When you read criticism on Maurice Sendak’s first hugely successful book (and there are academic essays, I assure you), you realize, holy shit, people have applied phrases like “colonialist or Freudian prism” and “the psychoanalytic story of anger” to this tail of an angry boy who sails to where the wild things are. This isn’t the first place that Where the Wild Things Are has been treated as a book whose readership has no age limits.
If there is a story that most people under 50 cherish, it is the story of Max and his wild things. Everyone loves it. Everyone. How else do we explain that it has been transformed not only into animated shorts, but also a 1980 fantasy opera, a dark live-action film by Spike Jonze, and a recent book by Dave Eggars. How many other children’s stories have been adapted so many times for audiences that aren’t necessarily made up of kids? Its got some sort of fundamental draw for everyone. With this in mind, I’ve been re-reading this story a bunch lately, trying to re-catch the bug of Where The Wild Things Are. What’s SO awesome about it? The story is simple. Max is an angry boy. And he’s not allowed to express his anger. So instead he uses his imagination to take him to a place where he can roar and growl and stomp it all out. And then, he caves in and goes home to reality. To love and a hot bowl of food. At its best, Where the Wild Things Are is a beautifully illustrated foray into the way imagination provides us an escape from reality. And at its worst, it’s a story of becoming socialized that points to the things we lose when we become viable members of society.
Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I imagine that its not Max’s caving in that has appealed to readers for so long. It’s really all about the wild rumpus. The pictures without words, the total abandonment of reason and logic and the indulgence of the party. The Bacchanalian ritual of dealing with emotion. Are we supposed to leave this book thinking, yeah Max, go home! Stop being king of the Wild Things and go listen to your mom! Really, it’s the kind of moral that we hate from over here in the adult world of lost wild things. Its the memory of when those moments were available, when a tantrum wasn’t immediately followed by the guilt and embarrassment of having acted outside of accepted social behavior. Of course, I ask myself: do I really want angry people running around chasing dogs with forks? Probably not. But I do want that time when imagination was still the place we could go and revel in those tantrums, not hide them away. I mean, nowadays people go to therapy to deal with their anger. Or bars. We have officially lost the magic of the wild rumpus. And this book gives you nostalgia for that place to which a socialized adult can never return: that honest, childhood anger.
As a side note, listen to this incredible Fresh Air interview with Sendak from September 2011. He himself expresses the sadness of growing old and all the tragedies that come with it. It’s probably the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful interview that that oddly effective woman has ever performed, I couldn’t recommend it enough.