May 14, 2012

With Melville bio, JHU Press entered the world of Sendak

The wild rumpus, university-press style, started in 1996, when The Johns Hopkins University Press prepared to publish the first volume of Hershel Parker’s magisterial biography of Herman Melville. As an eminent Melville scholar and editor of the Northwestern-Newberry Writings of Herman Melville, Parker knew just about everyone in the close community of Melville experts, collectors and devotees. Singular among them, perhaps, was the renowned illustrator and children’s book author Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8. “There’s a mystery there,” Sendak once said of Melville’s writing, “a clue, a nut, a bolt, and if I put it together, I find me.”

At Parker’s request, Sendak completed two portraits of Melville, both pen-and-ink drawings with watercolor wash, that appear in the JHU Press editions of Herman Melville: A Biography published in 1996 and 2002. Sendak brought his lifelong appreciation of the writer, along with characteristic depth and playfulness, to the illustrations that serve as both jacket art and frontispiece for the two volumes. For volume one, which covers 1819 to 1851, Sendak depicts the young Melville in handsome profile with ship’s rigging in the background, holding a writer’s quill in his hand and wearing a top hat decorated with a whimsical yellow flower. The illustration for the second volume, which spans 1851 to 1891, shows an older, more somber Melville, entwined in ivy and the cares of later life.

JHU Press designer Glen Burris, who created the jackets and interior designs for both volumes, worked with Sendak as he prepared the illustrations and later got to meet him. “I visited him at his home in Ridgefield [Conn.] in 2002,” comments Burris, “to return the illustration we used on the second volume. Sendak was a Melville fanatic and something of a curmudgeon. He had lots of opinions and could no doubt talk to Hershel Parker about Melville the way another scholar might. But he was also a very gracious host, and I wound up spending the afternoon with him. He showed me his illustrations for Brundibar, which had not yet been published, and his copy of the famous edition of Moby Dick with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. We talked about books and the work of illustrating. He was a wonderful guy.”

The Melville biography would be a great critical success for the Press and enjoy strong sales. The volumes were lauded by The New York Times and called “an astonishing achievement” by The New Republic. Paperback editions, featuring Sendak’s portraits of Melville, were published by the Press in 2005.