While attending Hutchmoot: Homebound in 2021, I was struck by a particular interweaving of artists and influences that were cited. The closer I looked at these inklings of connection between them, the more I discovered.
The focal point of my observation starts with the author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, well known for his picture books Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There, and dozens of other books, operas, and illustrations. In a previous article for The Rabbit Room, I wrote about my reflections after learning of Sendak’s passing in 2012, his final NPR interview with Terry Gross, and his spiritual yearnings that came from that interview in the final pages of his earthly life. Despite claiming to be an atheist, his conversation with Gross comes to life with a sincere spiritual longing, expressed through mysterious paradoxical sayings like “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again.” Being a scholar of Sendak’s life and collector of his books, my ears perk up whenever I see a piece of his work, or hear his name mentioned. Because of this, his presence came alive for me during Hutchmoot through a series of curious connections uncovered throughout that weekend.
First of all, I was delighted to hear Sendak mentioned by name in the video interview with the late Walt Wangerin Jr., and even more delighted to find out they were friends and colleagues. Wangerin’s book The Bedtime Rhyme features an endorsement by Sendak as “the most beautiful thing Walt has done,” and his book of essays Swallowing the Golden Stone is dedicated to Sendak. In Part One of his blog series The Writing of Branta and Other Affections, Wangerin muses on his conversations with Sendak about the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, and the fervor it created from those who deemed it too scary for children. He says, “Far from inaugurating fears in children, such books as his gave a habitation and a name to fears the children already experienced, but amorphously, perplexedly.”
Does that phrase “a habitation and a name” sound familiar? If it does, you’ve either read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or heard it read and dissected by none other than Malcolm Guite, both in his keynote speech at Hutchmoot: Homebound 2021 and companion book Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. —Malcolm Guite, Lifting the Veil
In his book, Guite proceeds to use this quote as a launching point for his insightful observations on poetry, imagination, and the holy scriptures, coalescing in how artists might be inspired to “body forth” their own responses to these mysteries of heaven and earth.
One of many artists whose work is cited in Lifting the Veil is Samuel Palmer, whose etching Opening the Fold is included on page 110.
In Maurice Sendak’s final NPR interview, right after his comment on seeing his brother again (in an afterlife he doesn’t believe in), he mentions:
I am reading a biography of Samuel Palmer, which is written by a woman in England. I can’t remember her name. And it’s sort of how I feel now, when he was just beginning to gain his strength as a creative man and beginning to see nature. But he believed in God, you see, and in heaven, and he believed in hell. Goodness gracious, that must have made life much easier. It’s harder for us non-believers, but you know, there’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging—that I am in love with the world. —Maurice Sendak, final NPR interview
Even as he clung to his atheism, Sendak could not shake his unquenchable thirst for beauty in the natural world around him, and in the beauty created by other artists. This beauty drove his own work, his own stories, and his own passions.
More significant than the one-page inclusion of a work by Samuel Palmer in Guite’s book is the focus on William Blake. In the section of his book titled “Christ and the Prophetic Imagination,” Guite uses Blake’s poetry and art to defend him as a prophet for our modern times. As part of all this connective tissue, not only does Walt Wangerin, Jr. write about Blake in Part 2 of his blog series, but William Blake was one of Maurice Sendak’s most vital inspirations for his life’s work.
Sendak openly admitted on many occasions that he didn’t understand much about Blake, but that he was captivated by him; his life, his poetry, and his illustrations. Whether it was the religious or the aesthetic elements of his work that provided such a light for Sendak is a mystery, but the influence is profound nonetheless. Sendak often stole and paid homage to his muses with mischievous glee, and parallels can be drawn from Blake to Sendak in numerous works of his, including the layout of text and imagery in Night Songs and Lullabies.
But his influence is felt most deeply in his final posthumous piece My Brother’s Book. Through poetry and image, Sendak pens a love letter to his late partner Eugene Glynn and his late brother Jack Sendak, expressing his longing for reunion in his own “dream life.” The imagery is a blend of heavenly otherness and earthly habitation, and funnily enough, based in part on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Once again, like the work of Blake, My Brother’s Book encompasses in its aesthetic form that same Shakespeare quote cited by Guite:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven, And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. —William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream
In this short video, an aging Sendak talks briefly about his love for William Blake and what his work means to him:
As I clicked my way through the secret tunnels and video feeds on Hutchmoot: Homebound weekend, I was elated to discover that the connections from Guite to Wangerin to Blake to Sendak did not stop there. In 1824, William Blake had illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Diana Glyer so expertly lectured on, and in the late 1960s Maurice Sendak had illustrated stories by George MacDonald, including The Golden Key.
MacDonald’s work likely had a strong influence on Sendak as well. Funnily enough, in the Rabbit Room Chinwag shortly after Hutchmoot, an insightful observation made by Devorah Allen drew a parallel between drawings from Where the Wild Things Are and the following quote from Phantases:
Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion. Not knowing what change might follow next, I thought it high time to get up; and, springing from the bed, my bare feet alighted upon a cool green sward; and although I dressed in all haste, I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree, whose top waved in the golden stream of the sunrise with many interchanging lights, and with shadows of leaf and branch gliding over leaf and branch, as the cool morning wind swung it to and fro, like a sinking sea-wave. —George MacDonald, Phantastes
This barrage of connections and influences that I felt throughout the weekend led me to respond with my own habitation and name as I decorated Jonny Jimison’s poster:
What other connections do you see? How are we intertwined as fellow artists, and how are we influencing each other? Feel free to share in the comments section below.