Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Life of Dr. Seuss

Idle thoughts on Dr. Seuss & Mr.Geisel by Neil and Judith Morgan.

I'm not big on biographies so I might be the wrong person for this book. I enjoyed both Philip Nel's Dr. Seuss: American Icon and Charles D. Cohen's The Seuss, The Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel because they focused more on the art than the artist. Dr. Seuss & Mr.Geisel was much more devoted to Seuss than his works.

Nathan Singer once told me that he didn't want to know anything about the personal life of Peter Sellers; he just wanted to enjoy his movies. Usually I'm of that mindset but I read this book anyway. I found a number of things to pass on:

During WWI, young Ted was chased and beaten for his German heritage. To prove his loyalty to America, he went door to door (notably on Mulberry Street) selling war bonds through his Boy Scouts troop. He became one of the troop's top ten sellers and, on May 2, 1918, was honored with the nine other boys in a ceremony hosted by Theodore Roosevelt. The first nine boys personally received their medals from the former president but the scoutmaster had miscounted and shorted Roosevelt a medal so he and Ted stood awkwardly on stage until TR loudly demanded to know what was going on. The scoutmaster shooed Ted off stage, treating him as if he were a stage-crasher, triggering, for the rest of his life, intense bouts of stage fright whenever he appeared before a large audience.

Dr. Seuss on English majors: "English and writing was my major, but I think that's a mistake for anybody. That's teaching you the mechanics of getting water out of a well that may not exist."

Ted worked on troop propaganda movies during WWII. Two of the films he worked on won Oscars for documentaries but all traces of both of them vanished after the war. Ted blamed the government.

Green Eggs and Ham has only fifty words, of which "Not" is used the most often (82 times) and "I" the second most (81). All words except "anywhere" (used eight times) are monosyllabic. And, although the book doesn't mention it, "Would you do it with a goat?" is the line most troubling and/or enjoyed by parents.

Dr. Seuss was the Ur-J.K. Rowlings. Where Rowlings is denounced by certain pea-brained Americans, Seuss was by Brits who claimed "rejection of Christian names gives him a misleadingly sinister sound." Regular British readers, like regular Americans, ignored the idiots and, after a slow reception, made him a best-seller. His books were used to teach illiterate English convicts to read—criminals refused to read regular beginners' books but even they liked Dr. Seuss.

Seuss tried to talk Stan and Jan Berenstain into dropping their characters, now known as the Berenstain Bears, after their first appearance. "Do something as different as you can," he advised. The Berenstains initially agreed but sales of the Bears book was so strong that they continued the series. As of 1995, over 165 million copies of the one-hundred-plus books have been sold in the U.S. alone. The video spin-off is quick to point out that it is the most popular series of books in history, including Harry Potter. I don't care. I've never liked the books and wish Seuss had talked them into doing something else.

The Butter Battle Book was judged as "too terrifying" for children and was at one point almost renamed The Yooks and Zooks. One editor wanted a new ending. Instead of leaving the readers hanging on whether or not the warring factions destroy the world, she wanted a happy resolution, "an illusion that I think children are entitled to have." A woman from Texas calling herself "a concerned Christian mother" complained to Random House that the book's message of peace was "the most blatant form of brainwashing" (years later her little boy became president of the United States. . . not really). Seuss was particularly proud that shortly after the video based on the book was shown in the Soviet Union, communism began to collapse.

After writing You're Only Old Once, a satire of doctors, Seuss began to write a similar book about lawyers. He found that he hated them so much that anything he wrote was too bitter and angry. He began a book about religion, even creating a protagonist named Archbishop Katz but never finished it.

First mention I've heard of Shannon's law: Humans absorb information in inverse ratio to its credibility.

I haven't read enough celebrity biographies to give a clear gauge of where this one stands. I didn't care for the passages about his vacations or marriages but the material about his writings made it worth reading.

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