08 May 2012

Through the dark, out of his clothes

Sendak's death has hit me hard, as I'm sure it has for anyone whose childhood was after 1960. Whenever a touchstone figure from our collective childhoods dies, the boundaries between public and private dissolve and our most intimate memories are revealed as shared experience. If you're old enough to remember watching the Muppet Show during its original run you know what I mean. So it is with Sendak: all of us remember being sent to our rooms without any supper, and the forest that grew and grew and grew until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.

And yet, memory is also specific, and Sendak's particular, peculiar role in my childhood was not only as a mirror to my own psychology but as my first bridge to times and places not my own. When I read (or more properly, when my mother read to me) In the Night Kitchen there was a rich strangeness that went far beyond the dream-logic of the plot. There was an odd cadence that I could not place: the strange clipped exclamations in the word balloons. Many years later (when I was ten) I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland in a collection of old comic strips and my head exploded. Theme, plot, an style had been stolen from the 1905 cartoon, but they had also been transformed into something new.

Sendak's world was full of the stuff of his own life as the child of Polish Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, but it was also full of Oliver Hardy and Mickey Mouse and Tin Pan Alley and all of that rattled around in his mind and spilled onto his pages. As child I puzzled over who these strange identical cooks were and why they were intent on baking Mickey and those second- and third-hand memories stuck with me until I was old enough to understand whence they came.

So to Mr. Sendak, my thanks for the following lessons: The world is a very big place and very old. The past is still with us and will always be. Nostalgia isn't only for your own memories.

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