INTERVIEW – BRIAN JAY JONES – Author of “BECOMING DR. SEUSS: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination”
- Jones is a biographer with as much passion for telling stories as he has for the people he profiles. With his previous bestselling and critically acclaimed books, George Lucas and Jim Henson, he has established himself as a master profiler of creative geniuses. Jones dives into the life of Geisel, who for as prolific as he was, remained a mysterious figure to those who read him.
- Geisel’s Early Years: From his upbringing in Springfield, Massachusetts to attending Dartmouth and Oxford, Jones shares how Geisel’s early life shaped him, including his unremarkable academic career, and the untimely young deaths of his two sisters, Henrietta and Marnie.
- How a lucky encounter on the street started his book career: in 1937, after rejections from at least 20 publishers, Geisel was walking dejectedly home ready to give up, when he ran into a fellow Dartmouth alumnus who had just started a new job at Vanguard Press. Recalled Geisel, “If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry-cleaning business today!” Vanguard published Seuss’ first book, though Geisel wouldn’t find commercial success as an author until over a decade later, after Random House published seven more of his books.
- The influence of Helen Geisel: Geisel relied heavily on his first wife, Helen, for her editorial input and aptitude for plot. She was his best and most devoted collaborator, and one of the few people who could challenge Geisel’s artistic instincts. When she died at the age of 69, Geisel kept the circumstances of her death intentionally vague. But there was much speculation about her passing, and whether rumors of Geisel’s extramarital affair drove Helen to take her own life.
- The Creative Process: The Cat in the Hat became a publishing juggernaut and launched Dr. Seuss into a national icon, selling more than a million copies within three years. But it took Geisel over a year to write the book. At the time, the vocabulary for children’s primers was limited to a certain number of “accepted” words for readers at each grade level. Geisel was limited to just 225 unique words, and he agonized over the manuscript, hoping to make the rhythm easy and charming for young readers. At long last, once he found the words “cat” and “hat”, the storyline came to him.
- His Radical Side: Geisel led a life that goes much deeper than the prolific and beloved children’s book author. In fact, the allure and fascination of Dr. Seuss begins with this second, more radical side. He had a successful career as a political cartoonist notably during WWII, and his political leanings can be felt throughout his books, such as the environmental awareness of The Lorax.
- Portrayal of Race and Gender: Over the course of a career that would span seven decades, Geisel drew tens of thousands of cartoons, some earlier examples of which are seen today as racially insensitive and misogynistic, including some war-era works. Later in life, Geisel would point to the established norms of the era. While he would go on to tinker with some of his art by playing with skin tone, his alterations wouldn’t be radical enough to stay away from controversy. Geisel would evolve, but it would take time.
- There Were No Nerds Until Dr. Seuss: In his book If I Ran the Zoo, Geisel’s character Gerald travels to far-off Ka-Troo, from which he brings back “A Nerkle…a Nerd…and a Seersucker, too!’ This was the first time the word nerd ever appeared in print. In the original story, a nerd was simply a grouchy-looking creature, essentially a Grinch, but within a year Newsweek would be writing about the evolution of regional slang in the United States, noting that nerd was replacing square.
- Dr. Seuss was also responsible for publishing other classic children’s books: Geisel helped launch Beginner Books at Random House. Through these books, he helped create a new generation of children’s books, moving away from generic looking books heavy on morality or steeped in fairy tales, and toward creator-driven stories centered on character. Among notable names: Geisel brought on Stan and Jan Berenstain, who with his help would go on to become the successful authors of the Berenstain Bears books. He also solicited a children’s book from Truman Capote, but rejected the manuscript Capote submitted.
OH, THE PLACES I’LL GO! Here’s my May tour schedule for BECOMING DR. SEUSS, with stops in Florida, California, Arizona, and Washington, DC. If you’re nearby, come hear me talk #DrSeuss and say hey! pic.twitter.com/ZBqXEnQeu3
— Brian Jay Jones (@brianjayjones) April 16, 2019