the boy, Max, making mischief of one kind and another. This provokes his Mother to call him "wild thing." Max retorts, "I'll eat you up." His Mother responds by sending him to bed without supper.
Luckily for Max, in his modest bedroom a forest grows, and grows, and an ocean tumbles by with a private boat, in which Max sails off to where the wild things are. Max tames the wild things by staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once, becomes their King, directs their wild rumpus, and sends them to bed without supper.
But despite grand and wonderful adventures with the wild things, Max becomes lonely and wants to be where someone loves him best of all. So he gives up being King of the Wild Things and returns into the night of his own room. He returns to Mother, and Mother shows her love by bringing a hot dinner, complete with a slice of chocolate cake, to his room.
Although this book received the coveted Caldecott Medal for its enchanting blend of text with illustration, it did not immediately win universal applause from parents, educators and librarians. Some of these caretakers of children worried that Max's bad behaviors would invite young listener/viewers to emulate him, and that the wild things would induce nightmares. Publishers Weekly opined that the illustrations would frighten children.
In his Caldecott acceptance speech, Sendak discusses the character of Max:
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 …
What is too often overlooked is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions … fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives … 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.2
In another setting, Sendak expounds further on the importance of fantasy for a child:
Fantasy is so all-pervasive in a child's life: I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do …
Wild Things really is the anxiety and pleasure and immense problem of being a small child. And what do children do with themselves? They fantasize, they control fantasies or they don't control fantasies.3
Child development experts agree with Sendak. The distinguished child psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, writes that today, as in times past, the most important task in raising a child is helping him to find meaning in life.4 Many experiences are required to achieve this, for the child, as he develops, must learn step by step to understand himself better. With this knowledge he becomes more able to understand others and eventually to relate to them in meaningful ways.
As a therapist of severely disturbed children, Bettleheim's main task was to restore meaning to their lives. He was confronted with the problem of finding out what experiences in a child's life are most suited to assist him in finding meaning in life and concluded that the most important experience was the impact of parents and others who care for the child. Next in importance was the impact of his cultural heritage, which, when children are young, is best communicated by literature.
In looking at literature for children, Bettleheim was deeply dissatisfied with preprimers and primers designed to teach necessary skills, irrespective of meaning, or with other child literature designed to entertain, irrespective of substance. To Bettleheim, nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to the child as fairy tales because they deal with inner problems of human beings and with useful solutions to their predicaments.
From another vantage point, educator Sara Zimet, in looking at primary reading texts, faults them for not dealing directly with people's aggressive drives.5 Depiction of complexity in personality, of negative as well as positive emotions, helps the child-reader better to understand both the direction diverse drives can take him and the direction in which he can take them. Zimet cautions that unless we are successful in affording children more meaningful reading materials, we cannot expect them to want to read or to prepare themselves well in school for active participation in their society.
1.Where the Wild Things Are, and all other Sendak books mentioned, with the exception of Dear Mili, were published by Harper and Row. Dear Mili was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
2. M. Sendak, Acceptance Speech for Caldecott Medal, in L. Kingman (Ed.), Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-65, Boston, The Horn Book, 1965.
4. B. Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, New York, Random House, 1975.
5. S. Zimet (Ed.), What Children Read in School: Critical Analysis of Primary Reading Textbooks, New York, Grune and Stratton, 1971.
Amy Sonheim (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Sonheim, Amy. "The Picture Books' Fantasy Worlds: Architectural Solutions." In Maurice Sendak, pp. 80-99. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Sonheim analyzes the techniques utilized by Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are to anchor time and place to reality and to contrast reality with Max's imaginary world.]
Once lovingly dubbed the "Marie Curie of hopscotch and skip rope,"1 Iona Opie, with her husband, Peter, pioneered in a new anthropological territory by watching children at playgrounds. In her observations Iona witnessed children successfully using "architectural solutions" to manage the problem of bullies. She noticed that the pestered children spared themselves from the troublemakers by seeking "a place apart, a kind of refuge" ("Playground," 30). "I'm sure I sound a bit simple," says Iona, "but it's my experience that big questions about good and evil sometimes come down to the question ‘Have you anywhere else to go?’" ("Playground," 30).
When faced with their own destructive impulses, the principal characters in Sendak's picture books must ask themselves the same question: Do I have anywhere else to go? They answer yes, escaping to havens that they themselves dream up. Each title of Sendak's three picture books bears the name of the imagined sanctuary: Where the Wild Things Are (1964), In the Night Kitchen (1970), and Outside over There (1981). And most significant for the onlookers reading about these retreats is that Sendak makes the imaginary lands accessible to them too, through stylistic elements in his narrative. By using these stylistic elements, called "deictics" and "determinants," Sendak draws his readers into the safe fantasy worlds of Max, Mickey, and Ida.
The word "diectic" comes from the Greek root "deiktos," meaning "able to show directly"; thus, the Sendakian narrator uses deictics for joining the reader's point of reference to his or her own.2 Sendak uses deictics to orient the reader to location and time in the fictive worlds of the picture books. He uses deictic words like "here" and "there," denoting space, and those like "then" and "now," denoting time; consequently, these spatial and temporal references encourage the reader to assume the same location and time frame as the narrator's if he or she is fully to understand the story (Traugott and Pratt, 275). For instance, should a narrator say "Now is the moment of truth" and the reader identify the "now" of his or her own circumstance as the moment of truth, he or she would not empathize with the speaker's situation. The "now" has to be the moment the princess who slept on the pea all night arrives, either well rested or with dark circles under her royal blue eyes, to greet the queen and hopeful prince.
Sendak sometimes moves the reader to share the narrator's perspective of the story by using definite articles and demonstratives. In addition, the definitive "the," "this," or "that," as opposed to the indefinite "a" or "any," prompts the reader to elaborate with his or her own details.3 Sendak emphasizes this shared perspective by avoiding much description or detail. When the narrator introduces the setting of Where the Wild Things Are with the phrase "The night Max wore his wolf suit," the reader must at once assume she or he knows exactly the night spoken of. Emphasizing the shared perspective, the narrator uses another demonstrative in the second sentence with "That same night." Because the narrator does not elaborate in the beginning with such details as "The Saturday before Max's seventh birthday" or "On 22 November," the reader is free to imagine she or he knows exactly which night "the" night and later "that" night refer to.
Where the Wild Things Are
For Wild Things, Sendak designs a clear-cut plot with a definite beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, Max acts like a "wild thing" and threatens to eat his mother, and so she confines him to his room without any supper. Max's room proceeds to change into a jungle and ocean. Max sails away in his own sailboat to the shore of some truly wild things. When they act unruly, Max reprimands them. For his revered control, the wild things crown Max king. He at once orders commencement of a glorious "rumpus," which Sendak pictures in the middle of the book for three double spreads without words. Afterward in the quiet, Max feels homesick. In the end, he decides to leave the wild things and return home, retracing his way in the boat. Back in his bedroom, he finds a toasty dinner waiting for him.
From the beginning of Wild Things, the narrator encourages the reader to share the fictive world of the book through Max's perspective. In the opening sentence the narrator first orients the reader to Max's circumstance. Like a good journalist, he sets the scene for the reader, first reporting the "person, place, and time" (Traugott and Pratt, 288): Max is the main character; he is at home; and he misbehaves at nighttime (Bagnall, 1980). As Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt write in Linguistics for Students of Literature, "These [journalistic] orientations obviously serve to establish a shared universe with the reader" (288). Then too, by using very little detail—such as describing the mischief of Max as "one kind and another"—Sendak may be suggesting that the details are unimportant, but he also allows the reader to piece together those details from the clues in the pictures: a strangled teddy bear, a hammer held high, and a nervous terrier being chased by Max.
The narrator imposes the fictive time frame of the book on the reader by using the determinant "the" when he says, "The night." As in other tales of fancy, the story might have begun, "Once upon a time Max wore his wolf suit." But Traugott and Pratt point out that a once-upon-a-time beginning "presupposes the least shared knowledge and therefore requires the least work on the part of the reader" (288). Whereas the indefinite article "a" does not induce the reader to imagine anything, by beginning with "The night" the narrator assumes the reader imagines exactly the night spoken of. Consequently, the narrator invites the reader from the opening sentence to use his or her own imagination in entering the fictive world.
As the fantasy begins in the second sentence, the narrator establishes the reader's perspective in Max's perspective through references to location and time, references that expand the world of Max spatially and temporarily. The first place given is "Max's room," the square place confining Max. As the fantasy begins, Max's room expands into a forest; Max's ceiling expands into vines; and Max's walls expand into "the world all around," without corners or boundaries. Likewise, the time frame extends from "that very night" to "night and day" and then to "weeks" and further to "almost over a year."
Why would the narrator guide the reader into the fantasy world by expanding her or his sense of space and time? Because the narrator's directions to the reader parallel Max's experience as he fantasizes. That is, Max, in fantasizing, imagines himself out of his boxed-in bedroom and projects himself into another place and time. This psychological projection of self into a different place and time is the essence of fantasy. In telling the fantasy this way, the narrator presents Max as Max must be picturing himself, moving far away from his closed room to an exotic jungle. The narrator presents Max's journey to where the wild things are as if Max is rapidly moving through time. Using spatial prepositions—"through," "in," "out," and "over"—in reference to measurements of time, the narrator says Max sails
through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year.
With these prepositions the narrator enables the reader to watch Max as Max must imagine and, in a sense, watch himself sailing away.
When Max arrives at the place where the wild things are he is undaunted by their ferocity and calmly conquers them: "‘And now,’ [cries] Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’" With the deictic "now" the narrator most fully merges the fantasy world of the reader with that of Max. After Max commands the rumpus, Sendak inserts three double-spread illustrations (six pages) of the wild things dancing, hanging from trees, and parading around. Like the effective pause of a live storyteller, the narrator's silence holds the reader's attention to the immediate moment. The story's "now" and the reader's "now" become one because the illustrations sans detailed description prompt the reader to imagine the narrative for the rumpus.
In direct contrast to the circumstance of the earlier command, when Max says "Now stop" he signals a return to restraint and control. Because Max uses the deictic "now" both to begin and to end the rumpus, the reader sees the warring attitudes inside Max: he wants to be both wild and in control "now" at the same time. In this way Sendak builds Max's fantasy to a logical climax. The rumpus marks the merging in time for Max's conflict both inside the fantasy and outside it.
The rumpus scene leaves Max unhappy with the wild things. He finds within himself the opposing strains of wildness and discipline. From this point, the narrator begins to guide the reader, with Max, back out of the fantastic land and toward a resolution in the ordinary world. As a foretaste of this resolution, the narrator presents Max daydreaming within the fantasy itself.
The narrator again expresses Max's daydream in terms of another time frame and another place. With the sentence "And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all," the narrator presents Max projecting himself into the future with the phrase "wanted to be" and imagining himself in another place with the phrase "where someone loved him best of all." As when Max initiated the fantasy, the narrator again expands the scope of the scene to distance Max from his immediate location. With the following sentence, "Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat," the narrator signals the expansion of space with the phrases "all around," "far away," and "across the world," and the reader, like Max, shifts her or his focus away from where the wild things are and back to Max's home even before Sendak has made the transition to home in the illustrations.
When Max decides to give up being king of the wild things and return home, the narrator guides the reader to retrace the journey. Just as the narrator earlier expanded Max's sense of time and place to construct the fantasy world, so too does he now contract the sense of time and place to reconstruct Max's ordinary world. Accordingly, the narrator presents the journey home in reverse order, saying,
Max stepped into his private boat and
and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and into the night of his very own room.
The narrator reorients the reader to the ordinary world by reminding the reader that Max is still the central character, that home is still the setting, and that the time of the action is still night.
Having guided the reader back into the ordinary world, the narrator must now guide him or her toward a resolution of the story. Here the narrator closes the story by saying that Max landed in his room, that he found his dinner prepared and waiting there, and that "it was still hot." Norma Bagnall points out that the detail of the hot supper waiting for Max at the end gives an emotional resolution to the story because it suggests feelings of love and security rather than those of anger and anxiety that Max felt in the beginning (Bagnall, 1980). But as a deictic reference to time, the hot supper firmly orients the location and time frame of Max in the ordinary world. The narrator's decision to end the story with the detail of Max's still-hot supper exposes the drastic difference between Max's time scheme in the fantasy world and that in the ordinary world. Through this detail the narrator suggests to the reader that although the fantasy took "almost a year" to get there and another year to get back, it has lasted but a moment.
In guiding the reader to find his or her way, along with Max, to and from the place where the wild things are, the narrator has been consistent; in short, he has presented the fantasy world of Where the Wild Things Are with clear-cut directions. Cornelia Meigs finds this orderliness vital for good fantasy. In the imaginary worlds, writes Meigs, "protagonists are often creatures of another world, the settings are over the border of reality, and time, as measured in our everyday lives, does not exist; yet the stories must be logical, event must follow in proper sequence, the plots must build up to a climax, and the outcome must be reasonable."4 The narrator guides the reader into the fantasy through night, day, weeks, and a year, and then back out over a year, weeks, day, and into night. In strict monitoring, the deictics "now … start" and "Now stop!" limit the rumpus. Ironically, the fantasy world of where the wild beasts live has more predictable order and control than Max's ordi- nary world. In that latter world Max has no control over certain conditions. In the beginning, he cannot control his rowdiness, his anger, or his punishment; at the end, and in a different sense, Max could never have predicted being blessed by a hot supper. Thus, as a result of clear-cut directions into and out of the fantasy, Sendak creates a controllable place for Max to work out his confusion and, consequently, a non-threatening place where readers can explore their own encounters with wild things.
1. "Playground Person," New Yorker, 7 November 1988, 30; hereafter cited in text as "Playground."
2. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt, Linguistics for Students of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 275; hereafter cited in text.
3. Walter J. Ong, S.J., "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," PMLA 90:1 (Jan. 1975): 13; hereafter cited in text.
4. Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, Ruth Hill Viguers, eds., A Critical History of Children's Literature (1953; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1969), 447.
Selma G. Lanes (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Lanes, Selma G. "A Controversial Triumph: Where the Wild Things Are." In The Art of Maurice Sendak, edited by Robert Morton, pp. 77-107. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Lanes considers the creative impetus behind Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and surveys the work's popular and critical reactions since it was first published.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
John Cech (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Cech, John. "Max, Wild Things, and the Shadows of Childhood." In Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak, pp. 109-41. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Cech investigates Sendak's reasons for writing Where the Wild Things Are and examines the book's literary influences and predecessors.]
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious—symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.
—Ursula Le Guin
On the final version of Sendak's manuscript for Where the Wild Things Are, Ursula Nordstrom asked Sendak to please "bear with" her "last few questions" about the text. It was the late summer of 1963 and she wrote to Sendak as their deadline for publication was fast approaching, playfully addressing "Maurice, or Max, or whoever you are" and announcing: "This is going to be a magnificent, permanent, perfect book."1 She underscored "permanent" with two emphatic lines. Her remarks could not have been more prophetic.
A few months after it was published, Where the Wild Things Are won the American Library Association's Caldecott Medal for the best picture book of the year, a fact that virtually guaranteed its longevity on library and bookstore shelves across the country. Even though "I had been around for over a decade, working very hard," Sendak later explained, with the success of Where the Wild Things Are "suddenly I was a star on the firmament."2 Over the next twenty-five years, the book has gone on to sell millions of copies in more than a dozen languages and to leave a lasting mark on contemporary children's literature. The noted children's book editor Michael di Capua, for one, observed that Where the Wild Things Are "turned the entire tide of what is acceptable, of what it is possible to put in a children's book illustration."3 Or, he might have added, in children's books as a whole.
Dramatically and irrevocably, Where the Wild Things Are opened up the fantasies of the young child and let the monsters out. In doing so it cast shadows over the "calm and sunny picture of childhood" that the American picture book at that time was trying to project.4 With regard to the conventions of children's books, Where the Wild Things Are crossed a number of unmarked but nevertheless carefully tended boundaries. Most strikingly, it broke a taboo against the expression of the powerful emotions of childhood—whether they were explosions of anger or sudden journeys into fantasy—that were normally kept far away from the pages of the picture book. Such forays into the domain of the child's emotional life were meant to be more restrained, less intense than the experience Sendak had created, and more like the quiet play that involves the child of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, which had won the Caldecott Award a year earlier than Where the Wild Things Are. Only a few months before Where the Wild Things Are appeared, one commentator complained that American children's books seemed unable to revise their well-worn formulas that churned out "uniform" books that "strike an average quality which precludes their ever being excellent, eccentric, or bold."5 Into this well-mannered world where, as Jason Epstein put it, "good bunnies always obey" Sendak introduced Max, whose vital urges made him neither stereotypically good nor obedient, as the hero of a book that was neither timid nor ordinary.6
It is perhaps difficult for us to imagine today the full significance that Where the Wild Things Are must have had on this world and these assumptions, but an analogy from another art form offers this perspective: the arrival of Where the Wild Things Are was the aesthetic equivalent for the picture book that the famous 1913 premier of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was for modern music—electrifying, controversial, precedent setting—a point of departure from which there could really be no easy return to the same old forms and subjects. The spirit of the times and the creative spirit of the artist were in complete harmony, and together they produced a work that challenged its readers and other creators of picture books to fundamentally change. Where the Wild Things Are may not have provoked literal riots in bookstores or libraries, but it certainly generated the major debate about the content of children's books during the 1960s, resulting in a shift in our thinking and a revision of our expectations concerning this art form.
Much as his work was concerned with expressing forcefully a deeply felt personal perspective about childhood, Sendak had not set out with the conscious intent of revolutionizing the aesthetic of the picture book. In fact, in interviews Sendak often downplays or even rejects his role as an innovator of the picture book, referring to himself instead as a kind of "tailor" whose creative process is one of merely stitching together into a book a variety of borrowed design or narrative elements. A few years after Where the Wild Things Are appeared, Sendak said the book had a "more myself look" than any of his previous books—a comment not only on the quality of the book's art but on the book's content, both of which were bound to upset the sensibilities of the status quo. Artists whose works challenge the norm and demand a "revolution in style," as Anthony Storr points out in The Dynamics of Creation, frequently meet with a resistance that is as strong as the "aggression" of the force of the vision that produced it.7 It is perhaps not at all surprising, then, that there should have been such a strong and sustained reaction to the innovations of Where the Wild Things Are. As Alison Lurie reminds us, "most of the lasting works of juvenile literature," among which she includes Where the Wild Things Are, "are thoroughly subversive in one way or another: they express feelings not generally approved of or even recognized by grown-ups; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking—as in Andersen's famous tale—that the emperor has no clothes."8
Among the many comments about the book, one critic called the story "pointless and confusing," while another warned that "it is not a book to be left where a sensitive child may come upon it at twilight."9 Alice Dalgiesh argued that "the book has disturbing possibilities for the child who does not need this catharsis" and asked about Max's fantasy, "Is anyone ever really in charge of a nightmare?"10 The question about the capacity of the book to frighten children, in fact, has followed it since its appearance. Ten years after its publication, and after the wide-ranging social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, the subject came up again as a matter for discussion at the 1976 conference of the Children's Literature Association when a packed special session was devoted to the "disturbing possibilities" of the book and the animated film that had been made from it in 1973. Nordstrom seems to have anticipated at least some of this response and may have been trying to brace Sendak for what was to come when she wrote him, prior to the book's release, that "it is always the adults we have to contend with—most children under the age of ten will react creatively to the best work of a truly creative person. But too often the adults sift their reactions to creative picture books through their own adult experience."11
Nordstrom was certainly right. The most vehement attack on the book was launched by the child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim who, in his regular column for The Ladies' Home Journal, accused Sendak of having written a dangerously flawed book because he "failed to understand … the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper … by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother."12 It had been a curious public position for Bettelheim to take since he had only heard about and had not actually read Sendak's book at the time he wrote the article. Bettelheim revised his opinion a decade later in his own book about the fairy tale, The Uses of Enchantment (1974). With regard to the monsters that children encounter in fairy tales and in their psychological development (the same monsters that had troubled him when Max summoned them up in Where the Wild Things Are ), Bettelheim now wrote that adults should not try to censor the kinds of monsters children might meet because such intervention shields a child from his necessary confrontations with "the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him. By keeping this monster within the child unspoken of, hidden in his unconscious, adults prevent the child from spinning fantasies around it in the image of the fairy tales he knows."13
In contrast to Bettelheim and others, the majority of critical voices had applauded the arrival of Where the Wild Things Are and Sendak's emergence as a major force on the children's book scene, among them Brian O'Doherty, the art critic for the New York Times at the time when Where the Wild Things Are appeared. O'Doherty was quick to recognize Sendak's unique ability to create works that might serve as "a corrective to the many published sins of adulthood against childhood—the sops, the cozy insults, the condescensions. He knows that children live in wonder, a state that opens them nakedly to joy, desire, and a world full of sudden and fearful possibilities" (Fig. 55).14 This capacity for distilling those volatile components of the child's psyche led O'Doherty to characterize Sendak as "a young alchemist" who was experimenting with elements from "the earliest self." O'Doherty would later extend his praise by declaring the positive value of the very thing for which some had criticized Sendak, for "restoring" in Wild Things "the majestic sense of fright and its magical control that have been streamlined out of children's literature."15
Time and the vast majority of Sendak's readers have borne out O'Doherty's assessment of Sendak's talents and the significance of one important dimension of his work: rather than a rejection of the kind of fantasy that Sendak proposed in the book, the response has been generally the opposite, and the impact of Where the Wild Things Are has been as pervasive and persistent as Nordstrom predicted it would be. To take just one example of this impact, the monster fantasy has virtually become a subgenre in the contemporary picture book. Every year dozens of books use the monster as a metaphor for a child's fears, those creatures of his own invention that he finds in those threatening places of daily life, in the closet or under the bed, lurking outside in the dark or inhabiting the back corner of a dream. The influence of Where the Wild Things Are has crossed over into other media as well: Jim Henson's popular Muppets, for example, were directly inspired by Sendak's original characters, and the comedian Howie Mandel bases one of his signature sketches on the going-to-bed monologues of a mischievous, anxious little boy named Bobby.16
The spirit of Where the Wild Things Are has been "quoted" in some unexpected places, from popular rock songs to novels like William Goldman's Brothers, which tries to soften one of its pulpier moments by comparing a monstrous turn in the plot to a "Sendak vision, scary yes, but with a comic intelligence enlightening it all."17 There have been parodies of Where the Wild Things Are, the most notorious of which transformed Max's monsters into a motorcycle gang and Max's meeting with them into a sordid, grisly event.18 And there have been implicit and explicit homages, like the film Wild Thing (1986), in which a Tarzan-like young man (abandoned as a baby and growing up wild in the jungle of an American city) defeats the drug-dealing, Uzi-toting monsters who prey upon that world. Children on Thirtysomething, a popular television series of the late 1980s, not only read Sendak's books but one episode follows the problems of a boy who is adjusting to his parents' separation and trying to cope with the night fears that this dislocation has caused. With his mother's help the boy invents a fantasy in an attempt to work through these emotional difficulties. Like Max's, his bedroom becomes a forest that contains a monster—a creature that combines a number of the features of the Wild Things—that the child must face if he is to put his feelings to rest.
These references, allusions, and appropriations suggest the extent to which Where the Wild Things Are has passed from the tangible form of a book with its particular audience to the extraliterary forms of popular culture and the unrestricted, "cross-over" audience of the oral tradition. In this regard, Where the Wild Things Are has been a subtle presence for the two generations of children and parents who have read and reread it. Even though some of his readers may not be able to recall Sendak's name or even the title of the book, they vividly and instantly remember the story and the effects it had and continues to have on them. In conversations I have had with dozens of young people who have never taken a children's literature course, and are thus unaware of Sendak's canonical status within the field, they have informed me that they were "just like" Max when they were children and that the book left a lasting impression on them. These confessions have occurred too often to be accidental, and, although anecdotal, they nevertheless serve to confirm the fact that Where the Wild Things Are has become something more than simply a very popular children's book. It has become, in fact, part of the collective memory that Carl Kerényi refers to as a "living mythology"—a complexly interwoven, constantly changing cycle of stories that sustains and replenishes the reservoir of a culture's beliefs. For the society that creates them, these myths "form the ground or foundation of the world, since everything rests on them." They provide a culture with its fundamental meanings, with permanent points of reference that, despite surface or even formal changes, "remain ageless, inexhaustible, invincible in timeless primordiality, in a past that proves imperishable because of its eternally repeated rebirths."19 It is, finally, on this mythic ground that we can begin to fathom the full importance of Where the Wild Things Are and its animating hero, Max. Swept forward on the rhythms of the book like a diminutive Nijinsky, the archetypal child of Sendak's imagination becomes an empowered hero making his first full journey in Sendak's work to contend with the shadowy forces of the unconscious. In the process, his adventure has become one of the compelling myths of modern childhood.
The contemporary discourse concerning myth is vast and at times contradictory, and it is not the intent of this study to try to mediate between the spectrum of divergent perspectives on this subject.20 Instead, my interest is in applying to Sendak's work a familiar idea of myth as an especially significant story that provides "the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, informed religions over the millennia" because of its capacity to address our "deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage."21 Myths are not only about origins or primordial creation, they are narratives that offer, for commentators on myth as diverse as Joseph Campbell, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes, "messages" about how to resolve life's puzzling, conflicting, emotionally charged experiences. James Oliver Robinson summarizes:
Very often, the problem being "solved" by a myth is a contradiction or a paradox, something which is beyond the power of reason or rational logic to resolve. But the telling of the story, or the recreation of a vivid and familiar image which is part of a myth, carries with it—for those who are accustomed to the myth, those who believe it—a satisfying sense that the contradiction has been resolved, the elements of the paradox have been reconciled. Dramatic retelling provides catharsis, as Aristotle pointed out about tragedy, which the audience—the participants in the myth—takes to be an explanation, a structured understanding, of the original problem.22
As Barbara Bader points out in her discussion of Where the Wild Things Are, myths are "a metaphorical statement of the truth,"23 and like other metaphorical constructions, they make intuitive, extralogical connections to reveal those truths using the "special kind of imagination" that belongs to fantasy.24 For an artist and his society, myths are the "non-rational, often irrational, embodiment of their experience as a people, upon which they depend as much for their vision and their motivation as they do on their formal ideologies and their rational analyses and histories."25 The "special kind of logic" of fantasy that informs myth can also "explain the world" and thus help shape our understanding of it.26
In all of his works, but particularly in the three works that Sendak would later come to think of as his picture book trilogy (Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside over There ), Sendak has explored the capacity of the child to make those myths that help him to "defeat" the dose of "boredom, fear, pain, and anxiety" that he experiences daily. Sendak believes that in Where the Wild Things Are he "finally came to grips with" this "broad theme" of his work and found a way to express the "constant miracle" of the child's emotional survival.27 To make that "miracle" happen Sendak sought a mythopoetic solution that replaced the authority of "daylight," Apollonian morality, with the nocturnal, primitive, Dionysian logic of fantasy—the means of thinking that children actually make use of in order to represent their experience. Like Blake's reaction to the rationalism that he believed only succeeded in producing "mind-forg'd manacles," Sendak was also concerned with a solution that would free the psyche and thus the child's spirit not only "to make it through a day … and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives" but also to "find joy."28
On its most immediate level, the myth of Where the Wild Things Are is about seeking a solution to one of those everyday problems. Max, the five- or six-year-old hero of the book, is having quite a night of it, a point that is driven home to the reader in the first illustration of the book. Sendak shows Max hammering a spike into the wall, cracking the plaster and pushing the reader's eye irresistibly onto the next page to follow the course of his mischief through the house. In the second illustration, Max threatens the family dog with a fork, chasing it back to the left-hand margin of the picture, holding the reader's attention there to reflect on the extent of Max's "mischief" (Fig. 56). Sendak even dresses him in a wolf suit to serve as an objective correlative of Max's frenzied, uninhibited mood. He is full of himself, driven on by his own instincts, even more animal than an animal: in short, he is a perfect "little monster." A picture that Sendak did not include in the book takes the point even further; in it, he drew Max up on all fours on the dining room table, slurping spaghetti from a plate, to the horror of the family cat and dog (Fig. 57).29
Yet despite the apparent horrors that Max is in the process of committing, he is not an abnormal child. Indeed, many of the qualities that he displays in the book could be drawn directly from the profile of the "affective attitudes" of an average six-year-old that Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg outlined in their classic text, Child Development. Among the characteristics for the typical six-year-old, they list the following:
- Highly emotional. Marked disequilibrium between child and others.
- Expansive and undifferentiated. Good or bad; sweet or horrid; adoring or cruel.
- He knows "everything": boasts, brags.
- Likes praise and approval; resents correction and is easily hurt by a cross word.
- Loves or hates mother.
- Rapidly explosive with crying, strikes out physically or verbally, or has temper tantrums.
- Quarrelsome, argumentative, explosive, rebellious, rude, "fresh," stubborn, brash.
- Noisy, boisterous and easily excitable.
- Silly, giggling, grimacing, showing off.
- Resents direction, but is also over-conforming.
- Domineers, blames and criticises others, alibis.
- Glowers and glows; has fire or twinkle in his eye.
- At times angelic, generous, companionable….
- Uses language aggressively: calls names, threatens, contradicts, argues, uses mild profanity.30
No wonder, given the volatile nature of these normal emotional drives, that they would lead Max on a collision course with his mother, that he would challenge and threaten her, and that she would need to take measures to stop his increasingly aggressive behavior. She tries verbal chiding, and when Max escalates the battle, he forces her into the more drastic action of banishing him to his room. Sendak was drawn to this drama not because it was extraordinary but rather because it was such a familiar domestic cycle of events; much as it may not have been a subject that was brought up in the polite world of children's books, it was, Sendak insists, a scene:
I've seen in my head a million times—the conflict of the child and his mother, not out of mis-love but out of mis-timing. She is in a bad mood at a moment when he is high and mischievous…. Max says, "Catch me, Catch me!" But he says it in a rage, and were she not in a rage—they're both in a rage—she could hear that, and she would hug him. Instead, she hears it as yet another demand on her time when she's cleaning, and she says, "Get off! I don't have time for you!" That's when he assaults her, not because he's so highly in a temper tantrum, but because he is so desperately hurt that she doesn't hear his real message. Now I find that very moving because I think that the conflict between parents and children often is that of mis-hearing because of change of mood or temper at the moment. The reason all is peaceful and tranquil at the end is that they have always loved each other—that's no problem. If only they could have paused at that critical moment … but then there wouldn't have been a book or an opera!31
When Sendak had re-created Where the Wild Things Are as an opera in 1985, he introduced Max's mother, who is absent from the book, as a tangible, visible participant in the drama. He also returned to his own childhood memories for a scene that was comparable in its emotional intensity to Max's explosion at his mother. "I was never as brave as he was," Sendak claims. But his mother did occasionally call him the Yiddish equivalent of "Wild Thing" (Vilda Chaiah), and Sendak did have moments when, like Max, he was thoroughly upset. For Sendak those regular cataclysms hit when his mother brought out the vacuum cleaner, and he would be so upset that he would have to be sent to the neighbors until she was done. In the opera he included both the machine and Mama to spark the child's tantrum.
Along with these there had been other moments of mistiming between Sendak and his mother. Sadie Sendak had a "gruff, abrupt manner" that led Sendak to think that "any display of feeling embarrassed her." But at other times, Sendak vividly recalls how she would awkwardly try to show her affection for him. She would suddenly yell "Whoooot!" when she came into her son's room. Sendak would be taken completely by surprise: "I'd be lying in bed and I'd yell, ‘Why'd you do that?’ I'd be angry with her, and she'd be hurt. Or she would come in and start tickling my feet. Now I'm very ticklish and I couldn't stand it. I'd scream until she stopped. It was her constant pain not to understand why I didn't realize she was being affectionate."32 In one of his best known fantasy sketches from the 1950s, Sendak probed this primal moment of "mis-timing" with a baby that goes on a series of hair-raising adventures only to return to its mother safe and sound. Instead of hugging the baby, the mother expresses her worry through anger and spanks the child who, in turn, ventilates his sense of injustice and rage by shooting the mother.
This anonymous infant's anger is final and total, but Max's struggle with his mother and the central dilemma that Where the Wild Things Are introduces is a more difficult one because it does not end with the bang of a single or simple wish-fulfilling act of vengeance. Max is, in fact, in the midst of one of those basic "crises" that, Erik Erikson argues, we all pass through at regular stages in our lives, from infancy to old age; these crises affect the psychological relationships between ourselves, those close to us, and the larger society of which we are a part.33 Max is poised between his own wild declarations of independence and autonomy and the very real fact of his continuing emotional dependence of the adults around him—especially his parents and particularly his mother. It is a basic problem for a child to express those volatile emotions that are part of an emerging self when to do so threatens to fracture the very bonds of love that he wishes to preserve and upon which he relies. How can the child take charge of these enormous internal forces that make him an "emotional powerhouse" and still maintain his connections to an orderly, secure, domestic world?34 How can he honor the validity of his emotions when these same emotions are bound to be defeated by the demands of the adult world and his own evolving psyche, which has already begun to internalize and identify with the values of his parents? For the child it is to live a paradox, a Zen koan that demands that he let go while he continues to hold on.
In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Award, Sendak focused on this problem and the need of the child to invent a host of "necessary games" in order
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.35
This solution allows Max a "wild rumpus"—a complete, pre-Oedipal submersion in the child's ecstatic eroticism in which he satisfies his libido's wish to dance with the overpowering beasts of his own creation and to be acknowledged by them as "the most wild thing of all." The importance of this climax is obvious by the weight that Sendak gives it: four double-page, wordless spreads that reach into the nonverbal immediacy of music and dance for their meaning. The compelling, incremental rhythms of the text, the slow opening of the cinematographic "iris" that allows the pictures to get larger and larger until their restraining borders have disappeared altogether and they merge with the reader's world—all build to this primal, orgiastic moment when the child's deepest hungers can be satisfied.
Having reached this place, it seems like the most natural, inevitable end to these events, and Sendak has prepared us so well for it that we find ourselves providing, with our own internal orchestra, the rhythms, the mental "sounds" to accompany the visual rhythms that Sendak has "scored" in his pictures. These are full, forte pictures that insist urgently on their tempo: the large feet of the monsters are setting the beat, making the jungle floor vibrate; the repeated full circles of their heads, the moon, the half circles of their claws are echoing light (Color Plate 2). In the original illustrations, one can see how Sendak uses white paint to accent these lines to give them a clarity like high violin notes—in contrast to the dark forms of their bodies and the strong, surging lines of their limbs. Against the background of dark browns, greens, and blues, Max stands out in his white suit, the conductor, composer, and chief soloist of this music, leading the ensemble of monsters through these howling, swinging themes and variations of the "rumpus" pictures to the coda of their final, triumphal march. Even with the improved quality of the recent edition of Where the Wild Things Are the "aura of the original," to borrow Walter Benjamin's phrase, eludes any printing process. After years of reproductions in books and posters, one gets used to their fuzzy and broken lines, their strangely muted colors, their awkwardly cropped borders. But the originals are another matter: sharp, vibrant, verdant. Put simply, they move; they are alive with a bright, fresh energy and one looks at them open-mouthed.36
Having allowed him to go there, Sendak also gives Max the power to make the decision to return from his fantasy without guilt or the need for apologies. The point is not didactic, lesson-driven: good bunnies and good boys do not always obey, and even if they don't there is still a place, an emotional haven, to come back to where, as Sendak puts it, "someone loved him best of all" and the food that nourishes both body and soul is cooked, not raw. The result of weathering this crisis, from an Eriksonian perspective, is the development of the child's ability to practice "self-observation, self-guidance, and self-punishment."37 True to this model, Max becomes aware of his spent emotions, determines to return home, and sends the Wild Things (those parts of his own libido) off to bed without their suppers. Given the choice, he tucks them back into that region of his own unconscious—a place he has visited before and will no doubt return to again—and comes back to the conscious, "daylight" world of structures and containers.
What Sendak is tracing in the microcosm of Max's experience is the larger process of ego-formation: the slow evolution of consciousness in which the individual, beginning in childhood, starts to make those choices that define him, those things that will become his "I," and those that will be returned to the "not-I," the unacknowledged, rejected, or repressed psychic material that makes up that guardian of the unconscious, the shadow—the first aspect of the unconscious that we confront as we begin the lifelong process of integration, of becoming conscious of the unconscious. Ursula Le Guin describes this archetypal symbol:
The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind. It is Cain, Caliban, Frankenstein's monster, Mr. Hyde. It is Vergil who guided Dante through hell, Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu, Frodo's enemy Gollum. It is the Doppelgänger. It is Mowgli's Grey Brother; the werewolf; the wolf, the bear, the tiger of a thousand folktales; it is the serpent, Lucifer. The shadow stands on the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and we meet it in our dreams, as sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide. It is all that we don't want to, can't admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which we have repressed, denied, or not used.38
Max is still too young to recognize that the monsters are projections of himself and thus to make the moral decisions and conscious admissions that are necessary for the shadow to be "admitted" and absorbed into the conscious sense of self. These are the tasks of the adolescent and, with increasing urgency, the adult. But Max has had a first, dramatic encounter with these forces that are "not simply evil" but
inferior, primitive, awkward, animallike, childlike; powerful, vital, spontaneous. It's not weak and decent … it's dark and hairy and unseemly; but, without it, the person is nothing. What is a body that casts no shadow? Nothing, a formlessness, two-dimensional, a comic-strip character. The person who denies his own profound relationship with evil denies his own reality.39
And, in his own unspoken way, Max accepts the reality of the shadow and the unconscious in the form of the monsters and their jungle habitat. Sendak's story goes far beyond Dr. Seuss's walk on the child's dark, wild side in The Cat in the Hat. Sendak makes explicit what Seuss had left ambiguous in the chaos the cat brings into the world of the two children he visits in the story. Clearly, the cat is their vision, and yet the children remain strangely detached from the cat's anarchic antics; indeed, they try to prevent them. In the end Seuss offers an unnecessary dilemma: Should children acknowledge such fantasies to their parents or keep them secret? Seuss's rhetorical question assumes that parents will either be upset by such a revelation or that they simply will fail to understand the psychogeography of the place where their children have been.
Sendak let the cat out of the bag; but he, too, was aware of the risks involved with this exposure of the facts of fantasy. He carefully modulates this first encounter with these forces, which initially can be so frightening to the young child and, by extension, may cause such uneasiness for the parents who will often be the first readers of this book to their children. He does this, in part, through graphic signs and cues, as Perry Nodelman has pointed out.40 The unconscious and its symbol, night, which were so powerfully amplified in the opening sections of the book and registered so forcefully in the central "wild rumpus," are carefully framed by the window in the final picture of Max's bedroom. The "chaotic" vegetation has given way to the linear forms of the furniture, the rug, the room itself; and the whole is surrounded by the wide white border, which lets the reader pull back with Max from the experience and rejoin the conscious, known world of orderly routines and predictable rituals, like eating supper or reading bedtime stories. The last five words of the story ("and it was still hot") appear on a page without any illustrations at all, as though light had suddenly flooded the rooms of both Max and the reader. The dark, fevered dream is over.
As has been suggested earlier in the form of the criticism that was raised concerning the book, the events that Sendak explores in Where the Wild Things Are are potentially frightening to children. The story does involve some common fears that for children at this age are expressed in dreams of wild animals, fears of being devoured, or the nearly universal anxiety of children that parents might not be there when the child returns home from school or an overnight with a friend or, in the case of Max, from his transporting fantasy. To reconcile the oppositions that lead to this uneasiness, Sendak deliberately makes Max's adventure as safe an experience as possible. On the cover of the book, before the child even reaches the story itself, Sendak shows a sleeping Wild Thing and nudges the reader to ask if such a creature can be very dangerous, especially one that seems to be wearing an animal suit over his human form like a Halloween costume (we see his large, human feet sticking out from the fur). The title page shows Max at the peak of his monster-taming form, taking care of these creatures with dispatch, as he will do again later in the book. Thumbtacked to the wall in Max's house, in the second picture of the story, Sendak includes a portrait of a monster we will meet later in the book; it has been drawn by Max, further proof that he is thoroughly in charge and has already imagined what we are about to see with him. Sendak is giving the child control of the darkness, thus relinquishing the advantage of suspense in exchange for familiarity, deflating possible fears so that the control of these emotions is clearly possible and expected. No doubt Max will be more than a match for the Wild Things' "terrible roars" and "terrible teeth." Max knows the "magic trick" that enables him to "tame them"; it is a ritual he has practiced before. He has made up that charm, too. After all, it is his fantasy, his way of coping, his own myth.
As much as the myth of Where the Wild Things Are reassures the child reader that the monsters are tameable through the imagination, and that someone will still love you even if you behave like a beast, it is also reminding the adult reader who may be uncomfortable in the presence of a child's fantasies—the adult who equates monsters with a form of hallucinatory madness, or dismisses them as an escapist means for dealing with substantive emotional realities—that children do return from these experiences intact. They survive otherwise overpowering moments because of their ability to step into fantasy, creating scenarios that compensate for their lack of physical or verbal defenses against the realities of the world they share with adults, freely imagining "invisible" companions and helpers to keep them company on these demanding excursions. In fact, Sendak shows us that children come back restored. Myths can cure.
During the 1950s, Sendak became extremely interested in the healing power of fantasy and in the myths that it produces. Dealing with his own anger had been one of the factors that led Sendak into psychoanalysis and to experiment with variations on that emotional theme in both of his early books, Kenny's Window and Very Far Away. Sendak explained to an interviewer that the former had been "about the outrageous rage that you inflict on inanimate objects because you don't dare inflict it on your parents or siblings."41 In Very Far Away, Sendak brings the target of Martin's anger into somewhat clearer focus, and he finds a shape for the narrative in an emotional crisis leading to a fantasy that solves the child's problem sufficiently so that he can return to his other world. At that time Sendak was working through his own problems; and, he confesses, he was less concerned in his writing with letting his audience of children know that "it's okay to have these feelings" than with performing "an act of exorcism, an act of finding solutions so that I could have peace of mind and be an artist and function in the world as a human being and a man."42
While some of those feelings of anger, irritation, and ambivalence that Sendak had to "exorcise" had to do with his mother, many of Sendak's references to his father are similarly tinged with uncertainties. For Sendak the difficulty lay in the fact that his father "very much wanted to lead what so many immigrants wanted to lead, which was a very typical American life, do everything American as quickly as possible and forget all the hardship of the life he left."43 Philip Sendak had run away from home to follow a young woman, with whom he was in love, to America, but he and his own father were never reconciled about his having left the family behind in Poland. Sendak thinks that his father "felt his punishment was his children because we were, as he kept saying ad nauseum, un-American children … the kind of children … he could have had ‘back there’ because we read and we drew and … were not healthy and sound."44
In the end Sendak feels that he "went into analysis in order to work better, and it did unblock me creatively."45 He describes himself as emerging from his analysis as "a green recruit fresh from the analyst's couch" who dismissed "any work that failed to announce its Freudian allegiance."46 Fortunately, though, Sendak did not take to heart Freud's judgment of the artist (who "like any other unsatisfied man … turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy, whence the path might lead to neurosis") and try to curb or cure such urges in his life.47 On the contrary, there seems to have been for Sendak a number of fundamental recognitions about the nature of fantasy in the processes of creation, healing, and artistic growth. As Anthony Storr points out in his study of the relationship between creativity and depression in Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind,
the three activities, play, fantasy, and dreaming, which Freud linked together as escapist or hallucinatory, can equally well be regarded as adaptive; as attempts to come to terms with reality, rather than to escape from it; as ways of selecting from, and making new combinations out of, our experience of both the external world and the inner world of the psyche. None of these activities is as far removed from "thinking" as they appeared to him; and, as we have seen, Freud considered that a principal function of thinking was to master the material of the external world psychically.48
One of the ways that Sendak found for beginning the process of this "unblocking" and "making new combinations" was through the fantasy sketches that he began in the mid-1950s. These exercises provide the earliest version of Where the Wild Things Are, a thin dummy with only a very few words that he drew sometime during November of 1955 entitled Where the Wild Horses Are.49 At the time a "favorite occupation" was "sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk, and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing" (Fig. 60).50 It was a way for Sendak to begin to experiment with texts for his own books, allowing his own childhood fantasies to be "reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen."51 As a child, music had been, Sendak recalls, "the inevitable, animating accompaniment to the make-believe. No childhood fantasy of mine was complete without the ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making that conjured up just the right fantastical atmosphere."52 Music would remain Sendak's orphic conduit to the sources of his creative energy, vitally important to his later works like Outside over There and Dear Mili, but no less important in the 1950s.
We do not know exactly what piece of music Sendak may have been listening to when he drew Where the Wild Horses Are. Nearly thirty years later, after this draft of the story had become Where the Wild Things Are and this book, in its turn, had been revised again as an opera libretto and set to music by the English composer Oliver Knussen, it reverberated with the shimmering, dark tones of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Franco-Russian music: Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev. But there is none of that orchestral complexity in the earliest version of Where the Wild Things Are. Where the Wild Horses Are is a much simpler, quieter treatment, almost a piano étude for one hand, done in the quick lines of the fantasy sketches from the same period—a sequence of tiny drawings, much like the cells of an animated movie. This "cartoon" tells the story of a boy's adventures as he goes off in search of wild horses one day. He sneaks up on them, though signs warn him to stay away, only to be thrown out of his clothes by the horses. Naked, he is chased by four creatures (the first glimpse we have of the Wild Things), and eventually he winds up in water and hauls himself aboard a boat that takes him to an island where he finds a wife and child waiting for him. He has grown up during his journey, and in the end he settles down to a quiet life with his nuclear family.
Many of the elements that would later appear in Where the Wild Things Are are present, but one essential ingredient is not: a plot with its accompanying dramatic tensions. The fantasy is unmotivated: no compelling reasons require that the unnamed child of this first draft embark on his journey in the first place. When Sendak took up the Wild Horses idea again in April 1963, he had to wrestle with the same problem, the need for a central conflict to justify the story. This time he began with a rush of images and events that are joined to one another less by any organic or aesthetic relationship than by a series of loose, free-associational connections:
Once a small boy asked where the wild horses are.
Most people said there was no such place.
An old man said he'd been there but had forgotten.
And one person said, "Go fly a kite."
That seemed simple enough. So he did. He flew a kite and later the kite flew him. It flew him into the very middle of the sky, where, not at all to his surprise, he saw many kites flying many people.
"Are you all flying to Where the Wild Horses Are?" he asked.
"Not at all," said an old man, "I am flying to where probably everything will be all right."
"Where is that?" asked the boy.
"At the back of the world," said the man.
"And I," said a girl who carried a small brown suitcase, "am flying where white is the color of everything."
"Where is that?" asked the boy.
"A little above and to the left of the moon," she answered.
"Can anyone tell me where the wild horses are?" the boy asked.
"Go jump in the lake," answered someone.
That seemed simple enough. Far below him was a perfect jumping in lake. So he did.53
After a few more pages, Sendak gave up the story, leaving it with the note to himself that "the story bogs," losing its "‘picture’ book quality + gets too literary—so back to the 1955 picture version." Then he reminded himself about keeping the story "simple" and "humorous" and the "allegory in control." Already, though, Sendak was thinking about the circular quality of the story and the possibility of having his boy grow old on his journey, like Mossy in George MacDonald's The Golden Key, and ultimately to become a baby again, like Stockton's Bee-Man of Orn. But perhaps the most important awareness Sendak came to was to "think of [the writing] more in terms of being a ‘libretto’ for the pictures—something that is shaped for the pictures + comes to life thru the pics. but is in itself quite perfect + sound."54
Selma Lanes notes that in Where the Wild Things Are "all refinement in his illustrations move toward simplification."55 This is equally if not more true of the story itself. Throughout the spring and summer of 1963, Sendak revised the narrative, working it from a complicated and overwritten story and closer to a finished text that is compressed, taut, devoid of any extraneous detail. The "pretty boat with sails" that the hero finds in a draft from 7 May 1963 becomes, simply, "a boat" in the final version; there is no mention in the completed story of "the flowered rug" in the boy's room; gone is the elaboration that the Wild Things, once tamed, taught the boy "how to fly by moonlight + ride on the back of the biggest fish in the sea + how to call long distance + dance to the music of the wind in the trees." In the end these things are left unsaid in Sendak's spare text.
Recently Sendak described Where the Wild Things Are as "too simple"; however, this unencumbered directness also made the story richly suggestive. Sendak's relatively unspecific text leaves openings for both the illustrations and the reader's imagination to fill. His choice of a name for his hero reflects this process of evocation through condensation. Sendak began to give his protagonist names like Kenny and Johnny, but he finally settled on the less familiar, more European name of Max. But "Max" carries with it other intimations—of a "maximum" child—earthy, strong, and as the Latin roots of the prefix tell us, "the greatest," a central meaning that led the American poet Charles Olson to appropriate an ancient version of the name for the mythic persona of his epic Maximus Poems, the first volume of which came out just a few years before Where the Wild Things Are and began:
Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood
jewels & miracles, I, Maximus
a metal hot from boiling water, tell you
what is a lance, who obeys the figures of
the present dance.56
In the operatic version of Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak has his character proclaim in his opening aria: "I'm Max! M-A-X the wolf! Watch out! A king! The wild Wolf-king of everything!" (Fig. 61).57
As mythographers have pointed out, most myths are relative to a particular time and culture—even, as we'll see later with Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, to a particular geographic location. One of the basic functions of myth is to address the pressing issues of a culture and through the power of its narrative to create "life models" and an inherent system of values, an "ethos," that is, as Campbell and others remind us, "appropriate to the time in which [we] are living."58 Myths, in short, have historical reasons to be. Thus, if Sendak had written Where the Wild Things Are several decades earlier, it might have taken the didactic turn of Colette's libretto for Maurice Ravel's 1925 opera, L'Enfant et les sortileges, that other story about a child whose tantrum leads him into an episode of fantasy. The unnamed boy of her story is not granted the same poetic license of fantasy that Sendak gives Max; instead, his fantasies torment and tantalize him, and they appear to be neither his invention nor something that he can control. What ends the fantasy is an act of kindness that he shows toward a squirrel that has been wounded in the battle the boy has started among the animals. His gesture of selflessness serves as a symbolic penance to confirm the change he has undergone since the beginning of the opera.
As we have seen, the emphasis in Where the Wild Things Are is not on the morality (or immorality) of Max's behavior but rather on the internal dynamics of his experience and its embodiment of a subtler, psychological solution to the tensions of the story. Some of this contrast has to do, of course, with the differing cultural contexts in which the two works appeared. Sendak's lack of concern over the morality of his main character's actions may well have been shocking to a time like Colette's, though it was not at all out of keeping with the times in which Sendak was writing. In fact, Max's mother is following, at least in part, the non-judgmental advice that Dr. Spock gave as early as 1946 about how to deal with a temper tantrum. "When the storm breaks," he wrote in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,
you try to take it casually and help to get it over. You certainly don't give in and meekly let the child have his way, otherwise he'd be throwing tantrums all the time on purpose. You don't argue with him, because he's in no mood to see the error of his ways. Getting angry yourself only forces him to keep up his end of the row. Give him a graceful way out. One child cools off quickest if the parent fades away and goes about her own business matter-of-factly, as if she couldn't be bothered. Another with more determination and pride will stick to his yelling and thrashing for an hour unless his mother makes a friendly gesture. She might pop in with a suggestion of something fun to do, and a hug to show she wants to make up, as soon as the storm has passed.59
Sendak's handling of this highly charged situation was also in tune with the movement throughout the 1950s toward a more open, psychologically sensitive kind of children's book, one that would reflect not only the actual experience of children but also what Sally Allen McNall has called "the dream life" of American culture which had been, in postwar America, "enlarged to attribute worthiness to everyone, in an upsurge of conviction in the myth of social mobility, and in the value of tolerance…. [T]he image of the American family became more democratic, while children became simultaneously more daring and more sensible."60 But nothing in this progression through the late 1950s and the early 1960s toward more enlightened children's books could really have prepared the reading public for the sudden reorientation of the imagery of its "dream life" that came with the arrival of Where the Wild Things Are.
By pushing a mischievous child onto center stage in Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak had set in motion a group of crucial and uniquely American myths. For centuries America has been criticized for the wildness of its citizens, particularly its children. At least one eighteenth-century observer of American life reckoned that was because Americans, particu- larly those on the frontiers, ate so much wild game. Others have argued that it has something to do with the subtle but tenacious spirit of rugged American individuality and independence that has been indulgently encouraged in our children at the expense of more disciplined, restrained, restrictive behavior. America has a long tradition in its literature of bad boys who are really good boys at heart. A surprising amount of our early children's literature from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries has to do with children, many of whom appear wicked at first but who are reformed and, if they do not die, as often happened in those earliest of American children's books like James Janeway's popular Puritan tract A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1672), they go on to become God-fearing, upstanding citizens of the community. The devil, in short, became an angel; the little monster turned into a messiah. One can understand why this particular symbol of the child, that of a being able to be transformed and redeemed, was so important to a new country that was itself just being born and was struggling through its own youth to define its character and future. If the child is the symbol of that future, it is certainly fitting that many Americans would be vitally, even obsessively concerned with the fate of the child's soul.
But by the end of the nineteenth century, Mark Twain had begun to present another view of this bicameral child in the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two of the most memorable versions of the figure that has been called "The Good Bad Boy." He is the scamp with the heart of gold, the urchin who possesses the moral and ethical vision that, with few exceptions, is lacking in the rest of his society, especially the adult society that tries to restrict and repress him. Since Twain, American popular culture has created, in books, comics, and, more recently, in films, a steady stream of other more or less bad boys: from Peck's Bad Boy to Dennis the Menace, from the Our Gang kids to Holden Caulfield, from Leo J. Gorcey to Michael J. Fox. Some have been more bad than good; but, like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, we Americans secretly admire their spunk and energy and expect boys to make, as Max does, "mischief of one kind and another" on the way to becoming a "judge or bank president" or "senior editor at Random House."61 It's necessary to sow some wild oats if one is to have any meaningful harvest to speak of. As Leslie Fiedler puts it:
The Good Bad Boy is, of course, America's vision of itself, is authentic America, crude and unruly in his beginnings but endowed by his creator with an instinctive sense of what is right; sexually as pure as any milky maiden, he is a roughneck all the same, at once potent and submissive. That the image of a boy represents our consciousness of ourselves and our role is scarcely surprising. We are, to the eternal delight and scorn of Europeans, inhabitants of a society in which scarcely anyone is too grave or mature to toss a ball around on a warm afternoon. Where almost every male is still trying to sneak out on mother (whom he demands make him sneak his pleasures); where … mothers are also fathers—that is, embodiments of the superego—growing up is for the male not inheriting the superego position, but shifting it to a wife, i.e., a mother of his own choice. No wonder our greatest book [Huckleberry Finn] is about a boy and that boy "bad"!62
Where the Wild Things Are may have tapped many basic American beliefs, but it was also a decidedly European book that was built on much older mythic foundations. Americans certainly do not have a monopoly on the mythology of mischievous children, and Sendak's own study of the classics of children's literature brought him close to a number of these "little monsters" whose stories would influence the book. William Nicholson's 1926 picture book The Pirate Twins had given Sendak a model for the pacing of his pictures and text—especially in the opening lines ("One evening on the sands / Mary found / the Pirate Twins") in which each phrase, even those of only two or three words, is given drama through its isolation and weight through its accompanying picture.63 Nicholson had belonged to that next generation of English artists following in the tradition of Randolph Caldecott who understood, to borrow Sendak's word, how to "quicken" the tempo of a picture book through the nimble interplay of words and pictures. Wild Things has echoes throughout of the cadences of Nicholson's rhythms; one is reminded, for example, of the sequence of pictures for Max's mischief making when reading about how Nicholson's Mary takes the twins home, bathes them, and then feeds them (in three pictures) "on this / that / and the other."
But Sendak's homage to Nicholson runs deeper than the visual or verbal lessons that he learned from the English illustrator. The pirate twins are unruly children who stand in pouty, rumpled, rambunctious contrast to the domestic perfection of Mary, the little girl who finds them. The book certainly would be problematic today given that the pirate twins are two tiny black girls, and their wildness within Mary's white world might well be perceived as undisguised racism. But Nicholson's point, if one takes it on another level, was not about skin color. It went instead to the deeper problem that the myth of the bad child must grapple with: How will the child's wildness, her impulsive, chaotic otherness be acknowledged and accommodated? For the pirate twins (who are bored by Mary's world and flee it one day in a stolen boat, only to return each year like Peter Pan to celebrate Mary's birthday) are parts of Mary, those "dark" children that are unacknowledged, unadmitted, unaccepted in the still unexplored regions of her personal shadow. And we know, somehow, that they will remain zones of self that she will never express and will continue to repress. Their survival depends on their fugitive existence as outlaws of the imagination—a fate that would not be shared by their hairy, furry, feathery cousins, the Wild Things.
Sendak's book had built on other retellings of the bad boy myth in children's literature, among them Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and Hilaire Belloc's Jim and his spoofs of moralistic natural histories in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, which he began with the pompous petulance of an English schoolmaster:
I call you bad, my little child,
Upon the title page,
Because a manner rude and wild
Is common at your age.64
Still other classic texts in the bad boy tradition informed the choices Sendak would make in his own contribution to its mythology, including the grandfather of all revisionings of the cautionary tale, Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter stories, and Collodi's Pinocchio, which had made an indelible impression on Sendak when he saw the Disney version as a child and later read the edition with the compelling Mussino illustrations.
But of all the European influences at work in Where the Wild Things Are, perhaps the most important is that of the nineteenth-century German artist and writer Wilhelm Busch. Busch is generally regarded as a pioneer of the comic book, one of Sendak's childhood enthusiasms that has left a lasting mark on his mature art. Sendak had been thoroughly excited by the graphic genius of Busch's drawings, which were full of such animated life for Sendak that they "seem to blast off the page."65 He was equally fascinated with one of Busch's favorite subjects, the impulsive, "refractory nature of childhood" that was embodied in those stories that Busch is remembered for today—the seven tricks played by two archetypally bad children, Max and Moritz (Fig. 62).66 Like Heinrich Hoffmann in his tales of juvenile crime and punishment, Busch was also pushing the limits of parody and conventional morality: his kids are so outrageously, hilariously, unredeemably bad that there is finally no normal way to punish them, and Busch eventually has them dropped into a millhopper, ground into tiny pieces, and gobbled up by a miller's hungry ducks.
As an avid collector of classic works of children's literature, Sendak would have known about the new American edition of Busch's Max and Moritz that had been published in 1962, just a year before Where the Wild Things Are, with the subtitle that explained that the volume contained "many more mischief-makers more or less human or approximately animal."67 Sendak was, no doubt, delighted that this collection made use of and noted the fact that the first (1871) and, until then, the standard English translation of these stories by C. T. Brooks was entitled Max and Maurice. Busch's Max gave Sendak a precedent for the naming of his character, and the high-spirited misconduct that Busch had celebrated also offered Sendak the energizing circumstances for his own book. Indeed, "making mischief" served as a linking metaphor for Sendak, Busch, and Hoffmann; and though Sendak would take his chapter in the bad boy's misadventures in a different direction (for one thing, he allowed Max to come home unscathed), all three are united by the obvious relish they take in sending the "bad" child over the fences of conventional morality and established literary forms with a dynamic, satisfying abandonment.
But deeper, older streams of myth run through the text and pictures of Where the Wild Things Are. Max in his wolf suit is not only a good bad boy, he is also a feral child—an image that summons up a vast body of lore and speculation about wild children like the Wild Boy of Averyon, Kaspar Hauser (the enigmatic presence who had intrigued one of Sendak's favorite writers, Herman Melville), or the fifty-some other documented instances of les enfants sauvages from the fourteenth century to the present who had been abandoned, often to be nurtured or befriended by animals before being returned to civilization.68 Over the past two centuries the wild child has been seen as a missing link between the animal and human worlds; as the ontological being who could recapitulate the philogeny of the group (thus showing civilized, adult observers what they had lost or gained along the road of their evolution); and as a living laboratory for testing theories of behavioral conditioning, language acquisition, and progressive education. The wild child has also served as an emblem of the untamed, forbidding darkness that lay outside civilization in the natural world as well as in the unknown interior of the psyche, and most recently it has been used as an example of how the primal and nobly savage has been victimized by civilization. The recurrent interest in this symbolic "other" child has led to his being placed at the center of books like Kipling's The Jungle Book, Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, and Golding's Lord of the Flies, and at the heart of films like The Emerald Forest and Where the River Runs Black or François Truffaut's The Wild Child and Werner Herzog's Every Man for Himself and God Against All.
Images of the wild child ultimately take us deeper still into the "natural history" of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages that gave him a name and what was then the scientific classification Homo ferus. He was considered a "human sub-species, hairy, dumb, and able to walk only on all fours"69 and thought of as a close relative to that general family of creatures Homo monstrosus—the monsters that one would encounter if he ventured, as explorers had begun to do, into the unknown New World, the terra incognita both of geography and the imagination. The pages of geographical treatises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were filled with portraits of such "real" creatures as the goat-limbed boy and the cat-headed child70 or others with an even more fantastical physiognomy, like the Sciapodes who have only one large foot and use it as an umbrella, or the headless Blemmyae whose faces are on their chests.71 Closer to home, in the European forests that one did not have to travel half way around the world to visit, the wild man became an active part of the fantasies of the Middle Ages. In his study of this mythological figure, Richard Bernheimer explained the wild man in terms that did not limit his relevance to the Middle Ages but rather connected him to our own experience and to Max's wild man-releasing tantrum. Indeed, Bernheimer could have been describing the circumstances of the fantasy of Where the Wild Things Are when he argued that
the notion of the wild man must respond and be due to a persistent psychological urge. We may define this urge as the need to give external expression and symbolically valid form to the impulses of reckless physical self-assertion which are hidden in all of us, but are normally kept under control. These impulses, which are strongest and most aggressive in the very young, are restricted slowly, as the child learns to come to terms with a civilized environment which will not tolerate senseless noise, wanton destruction, and uncalled-for interference with its activities.72
Unlike civilized man, whose origins could be accounted for and whose impulses were held in check, the wild man was "free as the beasts, able and ready to try his strength without regard for the consequences to others, and therefore able to call up forces which his civilized brother has repressed in his effort at self-control."73 The word "wild," whether in Old German or Sadie Sendak's twentieth-century Yiddish, stood for what lay outside social norms, representing "what was uncanny, unruly, raw, unpredictable, foreign, uncultured, and uncultivated. It included the unfamiliar as well as the unintelligible … in the widest sense [it] is the background of God's lucid order of creation."74 Thus, the woods—where the medieval Wild Things are—was the place where one met with "the ever present threat of natural and moral anarchy."75 One such figure that the medieval mythologist envisioned residing there was King Nebuchadnezzar; because of his evil deeds he had been changed from a man into a wild thing, with flowing white hair covering his body, and banished into the wilderness, where we meet him, in an illustration for a fifteenth-century chronicle, in a forest uncannily like the one that Max creates for his own journey in Where the Wild Things Are. 76 As Bernheimer demonstrates in his profile of this archetypal figure, what we relegate to the shadows we often become. By the end of the Middle Ages there was such fascination with the power of the wild man that it was a noble act "to identify oneself with savage things, to slip into the wild man's garb, and thus to repudiate that very principle of hieratic order upon which medieval society was founded."77 In many ways the scene that Bernheimer describes sounds similar to the liberating flights into wildness of the American cultural revolution of the 1960s, when to "drop out" and move "back to the land" where one could lead an uncontaminated life was considered by those who took it to be a moral choice.
This rich field of mythic connections in Where the Wild Things Are opens further if one considers those other wild children of antiquity such as Romulus and Remus and Zeus, who were nursed by animals in the wilderness and who also became kings of a world inhabited by its own monsters such as the Sphinx and the Cyclops, Medusa and the Minotaur. Sendak includes a minotaur-like figure on the front cover—the sleeping guardian to the labyrinth that Daedalus/Sendak has created and that Max and the reader will be exploring in the book itself. The labyrinth leads, to borrow Barbara Bader's phrase, to "the beast within," the chaos the hero must confront and, having defeated it, find the way back through its decep- tive passages to light, order, civilization, cosmos. Here, too, in Where the Wild Things Are is the bacchic goat that joins the "wild rumpus," helping to make its scenes resemble nothing so much as the friezes on those bas reliefs and amphoras that depict ancient Dionysian processionals, that capture, if only in their fragmentary form, the rhythms of the dance that Sendak sought for his own book; a rhythm so intense that like the dithyramb it holds you enthralled, so that "you're caught and you can't get out."78
Sendak has frequently told the story about where he discovered the models for his monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. Because he could not draw horses, he eventually changed the name of the book from the original Where the Wild Horses Are and settled on "things" since "no one could challenge his ability to draw" these creatures. In the end he returned to the figures that had scared him as a child:
I remembered how I detested my Brooklyn relatives as a small child. They came almost every Sunday. My mother always cooked for them, and, as I saw it, they were eating up all our food. We had to wear good clothes for these aunts, uncles, and assorted cousins, and ugly plastic covers were put over the furniture. About the relatives themselves, I remember how inept they were at making small talk with children. There you'd be, sitting on a kitchen chair, totally helpless, while they cooed over you and pinched your cheeks. Or they'd lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like "You're so cute I could eat you up." And I knew if my mother didn't hurry up with the cooking, they probably would. So, on one level at least, you could say that wild things are Jewish relatives.79
This half-comic exegesis could not be more charged with mythic significance. For the monsters are our relatives. In their most primitive form, as Theodore Thass-Thienemann points out in his linguistic analysis of the origins of religion and myth, they are adults dressed in horrible masks who represent rapacious, often cannibalistic ancestral spirits that frighten the child who is uninitiated into their mysteries.80 With Max, Sendak's own ancestral spirits have reenacted their ritual of initiation in which they "roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws" in order to evoke that mixed feeling of fear and reverence in the child who has not yet made what Thass-Thienemann describes as that "crucial transit from the outside world to the community of the mystagogues who are in the possession of a secret knowledge that cannot be conveyed to the profane people."81 That Max is not afraid during the initiation he undergoes in Where the Wild Things Are reminds us of the fact that he has been around this block before. He knows the proper charm to use to quell the monsters' fury, and thus he makes this a smoother transit for the uninitiated reader. What's more, Max lets us see behind the masks to "the twinkle in the eyes of the adults" who have performed this ritual on terrified children for millennia, pretending to be the boogeyman or the ogre or some other child-devouring monster.82 Behind the mask is not some hideous demon or a vision of the ancestral godhead but simply a group of Aunt Goldas and Uncle Bernards, pinching your cheeks and wailing, again from behind their half-serious, half-comic masks, "Oh please don't go—we'll eat you up—we love you so!"83
This is, of course, a spoof on the ancient game of scare the children (Fig. 65)—here played from the child's point of view, as one of those "necessary games" that children create and ritualistically perform to express and resolve their ambivalent relationship to this potent emotional material. In this respect, their playing at these games is a serious, even a sacred act—a recognition that led Jean Cocteau to observe: "Children's rites are obscure, inexorably secret; calling, we know, for infinite cunning, for ordeal by fear and torture; requiring victims, summary executions, human sacrifices. The particular mysteries are impenetrable, the faithful speak a cryptic tongue; even if we were to chance to overhear unseen, we would be none the wiser."84
As we have seen with his works about Rosie, Sendak was fascinated by the rites that he observed from his parents' Brooklyn apartment. In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Award, Sendak recalled an equally mesmerizing performance of the neighborhood children that he witnessed just a few months after finishing Where the Wild Things Are, and it confirmed once more in reality the quality of the child's experience he had attempted to re-create in the book. The episode involved a "tubby, pleasant-faced little boy" named Arnold "who could instantly turn himself into a howling, groaning, hunched horror—a composite of Frankenstein's monster, the Werewolf, and Godzilla. His willing victims were four giggling little girls, whom he chased frantically around parked automobiles and up and down front steps." Sendak describes the game in detail, especially Arnold's breaking its inviolable rule—that he not catch any of the girls. He is chastised for it, and the game continues as Sendak notes that "they had the glittery look of primitive creatures going through a ritual dance" until "the game ended in a collapse of exhaustion" as though "a mysterious inner battle had been played out, and their minds and bodies were at rest, for the moment."85
These remarks draw us back to other rituals whose sources lie in our prehistoric, shamanistic past—to the dancing deer man at the cave of Trois Frères, for example—when to gain control of the animal meant to take on its qualities, to wear its antlers, its feathers or fur, to dance its dance. Max, Sendak tells us in his notes to himself about one of his drafts for Where the Wild Things Are, wants to be a Wild Thing. His complete identification with that mask is what gives him the mana, the power he needs to dance through this rough passage in his life between those contrary, conflicting states of being "wild" or "tame."
This fall down the rabbit hole into the depths of mythic connections with Where the Wild Things Are ends with, arguably, the oldest of our archetypal patterns, the myth of the hero. As Anne Moseley and other interpreters of this story have observed, Max is another incarnation of the figure that Joseph Campbell has named "the hero with a thousand faces" who is called to adventure, leaves his normal world for a magical land where he must withstand trials, tests, and a climactic confrontation with a powerful force (usually some kind of monster).86 The hero returns from this journey to the world he left with treasures or secrets from that other world which transform his community by altering the fragile balance between what is known and unknown, first impossible and now remarkably possible.
In Max's journey Sendak offers a narrative that participates in this ancient tradition, albeit in a form that we might not initially recognize as heroic or mythic. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the fight that Max has had with his mother precipitates his "call to adventure" and the necessary leaving of his (and the reader's) conventional reality for a place that is unfamiliar and unpredictable. There is a journey and a test (he must "tame" the creatures) leading to an "apotheosis" in which Max becomes the king of these forces and joins, ritualistically, in a dance with them. Finally, he returns to the ordinary reality of his bedroom, his supper, and a place "where someone loves him best of all."
Like Gilgamesh, the hero of one of the oldest myths of Western culture, Max is also on a quest for solutions for ancient dilemmas, for that magical gift that will give us some joy and tranquillity in the face of life's relentless, bruising defeats. Gilgamesh thinks he will find these answers by discovering the secret of everlasting life and thus some way to resolve the terrible problem of our mortality—a problem that he feels acutely after the death of his friend and alter ego, the wild man Enkidu. Like Max, Enkidu also wears a wolf suit, and once Enkidu and Gilgamesh have become friends they too "make mischief of one kind and another"—killing the monster Humbaba, destroying the sacred bull of heaven, and bringing the wrath of the gods down on them. It is Enkidu, the instinctive side of our nature, that is sacrificed to appease the gods, and this loss sends Gilgamesh on his grief-driven quest. What Gilgamesh brings back from his journey is not a tangible answer but rather the consolation of myth. The gift he bestows on the people of Uruk takes the form of a story—the account of his exploits in the dusty underworld of the dead, inside the mountain of the spider monsters, and among the immortals in the land of Dilmun. The story of these remarkable adventures, the sheer wonder of the tale itself will remain fresh and immortal; it alone, the epic tells us, offers healing relief for the life-sick heart.
Similarly, Max does not bring back a tangible boon to his society from the land of the Wild Things. Instead, he returns with a small piece of the puzzle about surviving and learning one of the principal lessons of the hero: how to control the "irrational savage within him"87 and to be reconciled once again with his world where he is not always the powerful "wild wolf-king of everything" but where human, civilized love awaits him in exchange for his abdication. Joseph Henderson draws a psychological conclusion about the importance of the heroic quest; its "essential function," he believes, "is the development of the individual's ego-consciousness—his awareness of his own strengths and weaknesses—in a manner that will equip him for the arduous tasks with which life confronts him."88 However, Where the Wild Things Are does not push moralistically or didactically at this lesson. It allows Max's discovery to become a matter of adult consciousness taking over from what Max could reasonably, credibly be expected to have realized from his experience. Max simply leaves on his own terms the game that he has constructed, and that in itself is a major victory for the emerging ego of the child. He does not have to give up his vision and its satisfying conclusions; he gets to have his tantrum and his cake.
In part this occurs because Max is the hero at his youngest stage of development, as the trickster. In this early form the trickster/hero often appears as an animal or, as in Max's case, in an animal costume. It is appropriate that Max should have this dual role because both trickster and six-year-old are creatures "whose physical appetites dominate [their] behavior." He is a phallic spirit whose growth-spurts were a subject of numerous jokes in ancient societies, from the Greek to the American Indians. And because he is "lacking any purpose beyond gratification of his primary needs, he is cruel, cynical, and unfeeling."89 We can certainly see the examples of this archetypal characteristic in Max's initial mischief making as well as in the cool, almost blasé expression that he wears at most points in his adventure: he can seem at times to be aloof, detached, indifferent to the volcanoes erupting around him. Yet the trickster shows more than simply an id-driven side; he is also a supremely creative figure. Hermes, for instance, invents writing and music, and other tricksters like Max and Raven literally have the power to create their worlds.
Max returns to his room with a vision of this imagined world and with a resolution for the problem of the trickster's survival in the adult world of laws, orders, and daily compromises. This question needs Sendak's attention because Max has shown his abundant power to disrupt, and most children and adults are sure to wonder about the problematic fate of "the spirit of disorder" that he represents.90 Max as trickster introduces the wild card into the game; he recapitulates our wildest impulses, and we are reminded that this is "the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him … to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted."91 But there is more to Max and the trickster figure. By the end of the story, or a group of tales like the Winnebago trickster cycle, a human being has begun to emerge from the disruption. Similarly, at the end of his story Max pushes back the top of his suit and we see the head of the little boy, not the wild wolf.
Myths are temporal constructions. Their initial energy and reason to be belongs to their immediate world and not to some far away past, much as they may draw on images from that past to tell their stories. Where the Wild Things Are is a product of its times, and not simply a reverberant reminder of other mythologies and other times. Because of the historical moment in which it appeared, Where the Wild Things Are represented a new chapter in the myth of the American child. Sendak may have thought he was composing another variation on his theme of how children "get through a day" when he released the book in 1963. But he was also announcing along with Max the arrival of those tumultuous, activating times in which the spirit of the child—playful, inventive, irreverent, headstrong, iconoclastic—suddenly and dramatically appeared to play a major role on the cultural scene. These were, of course, the sixties; and, as we know, within only a few years after the publication of Wild Things, there were people walking the streets of most cities in the Western world who looked quite a bit like Sendak's creations. As has so often been said, the time was surging with an intense fervor—political, social, artistic—and with the vitalizing energy of youth. The nation's youngest president had been elected only a few years earlier, and the White House had young children in it for the first time in decades. Whether in Paris or Chicago in 1968, the call for an empowerment of the imagination, for "making mischief of one kind and another," was releasing a force that might be able to shift the tectonic plates of cultural change. Like Sendak, the Zeitgeist had also been reading William Blake.
It is possible to dismiss this movement toward the child that was central to the Sixties as simply another manifestation of what George Boas has rather disdainfully called "The Cult of the Child," viewing it as a kind of "cultural primitivism" that occurs with some historical regularity as an anti-intellectual reaction to the authority of reason, rationality, positivism. At various times in history, from the Middle Ages to the present, the worshipper in this cult, Boas argues, "has gone for his exemplar to primitive man, to the peasant, to woman, to the Unconscious, and … to the child, each of whom is supposed to possess untaught wisdom."92 But in characterizing the movement as a type of philosophical fad, Boas misses the powerful, compensatory content of the symbol of the child and the important message that the Sixties was trying to send. Max was one of the first bearers of that mythic message—that the child is the way down and into the unconscious and the guide to the healing sources of fantasy, the spontaneous spark that lights the shadows.
1. Unpublished manuscript of 26 August 1963 in the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
2. Steven Heller, ed., "Maurice Sendak," in Innovators of American Illustration (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986), 79.
3. Michael di Capua, quoted in Saul Braun, "Sendak Raises the Shade on Childhood," New York Times Magazine, 7 June 1970, 40.
4. Anne Scott McLeod, "An End to Innocence: The Transformation of Childhood in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature," in Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 106.
6. Ibid., 79.
7. Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 81.
8. Alison Lurie, "Vulgar, Coarse, and Grotesque: Subversive Books for Kids," Harper's, December 1979, 66.
9. Selma Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980), 104.
10. Braun, "Sendak Raises," 40.
11. Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 106.
12. Bruno Bettelheim, Ladies Home Journal, March 1969, 48.
13. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 120.
14. Brian O'Doherty, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Alchemist," New York Times Book Review, 12 May 1963, 3.
15. Brian O'Doherty, Book Week supplement, Washington Post, 28 November 1965, 20.
16. In an episode that aired on the CBS program "Howie" on 8 July 1992, Bobby sings a blues song about being bad while surrounded by a rock group that magically appears in his bedroom to accompany his account of why he got sent to bed without any supper.
18. Michael O'Donoghue and Wall Neibart, "Where the Weird Things Are," National Lampoon, October 1972, 55-60.
20. For a general discussion of the various theories of myth through Lévi-Strauss, see G. S. Kirk's Myth: Its Meanings and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970). Another survey is needed to update these theories to account for such additional insights as those of Roland Barthes in his Mythologies (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972).
21. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 4.
22. James Oliver Robertson, American Myth, American Reality (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980), xvii.
23. Barbara Bader, American Picture Books from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within (New York: Macmillan, 1976), 514.
24. Kirk, Myth, 268.
25. Robertson, American Myth, xvii.
27. Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 85.
28. Ibid., 85, 227.
29. Unpublished manuscript of 26 August 1963 in the Rosenbach archives.
31. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak, 7 August 1987.
32. Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 18.
33. Erik H. Erikson, "Eight Ages of Man," in Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), 247-274.
34. Ibid., 256.
35. Maurice Sendak, Caldecott and Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 151.
36. The original pictures are in the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
37. Erikson, "Eight Ages of Man," 256.
38. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980), 63-64.
39. Ibid., 65.
41. Heller, ed., "Maurice Sendak," 78.
43.In Conversation with Maurice Sendak, a video interview, no. 28 in the "Contemporary Writers" series (London, 1988).
46. Sendak, Caldecott and Co., 97.
47. Anthony Storr, Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 157.
48. Ibid., 168.
49. Part of the dummy is reproduced in its original size in Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 81.
50. Sendak, Caldecott and Co., 4.
52. Unpublished manuscript of 16 April 1963 in the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
55. Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 92.
57. Maurice Sendak, libretto for the opera Where the Wild Things Are (London: Faber Music Ltd., 1985), 35.
58. Campbell, The Power of Myth, 21.
59. Benjamin Spock, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946), 268.
60. Sally Allen McNall, "American Children's Literature, 1880-Present," in American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook, ed. Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 409.
61. Leslie Fiedler, "The Eye of Innocence: Some Notes on the Role of the Child in Literature," in No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963), 262.
62. Ibid., 263.
65.Maurice Sendak, directed by Morton Schindel (Weston, Conn.: Weston Woods Studios, 1967).
66. Epstein, "Good Bunnies."
67. Wilhelm Busch, Max and Moritz, With Many More Mischief Makers More or Less Human or Approximately Animal (New York: Dover Publications, 1962).
68. Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), 154. Fiedler notes in his chapter "Wild Men and Feral Children" that Lucien Malson's 1964 study Les Enfants sauvages cites fifty-three "attested cases of such children" (155).
70. Ibid., 156.
71. Annemarie de Waal Malefijt, "Homo Monstrosus," Scientific American, October 1968, 113.
74. Ibid., 20.
76. Ibid., 48.
77. Ibid., 20.
78.Sendak, directed by Morton Schindel (Weston, Conn.: Weston Woods Studios, 1987).
79. Lanes, Art of Maurice Sendak, 88.
80. Theodore Thass-Thienemann, The Subconscious Language (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), 309-311.
81. Ibid., 310.
83. In the program for the 1985 Glyndebourne premiere of the opera, Sendak gave names to the Wild Things: Tzippy, Moishe, Bruno, Emile, and Bernard. Elsewhere he has recalled that one of the relatives who pinched his cheek the hardest was his Aunt Golda. Future scholars will no doubt seek to unravel this mystery.
85. Sendak, Caldecott and Co., 150-151.
86. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: World Publishing, 1969).
87. Campbell, The Power of Myth.
92. George Boas, The Cult of Childhood (London: The Warburg Institute, 1966), 20.
Jennifer Shaddock (essay date winter 1997-1998)
SOURCE: Shaddock, Jennifer. "Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak's Journey into the Heart of Darkness." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 4 (winter 1997-1998): 155-59.
[In the following essay, Shaddock draws parallels between Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and the works of such British colonial authors as Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, whose stories portray the subduing and civilizing of the "wild."]
May we one day find a land where there are no women, and war only, for in that land we shall grow great.
—H. Rider Haggard, Nada the Lily (1892)
Cultural studies has enabled literary critics to recognize the ideological influence of all texts, from classics to mail-order catalogues and tattoos. It would seem, then, that the function of children's books as the first print texts used to assimilate the modern child into literacy, and consequently into culture, should guarantee a central place in cultural studies for children's literature. But the long-established myth of the innocence and transparency of the children's book, particularly the picture book, works as powerfully today as it has in the past to designate children's literature a genre worthy of only marginal critical attention.1 As Jacqueline Rose explains, "Children's fiction has never completely severed its links with a philosophy which sets up the child as a pure point of origin in relation to language, sexuality and the state" (8). Ironically, this myth of the purity of children and the consequent innocence of children's books has given the picture book an ideological scope of influence far exceeding that of any "fallen," and therefore critically scrutinized, literary domain.
Take Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which holds a treasured position on perhaps more bookshelves than any other American picture book in history. It depicts young Max's rebellion against the restraints of civilization, his consequent voyage to freedom in an exotic land, his subjugation of the Wild Things that live there, and his triumphant return home. Wild Things has received an unprecedented amount of critical attention since its publication in 1963. But it has been interpreted in almost exclusively psychoanalytic terms, an approach foregrounding the internal struggles of early childhood development.2 On the one hand, psychological explanations of the book are especially appropriate given Sendak's own concept of his art as "a dream or fantasy" (Lanes 85). Moreover, Sendak explicitly considers Wild Things an exploration of "my great curiosity about childhood as a state of being, and how all children manage to get through childhood from one day to the next, how they defeat boredom, fear, pain and anxiety, and find joy" (qtd. in Lanes 85). On the other hand, such psychological critiques accept—and even further reify—the ahistoricism of the book. As an artist, of course, Sendak pleases by creating a timeless, internally focused narrative. Nevertheless, it is one obligation of criticism to tease out the historical and ideological roots within seemingly ahistorical and apolitical narratives. In this respect, the existing psychological criticism of Wild Things falls short and requires a more culturally oriented critical supplement.
I am arguing that the narrative structure of Wild Things is historically and culturally indebted to the nineteenth-century adventure/explorer narrative. In its reliance on a frame of feminine domesticity and masculine voyage through which the hero finds authority and control over the natives of the land he discovers, the narrative structure of Wild Things resonates with that of the Victorian and Edwardian adventure novel, a genre that has come under intense critical scrutiny with the emergence of postcolonial narrative theory. If we read Wild Things within the historical context of this genre, an entirely new meaning emerges—one that is sociopolitical rather than psychological.
During the middle of the nineteenth century, the discourse of children's literature began to shift away from the overtly didactic to embrace the conventions of the adult romance, particularly romantic adventure. Dennis Butts situates the emergence of the children's adventure tale amid the historical growth of imperialism, stating that "the rise, character, and popularity of adventure stories for children can be seen both as an expression and a result of popular interest in the rise of the British Empire, which grew rapidly in the nineteenth century" (66). Martin Green explores this political link in depth, noting that mid-Victorian children's literature was
in effect captured by the aristomilitary caste…. Children's literature became boys' literature; it focused its attention on the Empire and the Frontier; and the virtues it taught were dash, pluck, and lion-heartedness, not obedience, duty, and piety.
While, more recently, Rose argues that "the emergence of the boy's adventure story in the second half of the nineteenth century cannot be seen as a decisive break in the way that it is often described," she, like Green, fully grants its "colonialist concept of development" (57). For Rose, the boys' adventure tale "completes the transition into narrative of that conception of the world in which discovering, or seeing, the world is equivalent to controlling, or subduing, it. Latent in this, as we have so frequently seen, is an equation between infancy, savagery and the territory of colonial lands" (58). The romantic values of courage and self-reliance inherent in the adventure/explorer tale were those values that would prepare young boys to leave their homeland and take up, in Rudyard Kipling's words, "the white man's burden" of Western imperialism.
We recognize these imperialist adventures in such classics as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886), J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1911), Kipling's Kim (1910), and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914). But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were scores of other writers—Frederick Marryat, G. A. Henty, and Rider Haggard among the most successful—who wrote best-selling boys' adventures. During the same decades, nonfiction explorer memoirs such as David Livingstone's Missionary Travels (1857) and H. M. Stanley's In Darkest Africa (1890) were hugely successful, and were largely indistinguishable in form and content from their fictional counterparts. Here too,
The hero-authors struggle through enchanted, bedeviled lands toward an ostensible goal: the discovery of the Nile's sources, the conversion of the cannibals. But that goal is also sheer survival and return home to the regions of light. The humble but heroic authors move from adventure to adventure against a dark, infernal backdrop where there are no other characters of equal stature, only bewitched or demonic savages.
The narratives of the explorer memoir and the adventure novel are intimately related, suggesting, as Green argues throughout Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, that "to celebrate adventure was to celebrate empire, and vice versa" (37).
As in nineteenth-century adventure tales, the motive for the adventure at the core of Where the Wild Things Are —the desire for the freedoms of the uncivilized—is founded upon the restraints of the domesticated world. As old Masterman Ready says in Marryat's 1841 adventure novel of the same name, "Every high-spirited boy wishes to go to sea … but if the most of them were to speak the truth, it is not that they want to go to sea, [but] that they want to go from school or from home" (35). In Wild Things, Max's journey abroad is initiated by his confrontations with the civil boundaries of a "mature" society, a society of adult authority and law. This mature domestic sphere is represented in virtually all adventure narratives by the taming force of women, particularly mothers. At the beginning of Wild Things, Max's mother represents domestic constraint. It is she who punishes Max for making mischief (that is, for breaking the rules of civilized society) by sending him to bed without supper.
While the generally accepted interpretation of Max's ensuing journey is that it represents his successful internal struggle—the struggle that all developing chil- dren must experience—to tame his transgressive desires in order to retain his mother's love (see, for example, Bodmer, Gilead, and Rees), Wild Things at the same time imitates the classic adventure narrative, which offers an imperialist fantasy of actual power and dominance in the external, material world. The settings of the adventure tale, the dark, "‘benighted’ regions of the world, occupied by mere natives," as Patrick Brantlinger notes, "offer brilliantly charismatic realms of adventure for white heroes, usually free from the complexities of relations with white women" (11). The very night of Max's conflict with his mother, he escapes the feminine confines of domesticity and travels into an exotic nightscape occupied solely by Wild Things. It is this parallel between the child's developmental fantasies of rebellion against social codes, his indulgence in the unruly forces that he must learn to conquer, and Western culture's fantasies of escape from civilized oppression to "primitive" freedom (fantasies played out not just in adventure novels, but also in imperialist history) that links the psychological and the cultural readings of Wild Things.
I do not mean to suggest here that Sendak is a racist or that his picture book is an allegory of white imperialism. What I do want to argue is that, like a genetic imprint passed on from generation to generation, Sendak's picture book, in its reliance on the narrative topos of the nineteenth-century boy's adventure, cannot fully escape the vestiges of sociopolitical meaning that the narrative structure of the adventure tale historically served. But is such an interpretation really fair to a beloved and critically revered children's book such as Wild Things ? And is it relevant to an American book published well past the Western scramble for uncharted colonial territory?
An avid student of nineteenth-century children's literature, Sendak himself acknowledges his artistic debt to the work of the Victorian period. Indeed, he recognizes Randolph Caldecott as the artist who "heralds the beginning of the modern picture book" (Caldecott 21). Others, too, have located Sendak's artistic roots in the nineteenth century. In the preface to Victorian Color Picture Books, Jonathan Cott asserts, "No one in our own time better exemplifies the Victorian tradition of children's book illustration than Maurice Sendak" (vii). Cott notes that Sendak draws inspiration from Victorian artists such as Caldecott and Arthur Hughes, who represent "the highly elaborate wedding of text and pictures that one finds in the work of the great nineteenth-century illustrators" (vii, ix). Moreover, editor Fabio Coen commissioned Sendak to do the illustrations for Tolstoy's Nikolenka's Childhood "because of his particular feeling for nineteenth-century works. To me, he is a nineteenth-century artist, but one who has been affected by psychoanalysis and the pervading psychological awareness of our day" (qtd. in Lanes 255).
The literary work that Sendak specifically identifies as a model for Wild Things is The Pirate Twins (1929), a picture book by William Nicholson that was in turn influenced by Peter Pan (see Lanes 85, Cech 131-32). As John Cech notes in his recent study of archetype in Sendak's work, Sendak's homage to Nicholson "runs deeper than the visual or verbal lessons that he learned from the English illustrator. The pirate twins are unruly children who stand in pouty, rumpled, rambunctious contrast to the domestic perfection of Mary, the girl who finds them" (132). Cech, quite rightly, sees the unruly pirate twins, like the Wild Things, as repressed "parts of Mary" that she must learn to acknowledge and accommodate. What is striking for my purposes here is that Mary, the good "mother" who bathes, feeds, dresses and teaches the twins, is white, while the wild and recalcitrant pirate twins are black. Like the "Half-devil" natives in Kipling's famous poem "The White Man's Burden," who through "Sloth and heathen Folly / Bring all your hope to nought," the pirate twins resist Mary's domestication of them. They "didn't care … they bit their nails and sucked their thumbs … stole a boat and sailed away to sea." While Sendak certainly rejects the overt racism of The Pirate Twins, his narrative nonetheless appears to share its underlying Western assumption that the heart of the lawless and wild is foreign—somehow outside, over there.
Edward Said notes that the voyage motif appears in much Western European literature about the non-European world. "In all the great explorers' narratives of the late Renaissance and those of the nineteenth-century explorers and ethnographers, not to mention Conrad's voyage up the Congo," writes Said, "there is the topos of the voyage south … in which the motif of control and authority has sounded uninterruptedly" (210). Max's journey across the ocean to a land of tall palm trees and frightening natives suggests in the context of Western imperialist history a voyage to the lush lands of the south, where white colonizers encountered cultures "alien" in their sensibilities. Sendak borrows the formulaic romantic landscape of the nineteenth-century adventure novel, characterized as a place of "exuberant fertility, almost impervious from thickets of aromatic shrubs and wild flowers, in the midst of which tower up trees of that magnificent growth which is found only in the tropics" (qtd. in Green 29). It is in just such a tropical environment that Max asserts control and authority over the strange native inhabitants—a subtle motif that creates troubling new interpretive implications.
Like the adventure writers who came before him, Sendak associates the southern climes where the Wild Things cavort with a primeval, chaotic wilderness that awaits the civilized man to subdue it. Nineteenth-century adventure tales associated distant locales of adventure and exploration such as Africa and India with darkness, chaos, immaturity, and decadence as against the familiar security of the ordered, developed, civilized, and cultured topos of home. Joseph Conrad's classic explorer novel Heart of Darkness (1902) demonstrates this opposition perhaps better than any other work in the genre. Like Marlow, Conrad's protagonist, Max finds that nature is omnipresent, that he is surrounded by it, that the forest grows and grows until the "ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around."
In both stories, lush foliage seems to enclose the heroes in an exciting if potentially dangerous embrace, timeless, unknowable, and distinct from the reassuringly familiar world they have left behind. The exotic landscape in Wild Things seems to exist outside history. It has none of the familiar accoutrements of civilization: no forks with which boys menace dogs—indeed, no pets—no teddy bears, no books, no staircases, no bedrooms. And certainly no mothers, for the primeval landscape is the ultimate source of the fertile and maternal in these tales. The place where the Wild Things reside represents prehistory—grass, shrubs, trees, the sky, the stars, the moon. Notably, only the symbols of Max's superiority, his crown, scepter, and royal tent, are not part of nature.
Upon Max's first encounter with the Wild Things, he changes his posture, becoming suddenly stern and authoritative, as though by merely contrasting himself with the Wild Things, he discovers a superior identity. Historically, too, the imperialist defined himself in opposition to the indigenous Other. Ursula Le Guin's discussion of the Jungian "shadow" figure parallels this historical relationship, for the indigenous Other was perceived, like the archetypal shadow, as "inferior, primitive, awkward, animallike, childlike; powerful, vital, spontaneous. It's not weak and decent … it's dark and hairy and unseemly; but without it, a person is nothing" (65). Despite Sendak's assertion that he modeled his Wild Things upon his childhood perceptions of his relatives (Lanes 88), the monsters' ultimate docility and subordination is strikingly similar to imperialist fantasies of "good" (tamed and malleable) natives, who nonetheless cannot be trusted to rule themselves because of their innate lawlessness and primitivism.
The natives of Max's foreign isle are, like those depicted in classic adventure/explorer narratives, clearly inferior to the now haughty Max. The adventure/explorer genre generally represented the natives of the southern tropics as bestial and immature. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow frequently describes the mysterious and threatening savagery of the African natives. In this kind of depiction, Conrad was not alone. Brantlinger reports that Victorian explorers usually portrayed Africans as unequal in stature, "bewitched or demonic savages," "amusing or dangerous obstacles or objects of curiosity." Missionaries, on the other hand, saw "weak, pitiable, inferior mortals who need to be shown the light. Centerstage [in these narratives] is occupied not by Africa or Africans but by … Victorian St. Georges battling the armies of the night" (181). Sendak's creatures too are both threatening with their terrible roars, gnashing teeth, and rolling eyes, and reassuringly gullible and childlike—Max "tames" them with the simple magic trick of not blinking while staring into their eyes, a classic childhood show of dominance. Certainly Max, the explorer/colonizer, takes center stage over the impressionable native Wild Things in this fantasy adventure.
But while Sendak's adventure tale delights in the fantasy of heroic power, an aspect of the book that is compelling for both child and adult, the irony of Wild Things saves it from being either a glorified conquest romance or a sentimental domestic comedy. Instead of partaking wholeheartedly of the jingoist ideology of the nineteenth-century adventure, Sendak's book is inextricable from its own historical period, that of the American cultural rebellions of the 1960s.
We see Sendak's brilliance as a storyteller in his deconstruction, in both the book's frame and the core adventure, of the foundational opposition in the adventure/explorer narrative between the mature domestic home and the immature wild place of otherness. For while the Wild Things are apparently so terrifying that some teachers and librarians of 1963 were concerned about the book's effect on children (Lanes 104-6), a closer look at the text suggests that the creatures may be less terrifying than a swashbuckling hero might like. Indeed, Sendak's emphasis on the word "terrible" during Max's first encounter with the Wild Things—"they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws"—draws attention to the formulaic use of monster rhetoric and thus consciously undermines the realism of the monsters' threat. Sendak's illustrations make the same point. For at the very moment that the text claims the monsters to be terrible, the drawings show them to be potentially friendly, waving and even possibly smiling in greeting as Max sails in to shore. And while Max's frown could be one of consternation, as he faces down the Wild Things, it could just as well be a look of disappointment and irritation that what was to be his heroic triumph over the "fierce native beasts" is, in reality, an encounter with welcoming, all-too-human creatures. Sendak admits that he likes to play with "the paradox of contradiction." "I mean," he says, "if the text is about action, the pictures might be about nonaction. It's not to contradict arbitrarily, but just to make a point" (qtd. in Otten 11). In creating drawings that undermine the scary aspect of the Wild Things, Sendak comments sardonically on the classic adventure novel, perhaps even on the Western adventure writer's historical view of the southern exotic as threatening.
One of the most ironic aspects of Sendak's tale, and one that positions Where the Wild Things Are as a child's version of Heart of Darkness, is that little Max with his civilized, domestic background turns out to be wilder than the huge Wild Things he encounters. Like Conrad's Kurtz, who enacts "the horror" of going native, Max's display of authority over the Wild Things not only casts him as their superior, "the king of all the wild things," but, more disquietingly, also indicates that he is actually one of them, "the most wild thing of all." During the rumpus, Max assumes the general attributes of the uncivilized Other. Wild and passionate, he and his cohorts dance in the night, making worshipful gestures toward the moon; playful and indolent, he swings with his beastly subjects from tree to tree; triumphant and shameless, he leads his band in bacchanalian revelry.3 Like Kurtz, Max has become too closely aligned with the Wild Things to permit the narrative to be a straight conquest romance. On the other hand, Max's return home, his return in the tradition of the adventure tale to the "regions of light," challenges the sentimentality of the domestic comedy. After Max realizes that to be the king of all the Wild Things means giving up the comforts of love, he voluntarily goes back to the maternal world of domesticity. Critics tend to see the book's conclusion as a reassuring ratification of civilization, where,
having tamed his transgressive desires, [Max] has earned the right to enjoy the "cooked" pleasures (in Lévi-Strauss's sense) of culture and society … he effects a return to reality by reinventing it, that is, by altering his own relation to it. The hot supper awaiting him in his room symbolizes his mother's forgiveness and love and, perhaps, her recognition that Max has successfully internalized social values and behavioral norms.
But has Max internalized these values and norms? Should he?
In a 1987 interview, Sendak discusses his concluding illustrations to Fly by Night (1976), a Randall Jarrell story in which the young boy David floats off, has a series of night encounters, meets a maternal owl who tells a story-within-a-story, and then returns to his own mother for orange juice and pancakes. Sendak remarks,
You see, I don't buy the pancakes and orange juice. Randall was dead already when I was doing the pictures, so there obviously wasn't any way of conferring with him on this point. But I felt that … it was a somewhat ironical ending. To me, safety lay in the nightmare-like landscape of that dream. The reality of that kitchen was much more terrifying. And when you are a little boy everything is potentially treacherous: the cat and the sparrow, even maybe real-life mama. The dream is much safer. And that's how I take that ending. After what's gone on in that place, who can buy orange juice and pancakes?
(qtd. in Otten 12)
Sendak's comment indicates to me the tone in which we are to read Max's return home. For while the closing illustration has Max smiling and pushing his wolf hood off his head, Max nonetheless still occupies his wolf suit, the moon shines through his window reminding us of the nightscape he has just visited, and the vibrant green of the plant on Max's bedside table hints that it may grow and grow again. Indeed, Max's own drawing of a Wild Thing, which hangs at the bottom of the stairway and which we see before Max's adventure, confirms that, as much as we may want to deny them, Wild Things are ever-present in the domestic world.
Heart of Darkness is bleak in its modernist insight that the darkness of the wild can be found in the best of civilized hearts. Like Heart of Darkness,Where the Wild Things Are uses the adventure/explorer narrative to deconstruct the imperialist opposition of the civilized and the wild. But Sendak's story, as a product of the 1960s, recognizes that the expression of the rebellious is not the horror that both the early Puritan writers and the later modernists would have it, but rather a natural and healthy impulse. The hot meal in a cozy bedroom can coexist with the full moon that shines down on the wolf-boy.
It is this celebration of the wild that gives Sendak's work its texture and significance. "There are those," says Sendak,
who think that thickness and density of purpose do not occur in books for children. That we should be surprised that a Grimm tale should have anything more to say than it seems to say only confirms our low opinion of children and what they read. In other words, treat children like imbeciles. Of course, the real purpose of any great story—whether for children or for adults—is to create many levels; otherwise, why would we remember it twenty years later and go back to that old copy of the book?
(qtd. in Otten 20-21)
Sendak's understanding that the wild exists within the domestic order, on both a psychological and a cultural level, and therefore must be allowed expression, has kept readers coming back to Where the Wild Things Are for more than thirty years.
Jennifer Waller attributes the significance of Sendak's work to its emancipation of the children's book from vapid tales of "lovable steam shovels or cute dogs or shapes" to an arena that "may actually be about children" (267). She is right, and yet she doesn't go far enough. After all, it is adults, not children, who buy picture books. The significance of Wild Things lies in its emancipation of the wild not just in children but also in those who have best learned to repress it—the consumers, critics, and readers of Wild Things, adults. While Sendak exploits the adventure motif, he departs from his predecessors in owning the wild as a healthy part of the domestic order that demands accommodation from within that order. In so doing, Sendak offers us not only a psychological model of maturation, but a cultural one as well.
1. While we have seen more book-length cultural critiques of children's literature over the past decade, there has yet to be a corresponding incorporation of children's texts into general college literature classes, even those with a defined cultural studies orientation. This circumstance is not surprising given that cultural studies collections themselves rarely include articles on children's texts, despite their explicit interest in inclusiveness. For an incisive historical overview of the status of children's literature in the American academy, see Clark.
2. One notable exception to this trend is John Clement Ball's "Max's Colonial Fantasy." But although Ball argues for the colonialist legacy of Wild Things, his reading still relies on psychological theories of self-other relations. In contrast, my approach situates Wild Things historically and culturally within a specific colonial literary lineage.
3. For an interesting discussion of Max as the American "good bad boy" and as a mythic Wild Boy, see Cech 130-36.
Ball, John Clement. "Max's Colonial Fantasy: Rereading Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are." ARIEL 28.1 (1997): 167-79.
Bodmer, George. "Max-Mickey-Ida: Sendak's Underground Journey." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 7:3-4 (1986): 270-84.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
Butts, Dennis. "The Adventure Story." Stories and Society: Children's Literature in Its Social Context. Ed. Dennis Butts. New York: St. Martin's, 1992. 65-83.
Cech, John. Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.
Clark, Beverly Lyon. "Kiddie Lit in Academe." Profession (1996): 149-57.
Cott, Jonathan, ed. Victorian Color Picture Books. Commentary by Maurice Sendak. London: Lane, 1984.
Gilead, Sarah. "Magic Abjured: Closure in Children's Fantasy Fiction." PMLA 106.2 (1991): 277-93.
Green, Martin. Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. New York: Basic, 1979.
Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abrams, 1980.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1980.
Marryat, Frederick. Masterman Ready. 1841. London: Nelson, n.d.
Nicholson, William. The Pirate Twins. London: Faber, 1929.
Otten, Charlotte F. "Maurice Sendak's Narrative Images." The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 7-24.
Rees, David. "King of the Wild Things." San Jose Studies 14.3 (1988): 96-107.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. 1984. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures. New York: Farrar, 1988.
———. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper, 1963.
Waller, Jennifer R. "Maurice Sendak and the Blakean Vision of Childhood." Reflections on Literature for Children. Ed. Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert. Hamden, CT: Library Professional, 1984. 260-68.
Lawrence R. Sip (essay date June 1998)
SOURCE: Sip, Lawrence R. "How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 2 (June 1998): 103-08.
[In the following excerpt, Sip discusses the correlation between the text and illustrations in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.]
Words and Pictures in Where the Wild Things Are
To concretize all these abstractions and to elucidate the theory more completely, I will analyze a few of the possible semiotic triads in the text and pictures of the ninth opening of Where the Wild Things Are. The analysis is necessarily distorting and artificial, because it renders in laborious slow motion a process that in practice happens very quickly. It does, however, allow us to tease out an explanation of the steps in our meaning making. The text of this double-page spread reads,
And when he came to the place where the wild things are / they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth / and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.
Let us first consider the text alone, without reference to the illustration.
As we come to this point in the text, Sendak has carefully built our anticipation during the eight previous double-page spreads. Before we even opened the book, the title and the cover incited us to predict some encounters with "wild things," and the vagueness of that phrase may have triggered all sorts of speculation about what these "things" will look like and how they will behave. The growth of the magical forest, which "grew / and grew— / and grew" has been stretched out over three openings, an ocean has "tumbled by" with a "private boat," and Max has sailed "in and out of weeks and almost over a year." Now the text tells us that Max has finally "c[o]me to the place." The four phrases
—roared their terrible roars
—and gnashed their terrible teeth
—and rolled their terrible eyes
—and showed their terrible claws
are representamens of objects for which our overall interpretant, if put into words, might be "horrific, savage monsters," with razor-sharp teeth and claws, and wickedly cruel eyes. The representamens (Sendak's words) allow us to construct this overall interpretant through their communication of sound (roars and gnashing), sight (teeth, eyes, and claws), and motion (eye-rolling and gesture), as well as our interpretation of the word "terrible." The fourfold repetition of this word accentuates the monsters' frightfulness. Our interpretant of these representamens may also include the inference that Max must be very frightened.
Now we uncover the illustration and attempt to disregard the text. The illustration contains many representamens of many objects. What is our interpretant of some of them? Max and his boat are on the extreme left, and we would normally look at him first, since our propensity is to "read" illustrations from left to right. In this case, however, it is probably the four wild things that first catch our eye. They are constructed primarily of curves and rounded shapes. Their claws (which resemble those on Max's outfit), their horns, and even their teeth are slightly curved. Their bodies are the round shapes of stuffed animals.
One of the wild things wears a child's striped T-shirt and has a tail like the one on Max's wolf suit. Another has chicken-like legs and feet. The pads on the other wild things' feet and paws are puffy and soft brown. The colors of their fur and faces are pastel and muted. The strongest color is the yellow of their eyes, which is only a bit more intense than the color of the rest of their faces and bodies. The wild things' hair looks soft and strokable, and they stand on soft green grass. The two wild things on the right-hand page can only be described as chubby. Their faces are humanoid (with broad, pudgy noses) and they stand upright. The wild thing nearest Max is perhaps the most formidable of the four: It is the most animal-like in its stance, and its face is more beastlike. It has an open mouth, red and lined with teeth. It has the longest claws, three horns, and a lion-like mane. Yet if it is so fierce, why has it allowed the smaller, goat-like wild thing to sit on its back? Why is its tail dragging on the ground, instead of quivering upright? If we turn our attention to Max, a glance assures us that he is not at all cowed by these beasts, even by the one closest to him. The expression on his face is one of disdain or exasperation, not fear. His hand is rebelliously on his hip, reminding us of his attitude in the third opening, where he was angry at his mother. The overall interpretant for this visual image, then, might be "mild menace, but nothing Max can't handle."
Having constructed interpretants for the two semiotic triads, we are now ready to move between the visual and the verbal sign systems. According to the theory of transmediation, in the movement from one sign system to another, "an entire semiotic triad serves as the object of another triad and the interpretant for this new triad must be represented in the new sign system." Let us take the picture triad as the object of the new triad we will build:
In this new triad, the new object to which the text refers is the entire picture triad we have previously constructed. The text is the representamen for this new object (or set of objects). We must therefore construct a new interpretant of the representamen (the text) since the representamen is now the referent for a new object. A "think-aloud" for this process of constructing a new interpretant for the text in light of the pictures might go something like this:
The text reads, "they roared their terrible roars"; but the mouths of two of the wild things are tightly closed, and the other two don't have their mouths open wide enough to make a terribly loud roar. The wild things are supposed to gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws; but their teeth, being curved, are not so terrible. Neither are their claws, and I don't see any teeth being gnashed together. The wild things' eyes are almost circular, more like the glass orbs of stuffed toys than the eyes of fierce beasts. So I'll have to modify my interpretation of the words in the light of the pictures. There's menace here, especially in the creature closest to Max, but Max doesn't seem to be frightened out of his wits.
To complete this analysis, let us consider going in the other direction: constructing a new interpretant for the pictures when the object they represent is the textual triad:
A think-aloud in this case might be as follows:
Max doesn't seem frightened and the wild things (for many reasons) don't seem all that threatening. But the text says that they roared and gnashed their teeth and showed their claws. Those claws and teeth might not be needle-sharp, but they could probably still inflict some pretty terrible damage. And just because the beasts' mouths are either closed or only slightly open doesn't mean that they can't open them wide and let out a terrible roar. I wouldn't want to be caught in a dark alley with any of them, especially with the one who's closest to Max; that guy's paws are bigger than Max's whole head, and that rhinoceros horn looks dangerously sharp. Those horns look like devil's horns, so maybe they are terrible after all, and maybe Max is just too dumb to know the trouble he's in.
So this transmediation goes back and forth—oscillates—in a potentially endless process. Each new page opening presents us with a new set of words and new illustrations to factor into our construction of meaning. Reviewing and rereading will produce ever-new insights as we construct new connections and make modifications of our previous interpretations, in a Piagetian process of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, we assimilate new information and in the process we change our cognitive structures, accommodating them to the new information.
In this article, I have attempted to use the semiotic theory of transmediation to unfold the text-picture relationship; and I have used Where the Wild Things Are as an example to explicate the theory. I have argued that transmediation is a more precise way of looking at the text-picture relationship because it allows us to analyze the phenomenological process of relating words and pictures. Transmediation also makes it clear that visual texts are on an equal footing with verbal texts. It seems necessary, in the logocentric society that we live in today, to make this point and emphasize the significance of picture books in children's learning. Picture books, through transmediation, give children the opportunity to engage in an unending process of meaning making as every rereading brings about new ways of looking at words and pictures. In other words, picture books allow children to have multiple experiences as they engage in creating new meanings and constructing new worlds.
Geoffrey Williams (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Williams, Geoffrey. "Children Becoming Readers: Reading and Literacy." In Understanding Children's Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, pp. 151-62. London, England: Routledge, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Williams presents a critical analysis of the illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are and notes how the story's visual perspective changes as the plot progresses.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Melissa Gross (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Gross, Melissa. "Why Children Come Back: The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are." In Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit": A Children's Classic at 100, edited by Margaret Mackey, pp. 145-58. Lanham, Md.: Children's Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2002.
[In the following essay, Gross argues that the protagonists' journey through a state of wildness and back in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are mirrors a child's personal journey to self-identity and socialization.]
There are many reasons why a particular book may retain its popularity over time. Certainly excellence of story, writing, and illustration are expected and, when evaluating picture books, the integration of the writing and pictures in telling the story is essential. However, beyond any technical measures of quality, appeal, that connection readers feel to a book, is essential to its longevity.
Some characters from children's literature become so strongly associated with childhood itself that exposure to a particular book at the appropriate age is seen by many as a highly desired experience, one not to be missed. Such books have something to say to children that adults and the culture at large feel they need to hear. The ability of a book to serve children in this way is worth exploring. Over the past hundred years, the views of childhood, children's literature, and the experience of being a child, have changed and yet certain messages continue to be pertinent. For instance, The Tale of Peter Rabbit,1 written in Victorian times by Beatrix Potter, continues in multiple editions and through a wide variety of spin-off products to appeal to children the world over.2 Likewise, Where the Wild Things Are, written in 1963 by Maurice Sendak, for what might seem a very different child from Potter's intended reader, meets the new millennium commodified in much the same way that Peter Rabbit has been and as avidly enjoyed by a new generation of children.3
What is of interest here is the strong similarity of message that these two books share and the ways in which this message is deeply reflective of issues and developmental tasks with which the child struggles. That these books are works of great literary and artistic merit is taken as a given in this essay. This exploration will look at their deep connection to the life of young children and at the adult messages they convey.
Books as Instruments of Socialization
From age to age the trappings of childhood can change, and yet growing up involves developmental phases and experiences that can supersede an individual historical era or society. One such experience that children go through is that of being socialized to understand how to behave in the society in which they are born. Early in babyhood tutelage in correct behavior, how to be one of the group, begins. While the study of children has only recently begun to interest sociologists, new interest in this group has already resulted in a fair amount of work, and several models are available to describe socialization, "the process by which children adapt to and internalize society."4 These models range in type from deterministic, those models that see the child as a force to be tamed and contained by society (primarily through the parents), to constructivist, models that see the child as an active participant in the socialization process.5
The idea that children's books are instruments of socialization has been recognized by many.6 As Nodelman puts it, "whatever else literary texts are, and whatever pleasure they might afford us, they are also expressions of the values and assumptions of a culture and a significant way of embedding readers in those values and assumptions."7 Both of the books considered here have been discussed elsewhere as being about socializing the child out of naughty behaviors and dealing with the child's need to rebel.8
However, other writers point out that the story can also reveal the individual's response to the process of being socialized. For instance, perhaps what we see in Potter's stories is an expression of her own need to rebel against the constraints of Victorian society.9 Likewise, Shaddock suggests that "the motive for the adventure at the core of Where the Wild Things Are —the desire for the freedoms of the uncivilized—is founded upon the restraints of the domesticated world."10 She sees Max as reacting to "his confrontations with the civil boundaries of a ‘mature’ society" and "the taming force of women, particularly mothers."11
In both of these works, the implied child reader is a wild thing, constrained by socialization and the civilizing interests of adults, who is working to integrate these conflicting demands into a growing sense of self. Socialization, of necessity, is embedded in the child's developmental sequence. The child can make sense of rules and manage impulses and feelings only in relation to his or her developmental place within the context of the behaviors and lessons of socializing others (including parents, siblings, friends, and the society at large).
For both Peter and Max, "naughtiness" has something to do with movement toward individuation and autonomous function, developmental issues that are prime between the ages of 18 to 36 months and that arise again in adolescence. Individuation is about the development of a sense of "self" as the child begins to internalize mother as object and acclimates to the realization that mother and child are separate entities.12 Autonomous functions are the skills children develop, such as sitting, crawling, standing, and particularly walking, that give them increased mobility and independence. It is through the development of such skills that children begin to be aware of the world. Children in this phase of development spend time "practising" their new skills, and as they become more proficient, experience a sense of self, independent from mother. Of course, the child still needs the mother, and so individuating is not always a comfortable experience. The awareness, for instance, of selfhood makes the child fearful because the child is not yet able to hold a sense of mother internally. In what is called the rapprochement subphase, the child returns to the mother and shows dependence on her again. Both steps, separating and returning, are part of the normal developmental sequence.
Peter and Max can be described as toddlers moving through the practising and rapprochement subphases of the separation-individuation phase of development, depicting experiences that are highly pertinent to the young children to whom these books are addressed. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are speak especially well to this audience by mirroring the developmental wishes and experiences that young children are engaged in resolving.
The Child and the Natural World: Who's a Wild Thing?
It has been suggested that Sendak developed the term wild thing from "the common Yiddish expression ‘wilde chaye.’"13 Regardless of its origin, wild thing can be taken as indicating both a creature that is not integrated into society, in the sense of being civilized or socialized, and also as a creature that inhabits the natural world. Webster's, for example, defines wild in three ways: "living or growing in its original or natural state and not normally domesticated or cultivated [wild flowers, wild animals]," "not easily restrained or regulated [wild children]," and "characterized by a lack of social or moral restraint."14
The relationship between each of these protagonists and the natural world presents interesting contrasts. As a rabbit, Peter is clearly a creature of nature. His home is in the sandbank under a fir tree. Although the tale is foreshadowed on the cover, endpapers, and front matter, Peter and his family are depicted as wild rabbits in their natural setting as the story begins. The reader does not know yet that "Peter … is as much boy as rabbit."15
Max, on the other hand, is presented in a highly domestic environment, the modern home, and must approximate nature through imagination and imitation. He wears his connection to the natural world, his wolf suit, indicating that he is as much wolf as boy. The wolf is well known in children's literature. Children know not to talk to one or open the door, for the wolf is tricky and hungry, and a threat to their safety. Max wears the wolf suit to indicate that there is something about him to be overcome, his wildness, in service to preserving domestic tranquility.
Clothing as Socialization: How It Begins
Both Peter and Max are presented as part wild thing and part little boy. In each case, clothing is used to symbolize the character's level of socialization, which for each boy is incomplete. One is a wild animal dressed as a human child; the other is a human child dressed as a wild animal. The wildness of each is fairly tempered, however, because neither bunnies, nor wolf suits, nor even little boys are very intimidating.
For Peter the attempted socialization begins when he and his sisters are dressed to go out into the world. This adornment of clothing is important, for it signals that a certain code of behavior is required in "public." As Scott notes, "For Potter clothes are what people must learn to wear as they grow up and go out into the world … for her animals merge their own natures so aptly with the behavior and personalities of children that we wonder whether her animals have become children or vice versa."16
Max, on the other hand, is a boy dressed like a wolf. At first it seems that his face is his only human aspect, but on closer inspection, the buttons on his wolf suit further betray his hidden identity: "Max's costume looks suspiciously like a baby suit, a sleeper or pajama."17 In that sense, it is hardly more frightening than a wild bunny. Like Peter, his nature is merged so that we recognize him as part animal, part boy. Recognition of their natures also involves understanding how very young they are. Potter's dressed-up rabbits are toddler-like, with their big heads and round bodies.18 Max, for all his wildness, is dressed in baby pajamas. These clues to the age and identity of the protagonists help to set the context for these stories and for the social and psychic rationale of the adventures that follow.
Adventure as Autonomous Function
The adventures that Peter and Max have can be described as representing the practising subphase of the separation-individuation schema. At this point in development, the world opens up for the toddler. The bond the child feels with the mother continues to be very strong, but the ability to move about and away from mother allows the child to develop the sense of being separate from her and also of him or herself as a separate person. This sense is a very exciting development for the child. Learning to stand and walk changes the child's experience of the world. As mobility increases, the child becomes even more interested in developing his or her abilities. Discovery and mastery are the toddler's aims. As skills increase, the sense of individuality grows. Both Peter and Max have adventures that express movement toward individuating from the mother and the desire to practise and develop skills they need ultimately to internalize the mother and become separate (socialized) individuals. Therefore, what appear to be acts of will that are contrary to the socialization process, in the end serve only to feed it because this developmental process, like the socialization process, is necessary if the child is ultimately to join the society as a fully-functioning member.
For Peter and Max, this process means going immediately toward the exact thing mother has told them not to do. Peter goes directly to the garden and the threat of becoming pie filling. Max "leaves" his room and ventures into the forbidden natural state that he desires. Both pursue their goals independently.
Peter's adventure is an exploration of the socialized world, symbolized by Mr. McGregor's garden. Here he practises his ability to move away from mother and to act autonomously in the world. He begins with a feast of lettuces, French beans, and radishes. Things shortly take a downward turn, however, with an ensuing stomachache and an encounter with Mr. McGregor himself. Almost immediately the sign of Peter's socialization, his clothing, begins to work against him, as though wearing jacket and shoes supports a code of behavior that he eschewed when he entered the forbidden garden.
It becomes clear that, in order to deal with Mr. McGregor and his predicament, Peter must revert to his natural self and depend on his wildness to survive. The clothes (socialization) prove to be impediments. First the shoes go. One is lost among the cabbages, another in the potatoes: "After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster."19 He travels now more like a bunny, or perhaps he crawls like a baby in the way a toddler will revert to crawling to move faster. This mode of moving is a big help, but then his jacket gets him caught in the gooseberry net. The coat also has to go. As he loses each article of clothing, his wildness becomes more apparent until, as Scott expresses it, "Peter looks once more like generic Rabbit, for both he and the reader are for the moment lost in the purely animal emotion of escape."20 Peter is now stripped down to his wildness and must find his way out of the civilized garden rows and return to mother.
Max also moves away from mother in hopes of showing some mastery of the world. However, as an urban child with limited access to the natural world, to go there he must take it on (wear it) and conjure it up in imagination or in a virtual sense. Max does not go out into the natural world; rather, he goes into the world of imagination to construct a forest, an ocean, and a land where his wolf suit, baby buttons and all, fits in.
Max's adventure is a return to nature that helps him to realize a return to a more "natural," unsocialized world and to demonstrate a wide range of autonomous activities including sailing a boat and taming wild things himself. This autonomy is symbolized, first, by the appearance of Max's private boat, which represents his journey toward becoming an individual. He looks quite happy and confident. He is separating from his mother and is unconcerned about it.
The first thing Max does, when he arrives where the wild things are, is to tame them using language that is reminiscent of things his mother may have said to him ("BE STILL!") and a child's game of who will blink first to frighten them into submission. He treats the wild things like children; that is, as he is treated when he behaves in a wild way. It is as a child who uses the socializing words of grown-ups that he becomes their king. And having established his dominance, he begins his true descent into wildness. Now the wild rumpus starts! Pictures fill up the space, and we lose the text because animals (wild things) do not have words the way we do. Max's return to nature is a deep regression that reaches its apex as he and the wild things dance, hang from trees, and parade wordlessly, for this is a regression that goes back to a place before language to the expressions of babies and of beasts.
The behaviors that Max has engaged in are highly representative of the dramatic behaviors young children demonstrate as they reach a rapprochement crisis in the separation-individuation phase. These behaviors often include temper tantrums and general moodiness. When Max speaks again, it is a signal that he is on his way back to socialized behavior and to mother. His wordlessness is analogous to Peter's being stripped down to a "wild thing" in Mr. McGregor's garden. Max's return to language likewise is similar to Peter's use of his socialized knowledge to get back home.
Peter descends into wildness in his panic to escape. However, it is not being wild that gets him out of the garden; rather, it is his ability to understand the order of the garden world he has invaded and to recognize that safety is to be found in the domestic life at home. As a dressed-up boy-rabbit, he explores civilization, regresses to his rabbitness, and then finds his way home. Max, the wolf-boy, explores his wildness, regresses to babyhood, and then returns home. Both have had a cathartic experience.
When Max reaches the deepest, wordless part of himself and conquers it, he too begins to look out from it, and to desire the context he had wished to leave behind. He takes this opportunity again to socialize the wild things in the manner he is accustomed to. "Now Stop!" he says and sends them "off to bed without their supper."
But something else has happened here. During the rumpus, the moon, which has hesitated since before "night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year," has grown full and is still full when Max gets back to his room. The image of the werewolf's transformation with the full moon is called up here, and it makes sense that Max's full transformation to wild thing is aligned with the moon. But another change has happened for him at that apex. Max has grown. He has internalized the socializing behavior exhibited by his mother and shown his mastery of it by using it to subdue the wild things of his imagination. Like the wolfman he will now begin to return to his prior form, and he is ready to come back. Peter, too, has given himself an experience that may well help him to control his behavior. Both boys are triumphant in a sense. Max has tamed the wild things. Peter not only has his life, but also has succeeded where his father could not.
The Role of Food: "I'll Eat You Up!"
Food plays many roles in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and in Where the Wild Things Are. Because these books are meant for young readers and portray young protagonists, it is important to note that, in a psychological sense, food and the mother are deeply connected. For babies, food and mother are much the same thing. As children grow, they remain dependent on adults to feed them, even when weaned from the breast. The child's relationship to food is entwined with a basic drive to survive, with mother's love, and with comfort, punishment, motivation, and reward.
It was food that lured Peter (and his father) to Mr. McGregor's garden. It is food that lures Max back from where the wild things are. Peter goes to the garden even though his father perished there. He goes to the garden even though there is plenty of food at home. His mother has gone to the baker for "a loaf of brown bread and five currant buns." His sisters are gathering blackberries while he is losing his coat and shoes and "exerting" himself (or practising, if you please). Peter is in many ways the thief that Mr. McGregor accuses him of being. He is also something of a glutton, eating himself sick in short order. Food, for Peter, provides motivation, reward, punishment, and comfort for his "naughty" behavior. The prize of the garden lettuce provides motivation and reward. The resulting stomachache and absence of dinner is punishment. Being cared for with a dose of curing camomile tea (an instant cure for stomachaches, highly recommended) is comfort to those who know its healing powers.
However, Peter hides in his bed in the frontispiece as mother dips the spoon in for his "dose," and more than one interpretation of this illustration has been made. For example, Carpenter interprets the dose of tea as "the disobedient boy meets his deserts" indicating that the tea is a punishment.21 Frey sees Peter as snug in his bed resisting his medicine.22 Kutzer, however, questions whether Peter has been punished at all, since he has enjoyed the garden and now has "his mother's undivided attention."23 Yet another interpretation of this illustration is that he is not hiding from the tea, but rather, is reluctant to look at mother in the aftermath of his misbehavior. For the child reader, any of these interpretations is possible, but the comfort of being cared for, even when this entails taking medicine that might taste bad, still comes through.
Max's major infraction is also related to food. Although Max has made "mischief of one kind and another" (including chasing the family dog with a fork) and "his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’," it is not until he makes a threat of oral aggression, "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" that he is sent to bed (like Peter) without supper.
But considering that Max is in his wolf suit, is his oral aggression surprising? He is a wolf after all, and wolves are always eating things up, things like grandmas, goat children, and little pigs.24 What happens, though, is that "he loses her. He loses food, and food equals mother."25 And so, the loss of a meal and the loss of mother are the punishments used in the socialization process. In his turn, Max, too, in his role as parent (king and patriarch) to them, sends the wild things to bed without their supper.
However, in each case, the loss of supper does not disrupt the bond. Peter still finds comfort; Max still wants to be "where someone loved him best of all." For both of them, nurturance continues to lie with mother despite events. Even the wild things, sent to bed without their supper, threaten lovingly, as adults often do to children, "we'll eat you up—we love you so!"
When Max gets back, the food is there for him, but his mother is not.
Life with Mom: Rapprochement and Socialization
At some point in the practising phase, the child remembers mother and wishes to return to her, as Max, smelling good things to eat, thinks about home. What happens here is that Max suddenly becomes aware that his mother is not with him, begins to experience separation anxiety, and wants "to be where someone love[s] him best of all."
On the way back, the boat does not say "Max" on the side anymore, for he is coming back in hopes of merging with mother again. Peter, concluding his practising phase, runs directly home: "[He] never stopped running or looked behind him till he got home to the big fir tree."
The child now begins to understand that mother, too, is a separate person and does not always want what her child wants. In response to this awareness of separateness, young children may become more needy and negative, and feel separation anxiety. While the child wants to share his or her achievements with mother, the feeling of mastery is fading and is replaced with the sense of being small and helpless.
As Peter and Max return home, it is striking to perceive how these two households, born more than sixty years apart, are so similar. First, both boys appear to come from single parent, mother-run homes. The absence of fathers in these stories can be interpreted as representative of the young child's fixation on the mother and also the mother's role as traditionally responsible for the children, although an increased awareness of the father often occurs in the practising subphase as part of the child's expanding sense of the world. This awareness may in part explain Peter's desire to go to Mr. McGregor's garden.
Max's father is totally outside the reader's awareness. His mother is perpetually offstage. Reflecting historical changes in generativity rates in the western world, Peter has several sisters; Max appears to be an only child, left to amuse himself as he can.
Both mothers, while present, do not seem particularly interested in where their children have been or what has transpired with them. They are attentive in the sense of providing for their children's basic welfare. Both mothers have been busy cooking during their boys' absence. Peter's mother is cooking when he gets home. She wonders about the lost clothes but is unconcerned about his exhaustion.
Max's mother is offstage, but we know that she has been preparing food because it is the smell of it that brings Max home. Apparently, she put the food in his room and left. Apparently she did not notice his absence. Apparently she did not try to engage with him, or he, in understandable toddler behavior, ignored her. Although on one level the reader thinks that he was there all the time, engrossed in fantasy or having a tantrum, the reader also knows that Max was very far away in time "through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year"! How is Max's mother able to ignore this?
Both Peter and Max's mothers are attentive to some things, but are not perceived as fully attentive to what is going on with the child. There is no sharing of the achievements of each adventure here, which seems to stress the separateness and individuation of the child. The adventure belongs to the child although, given the nature of these adventures, the words of Dr. Seuss from The Cat in the Hat seem most pertinent, "Well … [sic] what would you do if your mother asked you?"26
Clothing as Socialization: At Day's End
The use of clothing in the illustrations in these two books continues to reflect the status of each child in terms of his level of socialization. As Peter loses and is forced to give up articles of clothing, he becomes more and more rabbit-like. He achieves what his father could not and comes back to the family a wild natural thing. He no longer has any clothes; his mother will have to replace them (socialize him some more). On the other hand, he ends up swaddled in bed. The practice of swaddling was used both to restrain and to mold children:27 "Short of killing the child, swaddling represented the most effective method of control … If swaddling offered as one of its chief aims physical restraint, along with this went the desire to restrain the child morally and emotionally."28 As Kutzer describes it, "Peter is swaddled into immobility in that bed, bound in by coverlet and mother both, finally caught much more firmly than if he had uncomplainingly accepted his jacket in the first place."29
Max comes back "King of all Wild Things"; however, he is less wild now. The wolf suit is still on, but the hood is pushed back. He looks calmer. Neither boy is yet completely socialized. The promise of future freedoms is still there.
In the End: Live to Fight Another Day
The final subphase of the separation-individuation process occurs sometime in the third year of life or later. The developmental sequence is described in a linear fashion, but there is much movement back and forth before its aims are achieved, though in some sense they are never totally attained: "Like any intrapsychic process, this one reverberates throughout the life cycle."30 Such reverberation is true of the socialization process as well, which often takes many lessons, and is not always fully successful anyway.
Clues to the iterative nature of the developmental process and the multiple applications that socialization may require are also provided to the reader of Peter Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are. There are two clues in Peter Rabbit. One is that his father got caught exhibiting the behavior Peter is emulating. The other becomes apparent when Mrs. Rabbit notes, "It was the second little jacket and pair of shoes that Peter had lost on a fortnight!" The reader knows how Peter loses his clothes and sees that this adventure was probably not his first one.
In Where the Wild Things Are, the foreshadowing portrait of the wild thing on the wall provides the indication that Max has made this voyage before. He has already met the wild things. In fact, his expertise at taming wild things may be attributable in part to "practice." Children learn through repetition, which is also something that the reading experience provides. Children can and do go back to these books again, and yet again, for the beauty of the texts and illustrations, but also for the truth they find there that mirrors their own experience and concerns.
Sendak has said that Where the Wild Things Are is modeled to some extent after Peter Rabbit.31 He notes Potter's honesty and her ability to share a story from which we can all get something. The same, of course, must be said of Sendak's work. It is this honest depiction of the struggle and risks we face in becoming self-determining, competent individuals that moves these books along the tide of generations.
1. All citations of Peter Rabbit refer to Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, (1901, reissue London: Frederick Warne, 1987).
2. An extensive discussion of the marketing of Peter Rabbit can be found in Margaret Mackey, The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
3. All citations of Where the Wild Things Are refer to Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, 25th Anniversary ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).
4. William A. Corsaro, The Sociology of Childhood (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1997), 8.
5. Corsaro, The Sociology of Childhood, 8-27.
6. Some examples of authors who espouse this view are: Anne Scott MacLeod, "An End to Innocence: The Transformation of Childhood in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature," in Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Gail Schmunk Murray, American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998); and Virginia A. Walter, War and Peace Literature for Children and Young Adults: A Resource Guide to Significant Issues (Phoenix: Oryx, 1993).
7. Perry Nodelman. The Pleasures of Children's Literature, 2nd ed. (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Publishers USA, 1996), 68-69.
8. For examples of this treatment see Humphrey Carpenter, "Excessively Impertinent Bunnies: The Subversive Element in Beatrix Potter," in Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie, ed. Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); Charles Frey, "Victors and Victims in the Tales of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin," Children's Literature in Education 18 (1987): 105-11; and Jennifer Shaddock, "Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak's Journey into the Heart of Darkness," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22 (1997-1998): 155-59.
9. Two authors who deal with the constraints of Victorian life for Potter and women in general are M. Daphne Kutzer, "AWildness Inside: Domestic Space in the Work of Beatrix Potter," The Lion and the Unicorn 21 (1997): 205; and W. Nikola-Lisa. "The Cult of Peter Rabbit: A Barthesian Analysis." The Lion and the Unicorn 15 (1991): 63, 65.
10. Shaddock, "Where the Wild Things Are," 156.
11. Shaddock, "Where the Wild Things Are," 156.
12. Object relations is still best explained in the classic text, Margaret S. Mahler, Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation (New York: Basic Books, 1975).
14.Webster's New World Dictionary of American English, 3rd college ed. (New York: Webster's New World, 1988).
15. Frey, "Victors and Victims," 106.
16. Carole Scott, "Clothed in Nature or Nature Clothed: Dress as Metaphor in the Illustrations of Beatrix Potter and C. M. Barker," Children's Literature 22 (1994): 81, 83.
17. Spitz, Inside Picture Books, 126.
18. Frey, "Victors and Victims," 106.
19. Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 30.
20. Scott, "Clothed in Nature," 84.
21. Carpenter, "Excessively Impertinent Bunnies," 287.
22. Frey, "Victors and Victims," 106.
23. Kutzer, "A Wildness Inside: Domestic Space in the Work of Beatrix Potter," 212.
24. Spitz, Inside Picture Books, 126.
25. Spitz, Inside Picture Books, 128.
26. Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).
27. Joseph Zornado, "Swaddling the Child in Children's Literature," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 106.
28. Zornado, "Swaddling the Child," 106.
29. Kutzer, "A Wildness Inside: Domestic Space in the Work of Beatrix Potter," 212.
30. Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, 3.
31. "Sendak's Western Canon, Jr.," HomeArts. http://homearts.com/depts/relat/sendakb7.htm (25 March 2000).
Carpenter, Humphrey. "Excessively Impertinent Bunnies: The Subversive Element in Beatrix Potter." Pp. 271-98 in Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie, edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Corsaro, William A. The Sociology of Childhood. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1997.
Frey, Charles. "Victors and Victims in the Tales of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin." Children's Literature in Education 18 (1987): 105-11.
Kutzer, M. Daphne. "A Wildness Inside: Domestic Space in the Work of Beatrix Potter," The Lion and the Unicorn 21 (1997): 204-14.
Mackey, Margaret. The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
MacLeod, Anne Scott. "An End to Innocence: The Transformation of Childhood in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature." Pp. 100-17 in Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child, edited by Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Mahler, Margaret S., Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman. The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. New York: Basic Books, 1975.
Murray, Gail Schmunk. American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
Nikola-Lisa, W. "The Cult of Peter Rabbit: A Barthesian Analysis." The Lion and the Unicorn 15 (1991): 63-65.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature, 2nd ed. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996.
Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. 1901. London: Frederick Warne, 1987.
Scott, Carole. "Clothed in Nature or Nature Clothed: Dress As Metaphor in the Illustrations of Beatrix Potter and C. M. Barker." Children's Literature 22 (1994): 70-89.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are, 25th anniversary ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963, 1991.
"Sendak's Western Canon, Jr." HomeArts.http://homearts.com/depts/relat/sendakb7.htm (25 March 2000).
Seuss, Dr. [Theodor S. Geisel]. The Cat in the Hat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
Shaddock, Jennifer. "Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak's Journey into the Heart of Darkness." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22 (1997-1998): 155-59.
Spitz, Ellen Handler. Inside Picture Books. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.
Walter, Virginia A. War and Peace Literature for Children and Young Adults: A Resource Guide to Significant Issues. Phoenix: Oryx, 1993.
Zornado, Joseph. "Swaddling the Child in Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 105-12.
Desmond Manderson (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Manderson, Desmond. "From Hunger to Love: Myths of the Source, Interpretation, and Constitution of Law in Children's Literature." Law and Literature 15, no. 1 (2003): 87-141.
[In the following excerpt, Manderson suggests that Max's transformation from child to wild thing and back again in Where the Wild Things Are is synonymous to a child's growing appreciation for and adherence to society's laws and mores.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Leonard S. Marcus (review date November-December 2003)
SOURCE: Marcus, Leonard S. "A Second Look: Where the Wild Things Are." Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 6 (November-December 2003): 703-06.
[In the following review, Marcus surveys the elements that date Where the Wild Things Are as a book written in the 1960s as well as the elements that make the book timeless, noting themes, illustrations, and typeface.]
A second look at Where the Wild Things Are ? Forty years after Maurice Sendak's early mid-career masterpiece first appeared on the fall 1963 Harper list, the suggestion still feels premature. Turning to the book now, the most striking thing about it remains its undatable, fresh-as-paint immediacy. However familiar the Sendak images have long since become, however far afield of their original purpose those images have occasionally migrated, Wild Things has yet to shed its initial fascination as an epic staring match in which the reader gets caught in the crossfire. In the primal logic of the book, seeing and being seen become synonymous with eating and being eaten, loving and being loved, and, as in a sort of Blakeian bargain, all sources of nourishment are revealed as potential sources of annihilation. As has so often been pointed out by now, even the illustrations as they ratchet up and then back down in trim size seem first to devour and then to disgorge the available white space of successive pages. Form becomes content and matter matters. Everything works.
One reason that Where the Wild Things Are feels so fresh today is that in fashioning the illustrations Sendak largely avoided time-bound visual references. The aim seems to have been for a book whose impact would be classical, not contemporary. The massive, hooded automobiles and fedora-crowned men of Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, for example, connect that book to a particular bygone era, however beguiling it remains as a piece of storytelling. Stylistically, McCloskey's book just as plainly belongs within the anecdotal realist tradition of artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Norman Rockwell. Similarly, the flat, bright collage illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats's Snowy Day look airily "modern" in the postwar, international-style manner of, say, Leo Lionni's iconic The Family of Man cover design. For that matter, Sendak's own punched-up, slantwise drawings for Very Far Away (1957) have a distinctively fifties flavor. They are a blast from the same past that gave us the frothy mischief of Hilary Knight's illustrations for Eloise.
But in Wild Things, Sendak's style is all his own. The self-assured draftsmanship, aquiver with force fields of elegant crosshatching, is matched by the solid presence of Max himself. Whereas the drifty-dreamy hero of Kenny's Window (1956) is never going to be a contender, Max already is one, and he carries himself with the authoritative swagger of a defending bantamweight champ. A "private boat" tumbles by for Max precisely because he is going places. By 1963, with five Caldecott Honors under his belt, Sendak was going places, too—including, on weekends, to the Westport, Connecticut, home of his Harper comrades-in-arms Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, the latter of whom proposed rumpus as the word for what by then had emerged as the book's wordless centerpiece. Connecticut proved to be an inspirational mother lode: the idea for Max's wolf suit came, in part, from the leopard pajamas worn by the son of another Westport author friend, Doris Orgel. The jungle setting owed something to a nursery mural that an early Sendak mentor, Leonard Weisgard, had painted in the Weisgard family's home in Roxbury.
None of which has ever had much bearing, of course, on readers' actual experience of the book. What little we see of Max's home—a plain wooden banister and staircase in one scene, a plain wooden doorway and child's bed in another—are no more old-fashioned-looking today than they were in 1963, the heyday of Jetson fun futurism. Sendak's Wild Things pencil studies, drawn on tracing paper and now at Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum and Library, show a systematic paring away of scene-setting bric-a-brac. While the very fact that Max has a room of his own suggests a middle-class background or better for the boy, his socioeconomic status recedes from consideration as beside the point. What matters about Max is the look on his face—the gamut of expressions from grimace to grin that his faux-feral wolf suit slyly manages both to undercut and intensify.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see in Max's flamboyant costume one of several hints of Sendak's subsequent involvement in the theater. The palm trees of Wild Things Island have the tenuous look of stage flats. Max and his minions mug and strut like actors playing to the last row as they flaunt their terrible teeth, claws, and eyeballs. In terms of the book Sendak was after, the staged look of the art, with its flattened, all but featureless backgrounds, thrusts Max and company into the foreground, which is to say toward us. Wild Things is a happening—how sixties!—but one that keeps happening because the confrontation it sets into motion is as much with the reader as it is between the Wild Things and Max.
Other elements of the art and design also keep the focus on the level of felt experience. As Claire Counihan (art director at Holiday House) has pointed out, Cheltenham Bold, the turn-of-the-century typeface chosen for Wild Things, serves as a "counterpoint of calm" to the illustrations' "rampant exuberance." The font makes way for the fireworks. According to Counihan, Cheltenham Bold has much the same appeal for today's designers as it did for their sixties colleagues. From the reader's point of view, it quietly underscores the impression of the book as a perennial.
Sendak's finished artwork, also at the Rosenbach, surprises viewers by the softness and lyricism of the watercolor painting, a range of delicate tonal effects that counterbalance the strong, hard feelings the story lays bare. In 1963, much of this subtlety was lost in reproduction, as the camera separation process then in general use was not ideally suited to capturing nuanced gradations of color. By 1988, when Harper published its twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, the technology had leapfrogged forward with the advent of color laser scanning, and readers were indeed granted a second look that came substantially closer to Sendak's original intention.
But is Wild Things, then, simply and utterly a timeless creation, trailing no trace evidence of its origins in one of recent history's most tumultuous decades? No, not really. The early 1960s was the cultural moment not just of the Wild Things' invention but also of New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren's shaggy-haired kindred characters. It was a time when all sorts of people were shouting "No!" to all sorts of things. As for Wild Things itself, as Claire Counihan has noted, the display type used on the cover for the title and author's name was selected for its "hot, very sixties" quality, as a signal to the world that here was "something new." Unlike Cheltenham Bold, the popularity of this type waned with changes in fashion; as it happens, it has been revived lately by designers with a taste for sixties retro.
Looking past this typographic survival from the Age of Aquarius, Where the Wild Things Are, more than any other picture book of the last half century, also reengages the genre in the spirit of its late-nineteenth-century inventor, Randolph Caldecott. Max and the Wild Things galloping across the page are Caldecott's ebullient John Gilpin and Three Jovial Huntsmen revivified. Max in his wolf suit is a version of Baby Bunting dressed in a "rabbit skin." As Sendak writes in his essay on the illustrator, Caldecott captures Baby Bunting, looking perplexed as she observes some rabbits on a hillside, in the moment of realization that the "lovely, cuddly, warm costume she's wrapped up in" once belonged to similar flesh-and-blood creatures now dead. Sendak's Max of course is not a baby, and he is not so much perplexed as outraged. But the serious feeling for life's unfairnesses—and ironies—is the same, as is the assumption that the picture book is a worthy art form in which to dramatize them. Happily, salvation for Max lies in a simple act of undivided attention, the "magic trick" of staring his demons down "without blinking once." After forty years, Wild Things still leaves readers with the tantalizing sense that to lose oneself in the right book might do the trick almost as well.
May, Jill P. "Sendak's American Hero." Journal of Popular Culture 12, no. 1 (summer 1978): 30-2.
Examines the differing perspectives of adults and children concerning Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
Moseley, Ann. "The Journey through the ‘Space in the Text’ to Where the Wild Things Are." Children's Literature in Education 19, no. 2 (1988): 86-93.
Commends Where the Wild Things Are for evincing "various layers of meaning and structure occurring on textual, physical, psychological, and mythical levels."
Spufford, Francis. "The Forest." In The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, pp. 23-63. New York, N.Y.: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
Evaluates Max's psychological journey in contrast to his imaginary journey in Where the Wild Things Are.
Additional coverage of Sendak's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 17, 74; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 39, 112; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 61; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 27, 113, 165; and Twayne's United States Authors.