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Reviewed by:
  • Conversations with Maurice Sendak by Peter C. Kunze
  • Kevin Cooley (bio)
Peter C. Kunze. Conversations with Maurice Sendak. UP of Mississippi, 2017.

Conservations with Maurice Sendak showcases a spectrum of Sendaks. Editor Peter C. Kunze tells us the collection of twelve interviews with the legendary illustrator and writer were chosen because they "illustrate Sendak's changing ideas about children's literature, illustration, and his own artistic identity" (x). And yet, it is just as true that these interviews examine changing cultural perspectives on Sendak as much as they capture Sendak's changing perspectives. Muriel Harris, for example, paints a sanitized artist carrying the torch of the Renaissance tradition in '79, while Hank Nuwer hosts the "irritable [End Page 244] and phlegmatic" illustrator in '84, and, at the volume's end, Terry Gross's 2011 interview engages a melancholy maverick in his twilight years. Kunze's collection spans from the publication of Where the Wild Things Are to the elderly Sendak's grappling with death. Kunze's arrangement of Sendak's thoughts demonstrate that the prodigious creator did not see his writing as prescriptive of the social ills that children face. Sendak insists that he is "not a humanitarian or a social worker," and he subsequently describes his writing as an "act of exorcism" that motivates him so that he might "function in the world as a human being" (101–2).

Throughout the volume, Kunze treats us to a performative embodiment of this desire of Sendak's to exorcise and not exhort. Sendak eviscerates a critic fretting over her daughter's vulnerability to Sendak's edgy work ("Well, who cares about little Myra? . . . I wish her ill!"), he reflects wryly on his emotionally loaded relationship with Ruth Krauss ("She taught me how to say 'fuck you'"), and he admonishes the children's book establishment for their "endless pussyfooting about the grim aspects of child life" (110–11, 133, 17). These moments accent just how sharp the polemical edge of Sendak's career is, and they illuminate his corpus's reimagining of childhood.

Just as insightful as Sendak's edifications on his life are those bountiful moments where he obscures, avoids, and contradicts himself. Sometimes he plays with questions like toys. When Virginia Haviland fishes for a psychoanalytic reading of Sendak's recurring use of eating and regurgitating, he tells her "I liked to bite into my first books" and offers a long response that amounts to "I have the mind of a child, I think that's very funny" (25). He avoids inquiry altogether on other occasions. "I noticed you have the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Institute," asks Steven Heller in 1986—a question that contemporary readers will immediately associate with Sendak's psychoanalyst partner, Eugene Glynn. "Those aren't my books," Sendak states, "but yes, I was in psychoanalysis at a very early age" (101).

No conversation, however, enlightens our understanding of Sendak's life with the emotional and critical gravity of Philip Nel's interview "Don't assume anything." The previously unpublished piece is in the unique position of enacting history at the same time it is recording it. Ruth Krauss is both the subject of Nel's biography Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012, UP of Mississippi) and a mentor of Sendak's: the conversation is as personal as it is professional. Sendak laments that "something collapsed" in his relationship with Krauss and her husband, Crockett Johnson, and he fears the couple, who he calls "the parents I wanted," grew apathetic toward him (117, 141). As Krauss' biographer, Nel is able to inform Sendak that she kept every card Sendak wrote to her. He tells Sendak that, two months after the publication of We're All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, a picturebook about impoverished [End Page 245] orphans, Krauss left her estate to a charity for homeless children. Sendak responds "my hair is standing on end," and the conversation intensifies to the point where the two men question whether it is appropriate to continue (129). "I can't talk now," Sendak says, "I've touched all the feelings. I can't . . ."

Language constantly tests its boundaries in the piece, and it continues...


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pp. 244-248
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