In the flood of writing in praise of Maurice Sendak (ztz”l) since his death earlier this month, he’s been hailed for his creativity as an illustrator and writer, his challenges to the marketing category of “children’s books”, his cantankerous honesty, his distinctly New York Yiddish humor.
In interviews, Sendak never backed down from the queer challenge his work posed to ‘mainstream’ conventions.
The major newspaper obituaries have been careful to mention that Sendak came out in 2008, shortly after the death of his lover, Eugene Glynn, but none have taken Sendak’s queerness as seriously as they have, say, his teenage stint as a background artist on Mutt & Jeff. They’ve tended to mention nothing beyond the length of his relationship with Glynn (an impressive five decades), using that duration to imply the impeccable, conservative respectability that gay publicists for marriage prescribe for any out public figure. Beyond its apparent rejection of state or religious recognition, the actual shape of that relationship is in no way clear: no one seems to have ever asked.
What is clear, however, is that Sendak’s work has at its heart an uncompromising, complicated queerness, which is the source of its radicalness, and in many ways of its strength. He is emphatically not a gay writer – one whose work focuses on same-gender romantic pairings and sees such relationships as ‘equal to’ and similar in shape to conventional cross-gender pairings. Sendak’s liberatory vision is quite definitely queer – challenging the privilege given to the biological/sacramental family, from its compulsory heterosexuality to its exaltation of the couple to its foundation in parental property rights over children.
Sendak’s work centers on the struggle to create intimate ties based on choice and affinity – including, and moving beyond, what we often talk about as ‘chosen families’. From Max’s journey to find the Wild Things that match his mother’s accusatory label for him, to Rosie’s flock of squabbling friends and creative collaborators, to Jack and Guy’s multi-racial inter-species commune of kids and kittens, these are the relationships that shape the lives of his protagonists and move his plots forward.
No two of these are alike; they are not shown as safe, inevitably satisfying in the long term or purely positive. But each is presented as a space of possibility, of creativity, of desire. To continue with the three examples I’ve already mentioned:
When Max is punished for responding in kind to parental verbal aggression, he flees to find the other Wild Things. He becomes first among equals there by refusing to be intimidated by their roars and teeth-gnashing, and resumes the world-creating rumpus he’d been chastised for at home. It is when he ends the rumpus and reproduces the parental authority inflicted on him that he is overcome by loneliness – just as his mother turns out to have been when he returns home.
Rosie’s gang is a world unto itself, tied to its members’ families of origin mainly by parental shouts and hostile commentary. The tales told within it explore the world’s possibilities, from “alligators all around” to “zipping zippers”, from January’s ice rinks to December’s birthday-snowman, from exaltation (“the enchanted one – that’s me!”) to sudden death (“on such an ordinary day, like today”). Once again, it in the moments when Rosie insists on her sole authority – as star or director of their movie – that the community becomes tense and conflict-ridden.
Finally, Jack and Guy’s invitation to the “little boy with one black eye” to join their family of choice makes visible the structures of mutual support out of which they and their unnamed friends have made a community. When tested by the abduction of the kittens and the “poor little kid”, they swing into action, pushed forward and aided by a feline moon, to rescue them.
When biological families appear, they mainly serve to show contrast with these communities of affinity. More often than not, they appear only in the form of a mother, whose possible show of affection at the end of the story is balanced by earlier rejection. The role of siblings is likewise ambivalent, showing comradeship on the basis of kid-ship, but not a promotion over other kids based on kinship. And the most utopian scenes, as well as the most threatening ones, take place in the total absence of biological family: Mickey’s midnight journey as well as Jack and Guy’s unhoused community. Even when appropriate punishment is delivered and a lesson learned, as in the case of uncaring Pierre, it is very pointedly delivered not by his parents but by an unrelated lion. For the most part, Rosie’s answer to her unseen interviewer sums it up, in words taken from the classic divas of the silver screen but familiar to queers across the generations: “My family? Have I forgiven them? I’ve tried my best.”
What we know about the process through which Sendak’s books were created only reinforces the queerness of his work, and its importance to the books’ radical impact.
In many interviews, he has pointed to his extended family – the immigrant uncles, aunts, and cousins that filled a Brooklyn Jewish upbringing – as the models for the Wild Things (their name a translation of the Yiddish insult “vilde khaye”, also reclaimed by an early Jewish lesbian feminist group). In a detailed account of that origin, Sendak explains that his depiction was motivated both by his early dislike of these relatives (in part because of their repetition of “the conventional things” said to children, he says elsewhere), his later love for them, and his understanding of his own childhood cruelty. Part of the book’s aim was, he makes clear, to demolish the mid-century myths of Pure Motherhood and Innocent Childhood by depicting the everyday realities of familial cruelty.
Similarly, the origins of Really Rosie, as presented in the 2005 exhibit of Sendak’s work at The Jewish Museum, lies in complicated, queer affinity. The model for Rosie, according to Sendak, was a young neighbor who he found fascinating and watched as she made her charismatic way through the social world of the kids on their block. He never sought to develop an actual friendship with her, out of understandable concern about the response interest from a single (at least as far as the straight world knew) man, much less a gay man, would receive. This line-crossing attraction runs through his work, feeding not only Really Rosie but also books like Higglety Pigglety Pop!, inspired by Sendak’s relationship with his Sealyham terrier, Jenny.
And his depiction in We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy of a mutually supportive, loving community of unhoused kids wears its political and social context on its sleeve. Sendak has pointed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and his experience of the autonomous support structures created in response to it, as part of the inspiration for the book. In its illustrations, headlines in the newspapers the kids wear and use for shelter mention AIDS alongside homelessness and other aspects of gentrification. Further, the orphanage to which the abducted “poor little kid” and kittens are taken recalls the still ongoing history of institutionalizing and ‘curing’ queer youth, while its smoke-belching chimney reminds us, by way of Auschwitz, of that history’s inextricable links to eugenic attacks on racialized and disabled ‘others’.
In interviews, Sendak never backed down from the queer challenge his work posed to ‘mainstream’ conventions. In describing his reaction to the hostile response that In the Night Kitchen received, he makes his position quite explicit:
“But it was a big deal and it worried me a lot because kids are just learning about their bodies and adjusting to their bodies. By banning the book or covering him with a little jock strappy thing only tells the kids that there is something wrong with the most natural thing in the world, your own human body.”
Here, as elsewhere, he articulates a liberatory vision of direct, open communication about bodies and relationships, to allow kids to freely learn and understand themselves and those around them. In keeping with the ‘universalizing’ mode of queer politics, he does not make this depend on identifying “gay youth” or “queer kids” – it’s something for everyone.
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