‘Becoming Dr. Seuss’ opens up the author-illustrator’s world

Biographer Brian Jay Jones reveals the perfectionist who gained fame with his children’s books, but feared he was not taken seriously as an artist.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones, Dutton, 496 pp.

‘Becoming” is the right descriptor for Theodor Seuss Geisel. The grandson of a New England brewer, he started out as a clever self-taught cartoonist whose comic touch with image and words was first fully appreciated in advertisements for bug spray and motor oil. “‘I began to get it through my skull that words and pictures were yin and yang,’ he said later. ‘I began thinking that words and pictures, married, might possibly produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.’”

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904, he made his way after graduation from Dartmouth College to Oxford University, where he met Helen Palmer, the American woman who would become his wife, who was studying there. Geisel was already funny: “Almost in spite of himself, he took an interest in the works of John Milton, and began illustrating ‘great hunks’ of ‘Paradise Lost’ – especially the places, said Geisel, where ‘Milton’s sense of humor failed him.’” Geisel decided he wasn’t a good fit for academia and left England without the Ph.D. that would have made him an actual “doctor.” The couple lived and worked in New York City as his ad campaigns became popular in the 1930s, but he was always searching for a cause higher than consumerism.

The Geisels never had children, of whom, he often said, he wasn’t particularly fond: “‘I would like to say I went into children’s book work because of my great understanding of children.’ … In truth, ‘I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.” He had, however, an incomparable knack for writing and drawing for children. He completely fathomed and cultivated their interest in playful phrasings and in his nonsense creatures: “‘Making up words is the simplest thing in the world. For instance, you draw something and look at it and it’s an obsk. There’s no doubt about it. It can’t be anything else.’” He found his greater purpose in the fantastical stories and reading primers, most successfully “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham,” which enthused and amused adults almost as much as they did children. 

Brian Jay Jones, the biographer of two other American entertainment icons, Jim Henson and George Lucas, admires Geisel and reminds us over and over that Geisel’s friends, colleagues, and editors regarded him as a genius. Jones only winces over the occasions when Geisel succumbed to the prejudices of his time: “From the stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese [in 1942] … to its underlying distrust of his fellow citizens, it’s one of the lowest moments in Dr. Seuss’s career. Further, it’s a shockingly tone-deaf message coming from Ted Geisel, who had experienced bigotry by association during World War I when he was pelted with coal and mocked for no other reason than a shared [German] heritage with the enemy.”

It was joining the U. S. Army’s Film Production Section in World War II and making educational reels and cartoons for soldiers with the Hollywood movie director Frank Capra that got him interested in developing stories for children. “When Geisel was asked point-blank if he used those ‘propagandistic skills’ in his books, his answer was straightforward and unapologetic: ‘Of course.’” Yet after the war he trained himself, as Dr. Seuss, to aim his books first of all at entertainment that educated. And though he continually had axes to grind, he successfully restrained himself and focused his efforts on keeping children amused and excited as they learned to read. Though there were too many occasions where he drew stereotypical caricatures, almost everything he drew was a caricature, and he evolved into an irrepressible and influential advocate for people of all colors and creeds. 

Even given his self-acknowledged limitations, Dr. Seuss was certainly unlike any other children’s author for me in the 1960s and for my own children in the 2000s. His books created their own genre. (His word-play was so peculiarly American that the Brits didn’t much care for him.)  

What this biography does best is account for Geisel’s demanding creative habits. He was dedicated to work and, when he had the power and leverage, he fussed over every detail of his books, from the size of the page and the font to the placement of text and picture. He insisted on the exact colors he required, and his longtime publisher, Random House, usually sensibly let him have his own way; his titles eventually sold in the hundreds of millions. He was as demanding of the writers he corralled into the Beginner Books imprint, which was under his supervision, as he was of himself.

After he and Helen made La Jolla, California, their home in the late 1940s, “Ted,” as he was called by friends, worked an eight-hour shift up in his tower room almost every day when they weren’t traveling the world. Over their nearly 40 years of marriage, Helen, his constant and credited helpmate and fellow editor and first reader, had had various life-threatening ailments that forced her to undergo long rehabilitations. At the age of 69, in poor health and aware, seemingly, that her husband had fallen in love with one of her close friends, she committed suicide.

While Jones takes pains to discuss and reproach Geisel’s stereotyped depictions of Japanese people, he doesn’t seem to want us to dwell over this tragic incident. Geisel apparently did not want to either: “If he felt even partly to blame for Helen’s death, he never said. There would be no self-reflection in public or confessions in private journals; that simply wasn’t Ted’s way.”

He remarried seven months after his wife’s death, returned to his La Jolla tower, and continued producing books until his death in 1991. 

While Geisel joked about his unsophisticated creative talents, he also had a chip on his shoulder: “Despite all of his success – even despite a Pulitzer Prize [he won a citation from the Pulitzer committee for his special contribution to children’s literature] – Geisel still believed his work wasn’t taken seriously. He badly wanted to be regarded as a Great Artist, on the same level as Picasso …”

Oh, the places the ego will go! The great inspirer of children’s reading was, except in his commitment to work, no Picasso, but he remains, by most assessments, one-of-a-kind and distinctively American.

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