Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This was yet another of those books I picked up randomly off the new books shelf because it looked interesting. It was a good choice.
Dr. Seuss presumably needs no introduction. Since 1937, his books - for kids but fun for grownups too - have been part of the American canon. I imagine even the most sheltered Fundies are aware of the subversive Cat in the Hat, and probably a few other characters. I would even go so far as to say that we of Gen X had our childhoods shaped by Seuss - and the Beginner Books imprint he pioneered. Although on a different level of reading, Seuss was my generation’s Harry Potter - and I would add that, like Millennials, our generation’s reading is partly responsible for the significant generation gap both generations have with many Boomers.
Just to give a few examples, I grew up on The Lorax. Which, in a rational world, would be a thoroughly uncontroversial book. After all, natural resources ARE finite, and pollution DOES destroy things, and we should take action to conserve the earth. Except, here in 2019, one entire political party believes conservation is a liberal conspiracy, apparently. I cannot believe I live in such times.
Likewise, The Sneetches shaped how I saw beliefs in racial and cultural superiority, and The Butter Battle Book brought “mutually assured destruction” to my mind at a young age. Looking back, in many ways, Dr. Seuss was shockingly “progressive” by the standards of our current age.
This book is a fairly detailed biography, running in excess of 400 pages, plus extensive notes. It isn’t boring by any stretch, however. Brian Jay Jones hits the perfect balance between detail and narrative flow. Because Theodor Seuss Geisel lived a long and eventful life, there is a lot to tell.
I’m not going to tell much of the story, because that is the point of the book, after all, and Jones is a far better biographer than I would be. There are, however, some interesting details that stood out.
One is the progression that Geisel (and thus his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss) made over his lifetime. Giesel didn’t really hit it big as an author until the 1950s, when he was in his 40s, so he had quite a bit of a life before that. After a mediocre stint in college (he graduated but dropped out of grad school), he ended up working in advertising, while making a little on the side from his political cartoons. His whimsical drawings and verbal zingers kept him employed. During World War Two, he enlisted, and was paired with Frank Capra (and a few other names that would become big later: P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, as well as Chuck Jones and the usual suspects at the Warner Brothers animation studio) to produce propaganda films for the military. These films, the Private SNAFU series, are pretty dang funny, very Loony Tunes, and recognizably Seussian. (They are available on YouTube, if you want to check them out.) Geisel’s work on the documentary, Design For Death, would win him an Oscar.
All this to get around to my main point on how Giesel changed over time. In his first book (And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street), he would use an unfortunate stereotype - which was also used in the propaganda films. His political cartoons, likewise, from his early era all too often use cheap jokes at the expense of the usual suspects of the time: African Americans, Asians, women, and children. These haven’t worn too well, as he would later admit. However, things started to change noticeably. Recently, one of his best political cartoons has been making the rounds of the internet:
As time went on, Geisel would become more consistently progressive in his politics. Although his books are not often overtly political (and are only “partisan” in an era when the very ideas of conservation or the common good are partisan issues), they do show his concern for the marginalized, for the environment, and for - dare I say it? - common sense. (More on the last one later.) There is a certain irony in the fact that Boomers bought Dr. Seuss’s books in vast numbers for their kids, not anticipating perhaps that they would undermine their own politics a generation later.
Going back to near the beginning of the book, one interesting fact was that Geisel’s father, T. R., was a bit of an inventor of sorts (in addition to being, pre-Prohibition, a brewer.) He would, as the book puts it, solve simple tasks with “complicated-looking devices that would, to later eyes, appear...well, appropriately Seussian.
Also fun was the parallel between the early 2000s and another time when Americans did stupid stuff in reaction to European events. Anyone remember “Freedom Fries”? From that time when France urged caution in starting a couple of wars? (France was right, in case you hadn’t noticed…) Well, during World War One, the same nativism and xenophobia was turned against the Germans, and we had, rather than hamburgers, “Liberty Sandwiches.” For Geisel, as a German-American, he and his family received a good bit of prejudice during this time.
Geisel had difficulty selling his first book, for quite a while. One of the common criticisms it received was that it had no moral. Furthermore, the narrator was not punished for making up a tall tale. Geisel complained about this, saying, “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?” This all sounds kind of familiar, from my wife’s Fundie days. And yes, Elsie Dinsmore does get mentioned in this book.
On a related note, Geisel believed - and advocated for - a then-revolutionary idea: that children were humans, and smarter than they were given credit for. Thus, they hated being talked down to, and saw through stupidity and condescension. In Geisel’s view, children were to be talked to directly, as absolute equals.
[Side note here: the whole thrust of the Patriarchy and Fundamentalist movements is to restore rigid hierarchies, including that of parents over children. Gothard in particular emphasized that - and it applied to adult children too…]
How about another weird fact? One that I didn’t know, believe it or not. Did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word “nerd”? It’s true. The word was first used in If I Ran The Zoo. It referred to a grouchy imaginary animal, but the word took on a life of its own, and within a year made a Newsweek article on changing slang.
There is a lot more in the book that I could have quoted. Dr. Seuss was certainly quotable, despite his shyness on a stage. I referenced The Butter Battle Book above, and there is a quote from him about that which I think bears repeating. There was a surprising amount of controversy over the book, which caught Geisel off guard. He particularly resented the accusation that he was anti-military.
“I’m not anti-military. I’m just anti-crazy.”
And that is exactly how I feel. Like Geisel, I acknowledge the need in our world for the good guys to have access to force to oppose the Hitlers of the world. And I support our military. But I am anti-crazy, and would like us to use a lot better judgment in how we pick wars. (See “freedom fries” above…)
One final thing chronologically: near the end of Geisel’s life, the San Diego Museum of Art presented an exhibition of his work, from the cartoons to the illustrations to the more “serious” art he painted. The critics were largely savage, claiming that what Dr. Seuss did was not real art.
This is, to put it frankly, bullshit.
It may not be “traditional” art, but it is certainly art. Take a look at any of the books. The drawings are at least as much of the fun as the words - probably more. And they took plenty of work to get right.
Back in 2015, we took one of our regular vacations to the San Diego area, and went to see an exhibit on Dr. Seuss at the San Diego History Museum (it features local history, and Geisel lived in nearby La Jolla for the second half of his life.) Included were some of his paintings, as well as the whimsical “animal heads” that used real antlers and so on with stuffed versions of his creatures. (He had a collection of these in his home - proof of either weird taste or a good sense of humor.)
Wow, the kids are a lot bigger now...
One of the more typically "Seussian" of his works.
These two are definitely more unusual - and weren't seen until after Geisel's death.
I think they are actually not bad - he specifically intended them as tributes to the modern artists they resemble.
Brian Jay Jones has also written biographies of Jim Henson and George Lucas, which I am inclined to read in the future. While this one was a largely positive portrayal, it did include some of the skeletons as well, so it wasn’t a straight-up hagiography. I thought Jones struck good balances throughout, making the book informative and interesting.