Maurice Sendak: On Jews, Death, and “The Bulls–t of Innocence”

Maurice Sendak: On Jews, Death, and “The Bulls–t of Innocence”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the author of the classic, sepulchral children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” has something of a potty-mouth. But still it feels like one. Maurice Sendak, the 83-year-old author of “Wild Things, as well as a new children’s book, “Bumble-Ardy,” his umpteenth, gave what is to my mind one of the best interviews I’ve read in a long time. Anywhere.

Speaking with The Guardian from his home in Connecticut, Sendak rattled off a wickedly funny list of insults: on Salman Rushdie, who once panned a children’s book of his in The New York Times, Sendak said: "That flaccid f—-head. He was detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that." Sendak’s thoughts on Stephen King, who may be the only other literary figure who’s sold more books than Sendak himself ( “Wild Things,” published in 1963, has already sold 17 million copies alone): simply, “Bulls—t.” Even George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” which Sendak’s taken up reading in his late years, gets a drudging. “Oy gevalt!” he says, “she put aside her hard hat and was determined to be sweet and understanding. That won’t get you anywhere, honey.”

Admonitions aside, Sendak actually has much more to say, and things that get to the heart of his dark and vulnerable vision. He tells The Guardian that the basis of his children’s books—almost always grim affairs, save the grace of the child’s ability to dream—is his Jewish past. He grew up in Brooklyn, in the 1930s, and both his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. His mother, a feisty woman with a defiant spirit, fled the family home in Poland and came to New York at 16. His father, the son of a respected rabbi, fell in love with her before she left, and went to New York to pursue her.

Of Sendak’s father, he says: "He had prestige and was extremely handsome and devil-may-care. He came here after her and became a drudge. His family was sitting shiva for him back in the old country because he had done this terrible thing, chasing a girl when your father is a rabbi and schlepping all the way to New York."

Many of the ghoulish figures in his books, he adds, are inspired by the depressed and unhappy Jewish immigrants that surrounded him. But then there is the penetrating moments of his childhood that cast particularly long shadows. He tells of the day his father, in the midst of the Holocaust, had heard that all of his family had been killed in Europe. His father found out the day of Sendak’s bar mitzvah, and refused to come to the event. Sendak, not realizing the magnitude of the news his father was bearing, demanded he show up.

When his father stepped through the door, the guests immediately began to sing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Sendak explains what happened next: “My father's face was vivid, livid, and I knew I had done something very bad, that I had made him suffer more than he had to. This 13-year-old ersatz man."

That is why, when the reporter asked Sendak why even his latest children’s book, “Bumble-Ardy,” refuses to end on a happy note, Sendak replies: “I refuse to lie to children," says Sendak. "I refuse to cater to the bulls–t of innocence."

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