22 August 2012

Baked-in Resentment from Sendak

I was struck by this quotation from Jonathan Cott’s interview with Maurice Sendak in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn (1983), about the inspiration for In the Night Kitchen:

When I was a child, there was an advertisement which I remember very clearly. It was for the Sunshine bakers, and it read: “We Bake While You Sleep!” It seemed to me the most sadistic thing in the world because all I wanted to do was stay up and watch . . . It seemed so absurdly cruel and arbitrary of them to do it while I slept. And also for them to think I would think that was terrific stuff on their part, and would eat their product on top of that. It bothered me a good deal, and I remember I used to save the coupons showing the three fat little Sunshine bakers going off to this magic place at night, wherever it was, to have their fun, while I had to go to bed. This book was a sort of vendetta book to get back at them and to say that I am now old enough to stay up at night and know what’s happening in the Night Kitchen!
A similar Chicago Tribune article says Sendak saw that slogan when his sister left him in the Uneeda Biscuit exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Sunshine Biscuits and Uneeda (from Nabisco) were rival products, and it looks like the real story might be a blend of those memories. As shown above, Sunshine Biscuits ran ads as early as 1936 depicting miniature bakers at work on its products. At the 1939 World’s Fair the company evoked those scenes with little people dressed as bakers, as shown in the postcard at right. Sendak, who turned eleven that year, might well have seen the little bakers at work.

However, I haven’t found any Sunshine Biscuits ads proclaiming something like “We Bake While You Sleep!” The company could have used that line, of course. Bakers have long been known for getting up early to produce fresh bread for the day. Merita Breads, a brand centered in the South, used “Baked while you sleep” as one of its slogans. The Carmel Bakery, in business in Monterey County since 1906, proclaims, “We bake while you sleep.”

What’s most striking to me about Sendak’s story of inspiration is its emotional dimension. Many children might be intrigued by the thought of bakers (especially little bakers) working all night for them. But Sendak declared that arrangement was “sadistic,” “absurdly cruel and arbitrary” to himself, and used it to fuel “a sort of vendetta book.” But he talked like that a lot in middle age.

TOMORROW: The legends of Mickey’s diaper and penis.

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