Just as Sendak inverts a stereotypical association of white with youthful ingenuousness, Max inverts the expectations of many a children’s morality tale, for he is allowed to be wild.
This is a column by Gabrielle Bellot about books, the body, memory, and more.
FantasiaLittle Nemo in Slumberland
Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are explores some of the complexities of what it means to be “wild,” as well as what it means to grow up. When Max is caught by his mother causing ruckus around the house—including chasing a dog with a fork—she calls him a “WILD THING!” and he responds, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” He is sent to his room without a meal, where he glowers, alone, with a bright full moon outside his window. In his room, while he paces, eyes closed,
a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.
The lines are simple yet poetic, almost entrancing. Time and space stretch away, and Max leaves his boring bedroom for an island of gigantic, sharp-toothed beings with mismatched limbs. When he refuses to be scared by their claws and fangs and instead stares them in the eye as their equal, they back down, surprised, and declare him their king. Max then proclaims that it’s time for a “wild rumpus,” in which he and the monstrous things have fun like corybantic children.
After the wild things—including Max—have had their rumpus, Max sends them to sleep without a meal, echoing the command of his mother’s that led him to the wild ones in the first place. Max wants to feel in control, like his own mother, so he punishes that which is wild. But then he becomes “lonely,” and wants “to be where someone loved him best of all.” The wild ones are his subjects, his playmates, but their love is different from that of his family, and he needs more. He misses his mum, his home. For all its raw freedom and beauty, the wild isn’t enough for him, so he decides to leave, abdicating his throne as “king of where the wild things are.”
The wild things chase Max, begging him to stay. “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” they yell, with “terrible roars” and the gnashing of “terrible teeth.” Just as Max had said he would eat up his mother, the wild things—who Max had treated like his children by sending them to bed—wish to devour him out of love. But Max sails away back home, returning to “the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” Here is a different, softer night: one where Max, in the final image, begins to pull off his wolf costume, begins to shed his wildness. He is still a wild thing, but he has learnt that being a king of rambunctious revelry isn’t all there is to life.
That the wild things threaten to consume Max is no coincidence; Sendak’s works often featured the idea of children being consumed, often bound up with images of affection. In Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, for instance, a little boy—the eponymous Pierre—refuses to do what his parents say, obnoxiously replying “I don’t care” to all of their questions and demands. After his exasperated parents leave home, a lion comes in and asks if he may devour Pierre; after answering “I don’t care,” Pierre is consumed. When the parents return and find the lion, they take the lion to the doctor and force him to spit Pierre out, and the feline offers to take the boy home. For the first time, Pierre is delighted and says that he “cares” to ride the lion. “Care,” reads the story’s final sentence as its moral. Here, wildness finds and literally takes in a young boy once again, but that wildness can be trusted and can even be kind—and it becomes acceptable when that boy grows up a little, learning, like Max, to be a bit more than wild.
And, like Max, many of Sendak’s protagonists sought adventures, sometimes quests that changed them. Mickey, the young protagonist of In The Night Kitchen, dreams of taking a rollicking trip into a baroque version of an American city, where he eventually flies off in a plane made from bread dough, flanked by mustachioed bakers who, with their giant statures, echo the bizarre proportions of things in Henri Rousseau’s paintings; as in Little Nemo in Slumberland, the main character begins and ends in bed, with a dreamlike quest in-between. In Higgelty Piggelty Pop!, composed as a “deeply personal” tribute to Sendak’s dead dog, a Sealyham terrier named Jennie feels bored and “discontented” because she has everything she wants at her home; she believes that “[t]here must be more to life than having everything!” Seeking something new, she leaves her home and sets off into an unfamiliar world. Like Max, she learns more about what she wants through her journey: Max realizes that he wants to return home when he has everything he thought he wanted by being the king; Jennie learns that she doesn’t wish to return home. Adventures, for Sendak, were our instructors.
In Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful classic, The Little Prince, the protagonist laments that adults rarely see beyond the surface of things. They see what things most immediately are, not what they could be. The same is true in Where the Wild Things Are: Max sees the tensions of the world in a curiously prescient way, able to realize that he wants to be wild and to rule over a world, but realizing, too, that wild abandon and power only give us limited amounts of joy. Sometimes, he learns, you need to return home, even if that home isn’t perfect, because it’s what you need in the moment, because you can’t be wild forever. Max is still a child—this is no bildungsroman—but he has grown up more than many an adult in the span of a few pages.
Sendak’s nuanced view of childhood was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in a remarkable comic that Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, drew in 1993 in collaboration with Sendak for The New Yorker, which purportedly depicted a conversation the two once had in a Connecticut forest. “You can’t protect kids . . . They know everything!” Sendak declares in the comic when Spiegelman says that he wants to be able to shield kids from certain things, like reading Maus too early in life. “People say, ‘Oh, Mr. Sendak. I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!’ As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!” His face morphs, alarmingly, into the devilish grin of a gargoyle. (The adult Sendak made such monstrous faces often, largely for laughs.) “In reality,” he finishes, more soberly, “childhood is deep and rich . . . I remember my own childhood vividly . . . I knew terrible things . . . but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew . . . it would scare them.”
Adventures, for Sendak, were our instructors.
This was how Sendak imagined the trilogy of which Where the Wild Things Are was the second story, bookended by In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. The latter, with echoes of Cristina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market” and Yeats’s “A Stolen Child,” features a child abducted by goblins. The book, however, was based on a real event: the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932, in which a baby was stolen from the home of a high-profile American pilot. Lindbergh’s baby fell as it was being abducted, however, and died immediately. The incident made national headlines and horrified a young Sendak. “My obsession with death,” he said in the 2009 documentary, “comes from the Lindbergh baby . . . the idea that you could die as a child.” That knowledge haunted him. Fittingly, Sendak claimed the books of the trilogy were “all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings—danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”
Sendak himself struggled with his reality, in part because, even as an adult, he found himself wanting to please his parents, including by hiding his queerness from them. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in 2008. “They never, never, never knew.” When he was growing up, “the world was extremely unwelcoming” to gay artists, he said in the 2009 documentary, describing his queerness as another source of his “isolation.” He feared, as many queer artists of the postwar era did, that being outed as gay would “ruin [his] career,” and “beat himself up” about being queer for decades. The wild rumpus of Sendak’s own life was a confined fête, presented, symbolically, in his many stories and to those he trusted—including the loving partner he lived with for five decades, Eugene Glynn, until Glynn’s death in 2007—but hidden away from the people he didn’t wish to hurt by revealing who he truly was.
It’s difficult not to be entranced by Where the Wild Things Are. Revolutionary when it was published and still softly subversive today, it is a story I love reading over and over, wondering what else it might be trying to tell us. Perhaps Sendak himself was that old Angel of Death, coming not to take the lives of other children, but to enrich those lives, instead, by taking away something else: the naïve idea that childhood must be a time of radical purity, when, as he knew well, childhood could encompass those Blakean contraries—innocence and the experience of the terrible—all at once.
Let a little wildness in, Sendak seems to be saying, and it might teach you something.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.