Friday, September 12, 2008

Maurice Sendak

I've always admired the work of Maurice Sendak. His stories are delightful, and his artwork is so clear, friendly and beautiful.

Maurice Sendak, shown in 2006, Joyce Dopkeen/The New York TimesThis week, in his eightieth year, he came out as a gay man. Patricia Cohen's New York Times article on 9/9/08, "Concerns Beyond Just Where the Wild Things Are," says of Sendak:

Maurice Sendak’s 80th year — which ended with his birthday earlier this summer and is being celebrated on Monday night with a benefit at the 92nd Street Y — was a tough one. He has been gripped by grief since the death of his longtime partner; a recent triple-bypass has temporarily left him too weak to work or take long walks with his dog....
The article reviews his career, talks about the "originality and emotional honesty" of his children's books, and explains that he is not, as many expect, a cheery grandpa type.

“I hate people,” he said at one point, extolling the superior company of dogs, like his sweet-tempered German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).

He is, at heart, a curmudgeon, but a delightful one, with a vast range of knowledge, a wicked sense of humor and a talent for storytelling and mimicry.
The key for me, as a gay professional, is this part of the story:

Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”

“I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” Mr. Sendak added. He lived with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, for 50 years before Dr. Glynn’s death in May 2007. He never told his parents: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

Children protect their parents, Mr. Sendak said. It was like the time he had a heart attack at 39. His mother was dying from cancer in the hospital, and he decided to keep the news to himself, something he now regrets.

A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s....

After Dr. Glynn’s death, Mr. Sendak said he was “still trying to figure out what I’m doing here.”

“I wanted to take his place,” he said. “His death became a demarcation.” He added that he lost touch with many of his friends, unable to return phone calls and reply to e-mail messages.
After 23 year with my own spouse, Jim, I recognize how deep such grief could be. Sendak's loss, and his choice to come out, move me very much.

One of my Sendak favorites is his 1970 book, In the Night Kitchen. It gives us such a sweetly bizarre, comical dream voyage of three-year-old Mickey. But, of course, this book brought out our culture's obsession with censorship of children's books, because Mickey tumbles through the pages naked.

I suppose now that Sendak is out as gay, some folks will want to drag all of that craziness back out of their closets. I pray that this won't be the case, yet at 58 I've seen too much willful ignorance among my fellow Americans.

More difficult, more profound, and more beautiful still for me, is Sendak's 1993 work, We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy.

Cover illustration, We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Maurice Sendak
As Pamela Warrick wrote in "Facing the Frightful Things" for The Los Angeles Times:

[Never] has he assumed more about what children know than with his latest book, a book even author-illustrator Sendak calls "an in-your-face book about homelessness." And if that weren't shocking enough for the faint-of-heart, the book...also touches on such '90s issues as AIDS, starvation and the horrors of life on the street.

Such subjects make grown-ups cringe even when they are not lavishly illustrated in a children's book. (Grown-up guilt, Sendak believes, probably has something to do with this.) But it's a different story for children. What most interests them, it seems, is how the kids win out in the end.

And that's what interests Sendak. In the world of children's publishing, he has been everyone's favorite enfant terrible, always causing a rumpus over this or that.

"Solving the problems of homelessness, or any other social problem, isn't the real purpose of this book," he says. The purpose of this book is the purpose of all Sendak books, he says: To examine how children get through, how they get by.

"These are difficult times for children.Children have to be brave to survive what the world does to them. And this world is scrungier and rougher and dangerouser than it ever was before. . . . "
As a gay man who as gotten through the alienation of the closet, I can appreciate Sendak's mission to show children—and those adults who have the courage to read his works to them—how we all can get through the serious challenges of life.

I admire this man.



Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

I have always loved the sensitivity and beauty of Sendak's work... and loved his attitude toward dogs! There's a wonderful section on his lifelong relationships with German Shephards in The Monks of New Skete dog book--I especially love the part where he admits to these dog trainers extraoirdinaire that, in his home, couches are for dogs. (I feel the same way. What good is a couch where I can't cuddle my dogs?)

Now I've got two new reasons for warm feelings about the guy. Coming out at age 80--and what it says about our society that it had to wait so long... and the loss of a lifetime love.

Like you, Mike, my own marriage is such a gift and a blessing that I am immediately humbled by the loss of such a soul-partner.

Thanks for sharing this.

GrumpyGranny said...

One of the greatest gifts I ever got was taking my wife home to meet my mother twice before she died. I wanted her to meet the person I had found who really, truly "got" me and loved me after 2 pretty unhappy "real" i.e. straight, marriages. My mother accepted her at once and claimed her as a 3rd daughter.

I guess coming out at a later age is easier, because I had already established myself as not caring what the neighbors thought.

I feel very sad that this man was never able to share the joy of his partnership with his parents.

I only know of a couple of his books, so will have to check out more.

As always, Michael, you further my education and compassion.

Igraine (GG)