Watch: David Letterman: The Late Night Television Anti-Hero

Watch: David Letterman: The Late Night Television Anti-Hero

If you were alive in the 1980s and you turned on NBC at 12:35 AM,
the very last activity you would have seen David Letterman doing on
“Late Night” is fawning over baby pictures—as he did during his final
days of public life. 

In fact
Letterman was TVs first and now its last grumpy old man, except he was
in his thirties at the time and looking at this video essay, it’s hard
to believe a guy this thorny, someone who spent
this much time torching his bosses and ripping away at a pretentious
celebrity modus operandi—could be on television for more than three
minutes, much less over 30 years.

How does one explain his success?

In interviews
Letterman likes to give all the credit away for his success to his hero,
the great Johnny Carson, and more than occasionally, he even
acknowledges the influence of Steve Allen, the first helmsman of that
NBC institution known as the Tonight Show and perhaps its most talented
performer.  (Before anyone insists Jimmy Fallon takes the crown on this
point, take a look at Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds,” which he created
and wrote for PBS, and tell me if our latest occupant of Tonight could
pull off something so erudite.)

Letterman’s approach to late night TV may have channeled his
predecessors in certain ways—like Letterman, Johnny Carson could
belittle and destroy his guests in a single sentence—the Letterman who
rose to cultural prominence at the end of the Cold War was a singularly
crass, awkward, slightly misogynistic, fearless truth-teller. 

And that’s why we loved him. 

eternal brilliance lies in his expansive mastery of the components of
humor: the set-up and the punchline, i.e. the story and the funny

First, unlike
the 2015 version of himself, Letterman in the 1980s was absolutely not a willing member of America’s celebritocracy—that cult of celebrity
which had always been a large part of show business culture. 

But, what
Letterman possessed from the beginning was an uncanny ability to search
for comedic set-ups in visual, verbal and intellectual spaces where no
other performer thought to look. He was intelligent, well read and
lightening fast. Any sentence uttered—stupid or intelligent—on “Late
Night with David Letterman” could be made a slave to his opportunistic,
devastating punchlines—with emphasis on the word “punch.” 

And it didn’t
matter who you were—network executives, respected celebrities, stupid
humans, stupid pets and his most prolific target of all, Letterman
himself. No wonder Cher called him an asshole. No one was safe.

Before he
leaves for good, one must acknowledge his huge influence. “Late Night
with David Letterman” taught an entire generation not only how to search
for the perfect comedic set up but also what it means to deliver a
foolproof punchline. In college I watched this sweet anarchy day after
glorious day, as the comedian casually lobbed stick after stick of
verbal dynamite into the key light biosphere, this wanton behavior
continuing unabated for a decade and a half.

But, young
David Letterman was not stupid. He understood himself and his audience
extremely well, and he walked the line between hero and anti-hero,
between TV pioneer and social pariah for as long as he could and as he
aged and matured, he even knew when to step away from that line. 

So, here he
is again in full “Dave,” before the anti-depressants, before the lessons
of the sex scandal, before the birth of his son Harry, before his
heroes had ascended to the next life and left him alone.  

I was recently waiting in line at the post office. 

The lines are
long these days at the busy location in central Plano, Texas because
that branch has staffed down, and one can be sure that sending a parcel
these days is a deeply boring and cynical experience as an impersonal
staff and an uninterested system wastes your time and pisses you off.

A half hour
or so later, I had placed my package in the system, and I was walking
toward the exit. I spied a middle-aged African-American man shaking
his head and sighing in frustration. He was at the end of a very long

I walked up to him and extended a hand which he grasped as if it were a life line.

“The cocktail waitress will be around in a few minutes,” I said to him. “Buy yourself a rum and Coke. I hear they’re amazing.”

The man smiled and laughed. 

For those of us who watched it, “Late Night with David Letterman” continues.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.

A Video Essay on THE X-FILES: Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head

A Video Essay on THE X-FILES: Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head

What is the American Dream?

Is it wealth? Power? Or it is something more existential like raising a family with a particular set of values?

By season 4, the X-Files was already considered one of the sickest, most graphic expressions of pop culture ever to be featured on a major network. That reputation could only have encouraged writers Glen Morgan and James Wong to craft “Home,” with imagery so disgusting that it transcends its place in X-Files lore and stands next to the classics of the horror genre.

In October of 1996, 18 million viewers watched their favorite paranormal FBI investigators, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, enter the realm of The Peacocks, a mysterious family living in an isolated village called Home, Pennsylvania.

A grotesquely disfigured baby has been discovered near the Peacock house, buried at home plate on a baseball diamond frequented by young boys.

But what the writers of this story really want you to know is that this traditional American town is really . . . . Mayberry. 

Yep, that Mayberry. And Mulder can’t help but lose himself to the allure of Main street America, its nostalgia proving too strong to resist.

Sure the town of Home has baseball, cadillacs, a sheriff named Andy Taylor, a deputy named Barney and the traditional small-town architecture. But, don’t be fooled. If this represents the pinnacle of traditional small town American values, then what we see portrayed in “Home” are the rat-infested ruins of those same ideals. But, like Mulder in the opening scenes, Sheriff Taylor doesn’t see the rotting corpse.

An examination of the dead baby’s body reveals the Peacock’s are somehow breeding with each other, producing offspring with serious physical and health defects.

It is at this moment in the episode where Scully and Mulder make the fateful decision to invade the Peacock’s homestead with guns drawn.

Do the Peacocks deserve to be invaded this way? There doesn’t seem to be authentic evil shrouded beneath their lifestyle choices. For certain, an investigation into the baby’s death is warranted. But, is this an FBI matter? When you consider that incest law varies from state to state–in New Jersey, for example, there are no criminal penalties if both partners are over 18–Mulder and Scully’s case looks weak.  They are entering this house under false assumptions. One can argue this is an out-of-control government provoking a confrontation. No one is in danger — that is . . . until Mulder utters this single sentence:

“The mother of the dead baby is listening. She’s not only having sex with her grown boys, but she is also out to protect her children. And that threat to arrest her children leads to this :

The Peacocks remind us that baseball bats have many uses.

Under what circumstances does the government have the power to abridge the civil liberties and personal freedoms of American citizens?

The town of Home had few problems.

Until the FBI got involved.

And besides . . . .

Scully is flat wrong.

And the sheriff and his wife would be alive had the government handled this case differently.

“Home” is beautifully directed by the late Kim Manners, who packs this episode with unforgettable images, all of which contribute to the horror.

In the end, it is Mulder who finally comes to understand the Peacocks. Morally speaking, they are less like humans and more like wild animals.

And as everyone knows, if you do something stupid or dangerous to a wild animal, you might get killed. [cut to Mulder and Scully pulling a screaming Mrs. Peacock out from under the bed.] This is not their finest moment. Agent Scully is the first to realize the case against the Peacocks isn’t open and shut.

With this simple ending, the writers of this episode remind us that with in every cherished axiom — there exists the very opposite of that truth. The Peacocks may not look like your family, but the love and fierce loyalty they have for each other is not hard to understand. Besides, when was the last time you told your mother how much you love her.

There’s always tomorrow. The Peacock’s future is just an American dream away.

Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part 3: We Are All Meat

VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part 3: We Are All Meat

Warning: This video contains shocking imagery, and so the faint of heart might want to gird themselves before Pressing Play.

[Complete script follows:]

We like to think we are in control, of our lives, of our
bodies, of our futures. If we work hard
and manage our lives, everything will turn out fine. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . until we lose
that fragile sense of control.

Illness, injury, the loss of a loved one: all of us have
experienced moments when we realize we have no control over things, when we are

That’s an uncomfortable place to be. But these experiences teach us that just
because we’re human, that doesn’t mean we’re special.

Art critic John Berger has said: “Animals are born, are
sentient, and are mortal. In these
things they resemble man.” In other
words, our most basic selves are animal. The horror movie reveals this, by showing us our mortality, stripping
away our arrogance.

Trapped. Tortured. Hunted. Slaughtered. This is the way of life, and death, for most animals. We’d like to forget this, but the horror film
never forgets. It reminds us that, like the over 50 billion animals killed
every year for human consumption, in the end, we are all meat.

The images of violence so abundant in modern horror movies
may seem prurient, mindless, sadistic. But
they also show us what we would otherwise turn away from: namely, the raw
material fact of our physical bodies, which, at the end of the day, are only so
much meat.

Most of us believe that human beings are more than this, but
horror movies are not so sure.

Plot and dialogue are crucial to a great horror film, but
when it comes time to immerse the audience in fear, the only sound we hear is

And sometimes a string section. 

To be without a voice is to be put in the place of animals:

No film better captures this feeling of brute powerlessness
than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When a band of twenty-somethings pick up a
hitcher in rural Texas, he tells them about an old slaughterhouse that has been
closed down. He tells them his family’s
always been in meat, a grotesque line that cuts several ways: First, for
generations this community was sustained by the local meat industry; Second,
like the rest of the community, the hitcher and his family are no more
important to big agriculture than the animals they slaughtered; and Third,
driven to madness, they now make meat out of anything that crosses their path,
animal or human, male or female.

This scene is arguably the most terrifying ever filmed. It exemplifies
the moral force of siding with the victim. Here we see a woman stripped of every last vestige of her humanity, her
very fear made an object of derision by her monstrous hosts.

Most striking is the camera’s concentration on her eyes. A
baby’s eyes tell a mother what it needs, what it feels; in a dog’s or cat’s
eyes we can tell if it is happy or sad, scared or confident. Eyes transcend the species barrier, but,
unfortunately, that isn’t going to help this victim.

And this is why horror movies bring us to these horrifying
places: so that we can’t ignore the appeal in a victim’s eyes. In horror we
bear witness to suffering. We recognize ourselves in the victims, and the
victims in ourselves.

This family has always been in meat. For the film’s most frightening antagonist,
known as Leatherface, this is literally true. He wears a mask made from the skin from a human victim.  He is one of the most terrifying creations in
the history of cinema. Yet in this scene, unexpectedly, we feel a grudging
sense of sympathy with a monster we have already witnessed ruthlessly murdering
several hapless twenty-somethings. He is
like a guilty child, uncomfortable in his own skin. Underneath that mask we can imagine a being
stalled at a rudimentary stage of development, and made evil. But we can also recognize,
perhaps even relate to, his anguish.

Our protagonist has clearly been wounded by her experiences,
inside and out, and she can only laugh maniacally as the truck moves away at
the growing distance between herself and her erstwhile attacker. This distance, though, is only an illusion. Her
attacker’s dance of demented victory suggests a kinship between their warped
psychological states, and a reminder that monsters and victims, predator and
prey, are often two sides of the same being.

Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

VIDEO ESSAY: Horror Films and the War on Women (Siding with the Victim, Part 2)

VIDEO ESSAY: Horror Films and the War on Women (Siding with the Victim, Part 2)

[Original script follows:]

Everyone loves a winner. 
This is why most films have happy endings.

Such films seem empowering, especially when the characters
have to struggle through difficulties before rising triumphant.

Although we all know these are fantasies, they also mirror
our real life aspirations.

In the 1970s women demonstrated in the hopes of realizing
their aspirations to be treated equally.

But the most striking films from that decade tell a
different story.

There are two sides to any social movement, tales of victory
and tales of defeat. 

Horror movies tell us tales of defeat, usually involving
women.  Most people would say that horror
films are generally anti-feminist, even misogynistic.

But the stories of victims are just as important as those of
victors. The war on women has been going
on for many years, and the stories of its victims still need to be told.

Before the modern horror film, the melodrama told such
stories to women. Most melodramas follow the lives of people who encounter
great misfortunes. In the golden age of Hollywood, melodramas flourished. Such
films came to be called “women’s pictures.” Back then, women were expected to
be seen and not heard. There was no open forum where women’s issues could be
discussed. But women could connect with others through the medium of film. They
saw their own stories reflected in those of characters played by their favorite
stars. These lives were generally filled with suffering, and this suffering was
largely caused by men.

The modern horror movie takes this scenario to an
extreme.  This is the melodrama’s dark
unconscious.  Victimization is taken to
an extreme, and this makes us uncomfortable. 
In the best horror films, the viewer learns what it’s like to have every
last vestige of power and control stripped away.

For all of Roman Polanski’s own questionable behavior with
women, his films are uniquely attuned to their plight.  Rosemary’s
, from 1968, anticipares the 70s and horror by focusing on the vulnerability of women in a male-dominated world. This scene cuts in and out of Rosemary’s dreams. This emphasizes the
fact that we are seeing the world from a female character’s perspective. That
world is a very scary place, filled with very scary men. Such scenes linger in
the mind. They create a sense that anything can happen, and all is not as it

Or is it? Polanski leaves this in doubt until the ending of
the film.

After keeping her feelings bottled up inside for several
months, Rosemary spills out her troubles. 

Her husband then tries to regain control, but this only
makes Rosemary more suspicious.

But at last Rosemary makes a decisive break from the
sinister circle that seems to be tightening around her.  Farrow’s marvelously fragile and nervous
delivery draws us in to her vulnerable state. We share her nervousness:
certainly no one will believe her.  When
he does, a door of possibility opens and we share her relief. 

But as the door to her examination room is about to open,
the camera shifts to her perspective. When the door opens to reveal her
husband, and the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, we share her entrapment. 

The moral of the story? 
Don’t hire Charles Grodin as your obstetrician.

One of the worst injustices against women is when a
complaint of sexual harassment or charges of spousal abuse are disregarded as oversensitivity or the
delusions of female biology. Rosemary’s Baby captures that experience of being a
victim who isn’t taken seriously.

Unlike melodramas, horror films don’t simply negate the
experience of suffering by tacking on a happy ending in which everything comes
out right. This can make for grim
viewing, but it also challenges us to endure even when hope seems dim or even

Whether it’s physical abuse, rape, or simply a quiet life of
desperation under the glass ceiling, you don’t just get over it. There’s no “closure” for women living in a
sexist society, but most Hollywood films would like to make us forget that. 

Thankfully the horror film has a way of shutting
that whole thing down.

Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part I: THE SHINING

VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part I: THE SHINING: Death in the Family

[The script follows:]

From the time we are little children we like hearing scary stories.  Some
psychologists claim it’s because we use these stories to work through our anxieties.
 Fairy tales and nursery rhymes expose us to fearful situations, and along
with Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and Little Red Riding Hood, we see our way
through to daylight.

But for every little piggy who lives, another little piggy has to die…

Maybe there’s another explanation to why we like scary stories, a darker, and
perhaps a richer one than that given by psychologists. Perhaps we don’t
identify with the victors so much as the victims.


Horror films show us the dark underside of the
American dream. As one group rises to power, another is disenfranchised. Often,
violence is visited upon those who are in the minority. 

Thrillers and action films celebrate triumph and
success. Horror films clean up the mess, mop up the blood, and show us what’s
under the rubble after the action hero lays waste.

Many horror movies’ victims, are women and
children, as in real life.

The Shining is
arguably the greatest horror film because it so movingly bears witness to the
suffering of the frightened wife and child of a violent alcoholic.

Wendy Torrance’s glassy-eyed smile holds a dark
history and a sense of nervous fear. This is revealed by the enormous ash
perilously dangling from her cigarette. The film will draw her repressed fears
out, writ large in bloody letters across the screen.

If this were a made for TV movie about spousal
abuse, a councilor or friend would come to the abused wife’s aid. That person
would help her to gain control of her life. 

But the narrative and moral logic of horror films
tells us a different story, one that is, perhaps, truer to life: evil never
sleeps, and the dead don’t always stay dead.

It is a common story, sadly enough, but like all
great horror films, The Shining gives this
story the magnitude of a tragic American myth. 

As family tensions mount in the Overlook, each
member of the family goes over the edge in their own special way.


“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may
not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add
some extra, just for you.”  Poet Philip
Larkin’s words are particularly relevant to the American horror film.  Many of the best horror films capture the
unique vulnerability of childhood. In the end, the horror movie makes us all as
vulnerable as little children.

The tradition of gothic horror has been replete with beings
whose monstrousness is as much a burden to themselves as a threat to others.  There is no such thing as a victimless crime
in horror movies. Even the victimizers may be said to suffer.

We see Jack Torrance having a nightmare that,
the film suggests, is a kind of a vision brought on by the haunted hotel where he
and his family live. Such visitations vex him, and we can identify with his

Jack can still feel compassion, though, and we sense
his torment and anguish as he confronts and eventually turns toward

As such visitations increase in frequency and
intensity, Jack is transformed into a savage, and yet we continue to see him as
a victim driven to madness. And thus, his final transformation and his
merciless rampage seem all the more tragic. 

Even in the end, he is no monster. 

This is simply the dark side of human power. 

The waxing and waning of power itself—in
cinema as in real life—is merely an illusion.

The horror film: It shows us the dark side of
power, and reminds us that we are all, at some levels, powerless victims.

in and of itself, is not a moral virtue, but compassion is.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Ken Cancelosi is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Press Play.



July is going to be a scary month in the cineplex: horror (or at least scary) movies set to be released in the coming weeks range from V/H/S/2 to The Conjuring to Apartment 1303 to Frankenstein’s Army: as a sort of hat-tip to all of these movies coming out during the rainy, hazy, steamy days of summer, Press Play is presenting a three-part video essay series called Siding with the Victim, about the ways in which identifying with the hapless ones in horror films, the ones who do go into the basement/behind the creaky door/into the woods without a flashlight/into the attic and who don’t ever look behind them, is a crucial part of what makes these films so compelling. We’ll look at The Shining, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and countless other chilling films…

And here, for your consideration, is a tantalizing trailer. Watch it–if you dare!

VIDEO ESSAY: Siskel and Ebert: Screen Fighting Men

VIDEO ESSAY: Siskel and Ebert: Screen Fighting Men

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were journalists, film reviewers, TV personalities and friends. They disliked each other and loved each other. They needled each other on the air and put on a great show, but it was always in the service of film criticism and education, a means of exciting viewers and drawing them in. Their decades long partnership produced some of the finest televised film criticism of our era; their contentious relationship inspired all of America to think more deeply about lovely images that pass before us, the characters that populate our culture, and the cinematic artists that define our lives. 

This video essay doesn’t attempt to evaluate their important critical legacies. It zeros in on the magic itself, that remarkable chemistry that kept America watching for decades — a relationship copied but never equaled, serious but irreverent, respectable but never respectful. 

They worked together until Gene Siskel’s untimely death in 1999. The title sums up their unique place in American culture and their lasting legacy of inspiration: “Siskel and Ebert: Screen Fighting Men.” 

VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope

VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope


I don't know what to think of this video.

I know what its creator, Kevin T. Porter, wants me to think of it. He makes it clear that he considers this exhaustively researched and edited work to be "a tribute to the work of Aaron Sorkin"—a "playful excursion through Sorkin's wonderful world of words."

But that's not exactly how the piece comes across.

"This piece is not intended as a critique," he writes.

Mr. Porter's careful admonishment to his viewers does little to change the simple fact that this video—edited in a way that exposes the repetition in Sorkin's syntax—puts the whole enterprise on trial, arming Sorkin-haters with all the evidence they need to scream "hack!"

And they have a strong point.

On the one hand, the sameness laid bare in this piece can be easily be derided for its lack of imagination, and yet it can be celebrated on the other because—let's face it—Sorkin-speak has that unique tendency to transcend everything else in the frame, including story, plot, lighting, and direction. It's that much fun to hear.

But, the same point can be made about writer/director Joss Whedon, a writer with a voice so unique that he has built his own cult following of half-crazed fanatics—now that The Avengers has raked in a billion or so, the Whedonites will rule the world. Yet every character Mr. Whedon has ever created talks like some version of himself.

If anything, this remarkable video reminds us that writing is not golf.

Anyone who has ever rented a pair of clubs for the first time, stepped on to a fairway, and taken a swing at a ball off the ground knows that golf is damn hard. The very act of playing it bathes you in such abject humiliation that I personally think the New York Department of Corrections should force convicted felons to do it as punishment.

Writing, on the other hand, seems deceptively easy—especially for a first-timer. In fact, I'd say it takes a good while to discover how bad you are at it; one's identity as a writer, similarly, comes together only after one suffers a slower but just as humiliating journey through the complicated world of syntax, dialogue, and grammar.

Perhaps it's fair to say that the Sorkins and Whedons of the world have earned the right to their unique voices, and therefore they deserve a respectful place in popular entertainment.

While it is true none of these guys are ever going to win the Paddy Chayefsky award for realism, somehow, we still fall for them all the same. — Ken Cancelosi



Press Play launches its new director series On the Q.T., about Quentin Tarantino, with a look at his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992). Although it earned plenty of acclaim, the film also sparked two kinds of controversy. One had to do with the movie's content: its profanity, racial epithets, blood, and torture merged art house and grindhouse traditions in a fresh and unsettling way. The other controversy was aesthetic: Tarantino, a former video store clerk, quoted movie history so ostentatiously—even working pop culture rants into his dialogue!—that detractors accused him of being more of a gifted mimic than a real artist, a charge that has followed him throughout his career.

Funny thing, though: when you look back on the late '90s and early '00s, you see plenty of films that desperately wanted to be Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Truth or Consequences, N.M., Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, The Usual Suspects, Two Days in the Valley, Mad Dog Time, and many others channeled what was presumed to be the Tarantino formula. Yet none of them has had the staying power of Reservoir Dogs. Why? The answer is contained in Reservoir Dogs' opening monologue about Madonna's "Like a Virgin"—delivered by none other than Tarantino himself—and in the scenes of the undercover cop, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), getting into character as one of the crooks. Put these images together—a lover so good that he makes a sexually experienced woman feel like a virgin, and an actor so good that he fools hardbitten crooks into thinking he's one of them—and you have Tarantino's early career: a performance so extraordinary that it stops being performance and becomes an emotional event.

How does Tarantino do it? Press play to find out.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

Matt Zoller Seitz is one of the founders of Press Play. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, he is currently the TV Critic for New York Magazine.

Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas. He is the co-founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Maurice Sendak: Outside Over There

VIDEO ESSAY: Maurice Sendak: Outside Over There

On May 8, 2012, Maurice Sendak died.  Shakespeare’s dead, too, and Melville, and Emily Dickinson. In fact, come to think of it, so are most people who have ever lived. But most people aren’t lionized after death in the press as one of the great Fathers of Children’s Literature.

Ironic, considering that Sendak was a child until he died at the age of 83—and I mean that in the best way.

All the best children’s authors are children.  The most horrid thing that can happen in children’s books, aside from a Grown-Up deciding to Write A Book For Children, is for that book to actually get published. 

If you’re scratching your head wondering who I am, you’ve never heard of me.  Several of my children’s books have been published, so I’m an actual author of children’s books, but the fact that you know all about Maurice Sendak and nothing about me is kind of important here, because Mr. Sendak and I have a lot in common.  Just not what you think. I understand him in a different way.

Journalist Emma Brockes, in an October 2011 edition of The Guardian, claimed that millions will always think of Sendak as “young, a proxy for Max in Where the Wild Things Are.”*  Other writers have variously described him as “Grumpy.” “Angry.” “Fierce.” Names that tend to evoke the faces of the monsters that glare out of the pages he created.

Were any of these true? I really couldn’t say. I never met him in my life, and never really wanted to.  I’m not much on meeting authors, for reasons I now understand—though when I first started writing seriously, this theory of reading sent me sprawling: That no matter how hard the writer or the artist tries to convey his or her message, no matter how perfect the execution of what lives in his or her mind, once the reader reads the work, the true message is the reader’s and the reader’s alone—even if it’s not exactly what the author meant.  This is hard, hard, hard for a creator to accept, and doubly so when that creator finds himself equated personally with the creation.

When a reader meets an author, the author becomes a clay figure upon whom the reader pastes his or her feelings, dreams, desires, and impressions. Suddenly the author finds he is expected to live up to everyone’s expectations. That’s enough to make anyone Grumpy.  Angry.  Fierce.

Sendak was, in some ways, the poster child (as it were) for children’s books in a way that mildly irritated many in the profession, through no fault of Sendak’s. When speaking to most any member of the public, about books to get for children, one invariably and repetitively heard: “Oh, how about Where the Wild Things Are?  Get Where the Wild Things Are.  My kids loved Where the Wild Things Are.” It was brilliant, true, but it’s also the only thing most people know, and Sendak was only one among a massive chest that holds an embarrassment of visual and literary riches, unguessed by most, and never found by the majority of children.

Yet passes Sendak, and in the press it is as in Outside Over There when “Ida played a frenzied jig, a hornpipe / that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon.”

I do not know whether Sendak was a humble man or proud. That he wrote from his child’s heart, which he somehow kept intact through a life that did its damnedest to drag him into the gray and cynical adult world, is plainly evident. When I speak of his “child’s heart,” I mean the heart that is still in love with wonder—a heart that is brave and wild and young and still unconquered by the terror and the ugliness in the world. It’s a heart that finds the world a very difficult place to live in in spite of—and because of—its excruciating beauty. That is the kind of innocence Maurice Sendak had, and that he shared with the world. It’s a contrast to the adult-imagined innocence of Peter Pan, a story that Sendak and I mutually despised.

There’s absolutely no denying the ground-shaking societal impact of Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen and, in a quieter way, Outside Over There—they are the great post-Victorian children’s manifesto of rebellion. They are the Declaration of Monstrosity that freed children from the starched expectation that they were somehow less beastly than the adults who spawned them. Sendak rightly recognized—and to the abject horror of many, actually went so far as to illustrate—the reality that these delightful little sweetings had a nasty ego-flavored center.

Just like the rest of us.

Make no mistake—Sendak did not write for children. He wrote for himself. So do I. Our writing is for a single purpose—we yearn to be understood in a world that is wild and roaring. We feel compelled by some inner urge to convey a message.

As a writer, I am not proud of my published work because I see my role as that of a messenger only.  I will never be a Sendak, and that’s fine—that’s not what I was meant for.  My messages are modest; he had a transcendent message to deliver, and the talent to do it. But in the end, as we find ourselves pasting our own Maxes, Mickeys, and Idas onto Sendak, is it not possible that the message is more important than the man? All our messages, than the messengers themselves?

Regardless, Maurice Sendak, for all his gifts, will now give us no more. He is gone.

In this he and I differ, though: He believed that nothing happens after death; we simply cease. I prefer to think that he still is, Outside, Over There.

*Brockes, Emma. “Maurice Sendak: ‘I refuse to lie to children’.”  The Guardian.  2 October 2011, 13:30 EDT  <;.

Tres Seymour is the author of thirteen books for young people, including Hunting the White Cow and Life In The Desert, a 1993 American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults  He lives in Munfordville, Kentucky.