Maurice Sendak & Gay Identity

Coming out in “Outside over There” (from Horn Book)

Maurice Sendak, “Outside Over There” (HarperCollins)

Jonathan Cott’s new book There’s a Mystery There(Doubleday) is a terrific examination of what its subtitle calls “The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak.” It accomplishes this by focusing on a single book, Sendak’s masterpiece, Outside Over There (1981), winner of a Caldecott Honor and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. And Cott’s objective is to identify every possible understanding of this celebrated picture book.

Sendak himself had offered clues, noting, for example, how the kidnap of a child (which sets in motion the action in Outside Over There) arose from his childhood obsession with the Lindbergh kidnapping, and how its story of a changeling was inspired by the Grimms’ tale “The Goblins.” Critics, too, have puzzled out additional meanings and supplemented our growing body of insights. There’s a Mystery There extends that endeavor through interviews with four experts (two psychoanalysts, an art critic, and a friend of Sendak’s), providing even more to our multivalent understanding of Outside Over There.

That said, to my way of thinking there is one thing missing in Cott’s otherwise comprehensive discussions of the book: how Sendak’s story takes up his identity as a gay male, albeit in a deeply symbolic way.

Jonathan Cott, “There’s A Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak” (Doubleday).

It isn’t that Cott was unaware of Sendak’s sexuality. Indeed, in his lengthy introduction, he provides a sympathetic overview: noting how Sendak was in a long-term relationship with Eugene Glynn, his partner of fifty years, and how he didn’t come out until a 2008 interview in the New York Times when he was eighty years old. As for why he was closeted for so long, Sendak offered a tortured if familiar reason: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy.”

But another reason Sendak concealed his sexual identity was his worry that the public might turn on him if they learned that he was a gay man writing children’s books. It was a reasonable worry at the time. Indeed, while Sendak’s sexual orientation was widely known among his friends, we didn’t talk about it in public. That’s why Sendak was especially hurt and angered by John Updike’s 1976 New York Times review of his pictures for Randall Jarrell’s Fly by Night. Updike’s words — “nudity is unspecified in the text but looms specific in Sendak’s illustrations, one of which shows a prepubescent penis and another a rather inviting derriere” — seemed a crude attempt to “out” Sendak. Fear of reprisal from this type of innuendo was further evidence of the need for gay children’s authors to remain closeted.

This, more or less, was the social climate in which Outside Over There was written. It will not be surprising, then, that the book’s treatment of issues such as sexual orientation was deeply submerged. Moreover, Outside Over There, in its own secretive and symbolic way, was Sendak’s most personal book; he called it an “excavation of my soul.”

The first person to bring my attention to these identity issues was Chris Carstens, a child psychologist who lectured to my class at UCLA about the book in 1982 and afterwards privately asked me if Sendak was gay. I was surprised by his intuition and wondered what in the book had prompted his question. Carstens pointed to the wonder horn, the “hornpipe that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon,” the goblin wedding and spoiled honeymoon, and more. Most significant, Carstens suggested, was the father’s disapproval, the man’s insistence that his offspring had made a “serious mistake,” the father’s identification of that mistake as being “backwards,” and his insistence about “needing to turn around again.” While no psychologist myself, I couldn’t hear Carstens’s words without thinking of Sendak’s heartbreaking admission: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy.”

Twenty-eight years after the publication of Outside Over There, the world was different and an eighty-year-old Sendak could proudly come out. And now, in retrospect, the story can be seen as one chapter in Sendak’s biography as a gay male. Of course, in saying that, I am just adding one more understanding of Outside Over There to the many already collected in Cott’s There’s a Mystery There. But as Italo Calvino observed, the mark of a “classic” is “the possibility of being able to continue to unpeel it like a never-ending artichoke, discovering more and more new dimensions in reading.”

This essay originally appeared in The Horn Book (June 30, 2017) as part of Pride Month, a month-long highlighting of Horn Book articles on queer lives, experiences, and literature. Among my other writings about Sendak, you will find my review of “Outside Over There” for The Nation and my review of Cott’s book in the Washington Post.

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