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 equally unorthodox exegesis of a single work by an artist he 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, " And so on. 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 . . ." 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. Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.
Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson
The Barnes & Noble Review
What makes this volume worth reading, in the end, are Cott's genuinely thoughtful insights into his subject's work, and Sendak's own wise, sometimes cantankerous musings about the relationship between words and pictures in illustrated books; the artists who inspired him (including Mozart, Melville, Blake and Emily Dickinson); and the kinetic dynamic between his life and art.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
"The book is an inventive, intelligent pleasure, a collaborative close reading that is serious and loving. I wish there were more criticism like it."
— Christine Smallwood, Harper's “Cott's thoughtful questions include quotes from luminaries ranging from Homer to Rumi…. With minimal redundancy, the voices culminate to illuminate an extraordinarily rich picture book, provide fresh insight into human needs, and inspire appreciation for the rewards of looking closely.” — Kirkus Starred Review "Fascinating and compellingly readable as all of this is, there remains something ineffable about Sendak’s work, for, yes, when all is said and done, there is a mystery there, one that Cott conveys beautifully. — Booklist Starred Review "Cott approaches Sendak from virtually every angle, making this a remarkably complete picture of a complex and dynamic oeuvre." —Publishers Weekly “What makes this volume worth reading… are Cott’s genuinely thoughtful insights into his subject’s work, and Sendak’s own wise, sometimes cantankerous musings about the relationship between words and pictures in illustrated books; the artists who inspired him (including Mozart, Melville, Blake and Emily Dickinson); and the kinetic dynamic between his life and art… [Cott] provides an illuminating window into the creative process — and the countless inspirations, influences, ideas and serendipitous encounters that fed into the creation of this work of art.” — New York Times "[Jonathan Cott] enlists the help of an art historian, a Jungian analyst, a Freudian analyst, and the playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, a close friend of Sendak's. Their perspectives on Sendak's work, juxtaposed with Mr. Cott's own exchanges with the artist, illuminate Sendak's books and psyche to remarkable effect. Enriched throughout with images of Sendak's art, the book will be catnip for those who already admire him. Non-enthusiasts who never warmed to his more discomfiting books as children or, as adults, to either his work or his irascible manner may find themselves surprised, sympathetic and enchanted. . . In this riveting account of Sendak's vision, Mr. Cott captures the pain and the glory of the creative process: moments of soaring grandiosity and times of grinding struggle, of words and images that won't come or that come in the wrong way, 'It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis,' Sendak said. Adults do too. Sendak himself was proof of it." — Wall Street Journal "Cott seamlessly interweaves readings of Sendak's working process and final products, allowing them to reciprocally illuminate each other: The "companion guides" are used deftly to open possibilities without dogmatism. Images from Sendak's books are reproduced in profusion. Poring over them is a pleasure in itself. Poring over them in this company profoundly deepens our appreciation of the power of art to help us bravely face our monsters, transform them and emerge ourselves transformed." — Star Tribune
Conversations with the legendary children's book creator, along with "companion guides" exploring the artist's psyche and works.This text expands longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Cott's (Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, 2014, etc.) 1976 Stone interview with Sendak, which Cott reworked in his collection of children's author profiles, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn (1983). The author interweaves discussions that followed over the years with family photographs, aesthetic influences, and book art in the first publication with the benefit of distance since Sendak's death in 2012. Cott examines his subject's relationships with relatives—particularly the artist's melancholy mother—and recurring themes and obsessions: babies, kidnapping, flying, falling, mortality, windows, and journeys. An overview of key titles follows, focusing on the enigmatic Outside Over There; Sendak described this conclusion to the trilogy that began with Where the Wild Things Are as "the last excavation of my soul." Writing it helped vanquish lifelong demons. Cott is an erudite, sensitive observer, exceedingly well-prepared to engage readers on the title's (and creator's) mystique. Equally at ease probing Mozart's views on death as he is the similarities between Sendak's naked goblins and a 17th-century scene of frolicking putti, Cott's thoughtful questions include quotes from luminaries ranging from Homer to Rumi. Sendak's narrative featuring Ida, a girl who rescues her baby sister from the goblin's underworld (as the depressed mother pines for the seafaring father), is expertly mined in separate chapters. Psychoanalyst Richard M. Gottlieb notes the artist's gift for plots employing fantasy to manage rage, and Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck discusses art's role in restoring one's archetypal mother. Art historian Jane Doonan deconstructs design, style, and symbolism, while playwright Tony Kushner recounts his friend's yearning for paradise. A continuous thread explores the complex interplay between "inside and outside" and the possibility that the story transpires in Ida's imagination. With minimal redundancy, the voices culminate to illuminate an extraordinarily rich picture book, provide fresh insight into human needs, and inspire appreciation for the rewards of looking closely.