Wednesday, May 9, 2012
News Brief: Carnegie Mellon's Kathy M. Newman Reflects on the Legacy of Maurice SendakContact: Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesterday, internationally acclaimed children's author Maurice Sendak died at age 83. Sendak was known in particular for more than a dozen picture books he wrote and illustrated himself, most famously "Where the Wild Things Are," which sold more than 19 million copies. Carnegie Mellon University's Kathy M. Newman, associate professor of English and cultural studies, reflects on Sendak's legacy which she calls "greater than many of our most beloved literary founding fathers."
As a parent and a professor of American literature, I am comfortable arguing that Maurice Sendak is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He once had a dog that he named "Herman," after Herman Melville — but I would argue that Sendak's literary impact was greater than Melville's has been, and greater than many of our most beloved literary founding fathers.
Sendak's impact can be measured in three ways. First is his impact on the field of children's literature. Few writers in any genre have imitated his success — "Where the Wild Things Are" has sold more than 19 millions copies since 1963. The book speaks to children who do not want to be punished, and, also, to adults who understand how easy it is to lose our temper — but who also relent and provide a hot dinner after all.
Sendak's second great impact has been on other artists, writers and filmmakers. Dozens of artists credit Sendak with inspiring them as children: to draw, to imagine, to "be bad," and to treat dark and/or depressing subjects directly, without shame. Included in the list of artists that Sendak inspired, and then later collaborated with, include: Tony Kushner, Spike Jonze, and Dave Eggers.
Sendak's third greatest impact has been on the wider culture. His drawings have been imitated, made into dolls and toys, as well as made into sets for musicals, operas and ballets, and even into tattoos.
Sendak, a gay man who never had children of his own, understood the pain that children experience. More importantly, he understood that the pain of children often follows us into adulthood.
Sendak also understood that love is totalizing. The monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are" say to Max: "I love you so I'll eat you up!" Last year Sendak recalled the story of a child to whom he sent an original drawing. The child loved Sendak's drawing so much that he ate it! Sendak remembered this is as one of the best compliments he ever received for his work.
Ultimately, what makes Sendak so powerful is that he understood death and could address it directly. As an adolescent he met a girl who later died. And then came the Holocaust, in which many children and adults in Sendak's extended family were killed. Recalling this experience, he said: "You can die when you're a child, that's what I knew."
Sendak also had his own, particular spiritual understanding of the soul that allowed him to think about what happens to us after death. Eight years ago he explained that he was rereading some of the great works of world literature: "This fall, I reread 'The Winter's Tale.' It turns out that the dead are not dead... My hair stood on end." He also referenced his love for Keats' contemplation of the soul. As Keats wrote in a letter to his brother: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!"
Sendak suffered, but he turned that suffering into art, and brought joy to us all. We will miss him, but we know from his reading of The Winter's Tale that the dead are not dead. Sendak will live on in every wild child and in every frustrated parent who, at the end of the day, reconcile over a hot meal.