There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak

It might seem improbable for a single “children’s book” comprising only 353 words and 23 images to generate uncounted academic papers, critical considerations, and now a serious, polymathic examination of its sources and meaning. But only before the creator is named: Maurice Sendak, beloved author of iconic works such as Where the Wild Things Are and The Nutshell Library. He provided generations of children a richly imagined mirror of their unacknowledged inner experience, one filled at once with rage, fear, creative power, and aspiration to self-mastery.

The crystallization of Sendak’s lifework is 1981’s Outside Over There, a book he declared “the last excavation of my soul.” This strange, beautiful, deeply unsettling picture book is at the center of Jonathan Cott’s There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak — the equally unorthodox exegesis of a single work by an artist Cott first interviewed for Rolling Stone in 1976. In the interview Sendak referred to a project he felt had been long gestating in him “like a woman having a baby.” It would be a difficult birth. The resulting offspring, which Sendak considered to complete a trilogy including Wild Things and In the Night Kitchen (1970), to Cott appeared “ultimately the one that most fully expresses and illuminates the complex and manifold nature of his creative being, and I believe that to understand Outside Over There is in large part to understand Sendak himself.”

Cott, the author of studies on children’s literature and the fairy tale as well as works on Glenn Gould, Stockhausen, Bob Dylan, and other artists of peculiarly gnarly genius, uses the interview format to interesting if not wholly successful effect. He presents in conversational form explorations of the book’s themes undertaken with four authorities: psychoanalytic and Jungian (the dream imagery and fractious parent-child relationships that recur throughout Sendak’s work do appear, alas, to justify the approach); art-historical; and, with Sendak’s friend and collaborator Tony Kushner, literary. Among the most significant of the latter influences on Outside Over There are Greek mythology, Blake, and Melville. Not only is Melville superficially present in the nineteenth-century seafaring setting of the pictures, but Sendak often described the self-scrutiny that was part of his process using Melville’s term “diving.” This meant going so deep into memory one scrapes painfully against the hard ocean floor of the subconscious.

Sendak’s childhood was colored by loneliness, emotionally distant parents, longings he barely understood, and the redemptions of the artistic imagination, all of which manifest in the conjoined story lines and imagery of his signal works. His characters leave home in pique, dream themselves through floors and windows, master their inner demons by giving them form as goblins, monsters, lions, and babies made of ice. Sendak’s books can be dark and complex — but then, so is the child’s psyche. No work of his is more mysterious, more fruitfully disquieting, than Outside Over There, which on publication was objected to by some reviewers and parents as potentially too scary for children. Distress, tears, or uncertainty are indeed apparent in one or another of the three characters in almost every panel; then there are the ominously faceless goblins whose activity echoes “the crime of the century,” the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping. As Cott discovered, the event traumatized Sendak as a toddler and reverberated through his subsequent work. The result is that today the book is not as widely read as others of Sendak’s output that have become universally embraced classics, notwithstanding its role as an inspiration of Jim Henson’s cult film Labyrinth.

Cott’s project is to rescue Sendak’s masterpiece from its parentally sidelined position in his oeuvre and at the same time give a popular makeover to its recondite treatment by various academic sects. The striven-for effect is casual dialogue on heady ideas; the book consists of lengthy transcriptions of interviews with particularly knowledgeable interlocutors. The reader is meant to feel like a fly on the wall, overhearing one of those discovery-filled conversations in which both parties become breathless while overturned teacups drip their contents unheeded on the floor.

“To me,” I said, “Outside Over There seems to be a kind of Eleusinian mystery dream.”

“It is, and like that mystery it’s also a ritual.”

“It’s interesting you used the word ‘ritual,’ because Sendak was working on a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the same time that he was creating Outside Over There, and the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth once suggested that this Mozart opera, as well as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were self-contained mystery religions. It seems to me that Outside Over There also seems to convey the substance and feeling of such a mystery religion.”

“Absolutely. I think it’s really in there. And that would lead me to wonder . . .”

And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a satisfyingly great mystery here. It is one about how a deceptively simple work transcends the very explanations it begets. In other words, the mystery of art itself. If one or two of the thousand ships of inquiry launched by Outside Over There run aground (a bit much Jungian ballast in the hold), Maurice Sendak still provides the widest ocean of imagination to freely sail.