Thursday, May 22, 2008

We Yam What We Yam (Sendak & Stockton)

[Image from here.]

The Bath Bookworm has tagged me to write about my favorite children's books illustrator and/or author.
Seems too easy.
Who else but Maurice Sendak?

In an interview with Terry Gross, Sendak said that as a Jewish kid in New York City, he thought his Italian neighbors were "happy Jews."
So that makes him kind of a sad Italian--and hence an honorary relative of mine.

At any rate, Sendak got something right about childhood in Where the Wild Things Are and the much less well-known but excellent Higgeldy, Piggeldy Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life.

But the question turned out to be not so easy, because when I went looking for online images, it turned out my mostest favorite Sendak books from childhood weren't ones he wrote but were short stories he illustrated by Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902), he of "The Lady, Or the Tiger?"

(Do they still teach this in high school English classes?)

Stockton's The Bee Man of Orn, which I read until the dust cover was tattered, poses the question, nature or nurture?
As I remember it--and although I haven't read it since I was a kid, I remember it very well--two magicians make a bet that if they give a slob of a bee-keeper the chance to live his life over in better circumstances, he would make something of himself.
They turn him back into a baby, to be raised in swank circumstances, and go away.

Years and years later, they return to see him and exclaim (I especially remember this line):
"Upon my word, he has grown up into the very same thing again!"

OK, I just checked the full text here (you have to keep scrolling down to reach the text on that page), and I was a smidge off.
The correct line is:
"Upon my word!" exclaimed the Sorcerer, "He has grown into the same thing again!"

Just looking at the cover of this book activates my child-mind and feelings.
I remember getting great satisfaction from that ending.
It vindicated something I felt strongly about:
that there was something unchangabley me about me.

I vehemently argued this point with my mother, when I was about 9, and she later told me that my intensity made her change her mind about the primacy of "nurture."
(This was the era of civil rights, and I think my mother had taken the noble ideals of equal opportunities to mean that everyone would love Mozart, if they only had the chance.)

The other Stockton/Sendak book that gripped me in its talons was The Griffin and the Minor Canon [click on title to read the whole story]. This book belonged to my sister, and I used to sneak it from her bookshelf to read it, which made me relish it even more.

Where "Bee-Man" was quirky and funny, "Griffin" was a tragic tale of forbidden love and small-mindedness.

Again, I haven't read it for years and years, but I remember that a griffin comes to town and falls in love with the Minor Canon (the young man in the clericical garb, as mythical a creature to me as a griffin).

[I just looked this up and I wasn't wrong: "He [the griffin] seemed to have taken a great fancy to the Minor Canon, and followed him about as he worked."]

The griffin hangs around, trying to be a good domestic sort, but of course it's a disaster.
His tail is so hot, for instance, he sets things on fire. The stolid townspeople fear him, and they push the minor canon to make the griffin leave.

The townspeople are quite horrid to the poor, lovely canon, and he falls ill.
The griffin tends to him and...

...OK, I have to cheat and look up the ending. I think the canon dies, and the griffin goes away and dies of heartbreak?


The townspeople drive the canon out, thinking this will make the griffin leave, and the young man almost dies in the wilds. The griffin doesn't know where the canon has gone, so he hangs around the town, though he despises all the townspeople, who he sees, correctly, as cowards.

When the griffin finds out what happened to his beloved canon, he flies (literally) to rescue him.
When he brings the canon back to the town, all the townspeople are chastened and nice to their young man again.

However, the griffin needs to eat (flesh) on the equinoxes, and when the equinox arrives,
"If he could not have the Minor Canon, he did not care for anything."

So he rips the stone griffin from off the church, (it was the thing that had drawn him to the town in the first place), flies away into the wilds, and...
"lying down, with his eyes fixed upon the great stone griffin, he gradually declined, and died."

Huh. How 'bout that: turns out it's practically slash, of the hurt/comfort variety.
Seems I was me all along.


Bookworm said...

"Where the Wild Things Are" is very popular over in the UK, but I wasn't aware of the other books. More books to track down...

The Griffin story sounds like it would have really affected me as a child - I always identified very strongly with the characters and became very angry at any injustice in a story.

ddip said...

Oh boy, just seeing the covers of these books brought back the feel of the actual paper of the pages and the enchantment of the stories (although to be honest I never liked the griffin story; I remember it sort of frightened me as a kid).

It's one of those Proustian things, where a tiny sensory experience brings back an entire world....just like watching "Jules and Jim" the other night brought back the youthful (tho enduring) feeling of the magic of film.

fresca said...

Bookworm: I was curious if "Wild Things" would be popular in the UK or not. It seems very American to me, but it also speaks the truth about the wildness of childhood emotions, which are probably universal?

The Bee-man and the griffin aren't particularly popular books here, I don't think, though they are in print, as I bet all of Sendak's are?
My sister and I got them because they came out when we were children.

SIster: I didn't know you didn't like the griffin story, but it makes sense--it was frightening and weird. Not really a kids' story at all.
But bad sister! You should have given that book to ME!

Yes, very Proustian--I too can feel the paper. I think I can even smell the glue.
That's one thing I don't like about computers--they smell like plastic.