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Remembering Maurice Sendak

Remembering Maurice Sendak


Maurice Sendak, My Friend

I dedicated my third novel, Under Radar, "For Maurice Sendak, after a long conversation one August afternoon."  That was in 2000. I'd known Maurice for about five years, since writing a script based on Crockett Johnson's Harold and The Purple Crayon. Maurice controlled the rights. The project didn't get done, but we stayed friends for about ten years. When I was in New York I'd go up to his house in Connecticut for lunch and a walk, and we talked often on the phone. He knew everything there was to know about anything worth knowing in culture, especially Melville, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Tolstoy and the joy of those hours of talk was the privilege of sharing his enthusiasm. He made everyone who knew him smarter. One's brain actually changed after a long talk with him, and what improved would not revert. He was never healthy, often angry, always hilariously obscene.

That August I was writing the novel at a friend's house on a New Hampshire lake, away from my family, and going insane. For the previous three or four years I'd missed no more than a dozen Saturdays in synagogue. The condition was late-onset piety following a few classes in Torah study with good teachers. I'd been raised Reform and while theologically still Reform (Bible a historical compilation, women should be ordained), I'd become liturgically Orthodox with a patchy attention to ritual.  I didn't eat pork. I mixed milk and meat. I sometimes put on tefillin. I sometimes wore the fringed undershirt, tucked in. I belonged to a neo-Hasidic synagogue in New York, and in Los Angeles both a Modern Orthodox and a Conservative Synagogue.

All of this had started before I met Maurice. He was curious about what I was doing, but he worshipped at other altars, where he was a High Priest, and I wouldn't have come to him that Friday if he weren't. Under Radar, like Wild Things, is about a fantasy of violence followed by a sea voyage. It was directly expressing what I understood about Judaism, although coded, at that point, even from me.  

I was on my way from New Hampshire to New York City for a meeting and stopped in Connecticut for lunch. We spent the rest of the day talking about religion and art. He didn't believe in God, but his disbelief wasn't based on some vulgar use of science, pitting it against superstition — this is where Richard Dawkins falls flat, pointing out the contradictions in the Bible as though the sages hadn't figured that out fifteen hundred years ago. Mostly what Maurice talked about was the life of the artist, and the lives of the artists he revered and the life of the artist in response to the universe of art. Maurice was a Melville scholar and quoted a letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne, in the midst of the passionate infatuation that Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, put a stop to:  

Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.

It was the word "unfolded" that I heard Maurice use, a hundred times, to describe the excitement he achieved — that which gave him the strength to continue through a life filled with agony.  He reminded me that Herman Melville, fully unfolded, would end up with a small New York Times obituary that called him Herbert, and with Billy Budd still unpublished.  


Maurice then pointed to Hawthorne's description of Melville, from Hawthorne's journal, dated 12 November 1856:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

At the end of the afternoon he said to me, not as warning but as a statement of fact, not a promise but a diagnosis, in sympathy and fellowship, that the secret of it all was simply, "You're doomed."

On the way back to New Hampshire, I put away the tefillin and haven't put them on since — not that I gave it all up, just the panicked search for "definite belief."  I finished the book, finally understanding the theme as a question: "After you pay your social debt to the world for the damage you've done, what remains that can't be fixed, and what do you do?"


He told me he liked it. I hope he did. It barely sold, it's out of print. Can't complain. Do complain.

Thank you, Maurice.



Intimate Books

Some time back, eighteen years ago now, I had the great good fortune to work with Maurice Sendak.  I was adapting for the screen the wondrous 1940s comic strip, Barnaby, by Crockett Johnson, and Maurice was our producer.

He would come to Los Angeles for meetings.  He did not like it here.  He was convinced that the ducks in the Hotel Bel-Air were trying to bite him.  Once, mid-December, I asked him if he were going to stay in LA through the holidays.  "No," he said.  "I'm going to go back to Connecticut, and pull the covers over my head while the goyim jump up and down."

Maurice told me that the more intimate his books — the more deeply connected to who he was — the better they sold.  It was not a perception that meshed well with the film industry as then constituted.  Our work was happy work, and his encouragement meant the world to me.  The film was never made.

He was the best reader of Melville that I have ever met.  He treasured those books, in particular Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, which spoke to him in many ways.  Maurice's publisher, Harper, had also been Melville's publisher. One year, as a fabulous birthday present, they gave Maurice a document from the archives: the original signed contract for Pierre.  Maurice said that Harper had had no faith that the novel would sell at all, and he characterized the document, perhaps hyperbolically, perhaps not, as the single most humiliating contract in American letters.  Maurice was so damn proud to be in possession of it, but that 1852 insult to Melville was not, to Maurice, a thing of the past.  When he would speak of the contract, he would be — on every occasion — close to tears.

We talked a lot about German Shepherds.  He was a Shepherd guy, so much so that the Monks of New Skete said that, when he felt it time to retire, he could join them.  He never did, but the fact that he could filled him with pleasure.  "You know," he said to me, "I'm on my last dog."



Memories Of Maurice

Maurice Sendak changed things. He changed the way people viewed children's literature and he changed what it meant to make books for children. He achieved what might be every writer's goal: in deeply affecting the lives of so many readers, he changed the world.

It's hard to imagine a time when something as powerful, poignant, and profoundly innocent as Where The Wild Things Are was deemed incendiary, but it was. Maurice Sendak weathered the resulting storms so that the authors and illustrators who followed wouldn't have to. He pursued his craft at all costs. He turned down offers, he refused easy opportunities, and day in, day out he made what he loved because he felt it was important — and it was.

Maurice Sendak believed it was his job, the greater purpose of artists and writers and creators of all disciplines, to make art that could help inspire people.  It was in the execution of this belief, through the stories he told, illustrations he crafted, ideas he explored, and emotions that he shared, that Maurice Sendak changed me too. I am forever grateful. He will be dearly missed!


LARB Contributors

Dallas Clayton is the author of the bestsellers An Awesome Book! and An Awesome Book of Thanks!. He spends his days writing stories, drawing pictures, having big ideas and traveling the world sharing them with people of all ages. 

Michael Tolkin lives in Los Angeles. His daughter skates for the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. He will hold that accomplishment up against anyone who writes for the London Review of Books.

Howard A. Rodman wrote the films Joe Gould’s SecretSavage Grace, and August, and the novels The Great Eastern and Destiny Express. He served as the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.


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