The incidences of writers taking ownership of words are few and far between. Moses or whoever wrote Genesis certainly owns begat; the authors of the Declaration own inalienable; and Maurice Sendak owns rumpus. I cannot hear the word without thinking of reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children. When we reached the moment when Max declares the wild rumpus begin., we would begin the bouncing and tossing and squealing and tickling that constituted a rumpus in our house. One author, one word, striking memories in a house miles and years removed.
Like so many revolutionaries, it is difficult to see the influence of Sendak in the world that he remade in his image, only because that influence has become so pervasive. When I began reading to my children, there was no shortage of complicated stories and characters, Alexanders with the their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days and others even sadder and more unsettling. But long before that, before Sendak began writing, the books I had as child were simpler and sweeter, Golden Books filled with apple-cheeked girls and boys whose hair must have been parted with a plough. Starting in the fifties, Dr. Seuss came along with his anarchists and iconolclasts, Brandos and James Deans of the children’s book world, upsetting every apple cart and embellishing everything with their own jazzy, snazzy inflections. Then, starting in 1963, Sendak, who had for a decade been illustrating books, began publishing his own books. Lo and behold, they featured era-appropriate anti-heroes: the obstreperous Max of Wild Things, the jubilantly disruptive Mickey of In the Night Kitchen, preening Rosie of Really Rosie, “I don’t care’’ Pierre. Encountering scenes and people who alarmed them, or dismissed them, or tried to regulate them, these characters reacted the way characters played by Hoffman or Nicholson or Pacino or Dunaway did. Hoffman shouts “Elaine!’’ Pacino shouts “Attica!’’ Max shouts “Let the wild rumpus begin!’’
Sendak, of course, was a double-threat man; his illustrations were intrinsic to the experience. Not only do Sendak’s characters break form; so do his very drawings. Like his contemporary, the peerless comic book illustrator Jack Kirby, Sendak literally cannot contain his thoughts within the box. Mickey breaks out of the panel, and skips and clambers from frame to frame like Spiderman scampering up the face of a high-rise. And when Sendak isn’t exploding panels, he is packing them with information, filling rooms with objects, filling shelves with products, creating labels for all the boxes. Even the drawings he did for the books of other writers are crowded with information: look, for example, at his illustrations for Dear Mili, written by Wilhelm Grimm in 1816 and illustrated by Sendak in 1983. Dark and deep are these woods, but not even Frost could look at the thickets of barren branches and gnarled roots and layer upon layer of concealing foliage and call them lovely. They see impenetrable. They look scary.
But it’s an important part of Sendak’s message to realize that scary looks aren’t everything. Early on he disclosed that the monstrous wild things he drew were in fact based on impressions of his own relatives . Knowing that, one could no longer look at the bug-eyed, pointy-toothed, scaly-skilled, cucumber-nosed monsters without seeing my own beery-breathed uncles and fat aunts with their heavily lilaced bosoms, all squeezing and hugging to the point of repulsion. It was an act of great generosity, after having exaggerated their sad human imperfections into forbidding fangs and claws, to have redeemed them, and turned the wild things into Max’s merry playmates.
Appearances aren’t everything, Sendak tells us. The world is a scary place, but half of what we fear lies in our own perceptions, and most of that will yield, if not to courage, than to our own rambunctiousness.