Maurice Sendak’s “Outside Over There”
On his birthday (June 10), let’s acknowledge what is Sendak’s best work (from The Nation)
1981 appears to be the Year of Sendak. On its eve, Harry N. Abrams published a kind of program with Selma Lane’s comprehensive The Art of Maurice Sendak. The last several months have seen the openings of four operas or musicals in which Sendak has had a hand. Now comes Outside Over There, which Harper & Row has placed on both its juvenile and adult lists. The dual recognition testifies to Sendak’s unique success with the picture book and to the way he has, at the age of 52 and in more than seventy-five books, almost single-handedly raised the form to a pre-eminence equal to that of the novel.
Little of this daring was present, however, in his work of the 1950’s, when he was serving his apprenticeship illustrating the stories of others or creating his own stories and pictures about daydreamers and introverted loners who stare out the window (Kenny’s Window) at life taking place over there (Very Far Away). The breakthrough came with The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), when Sendak went through the window and (in his words) “outside over there” to create Rosie — an irrepressible Brooklyn kid who swaggers on stage in a boa and her mother’s high heels and whose infectious manner shows that she is daring personified.
The prize-winning Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970) introduce similarly audacious kids. And both took on a world of taboo feelings that were not widely discussed before the time of Bruno Bettelheim and Lord of the Flies. Having been sent to bed without supper because of his mischief, Max exorcized his rage against his parents by intimidating the adult-size monsters known as Wild Things and then returns to find his dinner waiting from him; Mickey plays with and in food as he tumbles out of his dream and clothes and into the Night Kitchen until he trumpets his “Cock-a-Doodle Doo!” and slides back into bed.
The turning point of his career, Sendak reckons, came with The Juniper Tree (1973) and the attention it received from those who had previously dismissed him in a patronizing fashion as an artist simply for children. In the pictures he created for twenty-seven tales by Grimm (translated by Randall Jarrell and Lore Segal), Sendak presented a brooding, claustrophobic beauty that rivals Dürer. Moreover, in this work and three years later in Jarrell’s Fly by Night, Sendak demonstrated that he was an interpretive artist and not just an illustrator.
Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work by far. It marks the apogee of the picture book form, a simply profound story told in incantatory words and color drawings of stunning beauty. In creating the 359-word tale, Sendak is said to have been drawn to such childhood memories as the Lindbergh kidnapping and to have listened exclusively to Mozart to evoke the ambiance for the book’s Grimm setting in rural eighteenth-century Germany.
Outside Over There is about jealousy and sibling rivalry. Sendak’s treatment of this subject might appear simple; instead, it is deeply accurate. The story belongs to Ida, a girl of some 9 years, and when it opens her baby sister has already arrived. Ida’s parents have withdrawn: Papa is away at sea, Mama is lost in vacant thought and (pictorially) even the family’s protective German shepherd does not see the danger — goblins stealing up the lawn with Bruno Hauptmann’s ladder.
While Ida turns her back upon the baby and plays the musical instrument know as her “wonder horn,” the goblins steal into the nursery, kidnap her sister and leave a changeling made of ice. When Ida turns and embraces the baby it is, like most, drippingly wet; but when the changeling melts away. Ida discovers the goblins’ theft and in a rage turns maternal: putting on Mama’s cloak she sets out upon a rescue mission. She heads through the window to “outside over there.” This is the region known in dreams, where the Wild Things are, where the Night Kitchen is, where — to mention the place Rumpelstiltskin’s name is heard in the Grimm tale — the fox and the hare bid each other goodnight. And for Sendak, to whom this image is important, it lies on the other side of the window.
Ida is aerial and floats there over a haunting and mysterious landscape where a shepherd has fallen asleep unmindful of his flock and where below can be seen the dark, libidinous caves where the robber bridegrooms have taken her sister. But in going outside over there, Ida made “a serious mistake.” A clue comes to her in a riddle like song she hears floating over the water and sung by her sailor Papa: “If Ida backwards in the rain/would only turn around again/and catch the goblins with a tune/she’d spoil their kidnap honeymoon!” Ida’s mistake is to have gone out the window backward on her rescue mission; there is in this kind of reluctance and unwillingness, “so Ida tumbled right side round.”
She finds herself smack in the middle of a goblin wedding and discovers that beneath their hoods these goblins all look like her baby sister. Slyly, she starts what Max in the Wild Things calls a “rumpus” and what Ida styles a “hubbub”; playing a captivating tune on her wonder horn, she sets the goblins dancing and sends them into such extremes of pleasure that they cannot control themselves or others. A kind of Pied Piper with a Zauberflöte, Ida churns the goblins’ revelry until they all dissolve into a watery stream. By this magic trick Ida separates the real baby from the goblin impostors and finds her own sister crooning in an eggshell.
It is a new Ida, then, changed and protective, who hugs her sister and takes her home. There she meets Mama reading a letter to Ida from her Papa: “I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.” Just as for any child jealous of her sibling, Ida must be reassured by the last word of the letter; still, the fatherly advice is beside the point since we already know with Sendak, as the book concludes, that this “is just what Ida did.”
Like Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Outside Over There legitimizes taboo feelings by showing their simultaneity and reversibility. In some way, Ida’s playing the wonder horn evokes the goblins who kidnap her sister but also dissolves them so Ida can rescue her sister. Like Sendak’s other books, the pages of this one fold in upon each other so that felt withdrawal of the parents in its opening is answered with the reassurance of “always” love in its conclusion.
And all of this is done making use of the unique form of the picture book. Apropos the eighteenth-century German setting, Sendak’s pictures have a golden, old-masterly look. The incidentals of these pictures are also there to reify the story: Ida is often surrounded by sunflowers, and these not only exaggerate her smallness (in the manner, say, of Rousseau or Sargent) but, in their heliotropic orientation toward her, reveal something of her wish for exclusivity. So, too, the syncopation of word to page shows Sendak making complete use of the possibilities of the picture book so that, for example, the puzzling fact of Ida’s having made “a serious mistake” ends a right-hand page ripe for turning.
The words themselves are a kind of magic and reach a climax in the gnomic song Ida hears to solve her problem. Sendak himself has puzzled over these and in a psychoanalytic fashion, wondered about this story given by his unconscious. He speculates that the name of his heroine might be related to Id. He also notes a resemblance between the line, “If Ida backwards in the rain,” and a reverse spelling of his mother’s name, Sadie. Whatever the case, her name seems a magically appropriate idea when this story about a sister’s rescue comes to a close, when Sendak’s own voice can be heard in its last words (“which is just what Ida did”) and when the reader can sympathically agree: “that is just what I’d’ve done.”
This essay originally appeared in The Nation (May 30, 1981). Maurice Sendak died May 8, 2012.