Maurice Sendak’s Bawdy Illustrations For Herman Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

pierre 1

Mau­rice Sendak—like some few oth­er excep­tion­al children’s authors—also did work for adults, and in at least one case, did adult work, in his illus­tra­tions for a con­tro­ver­sial 1995 edi­tion of Her­man Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambi­gu­i­ties. The draw­ings are erot­ic, as well as homo­erot­ic, illus­trat­ing the gay sub­text in the nov­el. Sendak may seem like an unlike­ly illus­tra­tor for the Moby Dick author’s work; he was already an unlike­ly Amer­i­can children’s lit­er­ary icon—“Jewish, gay, poor,” he nonethe­less became “a major cul­tur­al influ­ence,” writes blog BLT. As Sendak declared in an inter­view with Bill Moy­ers, he learned to “find a sep­a­rate peace” from his own anx­i­ety not through reli­gious faith but through a “total faith in art.” “My gods,” Sendak told Moy­ers, “are Her­man Melville, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Mozart,” among oth­ers. The author of Pierre fig­ured high­ly in that divine hier­ar­chy.

pierre 2

But Melville, at the time of Pierre’s pub­li­ca­tion, was not loved as a god. Shunned by crit­ics and the read­ing pub­lic after the dev­as­tat­ing recep­tion accord­ed Moby Dick, his self-pro­fessed great­est work, Melville felt fur­ther humil­i­at­ed when his pub­lish­er demand­ed he accept 20 cents on the dol­lar instead of 50 for the next nov­el, Pierre. Crushed, he signed the new con­tract. Then, though he had been sat­is­fied with Pierre, con­sid­er­ing the nov­el fin­ished at the end of 1851, he added 150 pages, much of it a scathing, sar­don­ic indict­ment of the lit­er­ary estab­lish­ment, includ­ing a non-too-sub­tle chap­ter titled “Young Lit­er­a­ture in Amer­i­ca.”

pierre 3

Whether the expan­sion was, as Maria Popo­va sug­gests at Brain Pick­ings, an elo­quent riposte to his crit­ics, or, as Library Jour­nal sug­gests, made at the behest of his pub­lish­ers (unlike­ly) is unclear. Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware pro­fes­sor Her­schel Park­er, the Melville schol­ar who edit­ed the Sendak edi­tion of Pierre, admits, “we had NOT known when the expan­sion start­ed and had not known just why.” Sendak him­self describes Pierre as “a great and inge­nious work of art.” Of the notion that Melville’s addi­tions were “a vin­dic­tive dia­tribe against all his crit­ics” Sendak spec­u­lates, “he might have been mad and hurt—He must have been mad and hurt. But he wouldn’t have spent that much time on a book being just mad and hurt.”

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Sendak, a life­long ama­teur Melville schol­ar, knows what he’s talk­ing about. His famil­iar­i­ty with the author is such that his opin­ion was cit­ed approv­ing­ly in the acknowl­edg­ments of a schol­ar­ly edi­tion of Moby Dick. Despite Sendak’s com­ments in defense of Melville’s lat­er addi­tions, his and Park­er’s ver­sion of Pierre attempts to strip them out and restore the nov­el to its ear­li­er form, one Melville called his “Krak­en book.” Sendak appar­ent­ly ini­ti­at­ed the project in order to pub­lish the draw­ings. In them, writes John Bryan in a review for Col­lege Eng­lish, “Pierre is a full-blown ado­les­cent: mus­cu­lar, ecsta­t­ic, des­per­ate, devot­ed, and lone­ly; he is the man-child invin­ci­ble.” The novel’s hero spends much of his time a blue Super­man out­fit, “red cape and all,” so tight “that it is skin itself, con­ceal­ing noth­ing.”


Bib­liokept com­pares the illus­tra­tions to William Blake. They also con­tain ref­er­ences to Goya and oth­er artists who explored the grotesque, as well as the mor­bid, trans­gres­sive sex­u­al­i­ty of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. “Nowhere else in the his­to­ry of Melville illus­tra­tion,” writes John Bryan, “do we find such open­ings into the latent sex­u­al­i­ty of Melville’s prose.” Brain Pick­ings describes the draw­ings as “the most sex­u­al­ly expres­sive of any of his work, fea­tur­ing 27 dis­cernible nip­ples and 11 male ‘pack­ages’…. Bold, unapolo­getic, and incred­i­bly sen­su­al, the illus­tra­tions are also sub­tly sub­ver­sive in their treat­ment of gen­der iden­ti­ty and stereo­types.”

See many more of these hero­ic and sen­su­al illus­tra­tions at Brain Pick­ings. “The Krak­en Edi­tion”—as Sendak’s Pierre is called—can be had in rather pricey hard­cov­er or used, and appar­ent­ly now out of print, paper­back.

via Bib­liok­lept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Only Draw­ing from Mau­rice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illus­trate The Hob­bit

Mau­rice Sendak’s Emo­tion­al Last Inter­view with NPR’s Ter­ry Gross, Ani­mat­ed by Christoph Nie­mann

An Ani­mat­ed Christ­mas Fable by Mau­rice Sendak (1977)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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