Maurice Sendak's Thin Skin
Why is he still so bent about a few negative words psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1969?
For 20 years or longer, author-illustrator Maurice Sendak has claimed that child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim mercilessly attacked his 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are when it was first published, causing him and the book great damage.
"Wild Things ran into a lot of trouble when it was published,'' Sendak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a Dec. 4, 1989, story. ''It was considered ugly. It was considered far-fetched. It was considered too frightening to children. Bruno Bettelheim denounced the book, which put a damper on it for a long time."
Twelve years later, Sendak was slamming Bettelheim again, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 10, 2001):
When [Where the Wild Things Are] that came out, there were psychologists who said, "This is a bad book. Any mother who sends their child to bed without dinner is a terrible mother." They objected to that, they objected to him being so rude to his mother, they objected to her yelling back at him, they objected to the Wild Things being too scary. They objected to everything. When it was first published it was very novel and different. In fact, a very important psychologist [Bruno Bettelheim] said that. He did take that back later in life. He did me a lot of damage at the beginning. [Brackets in the original.]
Sendak was still seething about Bettelheim in a June 4, 2005, interview with NPR:
Sendak: And that creep—oh, that creep, that psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim ...
NPR: Who ...
Sendak: ... otherwise known by me personally as "Beno Brutalheim," because he wrote a long article on Wild Things, which completely destroyed the book.
NPR: Bruno Bettelheim, when Wild Things came out, said that it might frighten children.
Sendak: [Adopts foreign accent] "Don't leave the book in a room without a light, because the kid might die of a heart attack." No, he didn't say that, but you've got it.
[Soundbite of laughter]
Sendak: Mr. Brutalheim, may he rest in peace.
By force of repetition, the Bettelheim-made-my-life-hell throughline has become a part of Sendak's permanent history. Last weekend, in preview pieces about the Spike Jonze movie based on the book, both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journalpegged Bettelheim, who died in 1990, as an early and influential foe of Wild Things.
But like Max's travels in Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak's version is almost completely imaginary. Bettelheim's criticism came more than five years after Where the Wild Things Are was published, appearing in the March 1969 edition of Ladies' Home Journal, where he answered mothers' child-rearing questions in a monthly column. Furthermore, Bettelheim admitted in his column that he wasn't familiar with the book and that his comments "may be very unfair." (Later, he would confess that he had never opened it.) He judged the book based on descriptions provided by the mothers.
What did Bettelheim say? The offending column, titled "The Care and Feeding of Monsters," is reproduced in Heads On and We Shoot: The Making of Where the Wild Things Are. Bettelheim—who doesn't name Sendak—writes, "What's wrong with the book is that the author was obviously captivated by an adult psychological understanding of how to deal with destructive fantasies in the child. What he failed to understand is the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper, and this by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother."
Bettelheim's assessment was negative, but hardly book-wrecking, especially considering the grand reception the book enjoyed. In March 1964, it received the Caldecott Medal for the best American picture book, the most prestigious prize of its kind. Today, there are 19 million copies of it in print around the world.
Some reviewers did think the book might be too frightening for children. In a Jan. 22, 1966, New Yorker(subscription required) profile of Sendak, Nat Hentoff collects several of the critical responses. "We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight," stated the Journal of Nursery Education. Publishers' Weekly offered a mix of praise and criticism, saying that "the plan and technique of the illustrations are superb. … But they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story." Library Journal's critic wrote, "This is the kind of story that many adults will question and for many reasons, but the child will accept it wisely and without inhibition, as he knows it is written for him."
Perhaps the most insightful review harvested by Hentoff came from the Cleveland Press: "Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared."
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.
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 email@example.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.)
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