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Maurice Sendak’s Papers: Thoughts On An Artist’s Legacy

Maurice Sendak’s Papers: Thoughts On An Artist’s Legacy

Maurice Sendak, the beloved and celebrated maker of children’s books, was much more than "Where the Wild Things Are." At his death in 2012, more than 10, 200 pieces of his work – drawings, watercolors, manuscripts, proof copies and more – resided at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. The museum had hoped that this situation, which let them stage no fewer than 72 Sendak exhibitions since 1970, would continue. However, Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently broke the news that not only did Sendak leave the materials to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, but the foundation’s trustees have asked for their return to Sendak’s Ridgefield, Connecticut home, set to become a museum of sorts itself.

That move begins in October and may continue through the winter. While they are losing one of their great treasure troves, Sendak’s will is also extremely generous to the Rosenbach: they are the recipients of his rare book collections, as well as $2 million in addition to the $1 million he had already given.

As Dobrin’s article explains (and as any visitor to the Rosenbach knows), Sendak had a very special relationship with the museum, formerly the residence of the great Philadelphia bookseller, A.S.W. Rosenbach. As a young man, Sendak was sent to the Rosenbach to see books by William Blake, Melville, Henry James, and James Joyce – writers whom he would later collect. While the museum is now accessible only by guided tour, when Sendak began to visit in 1966, Rosenbach was only 14 years dead, and the museum was, as the director Derick Dreher said, “a quirky place.” Sendak was allowed to nap on the beds and received “unparalleled access to a collection that interested him tremendously.” Dreher went on, “He was essentially a 19th-century man born in the wrong century. He loved Brahms, Schubert, Melville. All that was manifested in the collection, and he was enchanted.”

The response reported from the Rosenbach staff is dismayed though appreciative and polite. Present-day museum-goers and curators, steeped in the credo of enabling as much access to rare materials as safely possible, may well share that dismay, as it will certainly be harder to see the materials in Ridgefield. The last lines of Dobrin’s article add another fillip, telling us that Sendak’s will ordered the destruction of his diaries, journals, and correspondence, a task that presumably has been carried out.

In this, as well as his artistic tastes, Sendak show himself a man of the 19th century. In the days of our great-grandparents, at least in the United States and England, personal papers were customarily burnt after a person’s death. While there were many exceptions, nonetheless, personal privacy had in those days a wider reach and sharper teeth, and Sendak clearly wanted his to remain intact.

For Jews, the imperative to remember, and by implication, to preserve traces of the past, is written into our religion. Sendak had every reason to know this, and as a member of a family who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, he would surely have thought about it. It is hard not to feel the loss of those papers for scholars and biographers; long embargoes, such as the hundred-year wait Mark Twain imposed on his papers, would preserve the privacy of those involved without permanent loss.

Nonetheless, the papers were Sendak’s to do with as he wished. Despite the intimate, no-secrets-untold view of artists that’s often presented as biographical truth, their work really is the point. When Sendak wanted to be personal he was perfectly able. His last work, the posthumously published “My Brother’s Book,” for instance is a deeply personal blend of Blake, Shakespeare, and his own past work, evoking an afterlife both eerie and dreamy: “In February it will be / my snowghost’s anniversary…” This legacy is not to be found in his journals, nor even in the wonderful mass of artifacts and papers that do remain, whether in Philadelphia or Ridgefield, Connecticut, but is available on the shelves of any library.

Liz Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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