Wild Vision­ary: Mau­rice Sendak in Queer Jew­ish Context

Golan Y. Moskowitz

  • Review
By – March 22, 2021

Fierce­ly engag­ing, deft­ly argued, and com­pre­hen­sive­ly researched, this schol­ar­ly study of one of the most prodi­gious­ly suc­cess­ful mod­ern Amer­i­can children’s book authors, Mau­rice Sendak (19282012), looks at his career pri­mar­i­ly through the lens­es of eth­nic­i­ty and sex­u­al­i­ty. Sendak was born in Brook­lyn into a home of Yid­dish-speak­ing immi­grants and spent near­ly all of his adult life in the clos­et. Although he was an athe­ist, this proved no bar­ri­er to Sendak’s reck­on­ing with the lega­cy of Jew­ish cul­ture through his work. Vol­umes like Good Shab­bos, Every­body and Hap­py Hanukah, Every­body pre­ced­ed the mas­ter­pieces that he wrote and illus­trat­ed, such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. But the thor­ough­ness with which Golan Y. Moskowitz explores Sendak’s queer iden­ti­ty, which lent his bound­ary-bust­ing tales their haunt­ing pow­er, marks an inter­pre­ta­tive advance over Sel­ma G. Lanes’ The Art of Mau­rice Sendak (1980). That mag­is­te­r­i­al mono­graph does­n’t address the key part of his life that Sendak kept secret: only his clos­est friends and asso­ciates knew that he was gay.

The the­sis of Wild Vision­ary can be crisply sum­ma­rized: Sendak’s unique artis­tic per­spec­tive was born out of the trau­mas of his sick­ly child­hood. He har­bored ongo­ing fear of the per­ils that might lurk out­side of his home and neigh­bor­hood, and cel­e­brat­ed his bar mitz­vah know­ing that close rel­a­tives were being slaugh­tered in Poland. As he got old­er, he was con­stant­ly aware of his mar­gin­al­i­ty and dif­fer­ence. His work, how­ev­er, did not seek to for­get the emo­tion­al threats that scarred his life. Sendak’s rec­ol­lec­tions of dread and dan­ger instead became the source of a painstak­ing cre­ativ­i­ty that Moskowitz read­i­ly calls illus­tra­tions of genius.” Sendak believed that his fan­tasies must instill truths, rather than con­firm the con­ven­tions of inno­cence, and this think­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way that young peo­ple were under­stood and addressed.

It is worth not­ing that despite the queer Jew­ish con­text” from which he wrote, Sendak still pro­ject­ed his sin­gu­lar vision with­out com­pro­mise, win­ning every imag­in­able hon­or in his field, and becom­ing not only rich and famous but also pop­u­lar and beloved—Where the Wild Things Are now ranks as the fourth most cir­cu­lat­ed book in the ven­er­a­ble his­to­ry of the New York Pub­lic Library. Over­all, how­ev­er, Wild Vision­ary makes a con­vinc­ing case for the way that Sendak man­aged to trans­form his tor­ment into sto­ries that enchant­ed mil­lions of read­ers of all ages.

Discussion Questions