So I sat down with the book, and by the end I’d reached an epiphany: I am Max. I desperately need wolf pajamas. I belong Where the Wild Things Are. This Maurice Sendak person had been thoughtful enough to write a book exclusively for me.
It was completely within my worldview that an author would take the time to do that. I was just so relieved I’d managed to find the book, since no one had bothered to tell me he’d done it, which was also in keeping with my worldview because people were always keeping me out of the loop on important discussions.
Max isn’t a dumb kid, with the broad-strokes emotions one normally encounters in children’s books. Max feels real rage, frustration, and he just wants to break out of those circumstances.
These were feelings I couldn’t begin to articulate, no matter how many trips I took to the encyclopedia. In the Land of Wild Things, Max earns respect because he shows no fear. He stares into all their yellow eyes without blinking once, because the unknown doesn’t frighten him nearly as much as the world that confines him.
Maurice Sendak was living a deeply closeted life when he wrote the book in 1963, quietly living with his partner, Eugene Glynn. It’s not surprising that in those circumstances, he composed a fevered dream of yearning, refusing to adhere to acceptable behavior, and breaking free.
Unlike Dorothy Gale, Max doesn’t spend the whole damn time bitching about wanting to go home. Dorothy is in idiot. Max takes command of his surroundings, becomes king, and calls for a wild rumpus. The book actually takes a three-page dance break. He’s so full of delight, Sendak doesn’t even bother with words to describe it.
When Max leaves, he’s fundamentally changed. Unlike Dorothy, whose journey teaches her to embrace the familiar, Max has gained knowledge of a world outside his own, and this is what brings him peace. He can be embraced elsewhere, and there are wild rumpuses to be had.
Maurice Sendak and Eugene Glynn were together for 50 years. They found each other in a time when their love was still seen as a mental illness. They had to trust the instinct that told them this was right, and beautiful.
Those were the circumstances under which Sendak composed his strange, beautiful tale of the boy in the wolf pajamas, who was “lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”
Eugene died in 2007, and Maurice’s sense of loss was still quite palpable in the interviews he gave in intervening years. When you spend half a century with loving someone, I can’t imagine what it’s like to adjust to their absence. I was raised to have faith that we see our loved ones when we die, and that’s a comforting belief.
But maybe the moment that follows this life is more akin to what Maurice found in illustrating his own work so many years ago. A scenario words could not describe: misfits in complete reverie, savoring the joy of finding each other, delighting in all that they are.
Maurice has gone Where the Wild Things Go, and his arrival was likely cause for quite the wild rumpus.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.