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Friday, November 29, 2013

Ha Ha Tonka

A little over two years ago Maurice Sendak gave what would be his last interview for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Sendak had been on the show a number of times and fans have commented on Sendak and Gross's rapport, which only grew over the years.  But this interview was different.  Still reeling from the loss of a close friend but also celebrating the publication of Bumble-Ardy (HarperCollins, 2011), Sendak shared with Gross his thoughts on both the creative life and the end of life, of grieving for others and for oneself, and of the courage it takes to be honest in both life and art.  Sendak's death just eight months later gave an added poignancy to the interview: for many listeners, he seemed to be saying goodbye, and that he had no regrets.  A glance at the comments section of the interview web page will give you a sense of how deeply moved many listeners were by this frank conversation.  Among those listeners were members of the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka, then working on a new album, Lessons (Bloodshot Records), which came to be partly inspired by this Fresh Air interview.  They recently paid a visit to the Rosenbach during the Philadelphia leg of their tour.
Ha Ha Tonka (left to right): Lennon Bone (drums); Luke Long (bass); Brett Anderson (vocals, guitar, keyboards, mandolin); Brian Roberts (lead vocal and guitar)
In its very title Lessons implies a retrospective view of life in keeping with Sendak's reflections in his Fresh Air interview.  Most of the songs--including "Staring at the End of Our Lives," "Cold Forgiver," and "The Past Has Arms"--bring that idea home within multi-rhythmic compositions wrapped around catchy guitar, mandolin, and piano melodies.  Frontman Brian Roberts pointed out that the very first lyric on the album, from a song called "Dead to the World," harks back to Sendak's interview: "I'm almost to the age where I only do/ Things that I know how to do..."  (Sendak: "I feel like I'm working for myself at this point. If it's publishable, fine. If not, it makes not too much difference. Because I claim that this time is for me and me alone. I'm 83 years old.").  This isn't to say that Sendak was "dead to the world"--the album seems to pick up on the artists's irrepressible vitality and search for meaning in his interview--or that the record is without moments of humor (there's this from "Terrible Tomorrow:" "I can see little thought bubbles/ Over everyone's head/ And it's causing me trouble/ It's a dangerous thing/ When everyone's thinking out loud.").  There's something particularly Sendakian about the album's hit single, "Colorful Kids," which not only sounds like a reference to Sendak's illustrated characters but also shares Sendak's sometime mistrust of adulthood as an (as the lyrics say) "ugly shade of gray."

Sendak almost exclusively listened to classical music, and his favorite pieces or composers often made their way into his pictures.  The influence of music on Sendak's art really can't be underestimated.  How fitting that a group of musicians found their inspiration in this artist, reaffirming the creative synergy between music and art that Sendak so believed in.  He may even have been pleased that they included strings on a few songs.

Tour manager Mark "Smash" Miller high-fives a Wild Thing
From the liner notes to Lessons
Patrick Rodgers is Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and a poor music critic.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Max Sendak's" wild rumpus turns 50

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are turned 50 this week (November 20 to be precise)--that's 50 years of rumpuses; of successive printings and translations; of adaptations in art, opera, and film; and of multiple generations finding some connection that keeps them reading, looking, and passing it on.  Such longevity is a remarkable achievement for any picture book, but while other commemorations have focused on the novelty of the book's storyline or the potentially frightening appearance of Sendak's monsters, I thought it might be fun to revisit Sendak's manuscripts (written during the spring and summer of 1963) and look at some of the transformations Max and the Wild Things underwent before the book was published.  There are around 40 drafts of the story and Sendak left much on the cutting room floor in order to condense his tale into the 338 words we know today.  In fact, the book's most famous scene--the "wild rumpus"--is a case study in just how carefully Sendak constructed his text in order to create a convincing allegory. 

Many readers find the "wild rumpus" so powerful because of its very lack of words in the printed book--it's a scene anyone can imagine themselves into, giving way to the primal fantasy depicted.  But Sendak's early manuscripts conceived a more specific purpose: he used it as a "teachable moment," where either the Wild Things taught Max how to do something or Max schooled the Wild Things.  In one version from May 7, the Wild Things "taught him how to fly by moonlight and ride on the back of the biggest fish in the sea and how to call long distance and dance to the music of the wind in the tree."  Revising this slightly, on May 10 Sendak wrote, “…and taught him many new wild ways: how to frighten the moon into a cloud—how to catch shadows in the dark forest—how to dance until night was scared into day…"  Vestiges of these lessons can still be seen in the pictures for the "rumpus," where the Wild Things and Max howl at the moon, for example.  Ultimately, a teacher-student relationship wasn't satisfactory to Sendak's sense of his characters.  Sendak needed Max to become a Wild Thing, and their romp needed to seem instinctual and cathartic rather than pedantic.  But even after stripping away descriptions of the "new wild ways" that Max and the Wild Things perform in their escapades, Sendak needed the right word to kick it off--so where did the word "rumpus" come from? 
Manuscript page for Where the Wild Things Are.  August 23, 1963.  Pen and ink.  © 1963 by Maurice Sendak. Used with permission of the Estate of Maurice Sendak.

 This manuscript page from August 23 is the first mention of it--you can see it on display in our anniversary exhibition The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit.  With a slight amount of hesitation, Sendak wrote, "'Now,' said Max, let the wild rumpus start!--(ways begin?)"  According to children's book historian Philip Nel the word came as a suggestion from Crockett Johnson, author and illustrator of Harold & the Purple Crayon and husband of Sendak's longtime collaborator, Ruth Krauss.  "Rumpus" stuck.  It captured the essence of Sendak's drawings, sounding just the right note of unruliness without being too specific.  

Just days after this vital word fell into place, Sendak phoned the offices of his longtime publisher, Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) and dictated the story to a typist.  His editor and mentor was the remarkable Ursula Nordstrom, responsible for editing so many children's classics including Charlotte's Web, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Goodnight Moon, along with books by Sendak, Krauss, and Johnson.  Nordstrom returned the typescript to Sendak to proofread, adding a note at the top (and joking with him about the typo concerning his name), "Maurice, or Max, or whoever you are--this is going to be a magnificent, permanent, perfect book" (oh, and next to "wild rumpus" she also glossed, "Marvelous!").  Fifty years later Nordstrom is still right.
Typescript for Where the Wild Things Are, August 26, 1963
Patrick Rodgers is Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Of Moore and Melville

In last week's blog post we wished Bram Stoker a happy birthday; this week it is Marianne Moore's turn. She was born on November 15, 1887, which would make today her 126th birthday! Here at the Rosenbach we celebrated on Wednesday with a great talk by Moore scholar Linda Leavell on her new Moore biography, Holding on Upside Down.

This week also marks the anniversary of the American publication of Herman Melville's great novel Moby Dick, or The Whale which was published by Harper & Brothers on November 14, 1851.

Herman Melville , Moby Dick, or, The whale  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851
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Herman Melville , Moby Dick, or, The whale  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851
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It had been published a month earlier as The Whale, by Melville's British publisher, Richard Bentley. The American edition differed from the British in a few respects beyond the title, including that the British version had been edited to remove some potentially offensive material and that the Bentley edition (presumably accidentally)  did not include the short epilogue that explains how Ishmael survived the sinking of the Pequod and thus lived to recount the story. Here is the last page of the British version (before the Etymology and Extracts, which appeared at the end of the British edition)--it ends "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

Herman Melville , The whale  London: Richard Bentley, 1851
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Apparently killing off the narrator of a first-person tale led many British readers to cry foul. You can read a selection of British and American reviews at The Life and Works of Herman Melville; check out the London Spectator review, which specifically mentions this issue.

Given the twin subjects of poets and cetaceans in this post, I think it is only fitting to end by bringing them together and pointing out that one of Marianne Moore's suggestions when she was famously asked to come up with names for the car that became the Edsel was "The Intelligent Whale."

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.


Friday, November 08, 2013

Happy Birthday Bram

Going back to a Rosen-post of a few weeks ago on ink blots, today's Google Doodle is for Hermann Rorschach, in honor of his 129th birthday.  November 8 is also the birthday of Bram Stoker; he would have been 166 today--he had his own birthday Google Doodle last year for his 165th.

Of course the Rosenbach is famous for having Stoker's working notes for Dracula.  Below is an early character list in which Stoker has crossed out the name "Count Wampyr" and replaced it with "Dracula."

Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Dracula: autograph note, EL3 f.S874d MS p. 1. Roenbach Museum & Library

But the Rosenbach also has a few items that remind us about Stoker's non-writing career. Stoker became Acting Manager of Henry's Irving's  Lyceum Theatre in 1878 and worked there for 27 years. In a typically Rosenbachian coincidence, our collection of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) materials includes several playbills from the theater.

Lyceum Theatre, bill for The Cup and The Belle's Stratagem. 1881. EMs 1187/23. Rosenbach Museum & Library

Lyceum Theatre, bill for The Cup and The Belle's Stratagem. 1881. EMs 1187/23. Rosenbach Museum & Library

If you look at the center of the playbill's back cover, you'll note that Mr. Bram Stoker is listed as Acting Manager. The paragraph at the top also mentions Stoker. It indicates that "The Bill of the Play will in every part of the House be supplied without charge.No Fees of any kind will be permitted, and Mr. Irving trusts that in his endeavour to carry out this arrangement, he may rely on the co-operation of the Public, who are requested, should there be any cause of complaint or especial satisfaction, to refer to the Acting Manager, Mr. Bram Stoker." The practice of charging for programs (with the price apparently often set by the usher's estimation of the customer's ability to pay) and for cloakrooms was common at some theaters and I guess keeping an eye on the ushering staff must have fallen under Bram's purview.

The Lyceum began playing the double bill of  The Cup and The Belle's Stratagem in April 1881; previously The Cup had been paired with a piece called Corsican Brothers. The Belle's Stratagem is an 18th-century play written by a female playwright, Hannah Cowley, who was the daughter of a bookseller. The Cup is by Tennyson and The Poetry Foundation's website explains that of his plays,  "On the stage only The Cup had any success, and that was in part due to the lavish settings and the acting of Irving and Ellen Terry."

In his Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Stoker writes about the lavishness of The Cup, describing how the production consulted experts in ancient art (including staff at the British Museum) and detailing the beauty of the set, which included some "scenes worthy of Turner," the colorfulness of the costumes, and the grandness of the pagan ceremonies, which involved "something like a hundred beautiful women...for Vestals" and "gorgeously armoured Roman officers." He notes, however, that one critic took issue with the proportions of the columns in the temple setpiece, not realizing the "difficulty... in adhering to fact in fiction" or that the proportions of the columns were necessary in order to make them look right in the space. One of their experts also complained that a prop amphora was decorated red on black rather than black on red and "after that [he] could enjoy nothing." I guess you just can't please everyone.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Friday, November 01, 2013

All Saints Day

November 1st is All Saints Day, so it seemed a good time to showcase a few of the "saintly" objects in the Rosenbach collection.

According to legend, St. Barbara was confined in a tower by her father, a wealthy pagan. While her father was away, Barbara had a bathhouse he had commissioned built with three windows to symbolize the Trinity. Upon learning that she was a Christian, her father denounced her to authorities and ultimately beheaded her himself. St. Barbara is traditionally depicted with her tower.

 St. Barbara. Lindenwood, polychrome. Mecheln, Belgium, ca. 1500. 1954.1989. Rosenbach Museum & Library

St. Peter Martyr, or St. Peter of Verona was a Dominican friar (as can be seen from his black and white garb in this miniature). He preached against heresy and in 1252 he was murdered by a Cathar assassin, who attacked him in the head with an axe and then stabbed him in the heart with a sword.  Peter's last act was to write "Credo in Deum" in his own blood. He was canonized in 1253, less than a year after his death.

Unknown artist, St. Peter the Marty. Oil on copper. 1954.630.180. Rosenbach Museum & Library
If you've taken a house tour at the Rosenbach you may recognize this statue of St. Michael, which now lives on the third floor outside the reading room. In the book of Revelation, Michael, one of the archangels, leads the army of angels that cast Satan (described as "the dragon") and his fallen angels out of heaven.

Unknown artist, St. Michael. Limewood. Southern Germany or Austria. ca. 1500-1520. 1954.1963. Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.