Maurice Sendak's Sexuality

by Ellen Handler Spitz | February 21, 2013

Maurice Sendak, the much beloved children’s author and artist who died last year at the age of 83, hoped, according to his devoted friend Tony Kushner, that My Brother's Book, posthumously published this month, would be his masterpiece. Unfortunately, it is not. It is a 32-page, topsy-turvy narrative told in labored blank verse, with 13 watercolor, pencil, and ink illustrations derived from the work of other artists.1

Unintelligible as a story, mostly unoriginal as art, emotionally distant (we never get close enough to its characters to care deeply for them), My Brother's Book, one could argue, might well have been kept private as an archival document instead of being marketed to a mass audience of fans as a collector’s item.

And yet, despite the author’s unrealistically grandiose hopes for the book and the fact that it cannot be seen as his culminating work, its publication may send us back to Sendak's other work with new critical insights. This small book should remind us that Sendak studies have neglected a crucial element of his work: his sexuality.

Maurice Sendak, as is now widely known, was a gay man who, for more than half a century lived with his partner, the psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn. While numerous studies have addressed the influence of Sendak’s Jewishness and other aspects of his private life on his work, few have addressed his homosexuality, which seems to me an equally important factor, especially because for most of his life it had to be kept hidden. This omission may have stemmed from a desire to protect the author’s privacy, or it may have simply been in keeping with longstanding (but now changing) mores. Just as the homosexuality of Benjamin Britten was not discussed in relation to his operas until after his death in 1976, Sendak’s work, including this book, should now be considered in a new light.

My Brother’s Book is set in an oneiric landscape simultaneously lush and frigid, earthbound and celestial, featuring trees, stars, planetary forms, and icicles. Two scantily clad, occasionally nude characters called Jack and Guy, who are identified as brothers and love each other passionately, suffer a violent cosmic upheaval on page one.2 During the course of the story they apparently die; the first is frozen in ice, and the second is swallowed by a polar bear. The bear, failing to answer a riddle, morphs into a constellation of stars after performing his brutal act. Reunited in a warren of green, spaghetti-like vegetation, Guy bites Jack's nose, and the story ends abruptly with the two figures sleeping in each other's arms and dreaming of one another.

Although My Brother's Book is ostensibly an elegy for Sendak's brother Jack, who died in 1995, Guy may well represent Glynn as well, who died in 2007.3 Jack and Guy seem to love each other with an overweening passion. We see them nude or draped in gossamer cloths but minus clearly identifiable male genitalia. When I showed pages of My Brother's Book to people and asked them whether they thought the figures were male or female, each person took some time deciding. Showing the closeness of brothers without showing their genitals pushes away the issue of sexuality; had Sendak drawn the two male figures with all their parts, he might have stimulated thoughts and feelings that exceed the bounds of brotherly love.

Sendak disliked being known exclusively as a children's book illustrator.

The loneliness and occasional anger of Sendak's protagonists may be another element of his work that suggests the as yet unexamined influence of his sexuality. Is it possible that the isolation and belligerence of Sendak’s characters may have been fueled by some of his own aggression toward a world that could not accept him as he was? There is Pierre from The Nutshell Library, rebellious and eaten by a lion; Max from Where the Wild Things Are, destructive, banished, and resentful; angry Mickey from In the Night Kitchen, baked in the oven; Ida's baby sister from Outside Over There, kidnapped by goblins. In My Brother's Book, aggression emerges when an enormous polar bear reminiscent of Sendak's wild things both hugs and threatens Guy and begins to eat him "bite by bite." Even the title of this latest work contains shades of latent violence: After “My Brother’s” comes the instant association "Keeper," covertly summoning Cain and Abel. In Sendak, however, primal fraternal hostility is displaced from the relationship itself on to cosmic forces and animal savagery.

Eerily, by means of an oblique classical reference, the homoerotic theme and aggression come together in Sendak’s last work. The devouring bear transforms itself into stars and assumes the form of the constellation Ursa Major. Ursa Major, so the myth goes, was created when Jupiter (in the form of Diana) rapes a chaste nymph named Callisto. Juno, to punish her husband Jupiter, turns Callisto into a bear; taking pity, Jupiter then wrings another change, turning the bear into Ursa Major. Throughout centuries, painters have used this story to titillate, showing one "woman" making love to another woman.

Sendak’s works have by now sold nearly thirty million copies and been translated into numerous foreign languages. But—as was pointed out recently by both Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal and Dwight Garner in The New York Times—he disliked being known exclusively as a children's book illustrator. He strove to propagandize the counterintuitive notion that art and literature for children count as much as that created for adults, but he never convinced himself. He struck out, with uneven results, in a number of related directions: criticism and history, children's theater, opera, family memoir. He produced increasingly eccentric hybrid illustrated works, which, while nominally formatted for children, brim with odd allusions and conundrums, such as his illustrations for Dear Mili and Brundibar, among others.4

Sendak, however, belongs now to the ages precisely because of his justly deserved permanent niche in the annals of American children’s literature. As such, he changed the course of its history. His Where the Wild Things Are is a visually innovative foray into forbidden psychic space that, in 1963, struck a mortal blow to extant taboos: It unearthed dark recesses in children's hearts that had heretofore been denied representation in picture books. With this masterpiece, Sendak opened the gates for waves of followers. Persistent nineteenth-century templates gave way. Latter incarnations of Kate Greenaway’s creamy pastel pretties mincing in tidy gardens surrendered to Sendak’s squat, big-footed protagonists with their linear grins or sad expressions.

My Brother’s Book offers us a chance to return to Sendak's prodigious body of complex, fascinating, sometimes troubling work and reexamine it through lenses that have not yet been tried. When an artist's sexuality, or indeed any other core aspect of his identity, is denied public acceptance and affirmation, that denial cannot but find its way into his work. In a time of growing tolerance, we may anticipate a reconsideration spearheaded by this final work, the one in which Maurice Sendak says his farewell to a life that was not always kind to him. 

Ellen Handler Spitz is Honors College Professor at the University of Maryland (UMBC). Her most recent book is Illuminating Childhood.

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