The recently-released movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are has been quite a hit. One happy result of the success of the movie is that many people are returning to the original book. A surprisingly cogent essay on Sendak was written in 1980 by Hilton Kramer, before his descent into terminal crankiness. Kramer reviewed Selma Lanes book The Art of Maurice Sendak. Kramer’s review can be found in his book The Revenge of the Philistines.
Among other things, Kramer wrote:
For how can the imagination that produced Kenny’s Window, Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and the Grimm illustrations be penetrated without a frank examination of their psychoanalytical origins?
The great appeal of Mr. Sendak’s work lies precisely in his success in transforming this psychoanalytical vision of experience into fictional fantasies that have something of the quality and mystery of traditional folktakes and fairy stories. His audacity in opening up the traditional children’s story to the terrors, including the sexual terrors, that are disclosed to us in psychotherapy is the very mark of his originality. A criticism that is evasive on this score, even if prompted by the most generous of motives, cannot in the end be anything but incomplete.
When it comes to dealing with the evolution of Mr. Sendak’s illustrational styles, however, Mrs. Lanes is generally on much firmer ground. Another of the many audacities to be found in his work is the way he has moved from emulating traditional models (Blake, Rowlandson, the Victorians, et al.) to using the materials of popular culture, and about this aspect of the work Mrs. Lanes is superb. Anyone who ahs ever wondered about (and been delighted by) the appearance of Oliver Hardy in In the Night Kitchen, or about Mr. Sendak’s use of comic-book styles, Busby Berkeley movies, Art Deco design, and sundry other elements of popular culture, will find a definitive account of these and other such matters in this book….
Missing, too, is any attempt to place Mr. Sendak’s work in the literary history of his time. In some important respects, the writer he often seems closest to is not any other author of children’s books – far from it! – but Philip Roth. Isn’t In the Night Kitchen the Portnoy’s Complaint of children’s books? Both the comedy and the anxiety are very similar, and so is their attitude toward family authority and sexual release. Both books belong to the cultural history of the sexual revolution