I find Donald Phelps’ writing style maddening; circumlocution is piled on parapraxis until all you can really see is the giant, rather desperate sign waving back and forth: “Kiss me! I’m erudite!”
Nonetheless, his new column in TCJ is tackling interesting subjects. Last time out he talked about the classic pulp occult novels of Manley Wade Wellman, which look pretty fabulous. In TCJ 294, he compares Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, which is a fun topic to think about, even if, (to no one’s astonishment) I disagree with everything he says.
Phelps’ basic point is that Sendak is better than Seuss because Sendak is more of a formalist. In the selection below, he’s talking particularly about a 1934 comic strip by Seuss which is fairly chaotic and ignores panel borders.
An object lesson, I might suggest, in the liabilities of kindergarten chaos as practiced ad infinitum by Giesel. It involves the jettison of form, embodied, in the example just cited, in those ubiquitous panel boundaries: expandable (as Hal Foster and Billy DeBeck variously demonstrated) but very, very seldom, if ever, dispensable or, challengeable, at least, as obtusely as Seuss challenged them. Form: that which delimits, that which demarks, that which identifies, in children’s art especially — like that of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak. Form entails a sense of the imagination’s geography and its component laws.
Such a geographic sense, along with the commitment it would appear to involve, has never been evident for me in the fantastical outpourings of Theodore Giesel. One recalls once more — somewhat querying — the little homilies embodied in some of the later books: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, Horton Hatches the Egg. Aren’t such sermonettes the occasional warning or symptom that the author, albeit with whatever benign and public-spirited sentiments — recognizes (make that: re-recognizes) the work of his hands as a Marketable Commodity. And one might observe: a symptom of the deficiency of form, one might say, the integrity of the artist’s work, as manifested in laws, not homilies.
Phelps then goes on to laud Sendak for being more restrained and controlled:
The stories of Sendak unfold themselves in gravely exact segments of action, by soberly defined anatomies, enacting the fables in compact but soberly graphic pantomime. The pictures as a rule are not enclosed save by the pages’ white margins, the concentrated imagery suggesting a dream’s flickering vignettes. Yet, I can not sufficiently mark the tone of earthy, almost prosaic reality that Sendak bestows on his visions.
So to sum up, Seuss is uncontrolled, overly commercial, and kind of gauche. Sendak is controlled, brimming with artistic integrity, and classy.
The difference between Seuss and Sendak, in other words, isn’t only, or primarily, that Sendak is more interested in form. Phelps can natter on all he wants about the link between homilies and formlessness,capitalizing “Marketable Commodity” just to make it look more official, but that doesn’t change the fact that the central claim is complete bullshit. An interest in neat moral packages doesn’t have jack to do with how much of a formalist you are. Hogarth and Grunewald have pretty solid formal virtues I’d argue; so does Art Young. And for that matter, as far as language goes, Seuss, with his strict doggerel rhythms and rhymes, is much more interested in form than Sendak, who works in much looser verse or in prose, and who includes frequent asides and narrative wavering. Phelps is merely the victim of a common modernist critical confusion; the assumption that if an artist is willing to put meaning in his work, then that work must be formally bankrupt. This is a pernicious doctrine, and it should be hooted.
No, what Phelps is really getting at, undercover of his muddled cry of “form!”, is that Sendak is — definitively, self-consciously — high-brow. Sendak references Winsor McCay. He fetishizes volk culture (folk tales, nursery rhymes, his own ethnic roots.) He likes tweaking the bourgeoisie with a little bit of nudity here, some impish rebellion there. His books thrive on an improvisatory cleverness akin to that now thoroughly high-brow music, jazz (as in, say, “Hector Protector”, where the nursery rhyme “As I went over the water”, where the most memorable image is of a sea-monster mentioned nowhere in the text.)
Seuss, on the other hand, is a big, fat, middle-brow. He doesn’t tweak the bourgeoisie; he embraces them, with long screeds about how great democracy is and what a wonderful thing it is to celebrate Christmas. The volk he loves aren’t ethnic; they’re the deracinated Americana, with their lovely rituals of high-school graduation and self-help rhetoric. He doesn’t bother with old, fusty nursery rhymes…why should he, when he can make up twelve of his own just as easily?
In other words, I think that, in choosing Sendak over Seuss, Phelps is just proving that which should come as a shock to no one who has read his prose; namely, that he prefers the pose of an aesthete to the pose of an entertainer. That’s certainly not always the wrong choice, but I think it is in this instance. Sendak has done a lot of great books, and is a wonderful artist, but for me, at least, his pretentions can start to grate — he certainly *is* clever, but I wish occasionally he’d spend less time pointing it out, and more time telling a story that my son actually wanted to pay attention to. Seuss, on the other hand, may reek a bit of greasepaint and the uplift, but he sets off so many verbal and visual fireworks that I find it impossible to take offense.
Plus, Fox in Socks is, hands down, not-even-worth-discussing, my favorite book to read aloud ever…with the possible exception of Seuss’ very entertaining tongue-twister follow up, Oh Say Can You Say.