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Maurice Sendak and Melville

May 8, 2012

We have talked about Maurice Sendak here and here (the latter in which he said about e-books: “F*** them is what I say, I hate those e-books.  They cannot be the future – they may well be – I will be dead, I won’t give a s***.”)  Well, this morning, Sendak did die, at the age of 83.  His story was a type of rags-to-riches story – he grew up Jewish, gay, poor, and managed to become a major cultural influence in society.

If you look at the acknowledgements of the 2nd edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (the 150th anniversary edition edited by Herschel Parker and Harrison Hayford) you’ll find Sendack’s name listed in the acknowledgements:

Maurice Sendak responded with heartening ferocity to tidbits (as Moby-Dick spells it) of biographical information that ended up in footnotes here.

(Cormac McCarthy’s name is also mentioned in the acknowledgments, but that is a topic for another post.)

Maurice Sendak, Melville scholar?  Yes – Sendak devoted himself to a study of Melville.  From an interview with Bill Moyers:

MOYERS: How do you calm your own demons? How do you find a separate peace in a world that’s so full of scary things?

SENDAK: I don’t know. I read. Like coming here today, I was anxious about this. Would I be all right? And I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better.

Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain.

I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal.

I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.

MOYERS: Tony Kushner, your friend and collaborator, says you have a mind darkened by both fatalism and faith.

SENDAK: Faith?

MOYERS: Faith.

SENDAK: Well, okay.

MOYERS: You agree with him? He knows you.

SENDAK: Yeah, he knows me almost too well. Fatalism, yes. Yes. Having lived through the wars in Europe and having lost so many people in my family when I was a child. I didn’t even know them. Faith? Total faith in art. Total faith in art.

MOYERS: In art?

SENDAK: Herman Melville is a god.

MOYERS: Because?

SENDAK: Because I cherish what he did. He was a genius.

MOYERS: What did he do?

SENDAK: Wrote Moby-Dick. Wrote Pierre. Wrote The Confidence Man, wrote Billy Budd. And when I step into the…

MOYERS: Billy Budd, innocent, faith in the power of innocence.

SENDAK: Oh, yes. Look at him.

MOYERS: Billy Budd, the eternal child.

SENDAK: Scares the bejesus out of people and makes them hate him. Because he’s so good. Claggart has him killed in that book. Claggart has his eye on that boy. He will not tolerant such goodness, such blondeness, such blue eye. Goodness is scary.

Here is an Sendack interview with Hank Nuwer:

The artist seems irritable and phlegmatic at first meeting, no doubt a reaction to finding his workspace invaded by an interviewer. Later, hunched over a drawing board, however, he arms noticeably when conversation embraces literary and artistic concerns.  He proves a more than cordial host ultimately; dispensing personal insights and philosophies the way other might serve refreshments.[…]

NUWER: Do you believe in heroes?

SENDAK: Yeah. Not many. The order of their priority is Mozart, Kleist, Melville. They’re the core group. Mozart and Kleist are both so diametrically opposed, and, yet, I know what links them together. Kleist stands for total destruction, this great big desperate need to find out why there’s a reason for living, and then, NOT to find it. He collapsed under it. The work is all a hysterical plea. It’s all so wonderful and touching, but he never succeeds. All of Kleist’s work is there as imbalance in Nature, but in Mozart, there is the most quintessential perfect balance. There is suffering and everything you expect a grown man would have experienced in life, and, yet, in a way no other creature has done it. They are the pluses and minuses in my personal algebra.

NUWER: And Melville?

SENDAK: Melville is somehow more on the side of Kleist. He is a more comprehensible Kleist, a readable Kleist, a more lovable Kleist. In a way it’s simplistic to say so, but Mozart and Kleist represent to sides of my own life. […]

NUWER: Do you owe much to any particular philosopher?

SENDAK: No, I can’t take anything in a book that isn’t by a fictional writer. If it’s by a philosopher, I reject it outhand. If it’s by Melville I’ll buy it. It’s got to be that kind of artist who teaches me. I can’t be taught by a Schopenhauer or a Kant. I can’t. Don’t ask me why. I just can’t. I can’t read things like that. But I trust artists. I don’t trust philosophers. Of course, anyone could say, “But what a mistake you’re making. They happen to be artists, too.’ Possibly. Maybe they’re just too hard to read and boring.

NUWER: When did you start reading Melville?

SENDAK: In my twenties. I started with Moby-Dick for all the obvious reasons. I thought it was a great classic to read. And in fact it really hit an imaginary chord at that stage in my life. And when I fall in love with a writer, I have to read everything. And then I went through, for a long period of years, all of Melville. I’ve since gone through them again, and I love all of them. And the only one that has stumped me is Mardi. I just did volume one. And I did that one only about four years ago. I could not make myself go on to the next one. I couldn’t stand it any more.

NUWER: I couldn’t stand The Confidence Man.

SENDAK: Oh, The Confidence Man was wonderful. I loved that!

NUWER: I read that at age twenty.

SENDAK: Too young. Too young. It’s way too young.

NUWER: Do you remember, in Moby-Dick, the character Bulkington?

SENDAK: Oh, of course. Of course. Brave, good Bulkington.

NUWER: Do you think he was a mistake?


NUWER: —I do. I think Melville might have gotten rid of him because Bulkington wouldn’t have backed down the way Starbuck did.

SENDAK: He does get rid of him a completely arbitrary way, doesn’t he? “The Lee Shore.” That’s such a chapter, isn’t it? Wow! “The Lee Shore.”

NUWER: “O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of the ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

SENDAK: Yes. That’s the end of him. Well, from a technical point of view, it’s an error. But then there are no errors in that book. There just ain’t none. I mean he [Bulkington] was just there for that. If only because he had to do “The Lee Shore,” and that’s all it was worth…listen, I’m too in love with that book to be critical. I can’t worry about whether Bulkington made sense or not. I would have died without Bulkington. And Bulkington was one of his typical male fantasy heroes. Melville is full of men like Jack Chase—superman, heroes. He loved male imagery like that. It’s very peculiar.

NUWER: That might account for Melville’s falling out with Hawthorne.

SENDAK: Well, so much has been made of whether what we’re talking about is repressed homosexuality that reappears over and over and over again in Melville. And maybe that’s so. It really makes no difference particularly. I think it only makes a difference if we infer anything like that in the relationship with Hawthorne. And I don’t think you can. The nineteenth century thing was so different from the twentieth century.

NUWER: Melville strikes me as a man’s man. I think it was just pure friendship with Hawthorne.

SENDAK: It’s really hard to know. Impossible to know. Do you remember that strange chapter in Melville of touching hands in the sperm? That is so bizarre.

NUWER: Touching in the ambergris, yes. Also there’s the bed incident where the harpooner Queequeq drapes his leg over Ishmael as if they were married.

SENDAK: There is an awful lot of that. It’s just that one is tempted not to think so because everyone so quickly does it. Buy, you know, when you think of Melville’s career—and Melville was an extremely successful writer, up until his masterpiece, Moby-Dick—it was not a successful book. But nevertheless, everything that made him a genius went into Moby-Dick. Everything. Typee. Redburn. Omoo. All of them are sketches for Moby-Dick. Then he does Moby-Dick, and you know that he achieved a kind of immense balance and comprehension that is awesome in that book. But then the thing that scares me is that Pierre, the book that come right after that, is—yes, it’s a motionless book, but it’s a great and ingenious work of art. But that’s beside the point. I’m not sitting here as a critic of Melville…but he lost the balance. People say the book is a vindictive diatribe against all his critics. B***s***! He might have been mad and hurt—He must have been mad and hurt. But he wouldn’t have spent that much time on a book being just mad and hurt. He lost something vital. And Pierre is to me all about having lost. How did he lose it? That scares me.

NUWER: Right around that time he was looking to Hawthorne for inspiration. Hawthorne totally rejected his work. And I think that did have some awful effect on Melville.

SENDAK: Of course it had an effect. It’s the reason I hate Hawthorne with all my heart. I’ll never forgive Hawthorne for Herman. It’s alike…I’ll take that up with him someday. I’ll never forgive him for having so misunderstood. Mrs. Hawthorne understood better. Her journals have intuitive little things about what this poor man needed from her husband and how incapable her husband was of giving. I mean, you can’t blame Hawthorne for being incapable. That’s silly. But it’s true. But I still can’t believe that was enough to do it. That Herman Melville could have constructed everything—his whole balance of life—on this man. And that the withdrawal of that man, however cold and abrupt he was, could have meant this…maybe it did. Maybe I just am afraid to think it was that. I’m afraid. And why am I afraid? Because I identify. I go back to what I just said that between Moby-Dick and Pierre he lost everything. And that’s how quickly we can all lose everything.

I am profoundly encouraged by the Maurice Sendak – a man born on the the margins who grew up to be a cultural phenomenon.  And I am encouraged that while he grew up, he remained an amateur Melville scholar, whose comments and views informed the major annotated teaching edition of Moby-Dick today.  What a life well lived!

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 1:19 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. Sendak was one of my personal heroes.

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