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A Second Look: Where the Wild Things Are

A second look at Where the Wild Things Are? Forty years after Maurice Sendak’s early mid-career masterpiece first appeared on the fall 1963 Harper list, the suggestion still feels premature. Turning to the book now, the most striking thing about it remains its undatable, fresh-as-paint immediacy. However familiar the Sendak images have long since become, however far afield of their original purpose those images have occasionally migrated, Wild Things has yet to shed its initial fascination as an epic staring match in which the reader gets caught in the crossfire. In the primal logic of the book, seeing and being seen become synonymous with eating and being eaten, loving and being loved, and, as in a sort of Blakeian bargain, all sources of nourishment are revealed as potential sources of annihilation. As has so often been pointed out by now, even the illustrations as they ratchet up and then back down in trim size seem first to devour and then to disgorge the available white space of successive pages. Form becomes content and matter matters. Everything works.

One reason that Where the Wild Things Are feels so fresh today is that in fashioning the illustrations Sendak largely avoided timebound visual references. The aim seems to have been for a book whose impact would be classical, not contemporary. The massive, hooded automobiles and fedora-crowned men of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, for example, connect that book to a particular bygone era, however beguiling it remains as a piece of storytelling. Stylistically, McCloskey’s book just as plainly belongs within the anecdotal realist tradition of artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Norman Rockwell. Similarly, the flat, bright collage illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day look airily “modern” in the postwar, international-style manner of, say, Leo Lionni’s iconic The Family of Man cover design. For that matter, Sendak’s own punched-up, slantwise drawings for Very Far Away (1957) have a distinctively fifties flavor. They are a blast from the same past that gave us the frothy mischief of Hilary Knight’s illustrations for Eloise.

But in Wild Things, Sendak’s style is all his own. The self-assured draftsmanship, aquiver with force fields of elegant crosshatching, is matched by the solid presence of Max himself. Whereas the drifty-dreamy hero of Kenny’s Window (1956) is never going to be a contender, Max already is one, and he carries himself with the authoritative swagger of a defending bantamweight champ. A “private boat” tumbles by for Max precisely because he is going places. By 1963, with five Caldecott Honors under his belt, Sendak was going places, too—including, on weekends, to the Westport, Connecticut, home of his Harper comrades-in-arms Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, the latter of whom proposed rumpus as the word for what by then had emerged as the book’s wordless centerpiece. Connecticut proved to be an inspirational mother lode: the idea for Max’s wolf suit came, in part, from the leopard pajamas worn by the son of another Westport author friend, Doris Orgel. The jungle setting owed something to a nursery mural that an early Sendak mentor, Leonard Weisgard, had painted in the Weisgard family’s home in Roxbury.

None of which has ever had much bearing, of course, on readers’ actual experience of the book. What little we see of Max’s home— a plain wooden banister and staircase in one scene, a plain wooden doorway and child’s bed in another—are no more old-fashioned-looking today than they were in 1963, the heyday of Jetson fun futurism. Sendak’s Wild Things pencil studies, drawn on tracing paper and now at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, show a systematic paring away of scene-setting bric-a-brac. While the very fact that Max has a room of his own suggests a middleclass background or better for the boy, his socioeconomic status recedes from consideration as beside the point. What matters about Max is the look on his face—the gamut of expressions from grimace to grin that his faux-feral wolf suit slyly manages both to undercut and intensify.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see in Max’s flamboyant costume one of several hints of Sendak’s subsequent involvement in the theater. The palm trees of Wild Things Island have the tenuous look of stage flats. Max and his minions mug and strut like actors playing to the last row as they flaunt their terrible teeth, claws, and eyeballs. In terms of the book Sendak was after, the staged look of the art, with its flattened, all but featureless backgrounds, thrusts Max and company into the foreground, which is to say toward us. Wild Things is a happening—how sixties!—but one that keeps happening because the confrontation it sets into motion is as much with the reader as it is between the Wild Things and Max.

Other elements of the art and design also keep the focus on the level of felt experience. As Claire Counihan (art director at Holiday House) has pointed out, Cheltenham Bold, the turn-of-the-century typeface chosen for Wild Things, serves as a “counterpoint of calm” to the illustrations’ “rampant exuberance.” The font makes way for the fireworks. According to Counihan, Cheltenham Bold has much the same appeal for today’s designers as it did for their sixties colleagues. From the reader’s point of view, it quietly underscores the impression of the book as a perennial. Sendak’s finished artwork, also at the Rosenbach, surprises viewers by the softness and lyricism of the watercolor painting, a range of delicate tonal effects that counterbalance the strong, hard feelings the story lays bare. In 1963, much of this subtlety was lost in reproduction, as the camera separation process then in general use was not ideally suited to capturing nuanced gradations of color. By 1988, when Harper published its twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, the technology had leapfrogged forward with the advent of color laser scanning, and readers were indeed granted a second look that came substantially closer to Sendak’s original intention.

But is Wild Things, then, simply and utterly a timeless creation, trailing no trace evidence of its origins in one of recent history’s most tumultuous decades? No, not really. The early 1960s was the cultural moment not just of the Wild Things’ invention but also of New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren’s shaggy-haired kindred characters. It was a time when all sorts of people were shouting “No!” to all sorts of things. As for Wild Things itself, as Claire Counihan has noted, the display type used on the cover for the title and author’s name was selected for its “hot, very sixties” quality, as a signal to the world that here was “something new.” Unlike Cheltenham Bold, the popularity of this type waned with changes in fashion; as it happens, it has been revived lately by designers with a taste for sixties retro.

Looking past this typographic survival from the Age of Aquarius, Where the Wild Things Are, more than any other picture book of the last half century, also reengages the genre in the spirit of its late-nineteenth-century inventor, Randolph Caldecott. Max and the Wild Things galloping across the page are Caldecott’s ebullient John Gilpin and Three Jovial Huntsmen revivified. Max in his wolf suit is a version of Baby Bunting dressed in a “rabbit skin.” As Sendak writes in his essay on the illustrator, Caldecott captures Baby Bunting, looking perplexed as she observes some rabbits on a hillside, in the moment of realization that the “lovely, cuddly, warm costume she’s wrapped up in” once belonged to similar flesh-and-blood creatures now dead. Sendak’s Max of course is not a baby, and he is not so much perplexed as outraged. But the serious feeling for life’s unfairnesses—and ironies—is the same, as is the assumption that the picture book is a worthy art form in which to dramatize them. Happily, salvation for Max lies in a simple act of undivided attention, the “magic trick” of staring his demons down “without blinking once.” After forty years, Wild Things still leaves readers with the tantalizing sense that to lose oneself in the right book might do the trick almost as well.

From the November/December 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Sendak at 75.

Leonard S. Marcus About Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.

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