Maurice Sendak, 83, who became one of the 20th century's great children's book authors by recognizing in his young reader an often under-estimated sophistication for appreciating the joy and messiness of being human, died Tuesday.
Mr. Sendak's themes encompassed matters both dark and light - in not only books, but also set design and art direction for opera, ballet, TV and film - and were so diverse in tone as to suggest more than one author. And yet his creations and their aesthetic were his alone: cross-hatched figures with fangs and horns, a cherubic lad who sips chicken soup with rice through the months of the year, an objectionable boy named Pierre who only would say, "I don't care!"
In both his portrayal of the terrors of being a child and the deep flaws of adults, Mr. Sendak was a throwback to an earlier era in children's literature, when 19th century books like like Heinrich Hoffmann's "Der Struwwelpeter" lacked the sweetness and justice of a well-ordered world.
For Mr. Sendak - himself never a parent - children were complete beings, capable of the best and worst character traits. On the one hand, there was obstreperous Pierre. On the other, he idealized Grimm's Hansel and Gretel, devising richly colored costumes and sets.
"It's terrifying how [Hansel and Gretel] need each other, the wit and wisdom of having to get out of trouble, how they forgive the worse damage - they forgive their father. It's about the heart-stopping simplicity and goodwill and lovingness of children," Mr. Sendak said to me in 2007, when his production of the Humperdinck masterpiece was being staged by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
In that conversation he described his process as a rather matter-of-fact affair. "It comes by intuition. That's the way it works. I'll try out an illustration. You get a feeling and you search out the feeling with the pencil until it's like the feeling you're having. Other people either get the feeling or they don't."
Millions did. Tucked in nearly every bed-side bookshelf in the U.S. is at least one of Mr. Sendak's nearly 100 titles: "In the Night Kitchen," "Where the Wild Things Are," "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" and the quartet of wee volumes boxed in The Nutshell Library: "Alligators All Around," "Chicken Soup With Rice," "One Was Johnny" and "Pierre."
Many of Mr. Sendak's papers are held at the Rosenbach Museum and Library - on Delancey Place - whose director, Derick Dreher, has written a lovely send-off for the author. He last visited the Rosenbach in April, traveling from his Connecticut home to Philadelphia to see the Chertoff mural, his only surviving large-scale work (other than sets), which the Rosenbach recently installed and restored.
Writes Dreher: "Early fame put pressure on Mr. Sendak to cultivate a public persona that was curmudgeonly, cynical, even aloof. Those who were granted access to his private sphere, however, know that the real Maurice Sendak was a generous host, an erudite student with well-founded opinions on art, music and literature, and the best friend anybody could have...An artist right down to the melancholic core, retire was the one thing Mr. Sendak could never do. He was driven to write and draw - and read and listen - until the very end. If we are lucky, some of what was on his drafting table in recent months will eventually find its way into print."
The Rosenbach's Sendak Gallery is open Tuesday free of charge.