Call of the Wild Things

Maurice Sendak was born on this day in 1928. Sendak said that none of his children’s books were written to tell a moral and that they are addressed to “those other freaky kids who lick, sniff, and carry on over their books before they even read them.” In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Where the Wild Things Are, he added that whatever “truth and passion” there was in his work came from “my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood — the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things.” As if in confirmation, Sendak received one letter from an eight-year-old asking, “How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive, my sister and I would like to spend the summer there.”

But whatever Sendak’s stories lack in moral, they make up in meaning. The author and his “Sendakian child” have attracted many scholarly studies, many of them with frequent references to Jung, Freud, and to books that carry undertones of “explosive anger, frustration, the polymorphous realm of dream and psychosexual fantasy, intense sibling rivalry, existential angst, death” (Angels and Wild Things, John Cech). Sendak agreed that his stories and illustrations had such depth, and amused his friend Theodor Geisel by finding his stories full of the same: “I gave him reason to laugh mightily on more than one occasion when I launched into one of my ‘wacky’ (his word) subtext theories relating to my favorite Seuss books.”

Sendak described himself as “a product of fifties psychoanalysis” (and his partner of fifty years was a psychoanalyst). He had no children and dismissed as “nonsense” the idea that he did what he did out of “some special love for children” or out of anything beyond the compulsion to stay connected to his own inner child:

I don’t believe, in a way, that the kid I was grew up into me. He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way. It’s as if he had moved somewhere. I have a tremendous concern for him and interest in him. I communicate with him — or try to — all the time.… I don’t want this to sound coy or schizophrenic, but at least once a day I feel I have to make contact.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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