Sunday, August 18, 2019

when you read about

Brian Jay Jones, Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination (Dutton, 2019)

I already have the authorized Morgan & Morgan biography of Dr. Seuss, but this one attracted my eye and offered a good excuse to drop a little money into the coffers of a small independent bookstore in the City on our recent expedition up there.

Although with fewer quotations from Dr. Seuss's incidental writings, and not as many photographs, than the Morgan bio, it's more compellingly written and makes more of a coherent thread of story of his life, utilizes journalistic and other secondary sources with skill, and is able to be more honest about certain personal matters relating to his marriage and his health.

It also shows considerable insight, as in one paragraph I found particularly delightfully written. Although Geisel was pleased with the results (or he wouldn't have published them), he found writing Beginner Books frustrating because the limited vocabulary cramped his natural ebullience with language. (But this shows the benefits of an artificial limitation on creative artists, as some of them are his masterpieces.) Having already proven his virtuosity with a limited vocabulary in writing The Cat in the Hat, despite the sweat and grumbles it took to do it, Geisel accepted a nagging challenge from his publisher for the even more impossible-seeming task to write a book using only fifty different words. Jones then writes:
Ted would rise to meet Cerf's challenge - and it was probably not entirely a coincidence that the central plot point of the resulting book was all about convincing someone to do something he didn't really want to do.
And if you can't guess from that what that something was,* I don't need to talk to you.

The oddest and most uncharacteristic episode in Geisel's life, covered in detail in both biographies, was the year (1925-6) he spent in Oxford trying to earn a Ph.D. in English, a goal for which he was spectacularly unsuited. The interesting connection that Jones draws is a presumption that, given Geisel's later reminiscence that he'd gotten "bogged down with old High German and Gothic and stuff of that sort," he'd been attending Prof. Tolkien's lectures in Germanic philology. Point one.

Some 45 years and 300 not-overlong pages later, we learn - I learn; maybe you already knew this - that Chuck Jones's Grinch was only the first of about a dozen animated Seuss cartoons produced for tv during Geisel's lifetime. One of them was The Cat in the Hat, whose voice was provided by, of all people, Allan Sherman. Who said in an interview quoted here that he and Geisel got along well, because of their shared delight in wordplay.

Point two. And how many other people, I wondered, intersected in person with both Tolkien and Allan Sherman during their lifespans? Thus the question I posed yesterday.

*To eat green eggs and ham, of course

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