Max as Migrant

Tomorrow, the highly-anticipated big-screen collaboration between Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, the feature film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, opens in theaters across the country. Your correspondent has been eagerly awaiting the live action rumpus since the Arcade Fire-soundtracked trailer hit the web back in April, and now that the big day is nearly here, I thought I’d call on Press author Seth Lerer to see what he made of Max in the mutiplex. Lerer, the National Book Critics Circle award-winning author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, offers here his thoughts on Sendak, Jewish literary tradition, Kafka, immigration and much, much more.

The year Where the Wild Things Are came out, I turned eight. In the long afternoons between the end of school and dinner, I would kill time along the quiet Brooklyn street on which we lived. Sometimes, I would find a stickball game, and in the waning light my friends and I would hit the ball and run between the cars. One day I hit it into our landlord’s window, and his wife came out—a woman probably no older than I am now, but at the time, someone who seemed so ancient that she had a tail—shaking her fist and calling me a “Vilde chaya.”

I had forgotten—or repressed—this little memory, until I thought about the new film of Where the Wild Things Are. “I was never the kind of kid to play stickball,” Sendak confessed in one recent interview, and in another, he remarked that all the characters in Where the Wild Things Are were modeled on his relatives. Nobody I remember seemed to make much of Sendak, then, as a particularly Jewish writer, and his illustrations for Little Bear, together with Where the Wild Things Are, and the somewhat later In the Night Kitchen, were received with a blend of admiration for his technical skill and vivid color-work and some anxiety (if not downright rejection) of the controversial quality of the books. Sendak’s imagination largely seemed to trace itself back to the fairy tales of central Europe: to the archetypes of monsters, forests, ships, and seas. Even in my own scholarship, I managed to avoid engagement with his Jewish heritage. My Children’s Literature book argued for the place of Where the Wild Things Are along a trajectory of seagoing adventure tales reaching back to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Max’s small boat stands, I suggested, much like Crusoe’s own self-built canoe, and the monsters of Max’s journey evoked the cannibal fears of Defoe’s imagination.
Spending even the briefest time, however, with recent work on Sendak, I cannot get away from Judaism. Even Where the Wild Things Are gets its title from Max’s mother, exasperated by his playful stomping in his wolf suit, calling him a “wild thing.” In recent years, Sendak himself has become open about both his cultural and sexual identity, speaking freely about the memories that generated many of his works. The strangely cannibal wild things, together with the equally grim mustachioed bakers In the Night Kitchen, have had their Holocaust resonances exposed. Max’s mom becomes, in these personal reflections, more a Brooklyn Jewish mother than a woman out of the Grimm Brothers. Little Rosie, too, strides along streets now deeply redolent of Yiddishkeit and yearning. And his illustrations for the Grimm’s fairy tale, Dear Milli have been understood as shot through with post-Holocaust anxiety. The German forest of that tale has morphed, for modern readers, out of that old fairyland dark wood into a place of massacre: Katyn, or Sobibor, or the deutsche Wald of Nazi ideology.
But more allusive and more fascinating than any specific post-Holocaust resonances are Sendak’s evocations of that literary master of pre-Holocaust Jewish alienation, Franz Kafka. Both Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are tales of metamorphosis. Compare the opening images of these books with the now-famous opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible kind of vermin … What has happened to me? He thought. It was no dream.” Like Kafka, Sendak remains fascinated with the tensions between the dire and the domestic. He sees the horrific in the everyday, the insect in the bureaucrat. He recognizes, too, like Kafka, that growing up always brings moments of rude awakening. What has happened to me?—the question asked by adolescents since antiquity.
In an interview published over thirty-five years ago, Sendak reported that he was compelled by fantasies and dreams and that he was drawn to the “strange, eerie works of Kafka.” There is, of course, something quite simply Kafkaesque about Sendak, and in these two famous works Sendak takes the opening moment of The Metamorphosis and transforms it into fairy tale. Or, to put it another way, coming to Kafka after reading Sendak makes us realize that, in many ways, Kafka is something of a children’s writer: where his heroes remain arrested in their development, still living with their parents, still sleeping in the rooms in which they grew up.
Both Kafka and Sendak are sensitive, as well, to the long-standing iconography of Jewish difference. Ever since the Middle Ages, Jews have been depicted as physically grotesque. By the nineteenth-century, the Jewish male lived in the caricatures of the stage and shtetl. Jewish progressives and assimilationists of the early twentieth century rejected this stereotype, though not without invoking it. The Yiddish writer Moyshe Litvaker remembered, with distaste, the “shtetl alleys, [with] hunchbacked, herringy residents, green Jews, uncles, aunts, with their questions: ‘Thank God, you grew up, got big.'” Perhaps the great fear of the modern, urban Jew was to be found out in this way: to have the smells and accents of the old world break through the veneer of the new; to wake up one day and find that—in spite of having a respectable job—one really was a horrible and unearthly monster. Sendak taps into something of this collective social memory of what was left behind—as if the wild things were really what we were all out to escape, as if sweet American apartments were the refuge from the alleyways and “green Jews” of the ghetto.
Max, then, is something of an immigrant of the imagination. He takes his boat, not to America, but to the wilderness. And yet, it is a charming wilderness—in some sense, a wilderness domesticated by nostalgia. If I go to the movie, I will look for all the things that matter to me here. But what I’ll also look for is how Sendak shows us all, regardless of our origin, both who we are and what we can become, both where we live and where we can escape. His is a fascination with the wilderness of the interior self, and with the recognition that to be a modern human being—Jew or not—is to seek solace in a bedtime story, only to fear that in the morning you will wake an insect.