Experts analyze Sendak’s writing
By Josh Roselman, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, May 5, 2008
Since 1963, generations of children have been frightened by the gruesome monsters in Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are." A statement from the noted illustrator and children's book author, however, has indicated that the illustrations were actually based on his old Jewish relatives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Their visits terrified [Sendak], because they would pinch his cheek and tell him that they would eat him up," Richard Gottlieb, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told an audience on Friday in Baker Library.
Gottlieb,along with two other members of a panel, discussed this childhood trauma, as well as psychological issues in Sendak's work that are atypical of most children's literature.
"It's clear to see that Sendak doesn't shy away from heavy subjects," Nancy Canepa, Dartmouth professor of French and Italian, said on the panel.
Canepa and Gottlieb spoke alongside rare book specialist Patti Houghton, the co-curator of "Facing the North Wind," a new display of Sendak's work on display in Rauner Special Collections Library.
Although each speaker presented a different insight into the author's work, all three focused on the thematic significance of the dream in three Sendak books, "Where the Wild Things Are," "In the Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There." According to the speakers, the child protagonists in each story deal with their problems through fantasies and dream sequences.
Houghton presented the books through the lens of literary tradition, focusing on how many of Sendak's stories mimic the plots of classic hero stories, such as fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm. Through their journeys, the characters deal with issues that affect them in their daily lives, Houghton said.
"Sendak used dreams as a way for his child protagonists to face problems in their waking lives that were too big for them to handle," she said, "For example, what if your mother gets so mad at you that she doesn't love you anymore?"
Houghton's talk centered on several of Sendak's influences, including 19th-century Scottish fantasy author George MacDonald, noting that the title of the collection was inspired by MacDonald's novel "At the Back of the North Wind." According to Houghton, many of MacDonald's characters also undergo fantastic journeys in order to attain self-discovery.
"The heroes and heroines have to lose themselves before they can come back and recognize their new selves," she said.
Gottlieb examined Sendak's work with a psychological perspective, theorizing that the dream states in the books represent ways the characters deal with their "Freudian" fears and desires.
"Sendak has said that he is interested in one and only one question -- how do children survive?" he said.
Canepa's segment of the panel also discussed fairy-tale aspects of Sendak's work, but focused on how he updated the traditional fantasy story to fit in a modern context.
"Sendak, as true storytellers always do, revisits traditions in order to renew them," she said, "He rewrites and reillustrates the fairy tale tradition."
These references are often manifested in allusions to pop culture, including nods to Mickey Mouse and Oliver Hardy in "In the Night Kitchen."
Sendak's subtle illustrations range from the innocent, like those found in "In the Night Kitchen," to the mature. For example, Sendak's 1988 book "Dear Mili" tells the story of a young girl driven out of her home by war into a dark forest. During her journey, she encounters tree branches "evoking skeletal bodies," a distant building that is a facsimile of Auschwitz and a character that was drawn to resemble Anne Frank.
Items from the "Facing the North Wind" exhibit are currently on display in the main hall of Baker Library. The selection consists of pieces from the Morton E. Wise Collection of Maurice Sendak, a cache of around 100 pieces of artwork that was donated to the College for the 10th anniversary of the Roth Center for Jewish Life.
"It is judged to be one of the best collections of Sendak's books in existence," Jeffrey Horrell, dean of libraries and librarian of the College, said.