Many of us at HUP were saddened this week by the death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Among those most moved were editor Lindsay Waters and designer Jill Breitbarth, who remain grateful to Sendak for allowing our use of an illustration from his accompaniment to Joel Agee’s translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea on the cover of our 2004 book A New History of German Literature. Below, Waters and Breitbarth recall how we came to use Sendak’s work.
For me German culture came alive in the drawings and artwork of artists who fled to America before and after World War II, from the artists who made Little Golden Books, Stefan and George Salter, and the book designers and illustrators inspired by them. It was a style, a tone of dark forests where children get lost within seconds of losing sight of their parents, all of a sudden menaced by scary creatures. Maurice Sendak captured and developed this style to and beyond the point of vertigo. He went to the heart of what was scary in German culture, just as he’d journeyed to the heart of American darkness with Herman Melville.
Our New History of German Literature begins with a spell, an account of the very first document consisting of what is recognizably German language, something written on the back of a Latin manuscript which is held in the monastery at Fulda. The German literary tradition is enchanted. Who better to convey that complex history than Maurice Sendak, whose work helped so many to feel that chilling fright for the first time? So we approached him for permission to use one of the illustrations from his edition of Heinrich von Kleist’s plays. It was like a dream come true when he decided eventually that our book was a project he was willing to be a part of. The person who’d made German language culture come alive for me was going to help bring our epic, thousand-page account of that culture to the world.
Lindsay was eager to use one of Sendak’s illustrations from Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist for the jacket of A New History of German Literature, and I was thrilled to make a go of it. Getting permission to use the piece involved lots of phone calls between our camp and Sendak’s assistants. At one point, when a little tweaking was necessary, Sendak wished to speak directly with me. I was nervous thinking I would be talking with Sendak. I was such a fan.
We covered the design issues quickly and went right into politics. Sendak bemoaned the recent re-election of George Bush, that the war in Iraq had ever started, and that so many people close to him were dying. His passions were real and he had no qualms about sharing them with a person he’d never met. Sendak was respectful, and I felt I was talking with an honest man, sensitive to history and emotions.