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

“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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Happy 50th Birthday, Equal Pay Act: A Brief History and Future of the Gender Wage Gap

“Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs.”

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law — a historic bill that aimed to abolish wage discrimination on the basis of gender in an era when newspapers published separate job listings for men and women. It stated:

No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section [section 206 of title 29 of the United States Code] shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

In her fantastic book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), which tells the untold story of the lawsuit that changed the modern workplace, Lynn Povich contextualizes the monumental role the act played in turning the tide on gender-based discrimination:

In just about every industry, “office work” for women meant secretarial jobs and typing pools. Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs. In the 1950s, full-time working women earned on average between fifty-nine and sixty-four cents for every dollar men earned in the same job. It wasn’t until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in June 1963 that it became illegal to pay women a lower rate for the same job. And there were very few professional women. Until around 1970, women comprised fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.

Upon signing the Equal Pay Act, JFK remarked:

I am delighted today to approve the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages. This act represents many years of effort by labor, management, and several private organizations unassociated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job. This measure adds to our laws another structure basic to democracy. It will add protection at the working place to the women, the same rights at the working place in a sense that they have enjoyed at the polling place.

While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity — for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men — this legislation is a significant step forward.

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963.
Image: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs; courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

But for all its significance, the EPA was still crippled by the era’s gender stereotypes — for its first nine years, it didn’t extend to executive or even administrative-level jobs, thus rendering white-collar women professionals exempt from and unaffected by the new anti-discrimination policy. It wasn’t until 1972 — the same year that groundbreaking feminism magazine Ms. forever changed women’s visibility, that the Educational Amendment extended coverage to the executive class. In 2009, in the first signing of his presidency, Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on the statute of limitations on gender-unequal paychecks and holding each such paycheck as a new violation to the law.

So where are we today, half a century after the EPA’s passing? Not too far, it seems: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that women’s wages have risen from 62% to 80% of men’s in the three decades following 1970, but there is still a palpable wage gap or, as some have argued, a job gap — even if it is smaller than myth suggests. Even though women are earning more higher education degrees, gender inequality in the workforce still exists. And yet, some critics are ringing the death toll on men’s income dominance, largely due to the tipping of the education scales:

What are we to make of all this? (Pete Seeger might have some thoughts.) At the end of the day, policy is only half the battle in winning the war on society’s most heartbreaking instances of gender inequality. When it comes to work, however much employment may be legislated, there might, just might, be greater gratification in finding our purpose and pursuing fulfilling work by defining our own success rather than being somebody’s employee.

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How We Spend Our Days Is How We Spend Our Lives: Annie Dillard on Presence Over Productivity

“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less.”

The meaning of life has been pondered by such literary icons as Leo Tolstoy (1904), Henry Miller (1918), Anaïs Nin (1946), Viktor Frankl (1946), Italo Calvino (1975), and David Foster Wallace (2005). And though some have argued that today’s age is one where “the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” there’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — a wonderful addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — comes this beautiful and poignant meditation on the life well lived, reminding us of the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She goes on to illustrate this existential tension between presence and productivity with a fine addition to history’s great daily routines and daily rituals:

The most appealing daily schedule I know is that of a turn-of-the-century Danish aristocrat. He got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe. At eleven he met his friends, who had also been out hunting alone all morning. They converged “at one of these babbling brooks,” he wrote. He outlined the rest of his schedule. “Take a quick dip, relax with a schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, and then sit around and chat until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on white tie and tails to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living…. Could it be more perfect?”

Dillard juxtaposes the Danish aristocrat’s revelry in everyday life with the grueling routine of a couple of literary history’s most notorious self-disciplinarians:

Wallace Stevens in his forties, living in Hartford, Connecticut, hewed to a productive routine. He rose at six, read for two hours, and walked another hour—three miles—to work. He dictated poems to his secretary. He ate no lunch; at noon he walked for another hour, often to an art gallery. He walked home from work—another hour. After dinner he retired to his study; he went to bed at nine. On Sundays, he walked in the park. I don’t know what he did on Saturdays. Perhaps he exchanged a few words with his wife, who posed for the Liberty dime. (One would rather read these people, or lead their lives, than be their wives. When the Danish aristocrat Wilhelm Dinesen shot birds all day, drank schnapps, napped, and dressed for dinner, he and his wife had three children under three. The middle one was Karen.)

[…]

Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

At the heart of these anecdotes of living is a dynamic contemplation of life itself:

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

The Writing Life is sublime in its entirety, the kind of book that stays with you for lifetimes.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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