Michael Patrick Hearn on Maurice Sendak

It was at one of the wonderful Children’s Literature New England conferences that I saw Gregory Maguire in conversation with Maurice Sendak, someone who had been so incredibly important to me growing up as a reader (my iconic Sendak childhood works are the Little Bear books), as an aspiring children’s book illustrator (I studied and studied his masterful use of crosshatching), and as a lifelong member of this world of children and their literature (I followed all his work and commentary and learned more every time even if I didn’t always agree with him). It was at another of those conferences that I met children’s literature scholar Michael Patrick Hearn; when he recently expressed to me his own profound sadness on the passing of this man who meant so much to him I offer to post anything he might wish to write. And so here without further ado are his thoughts on Maurice Sendak:

I don’t know why I’m so sad.  I knew it would happen–and soon.  Maurice had not been well for a long time but he somehow survived triple bypass, pneumonia and probably a dozen other ailments that would have been immediately fatal to anyone else.  It was a stroke that did him in.  He even survived The Colbert Report.  He was not going to take any guff and seized control of that show through sheer will. Nobody was going to upstage him!  He always had to be the center of attention.
 
But it was all a performance, a final Oscar-worthy stunt.  I could hear in his voice on the phone how frail he was getting.  Not in his thoughts, never in his thoughts and opinions, just in the articulation.  His mind was as lucid and barbed as ever.  I suspect we got along over the years because I actually listened to him.  Almost every conversation began with the kvetching.  Oh the kvetching!  It was not a word I really knew until I met Maurice Sendak.  He was constantly upset with this and that, with that person and this person.  His anger fueled him.  Look in the dictionary under the noun kvetch and you will find:
  1. A chronic, whining complainer.
  2. A nagging complaint.  
  3. Maurice Sendak, American picture book artist-author.
But once he got that off his chest, he was the funniest person you could ever meet.  Another reason why we got along was we could laugh together.  Not everyone shared his peculiar sense of humor.  Many people took him too damn seriously.  They bored him.  Often he took himself too damn seriously too.  But when he felt comfortable he would say the most outrageous thing and wait for a reaction.  He could not do that with everyone.  He was constantly testing his friends and colleagues and many came up short.
 
It is extraordinary the outpouring of affection for him and from so many people who really did not know him.  Could anyone really know him?  He was so complex and complicated.  His neuroses were endless and fed his art.  He ran hot and cold.  He was constantly making and breaking friendships.  He thought nothing of tossing anyone aside who had unknowingly offended him in some unidentified way. He was in constant fear of betrayal. I never could keep up with all the people he was currently feuding with.  I was never part of the Inner Circle.  I will never know exactly what he thought of me.  Maybe I do not want to know.  I am sure his opinion changed with the weather.  From time to time I would hear second hand the most bizarre things he told others about me.  And I never thought I was that important to him for him to bother gossiping about me.  He loved gossip and to gossip.  Not about himself of course.  I had to be careful with some of the wild stories he related. Many were only to produce an effect, maybe some discomfort or shock.  He loved being the provocateur.
 
He was emotionally needy.  His vast ego demanded constant nurturing and I have never been a master at that.  Maurice was difficult.  God knows he was difficult!  And yet he had the uncanny habit of making complete strangers feel like he was their oldest and dearest friend.  His last self-lacerating conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross is almost unbearable to listen to. He bared his soul to her and she hardly knew him.  He told her such intimate details that I am not sure he was always aware that he was speaking live on the radio.  You can hear in her voice how taken aback she was but she handled it beautifully.
 
He often told me things that were not really any of my business.  He once stopped himself in mid-sentence, “You know I don’t really know you very well.”  Of course that was nearly twenty years after we first met. But knowing me or what I felt or thought was never really an issue with Maurice.   It was always all about him.  Yes, he did want to know my opinions and we often exchanged information.  He was well aware that I wrote on children’s books and he obviously brought me into his confidence to tell me personal things for the record.  A few years ago I went backstage after one of his public presentations to congratulate him and he greeted me with a tirade against another children’s book illustrator in front of everyone else crammed into his dressing room.  He was furious at what the other artist had said about him in The New York Times.  I am not sure why he felt he had to express his outrage to me in particular and in front of all those people.  I was not the other illustrator’s most intimate friend.  Evidently he thought I was.  Maurice continued to stew over the matter and several weeks later he called me up out of the blue to tell me to never, never repeat what he said.
 
Maurice was a connoisseur of illustration and an avaricious collector of original art by artists he admired.  He also envied those he most adored and shamelessly took from them whenever it suited his mood. I was one of the few people he knew who could talk with him about all the obscure illustrators he reveled in.  Awhile back I was offered some unpublished preliminary sketches by Randolph Caldecott for The Queen of Hearts.  I could only afford one so I showed the others to Maurice. “I’m too old to buy anything more,” he moaned.  But he fell in love with a little drawing of the Knave running away with the tarts. He just could not resist it and bought it anyway. 
 
He was also an astute critic, but he was never comfortable with it. He preferred to make art rather than to write about it.  Drawing was a joy.  Writing was a chore.  I tried to encourage him to write his memoirs or at least sketches of the many people he knew throughout his eighty-three years.  He was not in the least bit interested. Writing what he remembered would just bore him, he said.  Yet he never hesitated to talk about them.  We knew many of the same people so I was one of the few people left who could talk with him about many now sadly deceased mutual friends. 
 
Where the Wild Things Are is of course his masterpiece and most enduring work.  But it proved to be a burden as well as a blessing.  In a sense he was always competing with its enormous success.  No matter how many other directions he went into and how far he grew as an artist, everyone wanted another Wild Things.  Once a book was published, he was through with it. He did not go back.  He never wanted to repeat himself.  He was constantly evolving.  He called Wild Things the first in a trilogy that also embraced In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There.  But their artistic connection is dubious.  What they did have in common was that Maurice was working out his therapy through them.  The traumas of his childhood came out as metaphors.  The books are fraught with Freudian symbols. He did produce a sequel of sorts.  He told me he had always wanted to illustrate Ruth Krauss’ Bears, originally published in 1949 with pictures by the long forgotten Phyllis Rowand.  Maurice finally got around to it in 2005 when he invented a new challenge for Max to conquer in one of the most delightful of Sendak’s books in many years.  Then it was almost universally ignored by the reviewers and the public.
 
He was constantly frustrated with his publishers and the children’s book business in general. He finally  took a semi-sabbatical from picture books in the 1970s and early 1980s to design for the stage.  He was appalled by the general lack of care in the writing and illustrating of all the kiddie books then being spoon-fed to little girls and boys.  “Who is out there making a real difference?” he demanded. “Well,” I said clumsily, “there’s Chris van Allsburg and–”  “Who’s out there making a real difference?” he repeated.  He was frustrated with HarperCollins, the successors to his old house Harper & Row, and under the thumb of Rupert Murdoch.  “No one knows me there any more,” he complained.  Of course that was not entirely true, but they did not kowtow to him as had his editors in the old days.  He told me last fall that HarperCollins rejected his latest picture book.  They told him that “it was not for children.”  “Well, what the fuck did they think I’ve been doing the last sixty years!” he fumed.  I tried to assure him that he would have no trouble getting it published elsewhere.  He said he didn’t care.  He told me he had put it aside and immediately started another picture book.
 
I saw him less and less in the last few years because his declining health discouraged him from leaving his beautiful house in Connecticut except on rare occasions.  He was perfectly content just to work at home and to walk his dogs.  Maurice mellowed considerably during that time. I have to admit now that he proved to be exceptionally warm, kind and generous to me.  Of course I could never tell him that!  He would not allow it.  But whenever I asked him about something or to do something, he just did it.  No kvetching, no negotiations, no strings attached.  He just did it. He was a mensch.  After all those years I think he finally realized that I was not there to betray him. Our conversations on the phone usually went on for an hour at least and he always ended by saying, “Goodbye, my friend.”  Goodbye, Maurice.

Michael Patrick Hearn
May 16, 2012

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Michael Patrick Hearn on Maurice Sendak

  1. Pingback: The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

  2. Pingback: What Do Professors Do All Summer? Wednesday

  3. Wonderful post. I wrote a send-off to Maurice myself–how can one resist? : http://www.laneshasays.com/2012/05/16/goodbye-maurice

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