• Marginalia: Maurice Sendak

    Sonia Feigelson


    For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Sonia Feigelson—whose story “Maroon" appears in our Winter 2024 issue—examines a passage from Bumble-Ardy by Maurice Sendak.

    How many times, in literary circles, are we asked about our favorites? And how often do we fumble the question, reading into it a challenge to our artistic worth, our supposedly impeccable taste? At the end of these evenings, when I am by myself in bed, able at last to answer the question without fear of judgment, I usually find myself thinking of the literature that made me love books in the first place—those dog-eared middle-grade novels and shabby picture books. These childhood classics feel deeply personal, as if the books in question were written solely for us. For me, Bumble-Ardy by Maurice Sendak is one such book.

    Bumble-Ardy was a late-career publication for Sendak. It came out in 2011, nearly fifty years after he wrote Where the Wild Things Are and only a year before his own death, and was written during the painful and slow decline of Dr. Eugene Glynn, his partner of over twenty years. Like much of Sendak’s work, it has dark undertones and seems intended as much for the adult painstakingly reading the story aloud for the hundredth time as for the child to whom it is being read.

    Bumble-Ardy, an orphaned pig who lives in a ramshackle hut with his aunt, decides to throw a costume party, without her permission, to celebrate his ninth birthday. The rest of Bumble-Ardy’s family, who “frowned on fun” and with whom he lived until he was eight, eventually “gorged and gained weight. / And got ate.” His gluttonous family did not celebrate any of Bumble-Ardy’s previous birthdays. But now that he lives with his aunt, the reader hopes, things might be different. Certainly, Aunt Adeline is doing her best to show Bumble-Ardy that she loves him, but the young pig, having already survived his share of negligence and loss, is cautious about matching her affection. Yet when the day of Bumble’s birth arrives, Adeline has to work. She leaves Bumble to his own devices and, in place of a lavish celebration, plans for the two of them to share an intimate dinner after she returns home.

    Bumble-Ardy has other ideas. He wants a party, a big blowout. In most children’s books, this would be the moment when the author’s moralistic judgment intercedes, and the young reader learns to code Bumble’s illicit desire for secrecy and fun as wrong and selfish. Sendak takes another tack. He writes, in the first iteration of the book’s refrain, that Bumble-Ardy’s decision to go behind his aunt’s back and celebrate in style “is just fine.” Here, the keen reader knows that we are dealing with a narrative about shame and guilt, about the pain of wanting to live differently than the way we were raised and not knowing what to do about that desire. Bumble has been, perhaps inadvertently, abandoned by his family; now he gets to choose what of their customs he wants to abandon.

    He throws a costume party, to which he invites “some dirty swine” who live up to their name. During the raucous bacchanal that ensues, they further trash Aunt Adeline’s already shoddy home. We know what will come next. Adeline, returning home early from work, is enraged to find that Bumble-Ardy has disobeyed her. After throwing everyone out, she turns to a terrified Bumble-Ardy and says:

    “Okay smarty, you’ve had your party, now never again.”

    To which Bumble-Ardy replies, through his tears:

    “I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn ten!”

    These two lines are, to me, a craft lesson in dialogue. Adeline and Bumble-Ardy’s exchange keeps me returning to the book, looking for the same twinge of recognition I felt when I first read them.

    Aunt Adeline’s address of her nephew as “smarty” will feel tonally familiar to those readers who, like me, grew up with family who had no qualms about lightly making fun of their offspring. She is honoring a belief Bumble holds about himself whilst simultaneously proving it untrue. Bumble is a smarty; he pulled off his big shebang. Bumble is not a smarty; he got caught doing it. It is a loving remonstration on Adeline’s part—the kind of sharp, slangy dialogue that reveals both the personality of the character and the relationship she shares with the protagonist in the use of a single word. It reminds me of the nudgy, dialect-heavy voices of Philip Roth’s older Jewish women, who are most comfortable expressing their love through mild distaste of its object.

    The next part of the sentence that strikes me are the words “never again.” “Never again” is something we say about historical atrocities—a slogan-style interjection meant to underscore the gravity of an unconscionable act. In the case of Bumble-Ardy, we see these words repurposed to prop up a reprimand about a costume party. Smart writers understand that the language they use is never merely denotative; when we use a word, we are intrinsically evoking its connotative meaning, pulling at strings in the mind of our reader, reminding them of all the other contexts in which the word in question has been used. We learn when to work with and against these cultural associations, webbing together our own narrative with the trappings of the language we employ to tell it. Sendak does this expertly in Adeline’s condemnation of Bumble’s behavior; Bumble encounters her statement as the final judgment on his person, equal to the verdict of an international court. In time, these pivotal childhood wrongs take on the weight of the historical; they become the mythos through which we make sense of ourselves, and the frameworks through which we explain our self-conception to others.

    When we understand the level of crime Bumble-Ardy feels he has committed in this way, his desperate response takes on even more poignancy. This is dialogue at its most subtly aphoristic—when the words that come out of a character’s mouth feel both lived and fabled. Don’t we believe that Bumble-Ardy means his promise? Embedded in his phrasing is the unconscious truth—just as he will inevitably turn ten, he will sin against his family again. At our most remorseful and repentant, we always think that it is the last time we will cross such a line, and nearly all the time, we are wrong. We reveal our misunderstandings of the nature of our misdeeds in our apologies. Unwittingly, we act out and do not comprehend the consequences of our actions until we are confronted with them—to which we swear we will never want, never yearn for those disallowed pleasures again. But we cannot stop ourselves turning ten.

    Embedded in this phrasing is, too, the fact of Bumble-Ardy’s unalterable loss, and the implication that, in some way, he may remain nine long past his future birthdays, whether somber or riotous. In a 2011 interview with the Paris Review, Sendak describes these lines as “self-annihilating.” “There is a sense that he is frozen,” Sendak says:

    But, you see, Bumble is my less mature self. He is the little boy who wasn’t sure he’d live, let alone grow up. I’m not afraid of annihilation. I’m not afraid of death. But I just want to know more. I want to know more before I go.

    Cheers, then, to Dionysian parties and to picture books, to knowing more and never learning.

    Sonia Feigelson is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, and Passages North, among others. She is a Senior Editor at Joyland and teaches at Gotham Writers.

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