Well Read: May 2019
Brian Jay Jones offers a richly detailed, admiring biography of Theodor Geisel, the man whom children and adults the world over would come to love as Dr. Seuss.
Is there anyone who doesn’t like Dr. Seuss? There may be a few grinches out there, but for the rest of us, his children’s classics never fail to evoke some blend of delight, amusement, wonder and nostalgia. However, nearly 30 years after his death, few people may know the story of the sui generis illustrator and writer whose real name was Theodor Geisel. Brian Jay Jones’ capacious new biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, provides a meticulously detailed yet thoroughly engaging look at the life and artistry of this American original.
Jones, who has previously written biographies of George Lucas and Jim Henson, gives the full measure of the imaginative man who, from childhood, “turned minnows into whales.” Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of a German-American brewer who was prosperous until Prohibition destroyed the family business. At Dartmouth, Geisel found his true calling working on the university’s humor magazine. An ill-advised stint at Oxford did not secure him a graduate degree, but it did introduce Geisel to fellow American student Helen Palmer, who became his first wife and invaluable, albeit uncredited, collaborator. After Oxford, with dreams of writing the Great American Novel, Geisel tried the Jazz Age bohemian life. (He frequented the same Parisian cafe as Hemingway but never had the nerve to speak to him.)
Back in New York, Palmer convinced Geisel to concentrate on his true talents: humor, illustration and cartooning. The man who would give us Horton and the Cat in the Hat first hit it big in advertising, drawing humorous ad campaigns for such pedestrian products as mosquito repellent and motor oil. The work was lucrative, if unfulfilling, and Geisel flexed his creative muscles with cartoons, both topical and, during World War II, political. But still, he hankered to write children’s books. Considerable persistence and a stroke of luck led to the publication of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937. While fame (and book sales) were slow, Dr. Seuss had arrived.
Becoming Dr. Seuss chronicles Geisel’s wholly creative, if not particularly scandalous, life but doesn’t shy away from darker aspects—particularly Palmer’s suicide, which may have been tied to Geisel’s affair with Audrey Dimond, who became his second wife, or Geisel’s lifelong wish to be taken more seriously as an artist rather than a “mere” children’s author.
Overall, Jones paints a loving portrait filled with telling details. And when the 82-year-old Geisel returned to Springfield to find the real-life Mulberry Street lined with hundreds of cheering schoolchildren, it’s hard to imagine even the most hardened grinch’s heart failing to grow at least three sizes.