Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,
But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!
So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…
And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!
With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.
Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.
For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.
Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.
Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.