Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak can't stoppositioning himself as Bruno Bettelheim's victim.

Media criticism.
Oct. 15 2009 6:49 PM

Maurice Sendak's Thin Skin

Why is he still so bent about a few negative words psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1969?

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The idea that Sendak was a vulnerable book author in the 1960s is preposterous—even before Wild Things came out, Sendak was considered a national treasure. A May 12, 1963, New York Times (subscription required) profile by art critic Brian O'Doherty called him "One of the most powerful men in the United States" and noted that "his work has been cited eight times in the Times' 11 annual selections of best illustrated children's books." In cultural circles, not to mention home libraries, Sendak outranked the egghead Bettelheim by a factor of 100.

While it is true that Where the Wild Things Are caused a cultural rumpus when it was published, that was precisely Sendak's intention. "I wanted the wild things to be frightening," he said in the 1980 book The Art of Maurice Sendak. His appetite for controversy is clear from the tone and substance of the acceptance speech he gave when he accepted the Caldecott Medal. He drew aim on children's books whose

expurgated vision has no relation to the way real children live. … The popularity of such books is proof of endless pussyfooting about the grim aspects of child life, pussyfooting that attempts to justify itself by reminding us that we must not frighten our children.

He got the fight with the pussyfooters he desired—to complain decades later about the bruised nose that Bettelheim gave him in 1969 is pretty poor form.

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So why does he persist in his Bettelheim complaint? Because as the most important person ever to attack him directly, Bettelheim made a much better foil than a pesky reviewer, a clueless parent, or an uptight librarian. Also, Bettelheim eventually recanted his criticism of the book (according to Sendak); and his most famous book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales(1976), makes a Sendakian case for frightful children's literature. And last, Bettelheim died in 1990, which means he can't talk back.

I'm not such a prig that I would completely deny Sendak the umbrage he so enjoys. His follow-up to Wild Things, 1970's In the Night Kitchen, has been vilified and banned across the country. It's been challenged in schools or libraries by parents or authorities in such places as Camden, N.Y., (1974); Northridge, Ill., (1977); Beloit, Wis., (1985); Champaign, Ill., (1988); Morrisonville, N.Y., (1990); Jacksonville, Fla., (1991); Cornish, Maine, (1991); Elk River, Minn., (1992); and El Paso, Texas, (1994), according to Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds(1998) by Dawn B. Sova, and surely dozens of other places. The book's naked protagonist, Mickey, has suffered the humiliation of having diapers painted onto him again and again by the bowdlerizers.

But once again, Sendak had to know what taboos he was breaking. In a laudatory New York Times Magazine(subscription required) profile published on June 7, 1970, before the book came out, writer Saul Braun got a peek at the unfinished drawings and wrote:

The naked hero, Mickey, wallows in dough, swims in milk and otherwise disports himself in a manner that some might interpret as a masturbatory fantasy. In his new work, Sendak is dealing with the child's sexual feelings, and his exultant tone will doubtless offend those who are unprepared to acknowledge or accept such feelings.

Instead of warring with Bettelheim—or the bluenoses who have savaged In the Night Kitchen—Sendak should curb the grouching and concede that he owes them a minor debt. There is no cheaper way to market your book than to have it banned or pilloried by the right people. How many of us would have heard of Heather Has Two Mommies if the chowder heads hadn't tried to suppress it?

******

Thanks to scholars Amy Sonheim, John Cech, and Nathalie op de Beeck, who stimulated my Sendak thinking but can in no way be blamed for this piece's shortcomings. That said, I'd love to have a scapegoat to blame for all factual and conceptual errors. I'll see if David Plotz can work it into the 2010 Slate budget. If you want to be my paid scapegoat, send résumé and qualifications to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Must be an experienced scapegoat, have horns, and have no problems with being sacrificed. I scapegoat the planet on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Sendak in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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