Brain Pickings

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius

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“That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.”

The great Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 — May 8, 2012) endures as one of the most beloved authors of literature for children the world has ever known, and yet without the care and support of legendary mid-century children’s book editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), he may have always remained the insecure young artist he once was. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing — comes this remarkably heart-warming letter Nordstrom sent young Sendak, who had written her full of self-doubt as he was setting out to illustrate a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood by Tolstoy. Amidst the toxic mythology of the self-publishing era, the missive illustrates the life-changing role of an extraordinary editor who transcends her professional role to be part friend, part psychotherapist, part sage, and wholly the kind of extraordinary celebrator amplifying the author’s talent and lifting his spirit that made Nordstrom who she was and who any great editor ought to be.

She begins by reminding young Sendak that there are many kinds of genius and an artist could benefit from a more dimensional definition:

August 21, 1961

Dear Maurice,

[…]

Your cabin by the lake, and your own boat, sound fine. Please remember that the moon will be full on Friday, the 25th, and take a look at it. It should be beautiful over Lake Champlain.

I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.

Nikolenka's Childhood by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)

In assuaging Sendak’s anxiety about self-absorption, Nordstrom adds to history’s most memorable meditations on art in a sentiment philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to echo in her admonition against despising one’s inner world, and offers an amusingly accurate micro-critique of Moby-Dick:

I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly — with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me… All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments — just facts.

The great Russians and Melville and Balzac etc. wrote in another time, in leisure, to be read in leisure. I know what you mean about those long detailed rich novels — my god the authors knew all about war, and agriculture, and politics. But that is one type of writing, for a more leisurely time than ours. You have your own note to sound, and you are sounding it with greater power and beauty all the time. Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out? Does that offend you, coming from a presumptuous editor? I remember lines of the most piercing beauty (after he made a friend there was something beautiful about “no more would my splintered hand and shattered heart be turned against the wolfish world.”) But there are many passages which could have been cut. But I wander…

In a beautiful passage that eloquently captures what we already know about genius — that without discipline and work ethic, creativity is a hapless muse, but also that emotional excess is critical for creativity — Nordstrom assures Sendak that the best cure for his creative block is simply showing up, again and again:

You wrote “my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling.” Well feeling (emotion) combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE. You also wrote “Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work” — a true statement, and also very well put. But it would include self knowledge for some as well as knowledge of facts for others. (Is this English I’m writing? I need an editor.)

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.

Like beloved novelist Isabel Allende, who famously asserted that what moves her to write is the desire to bring a sense of order to the chaos of life, Nordstrom reminds Sendak that this longing is the greatest blessing — even when it feels like a curse — of the creative artist:

You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

After wishing young Maurice a wonderful vacation and signing, Nordstrom ends the letter with an infinitely heartening postscript:

You know one of these days you’ll go back to Old Potato*, or a version of that situation, and it will have “cohesion and purpose” and will have so many universal emotions within its relatively simple framework. Love, fear, acceptance, rejection, re-assurance, and growth. No more for now.

Two years later, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for which he remains best-known and which Nordstrom edited, was published.

Dear Genius, which brims with Nordstrom’s legendary heart and wit, features much more of her correspondence with Sendak — who, fittingly, drew Nordstrom’s portrait on the cover of the book. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints, this illustrated adaptation of Terry Gross’s moving conversation with the author, and the very last interview with him — by Colbert, no less.

* Sendak’s uncompleted manuscript for a novel set in Brooklyn about the friendship between a little boy nicknamed “Old Potato” and a gentle solitary man who lived in the neighborhood.

Painting by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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