Graphic Childhood: Danger and Desire in Sendak’s NY Night Kitchen
In his timeless and renowned picture books, Jewish American artist Maurice Sendak drew from comics, animated films, and other spectacles of a 1930s New York City childhood. Published in 1970, In The Night Kitchen employs comic book conventions and borrows visual and narrative ideas from Winsor McCay’s early twentieth-century strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Sendak painted childhood as a profound and dangerous negotiation between individual passions and pleasures, societal codes of behavior, and the visceral emotions attached to both. Specifically as a WWII-era son of Jewish immigrants and as a sensitive queer American male, his boyhood experience of endangerment, alienation, pleasure, and desire were complicated and heightened in the increasingly commercial urban atmosphere of twentieth-century New York. This context exacerbated the pervasive presence of desire and danger underlying a changing American world that children, targeted by growing advertisers and popular media, were asked to navigate beyond the competence of Old World parents. Children of Jews and other immigrant minorities experienced this commercialized alienation from parents’ desires even more starkly (and queer children, further, experienced particular alienations from their own desires beyond the mainstream). With its expansive dreamlike possibilities and wild pacing, comics, developed largely by American Jews, spotlighted the conflicts and adventures of new freedoms, dual identities, moral guilt, and deep anxieties, as well as the specific emotional market forming around child consumers. Using Sendak interviews, a close reading of his work, early twentieth-century pamphlets, and secondary sources, my paper analyzes how Sendak’s work draws from comics and popular commercial culture to articulate social and emotional shifts related to childhood in an era that restructured American family around specialized consumer markets. These developments, articulated in comics and other art forms, both estranged American children from their parents and generated or mirrored for those children the graphic desires and dangers that seemed beyond adult comprehension.
GOLAN MOSKOWITZ is a Brandeis University doctoral student with a background in studio art, gender studies, psychology, and modern Jewish history. With emphases on popular visual culture and the gendered construction of American childhood, his work examines post-Holocaust experience and art through the interdisciplinary prism of cultural studies. Golan is the creator of an unpublished graphic narrative that explores embodied intersections of Holocaust family heritage and queer boyhood.