The Art of the Sulk

William Steig’s greatest contribution.

Farewell to the bard of sulks

When William Steig, the great cartoonist and children’s book author, died last week at the ripe age of 95, we lost our bard of sulking. Steig’s underappreciated masterwork, the 1988 children’s book, Spinky Sulks, has not figured as prominently in Steig’s obituaries as his New Yorker cartoons, his Doctor DeSoto books, and Shrek!, which was made into a popular movie. But if there is a more subtle depiction in Western culture of the fury, self-pity, and fevered discipline that go into a good sulk, Chatterbox is unaware of it.

Works of popular and high culture about sulking are surprisingly hard to find. Melancholy has been pervasive in English poetry since the Elizabethan era, and in the blues African-Americans turned whining, miraculously, into art. Anger is the dominant theme of most contemporary Hollywood action movies, and postwar French culture couldn’t exist without anomie. But before Steig, the literary canon on sulking pretty much started and ended with Achilles retreating to his tent in The Iliad. Is Shakespeare’s unaccountably sour Jacques in As You Like Ita sulker? Chatterbox would argue not; his “seven ages of man” speech suggests he’s more of a cynic. A Slate editor suggested Chatterbox might find some sulking in The Bell Jar, but on reflection Chatterbox decided he’d rather quit his job and wait tables than reread so much as a paragraph of Sylvia Plath’s celebrated novel. (And anyway, it probably trivializes depression and madness to call it sulking.) Speculating that if anyone had spun literary gold out of sulking it was likely the Germans, Chatterbox consulted his friend Jim, a scholar of German literature. Jim mentioned Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, wherein our hero pines for the unattainable Charlotte, married to the undeserving and painfully conventional Albert, and eventually shoots himself. Here’s a snippet from Werther’s final letter to Charlotte:

In the bright, quiet evenings of summer, when you sometimes wander toward the mountains, let your thoughts then turn to me: recollect how often you have watched me coming to meet you from the valley; then bend your eyes upon the churchyard which contains my grave, and, by the light of the setting sun, mark how the evening breeze waves the tall grass which grows above my tomb.

You could argue that this is spite, which would qualify Werther as a sulker. But Chatterbox (who hasn’t read the book) will go with the safer majority view that what we have here is romantic pathos.

There’s a smidgen of pop culture devoted to the art of sulking, most of it pretty obscure. The exception is the children’s song that begins, “Nobody loves me/ Everybody hates me/ Guess I’ll eat some worms.” (Click here for a karaoke version with slightly different lyrics.) The rock band Radiohead has a song called “Sulk,” but it’s really about how it feels when someone else is sulking, not what it feels like to sulk. Diane Wooley McAffee has written a children’s book called The Amazing Incredible Sulk, which from the description on its Web site sounds didactic (“gently teaches children the consequences of sulking”). That wouldn’t be surprising, given that it’s the product of a Mormon publishing house. Chatterbox also found a few cartoons about sulking on the Web, none of them especially funny or insightful.

Steig, then, filled a void.

Spinky Sulks, perhaps taking its cue from The Iliad, starts with its hero in mid-sulk. We never learn precisely what inspired the sulk, though there are clues: His sister (Willamena) called him “Stinky,” and his brother (Hitch) disputed a point about geography. Steig admires the integrity of Spinky’s sulk too much to fully reveal its (no doubt trivial) origin. Instead, he draws Spinky’s angry eyebrows pointing sharply downward in a V. “His stupid family!” Steig writes. “They were supposed to love him, but the heck they did. Not even his mother.” Tell it, brother.

A fundamental characteristic of the true sulk is that it is unappeasable. In The Iliad, Achilles won’t come out of his tent even after Agamemnon returns the fair Briseis, whose removal was the original cause of his snit. Similarly, Spinky spurns apologies from nearly every member of his family, no matter how craven. (“You were posilutely right!” says Hitch. “Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium.”) Spinky’s implacable stance extends well past indifference. When Hitch actually drops to his knees and begs forgiveness, Steig writes, it serves only to make “Spinky loathe him all the more.” This is an unflinching rendering of the very darkest emotions stirred by sulking.

Spinky’s father (Harry) makes the error of seeing Spinky’s sulk through the prisms of morality and practicality. “He needs to simmer down,” Harry tells his wife (Ruby). “He’s got no reason to sulk.” But of course, Harry’s lecture to Spinky only deepens the sulk, as Spinky resolves that henceforth he will view all living things as the enemy—”except, of course, the animals.” Like Huck Finn resolving to go to hell, or Milton’s Satan pledging himself to “study of revenge, immortal hate/ And courage never to submit or yield,” Spinky now positions himself in opposition to morality. He becomes a Byronic hero. Take that, Dad!

As a child of the 20th century, Spinky inhabits a nihilistic universe. In that, he differs from Achilles. In The Iliad, Achilles’ sulk turns into purposeful rage after the Trojan warrior Hector kills Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus. Channeling his fury toward Hector, Achilles kills Hector and drags his bloody corpse around Troy’s city walls. But Spinky’s sulk serves no such larger purpose. It simply simmers and worsens. He won’t look at a circus parade passing right in front of his house. He spurns his friends Smudge and Iggie, who don’t appear to be connected in any way with the original wrong. He weakens momentarily when a clown wanders by and gives him a triple-dip ice cream cone, but when he sees his father (the ultimate enemy) smirking in the background, he stiffens his resolve. This wound must not be allowed, at any cost, to heal.

In the end, alas, Steig must drag his hero back to civilization. This is a children’s book, after all. Spinky bows to conventionality and relents, but only after he’s been lying outside in the rain for some time. Spinky’s decision causes him no small torment. If he rejoins society, how can he “keep his self-respect”? And what of his suffering? Was it for naught?

Here the narrative stumbles badly. (Ah, well. Every masterpiece must leave succeeding generations a few flaws to regret.) Spontaneously, Spinky dresses himself as a clown and cooks a “splendiferous feast” for his family. It’s as phony as a seven-dollar bill, but the story needs some kind of resolution. Still, Steig manages to end on a pleasingly subversive note. Spinky is seen sitting on his father’s lap with a happy smile on his face, his eyebrows restored to a horizontal position. “After that,” Steig writes, “Spinky’s family was much more careful about his feelings.” But under the happy picture Steig delivers a final wink: “Too bad they couldn’t keep it up forever.”

Spinky Sulks is absolutely Chatterbox’s favorite children’s picture book. Whenever one of his kids gets caught in a sulk, Chatterbox offers it up, and, amazingly, it’s usually accepted. But what, precisely, do children take from it? Certainly not any notion that sulking is something to be discouraged or stopped. More likely, that sulking ennobles the sulker. Perhaps Spinky Sulks will shorten a child’s sulk by demonstrating the impossibility of maintaining even the most heroically determined snit. Or perhaps it will lengthen the sulk. Either way, it’s a masterful expression of an underappreciated emotion. Let us pause now to mourn the passing of Spinky’s creator.