[This post records my contribution to Banned Book Week, which was delivered at MSU’s Mitchell Library as part of a faculty read-out. My thanks to Rachel Cannady for the invitation and for organizing and chairing the session.]
Yours truly at MSU’s Banned Books Week Read-Out (Grisham Room, Mitchell Memorial Library)
Unlike almost all of my fellow presenters today, I have the luxury of being able to read you the entirety of my story. Ideally we’d have the book between us and we’d turn the pages together. Alas, powerpoint and digital projection will have to do. I’ll show the book double-page by double-page, and a digital “wipe” effect will be our page turn. Even if we’ll miss the reaching out, the touch of the paper, the breath of displaced air, and the gentle crackle of the turn, something of the revelation of the fresh page will, I trust, survive. Hands, mouth, eye… touch, voice, brain—such is the gloriously sensuous world of the picture book. Nobody has created and charted this terrain better than Maurice Sendak.
So without further ado, I give you In the Night Kitchen.
[Dear blog reader, in lieu of my own voice, I can give you something better. Click here to see a video of James Gandolfini reading the story.]
Mickey, dressed and undressed
Yes, I have heard of Mickey. Too often, and especially at this time of year, what I hear involves censorship. What’s all the fuss? There are the usual stories of the book being removed from libraries, and of copies being bought en masse from bookshops, in an attempt to take them out of circulation. (Some people, let it be noted, really need that ECON 101 class.) Mostly, there are tales of a subtler and more insidious form of censorship—an expurgation of the offending detail. For, as a character, Mickey comes fully endowed, endowed (certainly) with fun derring-do, with inventiveness, and also showing moments of testiness, doubt, and swagger.
Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.
But I’ll be blunt: like almost all boys (and naked boys especially) Mickey has a penis. To be sure, it’s a modestly-sized and apparently well-behaved penis, but it’s a penis nonetheless. And though it only appears in about five of the book’s panels, to the censorious mind it may as well be everywhere. In the Night Kitchen has been reduced to a cock-and-balls story. And though Mickey also has a backside, this apparently only bothers a subsection of the offended.
Our subtler censors acknowledge the merits of Sendak’s book in unexpected ways. As we are about to see, they have devoted time and labour to the job of rectifying Sendak’s “lapses” precisely so that the book might stay on the shelves, albeit in an altered and diminished form.
So let the wild fashion rumpus begin!
Mickey number 1 is wearing the very latest in cobalt-blue swimming trunks—useful for the child who insists on swimming in milk.
While this little Mickey’s fetching briefs nicely complement his unruly shock of black hair.
Our third Mickey is trying to “make it work” with a white-out diaper, complete with fastener.
And our final Mickey has donned a sloppily constructed and semi-transparent paper slip, which—truth be told—seems only to encourage us to look further. As Sendak himself has noted, sometimes such “quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky.” Case in point!
(An aside: even google managed to fudge Mickey’s nudity in a otherwise charming animated doodle they made in honour of Sendak. We see Mickey jumping from the plane and into the bottle, where he disappears into the opaque milk, never to emerge again. Given the long history of discomfort with Mickey’s nudity, this appears to be a case of bottling out.)
I’m going to go out on a limb and state that however fine these unknown artists are, not one of them improves upon Sendak’s art.I rather wish that they had invested in a copy of the “Coloring Book” version of In the Night Kitchen, where they could have embellished Sendak’s art ad infinitum.
Instead, these additions stick out and are not all-of-a-piece with the rest of Sendak’s exquisitely colored world. This repeats the self-defeating logic of censorship, which tends to draw our attention to the censored object, rather than away from it. Mark Twain comments on this phenomenon in A Tramp Abroad, while considering the statues of Rome and Florence. “These works,” he notes “…. stood in innocent nakedness for ages [but] are all fig-leaved now…. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous.”
Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, V&A Museum, circa 1857
Stephen Colbert put his finger on these matters (aesthetic integration, censorship, attention) during an interview with Sendak. Playing the role of outraged moralist, Colbert produced a copy of In The Night Kitchen that had had all the offending parts cut out in neat circle…. only to be collected in a zip-lock bag.
Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.
As the Encyclopedia of Censorship summarizes the matter, the chief charges leveled against In the Night Kitchen are that the book desensitizes “children to nudity.” “… If nudity is acceptable in a kindergarten children’s story,” worries a concerned source, “how can I teach my children that Playboy is unacceptable?” One thing leads quickly to another and, before you can say “slippery slope,” we find claims like this: “children are taught their private parts are private. This book is contrary to this teaching.”
It is inconvenient for these critics that the structure of the narrative underlines the fact that Mickey is usually dressed and, indeed, that this is the normal state of affairs. His nudity accompanies his free-floating journey into the dream world of the night kitchen, where the usual rules are suspended. Concealing Mickey’s nudity both dilutes dream logic, where nudity often plays an important role, and interferes with an important and delightful sequence in the story: Mickey’s progression from blue pajamas, to nudity, to a sticky romper suit of partly cooked batter, to this suit’s milky disintegration and a return to nudity, to the security of a blanket, before finally ending up back in those same blue pajamas.
Mickey’s Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.
Big Mickey and the breeches
To an art historian, all these unwarranted and ham-fisted interventions bring to mind a story about the biggest Mickey of them all: Michelangelo. Famously, soon after the artist’s death, his Last Judgment was subject to an aggressive cover-up campaign; draperies were painted over the genitals and backsides of many figures.Daniele da Volterra, the artist responsible for many of these additions promptly acquired the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-maker”).
Figures from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.
But the potential problem had been recognized three decades earlier, when Michelangelo was still painting the work. Giorgio Vasari tells the story:
When Michelangelo had completed about three quarters of the work, Pope Paul went to see it, and Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of the ceremonies, was with him, and when he was asked what he thought of it, he answered that he thought it not right to have so many naked figures in the Pope’s chapel. This displeased Michelangelo, and to revenge himself…. he painted him [Cesena] in the character of Minos with a great serpent twisted round his legs.
Vasari omits to mention exactly what the snake is doing to Minos-slash-Cesena: you can see for yourself that the punishment fits the crime. And though I certainly wouldn’t want to consign Mickey’s censors to hell, let alone subject them to this particular torment, I wish I could have magically shown them Michelangelo’s figure just before they set about “correcting” Sendak’s work.
Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind!
Published in 1970, two years before I was born, I somehow missed In the Night Kitchen as a child. Mickey caught up with me much later, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time reading to my own kids. This, I discovered, is one of the pleasures of parenting: you suddenly have permission to revisit your favorite childhood books, as well as hunting down newer books or new-to-you books. Children will insist on having the same books read to them again and again. So, from the adult reader’s point of view, there’s a simple test of quality: a good children’s book is one that hasn’t driven you mad after, say, three dozen readings.
Sendak’s book passes this test with flying colours, and I want to mention just a few of the reasons why I love this book, and indicate some of the ways it has stimulated me aesthetically and intellectually. To do so is, in part, a way of resisting the impulse to censor, which insists on a partial reading of the book at the expense of all other responses.
For starters, take Sendak’s language, which is simply fun to read, especially out loud. With its alliteration, rhymes, and rhythms, there’s a musicality to his words, as though they are aspiring to song or to jazz. Reveling in its own riffs, the book’s plot seems to emerge out of verbal playfulness: Mick and Milk, Mickey and milky, Mickey’s way and the milky way, Mickey the milkman, and even—perhaps—the idea of slipping a Mickey (to add something that really shouldn’t be there).
The story is also an elegant homage to Winsor McCay, one of the founding figures of modern comics, and particularly to MacCay’s greatest creation, Little Nemo. Both Nemo and Mickey are boys whose dream adventures begin and end in bed. Sendak uses the visual language McCay helped to invent and adapts it to the picture book format.
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)
Consider, for example, the brilliance with which Sendak handles the motif of rising and falling objects. As Mickey emerges out of bed, he tumbles from one double page to the next. At the same time we immediately understand that, as we are turning the first few pages, we are also falling between three floors—a descent only completed when our battered hero is dispatched into the “Mickey Oven.”
The rest of the book spins an intricate web of further ups and downs.Mickey jumps down into bread dough while the moon ascends, and his yeasty plane rises up as the moon descends.
Mickey rises and the moon sinks.
Then—playing the cockerel—he heralds the rising sun and slides down the milk bottle. But where does he land up as he escapes through the floor of the Night Kitchen? Back at the top of his bedroom—a space that by all accounts should be some three stories above him.The ending of the book continues the motion established in the first few pages, and if we combine the opening and closing sequences, as though turning them into a single page from a comic book, we get a clear sense of the beautifully paradoxical world that Sendak has created.
Three double pages turned into one page.
The night kitchen is below Mickey and above him; he is in the night kitchen and the night kitchen is in him. As an object set into motion, Mickey finally comes to rest. Sendak, as they say in gymnastics, helps him stick his landing.Through his beautiful handling of word and image—where each has its own appeal, and one adds to the other—Sendak creates something wonderful and catalytic. To paraphrase William Blake:
There is an art of words
And an art of picturing
And there is an art of arts
In which these two arts sing.
In the Night Kitchen is both a book about a dream and the stuff that dreams are made of.
When I agreed to give this talk, I decided to check up on the Mickey in our own library—just to see how he was faring. There’s good news and bad news. The good is that no Mickey has been tampered with; the bad is that there is no copy of the book in the MSU library system, excepting a copy in the Meridian campus. So since, like morning cake, we need more of Mickey not less of him, I would like to finish today by donating a copy of In the Night Kitchen to the library.
MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and the inside cover of my In the Night Kitchen gift (now accessioned)
But if anyone meddles with this Mickey…. well I won’t hesitate to summon Michelangelo and beg him to go and mess with their dreams.
[Send comments, questions, and cake to firstname.lastname@example.org]