Sendak, Potter, and Blake…

In the latest installment of the Maurice Sendak collection saga, the Rosenbach is suing the Sendak Foundation so that the will of Maurice Sendak can be upheld.  According to this Philadelphia Inquirer article, Sendak’s “wishes [were] to bequeath his multimillion-dollar rare-book collection to the Rosenbach Museum and Library…for the revered author and illustrator’s work to continue to be displayed at the Rosenbach.”

I was particularly interested in one of the biggest issues within this controversy–

“According to the suit, the Sendak trustees have turned over fewer than half the hundreds of items in Sendak’s rare-book collection. In fact, the estate has told the Rosenbach it had no intention of transferring ownership of several extremely valuable volumes by Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter because they are children’s books, not rare books, the suit states. The Rosenbach calls that reasoning not only faulty but rife with irony: Sendak argued that divisions between adult and children’s literature were invalid – in his work as well as that of others. He called Potter’s works “the literary equivalent of the greatest English prose writers that have lived.””

I think because I am particularly in love with children’s literature, I was very interested in this debate over Beatrix Potter’s works.  I am fairly baffled to think that a children’s book would be in jeopardy for consideration as rare because of the age of the readers.  In some ways, couldn’t it be argued that a children’s book is even more rare than adult book collections because a smaller niche of authors have reached critical acclaim in an historical sense for these works?

Similarly, the issue with the William Blake books is perplexing– because The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experiences are not bound, the rationale is that they might not actually be books at all, and therefore not to be kept at the Rosenbach museum as a rare book.  It’s interesting to see a case in which lawyers will need to define in legal terms just what a book actually is to settle this dispute.

Overall though, this case is sort of deflating because it suggests what I am sure is a common problem that no matter how much anyone tries to protect a collection in life, that if in death there is any ambiguity not addressed by the deceased, there will be controversy.  I wonder after reading and considering this case how archivists could have better advised Sendak in legal matters while he was alive to have prevented this issue now.


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