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The Problematic Past and Enduring Appeal of Dr. Seuss

Brian Jay Jones on his biography of the man who shaped your childhood imagination

For many people, Dr. Seuss is the first real media figure they bond with. Of course, there’s always the odd kid who identifies hard with Peter Falk in old reruns of Columbo (ahem, it me). But all things being equal, probably no media personality looms as large in the lives of small children as Theodor Seuss Geisel.

This is certainly the case with my two kids, both under the age of 5. Going by what I can overhear from his playtime, the two biggest villains in my 4-year-old’s world are Thanos and Donald Trump. Mr. Incredible invariably serves as the go-to hero. But the biggest author, the one he requests at bedtime most often, by a long shot, is Dr. Seuss.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that my wife and I were both introduced to Seuss at a young age, and that his books left such a lasting impression that we saw fit to share classics like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham with our children, almost as a matter of course.

The appeal of Dr. Seuss is generational to the point that it would almost seem perverse not to read Green Eggs and Ham to your kid. It would be like depriving him of sunshine or hugs or happiness itself. Dr. Seuss taps into some wellspring of innocence and curiosity, easily overcoming the 60 or so odd years since his most beloved classics were published.

Dr. Seuss just seems to always have been there. But in the same way it’s difficult to imagine your parents as teenagers, it’s hard to imagine an actual person behind those books. This instinct of immediate familiarity with Seussian creations sets the stage for Brian Jay Jones’ new biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination.

In this well-written, charming book, Jones works against the impulse to imagine Dr. Seuss as himself a Seussian figure. He describes Geisel’s authorial persona as a deliberate invention, carefully curated and mass-marketed. The book offers a peek behind the fanciful creatures and beloved stories, keying into his intense work ethic and his meticulous nature, and revealing some episodes that might surprise fans. For instance, Geisel’s early cartoons deal in some troubling racial stereotypes, and the suicide of his wife, as a direct result of his extra-marital affair, may leave some wondering whether his work has become a candidate for critical reevaluation.

That’s not to say Jones is totally, or even mainly, invested in de-mythologizing Seuss. We see plenty of moments in his book where Geisel shows a distinctively Seussian flair. For instance, Geisel had a hobby of carving creatures from his books out of wood and mounting them in his office with real animal horns. Or there’s how, in an effort to quit smoking, he had a tendency to carry a pipe between his teeth, filled not with tobacco but strawberry seeds, which he would water with a little eye-dropper whenever he felt the urge to light up.

Jones’ book follows Geisel from the home of his well-to-do German-American parents, to Dartmouth (where he edited the school humor publication), to the Army (he served in Frank Capra’s Signal Corps unit during World War II), to his position as president of Random House children’s imprint, Beginner Books. Jones describes Geisel’s success not as an uninterrupted ascent into the stratosphere but a deliberate slog, prone to fits and starts and false turns, and due as much to chance as to Geisel’s own hard work and brilliance.

In my interview with Jones — edited here for length and clarity — we discussed some of the motivations behind Geisel’s self-mythology, as well as the process Jones went through in untangling the man from the myth.

In your opinion, what is the appeal of Dr. Seuss?
One of the big appeals of his work, even some 40 years after his death, is that whether you are 5, 25, 55 or 95, he took his readers absolutely seriously. He never talked down to them, never wrote down to them, but looked them right in the eye.

Another thing that makes his books timeless is that he worked so hard at it. That was one of the things that really shocked me, the incredible work ethic that he had. Typing onto pages, and then drawing in pencil or painting directly onto those pages. He would come back to those pages for weeks, months, sometimes years. The Cat in the Hat took him two years to finish.

And it didn’t matter to him if the rhyme worked. If the line looked wrong on the page, he would re-write it. Every detail mattered. I think that’s what makes his work really so powerful.

This, besides the fact that his books don’t really look like anything else. They don’t sound like anything else. You see a Dr. Seuss drawing, and you know what it is right away.

Do you see Geisel’s insistence on not talking down to kids as being part of a larger moment in our culture? You quote him as saying at one point that a lot of kids have seen more of the world through television by the time they’re 8 years old than their grandparents had by the time they were 90. So did you see larger cultural influences behind his appeal?
It’s interesting — Geisel’s relationship with television and Jim Henson’s relationship with television are very different. It’s fascinating how these two very creative types saw it so differently. [Jones also wrote a best-selling biography of Henson.] One saw TV as a force for good, and the other, Geisel, at least early on, saw TV as a force for evil. He saw it as pulling kids away from books. So he knew television was his competition. But as time went on, he realized that was where he needed to be. That was why he participated in [Chuck Jones’ 1966 production of] Grinch.

But even then, in the 1950s, late 1940s, he understood how TV was speaking to kids. He knew TV was hooking their attention, and he wanted to figure out what TV was doing right. And what it was doing right was it was entertaining. And kids’ books sucked at the time! So in a way, television influenced his books for the better.

You describe Geisel’s childhood as pretty idyllic. His parents supported him and his creative endeavors from a young age. What events from his childhood do you see as being most formative for him?
Well, he wasn’t Stephen Spielberg, who was filming his trains crashing into each other in slow motion when he was 8 years old. Geisel at age 8 isn’t necessarily saying, “I want to write compelling stories for children!”

But I think part of what’s going on is that he’s listening a lot to the language of his household as a kid. Growing up in a household where German is spoken openly, I think hearing that gave him a pure joy of language. In the German language, you don’t add more words to a sentence, you add more letters to the end of a word.

So that influenced his ear, and that’s why he has this incredible knack later on for making up fake words that sound like they actually existed. Words like “Grinch” or “Lorax” have this very organic feel, and sound like they were already there.

I also visited [his Massachusetts birthplace] Springfield, and as you walk around, there’s still enough of [his childhood town] there that you can see some of the landscape that shows up in some of his work. The architecture, for example. There’s a great mausoleum. It was for the guy who invented the clamp-on ice skate [Everett Barney, who Jones describes in the book as an important land donor in Springfield]. And his mausoleum in the cemetery has all these pillars and archways and staircases that don’t necessarily go anywhere. You can see some of that in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.

There’s a great big stone structure right across the street from where he would have been born that looks like a Seussian castle. Geisel’s father was also on the park board and in charge of the Forest Park Zoo, where the kids would go every Sunday. Geisel started to draw animals at a young age as a result.

So there were a lot of places around Springfield that seemed to influence his sensibility.

How difficult was it to separate Geisel from the stories that surrounded him? You describe him as sometimes deliberately making up facts about his life in interviews.
Yes, he was never one to let the truth get in the way of a funny story. There are two instances of this in particular. One of them is his Teddy Roosevelt story. He often tells about how as a kid, during World War I, his Boy Scout troop sold Liberty Bonds. [As Jones’ book tells it, thanks to a $1,000 sale Geisel makes to his grandfather, Geisel’s troop sells the second-most bonds in his area, with Geisel himself being one of the top 10 fundraisers, and Teddy Roosevelt comes to Springfield to give a medal to all the top bond sellers.] And there are a line of boys all standing in a row, with Roosevelt giving medals to them, with Geisel at the end of the row. For some reason, they run out of medals and he doesn’t get one. Geisel is mortified, and he goes on to describe how traumatized he was by this.

The timing for this is right. Teddy Roosevelt was going around congratulating people for selling bonds at that time. And he did come to Springfield. But when you look at the pictures on the front page of the newspaper, there are no Boy Scouts out there. But it makes a really great story!

The other one is how he lands on his pseudonym. There’s the great story about how Geisel got caught drinking in his room at Dartmouth during prohibition. He gets in trouble, and he gets told that he can’t appear in the final issue of [the school’s humor magazine] Jack-O-Lantern. So he publishes some cartoons under this pseudonym. Awesome story! And it almost lines up. He got the timing pretty much right. He did get in trouble, and the next issue of Jack-O Lantern does have the first time you see the signature “Seuss” on anything. But that issue had already gone to print before he got in trouble.

You describe Geisel as being politically active during World War II, drawing political cartoons for the publication PM, in particular targeting the isolationism and anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh. But he also had some work, both during that time and before, that by today’s standards would be considered racist. He even wrote a cartoon in favor of Japanese internment. How should we reconcile our thoughts on his legacy with these facts?
These are things he struggled with even in his lifetime. Some of his real problems crop up in his early ad work, for example. He leaned very heavily into those horrible stereotypes of African-Americans. Later he would say, “When I did those cartoons all those years ago, I thought they were funny. And now I’m not so sure.” So it’s clearly something he’s struggling with even during his life.

I think he got over the African-American stereotypes by World War II. Because that’s when he starts drawing some really progressive cartoons. He takes on government contractors of African-American businesses and labor. There’s one where he shows contractors sitting at an organ, and Uncle Sam says to him, “Hey, that thing works better if you use both the black and the white keys.”

For his World War II cartoons, he comes out hard against Lindbergh and [priest and publisher of the anti-Semitic, fascist publication Social Justice] Father Charles Coughlin. He takes on isolationism and racism, in particular Governor Eugene Talmadge [Georgia’s racist governor, who was trying to segregate the University of Georgia]…

The one cartoon that people really point to is the one where he shows Japanese Americans “waiting for the call from home.” It’s a terrible look for him. He should have known better. That’s what’s shocking. Because as a kid during World War I, when we were at war with Germany, he was still smarting over having kids throw coal at him, calling him “Kaiser.” It was guilt by association for him. He was German, and we were at war with Germany, and so, people were throwing rocks at him.

He remembered that experience, and yet he fell for American propaganda on that. In California, they were told any moment the Japanese submarines were going to surface off the coast. He really buys into that. And he should have known better. Because he’d experienced that himself.

I also want to ask about Geisel’s wife. At one point you write, “Helen’s devotion to Ted, often at the expense of her own ambition or happiness, would be characteristic of their lifelong relationship.” For instance, Helen’s suicide seems like it can be pretty definitively attributed to Geisel’s extra-marital affair with the woman who became his wife after Helen’s death. Can you expand on your thoughts a little about Helen’s role in Geisel’s life?
I don’t think Helen’s role in his work can be understated. She was the one at Oxford [where Geisel attempted, and ultimately abandoned, Ph.D. studies in literature], where she sees him doodling in his notebook, and says, “What are you trying to be a college professor for? You should be drawing for a living.” She’s the one who really lights the fire under him, to get him started. And once he gets involved in writing children’s books, she is his first and best editor. He even says that she has this great ear for figuring lines, for characters, for plot. There’s this great moment where he’s drawing the Grinch, and she says, “You’ve got this wrong. You’re drawing him too big. Try again.” And she’s right!

So she’s really, really important to this story. He absolutely trusted her, in terms of story and character. And when he starts the Beginner Books imprint with Phyllis Cerf, he insists on Helen coming in [as a full partner], not only because if anything comes to a vote they can outvote Cerf, but because of how good she was. He knew how great she was at this.

She starts recruiting writers and building up the brand just as much as he does at that time. She would usually defer to him on the books themselves, but she’s really, really important in this period.

What place do you think Dr. Seuss books or characters have in our current media landscape?
There’s so much more stuff out there competing for children’s eyes. But what I think it comes down to is that children want great stories, no matter whether they can look at a screen or not. They’re going to keep coming back to him for their first books, for sure. And once they grow up, they come back to them, wanting to hand them down to their own kids. They get handed down and worn out and loved and you have to buy them again.

Stories are timeless. And that’s the real strength of these books. They’re making Grinch sequels to this day. So the stories still hold up. The rhymes and the art still hold up. And I think people will keep coming back to that.

If you talk to an 8-year-old, they can tell you all about Green Eggs and Ham, even if the next moment they’re playing something on their iPhone.