Monday, December 7, 2020

Golan Y. Moskowitz's "Wild Visionary"

Golan Y. Moskowitz is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Catherine and Henry J. Gaisman Faculty Fellow at Tulane University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Wild Visionary: Maurice Sendak in Queer Jewish Context, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Continuously battling difficult feelings, the artist soon began long-term psychotherapy. As he put it, he “keeled over. I just really ran out of steam and I was too frightened. I just lost it. And a very good friend of mine then paid for my first session [of therapy]. He said, ‘You have to help yourself.’ And I went and I stayed for 10 years.” Speaking of his therapist, Bertram Slaff, who was also gay and Jewish, Sendak would later admit, “I wanted him to hammer me straight, but of course that failed.” But the artist would later praise Slaff, telling Rolling Stone, “a large part of my 20s was spent on the analyst’s couch. And it enriched and deepened me and gave me confidence to express much that I might not have without it.” Slaff and Sendak had much common ground from which to draw during their years of dialogue. Like Sendak, Slaff loved the arts and had even made several earlier attempts at playwriting. In the summer of 1954, while attempting to write a play in a rented house on Nantucket, Slaff would meet a flamboyant writer who lied about his age and invented his family’s past. This writer, Coleman Dowell, would become Slaff’s domestic partner, as well as a close friend of Sendak’s for decades. While Slaff’s playwriting fell by the wayside, Dowell’s daring novels would earn him the friendship of authors like Gilbert Sorrentino, John Hawkes, George Whitmore, and Edmund White. Like Sendak, Dowell was an alienated queer artist concerned with complexities of “the self” and accompanying questions of the physical body, and he too partnered romantically with a psychiatrist interested in the arts.

Slaff might have offered Sendak valuable insight related to his own experience as partner to Dowell. His clinical research surely also spoke to Sendak, focusing in part on the emotional plight of gifted youth, whose creative interiority isolated them from the wider society. Slaff’s publications on adolescent psychiatry would advocate against pathologizing those whose distress reflected merely the suffering of a misunderstood, “creative personality,” rather than a character disorder. Interestingly, in an era that still used coded language for homosexuality, terms like “creative” and “artistic” also referred to gay people. This understanding may have colored Philip Sendak’s uneasiness about the fact that his two sons were working as artists.
Page 99 offers a revealing glimpse of my book’s contents. It presents a turning point in Sendak’s life, following his aborted attempt to move to Manhattan in his twenties in order to begin life as a working artist. Having returned to his parents in Brooklyn, he addresses his emotional challenges through professional analysis. Though this page does not discuss Sendak’s creative works, which comprise a significant portion of each chapter, it spotlights his interior grappling with the social expectations of his time, as well as his solidarity with like-minded observers and outsiders – companions who modeled the ability to maintain child-like faculties of sensitivity and critical awareness into their American adulthoods.

This page also conveys the layering of cultural realities within which the artist moved and created. As the last two sentences suggest, Wild Visionary explores not only Sendak’s personal alienation in American life but also his location in a family with conflicting aspirations. Like other immigrants, the Sendaks strove to achieve American success, as well as to maintain a meaningful connection to their traditional culture and lost worlds. These aspirations cannot be separated from Sendak’s experience of gender and sexuality. For Jewish and other minority immigrants, “becoming American” often meant revising one’s own performance of masculinity, femininity, and other affective and bodily mores in order to better suit the expectations of the dominant culture. As I argue, traditional Eastern European Jewish sensibilities had offered more room for queer fulfillment than did the rigidly binary masculinity and femininity of early and mid-twentieth-century America. At very least, the Old World seemed to offer such fulfillment by nature of its location for immigrants’ children as a theoretical, imagined space of family memory and legend, an ambiguous alternative beyond the strictures imposed through acculturation.

American-born children of twentieth-century immigrants, Sendak included, experienced the particular challenge of emerging between worlds. Raised in crowded, immigrant “ghettoes” that, by Sendak's adolescence, were shrouded in Holocaust mourning, these children never directly knew the lost Old World, nor could they fully belong to the “new” one, at least not without the emotional repercussions of leaving behind those who had sacrificed and lost on their behalf. As my book explores, Sendak navigated this liminality by creating art that tackled these complex feelings, employing the rich symbolism of his own childhood to speak to larger questions about socialization, self-preservation, and the creative resilience required to survive the modern world.
Learn more about Wild Visionary at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue