Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination

Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination

by Brian Jay Jones
Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination

Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination

by Brian Jay Jones


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The definitive, fascinating, all-reaching biography of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss is a classic American icon. Whimsical and wonderful, his work has defined our childhoods and the childhoods of our own children. The silly, simple rhymes are a bottomless well of magic, his illustrations timeless favorites because, quite simply, he makes us laugh. The Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Horton, and so many more, are his troupe of beloved, and uniquely Seussian, creations.

Theodor Geisel, however, had a second, more radical side. It is there that the allure and fasciation of his Dr. Seuss alter ego begins. He had a successful career as an advertising man and then as a political cartoonist, his personal convictions appearing, not always subtly, throughout his books—remember the environmentalist of The Lorax? Geisel was a complicated man on an important mission. He introduced generations to the wonders of reading while teaching young people about empathy and how to treat others well.

Agonizing over word choices and rhymes, touching up drawings sometimes for years, he upheld a rigorous standard of perfection for his work. Geisel took his responsibility as a writer for children seriously, talking down to no reader, no matter how small. And with classics like Green Eggs and Ham, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Geisel delighted them while they learned. Suddenly, reading became fun. 

Coming right off the heels of George Lucas and bestselling Jim Henson, Brian Jay Jones is quickly developing a reputation as a master biographer of the creative geniuses of our time. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524742799
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/26/2020
Pages: 504
Sales rank: 323,097
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

Brian Jay Jones is the critically-acclaimed, bestselling biographer of three books on some of the world’s most iconic creative figures, including Jim Henson: The Biography and George Lucas: A Life. For nearly three decades, he has served as a speechwriter for elected officials at all levels of government, including ten years in the United States Senate. 

Brian currently lives in Virginia with his wife and a very excitable dog.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Minnows Into Whales




On paper, Mulberry Street doesn't look like much. It's just another residential street on the city map of Springfield, Massachusetts, a slightly bent capital letter L lying on its back, not much more than a pass-through between the busier streets of Union and Maple. The street itself is quiet and relatively nondescript, with very little indication that it's a major destination on a map of the American imagination.


But sure enough, it was here-at least as told in the tale by Springfield's own Dr. Seuss-that a little boy named Marco used his imagination to transform a simple horse and wagon into a colorful spectacle, with a brass band pulled by an elephant-riding sultan, flanked by motorcycle policemen and confetti-dumping airplanes, while enthusiastically being reviewed by the top-hatted mayor and the town aldermen. Modern-day pilgrims still flock to Mulberry Street, slowly trolling the neighborhood, windows down, hoping to catch a glimpse of something-anything-that inspired the magnificent imaginations of Marco and Dr. Seuss. Residents smile knowingly, pausing over lawn mowers and trunks still filled with groceries to answer the same question from visiting wayfarers.


"Where did Dr. Seuss live?"


The answer, it seems, is as disappointing as discovering London's 221B Baker Street is actually home to a bank, and never was home to Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Seuss didn't live on Mulberry Street at all. Instead, pilgrims are directed to another spot on the map, another inverted L about two miles south: Fairfield Street. This is where Dr. Seuss grew up, and the house he lived in for nearly twenty years, at number 74, is still there, looking much as it did during his lifetime.


Parts of Springfield, in fact, look as they did during Dr. Seuss's day-or at least the places that shaped his imagination and influenced his art can still be seen if one knows where to look. A few blocks from Fairfield on Howard Street stands the old armory. Its curved stone turrets are reflected in the castles populating so many Seuss books. Over in Forest Park, the Barney Mausoleum-built with a family fortune earned by inventing and selling clamp-on ice skates-looms two stories above the pavement, with the curving staircases and pillared archways that would show up in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. And the nearby Forest Park Zoo? That was where "[I tried to] draw the animals," said Dr. Seuss later. "I didn't know how to draw, so they'd come out strange."


Dr. Seuss didn't produce Springfield's only creations. Founded by the Puritan William Pynchon in 1636 on a high bluff overlooking the Connecticut River, Springfield has been nurturing and stirring American imaginations for nearly three hundred years. American independence was won with the reliable ammunition and gun carriages produced at the Springfield Armory beginning in 1777. (A decade later, Daniel Shays-spouting a different kind of idealism-would attempt to steal muskets and ammunition from the same armory in a thwarted attempt to overthrow the government of Massachusetts.) By 1795, Springfield Armory would regularly be producing the muskets that would be carried on the shoulders of American soldiers all the way through the War of 1812 and on into the Civil War.


Weaponry wasn't Springfield's only specialty; true, local businessmen Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, who developed the firearms company that bore their last names, had roots in the town-but so, too, did Charles Goodyear, who discovered and patented the process for making vulcanized rubber in a small Springfield factory in 1844. A year earlier, two industrious Springfield publishers, brothers Charles and George Merriam, acquired the rights to publish Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, marking the founding of another iconic American brand.


There was Milton Bradley, who would launch the American board game industry by cranking out the earliest incarnations of The Game of Life in his lithography studio in 1860. Over on State Street, the beloved and reliable Indian motorcycles would roll out of the company's Springfield factory from 1901 until 1953. Even modern sports would find their origins in the town when in 1891 a Canadian-born physical education teacher named James Naismith, looking to keep his classes occupied through the long, cold Massachusetts winters, mounted a peach basket on a ten-foot pole in the gymnasium at the International YMCA Training School and-opting not to name the game after himself-christened the new game basketball.


Springfield, then, could unequivocally and rightly stake a claim as a major landmark on the frontier of American inventiveness and imagination. Dr. Seuss himself was a construct of one of those unique American minds: a comfortable coat regularly shrugged on and off at will by one of Springfield's most famous sons, Theodor Seuss Geisel. The dropped e at the end of Theodor would forever perplex journalists and copyeditors, but to Theodor-Dr. Seuss himself-it wouldn't much matter. Everyone would always call him Ted.



Theodor Seuss Geisel could trace his roots back to the German town of Mühlhausen, a tiny village squatting on the western shore of a hairpin turn in the Enz River, in what is now the German state of Baden-Württemberg. It was here, in 1650, that Joseph Geissel married Catharina Loth; the extra s would be dropped in later generations, and well before Ted's grandfather was born in July 1844. Born Theodor Adolph Geisel in MŸlhausen, T. A. Geisel moved to nearby Pforzheim at age fourteen to enter into a six-year apprenticeship with a local jeweler. From there, he joined the German cavalry-T. A. Geisel would always have a love for horses, and even at only five feet six, he stood tall in the saddle-and served in the German army for the seven-week Austro-Prussian War that quickly sparked, flared, and burned out in the summer of 1866.





"My grandfather was a German cavalry officer who decided he didn't want to be one," Ted said-and in 1869, twenty-five-year-old T. A. Geisel stepped onto the steamship Ohio at the port in Bremen, bound for the United States, where members of his extended family had secured him a job in the store of Springfield jeweler J. B. Rumrill. If Geisel missed his homeland, he seemed only ever looking forward, never back. In 1871, he married Christine Schmaelzle, another recent German immigrant four years his junior. Two children would follow shortly. In 1875, he became an American citizen.


T.A. built a reputation as a talented jeweler-in his five years in Springfield, he had become Springfield's go-to designer for brooches-but in 1876 he abandoned brooches for booze, giving up the jeweling trade entirely to begin a new career as a brewer ("a slight jump," his grandson said archly). Pooling his savings with those of a young brewer's apprentice named Christian Kalmbach, T.A. purchased a small brick brewing plant located way out on Boston Road on the east side of town, right at the last stop on the horsecar line.


While the facility they purchased was primitive and deemed "feeble" by locals-just a few wooden buildings that produced barely a thousand barrels of beer annually-the proprietors of the new Kalmbach & Geisel Brewery proved remarkably ambitious and adept both as businessmen and brewers. Under the guidance of T. A. Geisel, who had a knack for property and structures, the wooden brewery quickly expanded into one of the largest in the region, becoming a "magnificent" compound of redbrick buildings surrounding a central courtyard and eventually taking up twelve grassy acres.


For a while, the Geisels lived on the grounds of the brewing compound, then took a small cottage directly across from the brewery on State Street. It was here, in the shadow of the smokestack of the Kalmbach & Geisel Brewery, that T.A. and Christine Geisel had their fourth child and first son, Theodor Robert Geisel-Dr. Seuss's father-on June 28, 1879. In the coming decade, there would be two more surviving children, Adolph and Christine-but as the first son and namesake, it was T.R. who was expected to follow in his father's footsteps in the brewing industry.


Before T.R. was three, the brewery that once produced less than a thousand barrels of beer in a year was delivering at least that much in a single day, fanning a small army of beer wagons out across Springfield every morning, each distinctive black and gold wagon drawn by majestic four-horse teams. As a boy, T.R. would rise early to head off to school; his father, meanwhile, had already been up for hours, overseeing the several hundred barrels of Kalmbach & Geisel beer that were loaded onto trains to ship daily through all of New England. "It was good beer, too," said Ted-so good, in fact, that Kalmbach & Geisel would be fondly referred to by locals as "Come back and guzzle."


And guzzle the locals did-so much so that the brewery would continue to grow and thrive over the next decade, prompting T.A. to add an enormous icehouse and replace their compound of buildings with a brand-new state-of-the-art three-story brick structure. In 1893, with profits soaring and more than 400,000 barrels of beer rolling out annually, T.A. bought out Christian Kalmbach, renamed the business the Highland Brewing Company, and immediately designated himself as the new organization's president, treasurer, and manager.


Five years later, the still-growing Highland Brewing Company was sold and incorporated-along with several local rivals, including the Hampden Brewing Company, just up the river in Willimansett-to form the Springfield Breweries Company. T.A. pocketed his profits but insisted on remaining as manager of the Highland facility, and jockeyed to have his nineteen-year-old son T.R. hired as treasurer for the entire organization. Despite the lofty title and elevated responsibilities, T.R. Geisel would modestly list his occupation simply as "bookkeeper."


T.A., however, would always proudly identify himself as a brewer, a title anyone of German extraction would bear with particular satisfaction. As the proprietor of one of New England's most successful breweries-and an active member of some of the leading German clubs of Springfield-T.A. was understandably a proud man. Devoted to family-he would insist his children live under his own roof until they married-T.A. had only one real hobby: his beautiful team of horses, which he kept decked out in the finest gear. With his broad shoulders, a wide mustache that curled slightly at the ends, and piercing blue eyes that seemed set in a perpetual squint, T.A. was imperial in bearing, though not imposing-he was a bit too short for that. His grandson, however, would always remember him in a slightly mythic manner, recalling his Gro§vater as wearing "boiled white shirts and diamond studs and [who] sat in deep leather chairs with Persian rugs at his feet."


By 1901, T.A. was ready to become his own boss again, and enlisted twenty-two-year-old T.R. as his partner for his newest start-up endeavor, the Liberty Brewing Company, with riverside offices at the busy corner at Liberty and Charles Streets. This time, T.R. was appointed as both treasurer and secretary of the company, titles he was proud to boast of and which he hoped would impress the young woman he'd been wooing for a year, a twenty-three-year-old baker's daughter named Henrietta Seuss.


Like T.R., Henrietta-called "Nettie"-was a first-generation Springfielder. Born May 13, 1878, she was the daughter of George and Margaretha Seuss, who had emigrated from Bavaria and established a successful bakery in their new hometown. Like the Geisels, the Seusses were active in Springfield's German community. George Seuss, in fact, had been a founder of the popular Springfield Turnverein, a social club and gymnasium with a heavily German clientele, and also served as a city alderman. Seuss's popular bakery, located in the heart of downtown Springfield, was hard to miss-one only had to follow one's nose to find it on Howard Street, practically in the shadow of the massive Springfield Armory. If brewing was a family business for the Geisels, the bakery was similarly a Seussian family affair; Nettie, in fact, had worked at the bakery since the age of fifteen, her loyalty to the family firm overriding her desire to attend college.


T.R. and Nettie made an attractive, if somewhat intimidating, couple. Both were six feet tall and athletic in build. Nettie, a dark-haired beauty, weighed nearly two hundred pounds, was an expert diver, and in a town that took marksmanship seriously-it was the home of Smith & Wesson, after all-was a crack shot with a rifle. Like his father, T.R. was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a regal bearing. He also was an accomplished horseman, as well as one of the very best sharpshooters in the region; in 1902, he would hold the world record for shooting at two hundred yards.


The two seem to have met some resistance to their relationship. On August 31, 1901, the young couple sneaked away to New York and covertly married, a secret they seem to have kept until the news finally trickled into the pages of the Springfield Republican nearly a year later. "The announcement was as much a surprise to their closest friends as to others," the Republican reported. "[N]o one had been given an inkling of what had happened."


The announcement of the marriage also sparked some tut-tutting from those in the burgeoning temperance movement-a crusade that would soon have far-reaching consequences for the Geisels-who disapproved of the matrimonial merging of the Seuss and Geisel businesses. "Seuss the baker puts the staff of life in people's mouths," commented one wag, while "Geisel the brewer takes it out and pours beer there instead, causing the children of drinkers to suffer the pangs of hunger."


Such criticism aside, the secret likely couldn't have been kept much longer anyway; by the time of the marriage's revelation in March, Nettie was visibly pregnant with their first child-and on July 4, 1902, gave birth to a daughter they named Margaretha Christine Geisel. T.R. would dotingly call her Marnie, a nickname that would stick. That same year, T. A. Geisel-now officially a Gro§vater himself-would move from his modest cottage on State Street to a spacious house at 162 Sumner Avenue, the grandest street in Springfield, lined with large Victorian houses and bordering the gigantic Forest Park on the park's short north end. The house had plenty of room for family, but T.R. and Nettie seem to have preferred living with or near her parents in Howard Street instead, perhaps because the Seusses lived within walking distance of T.R.'s offices at the Liberty Brewing Company.


It was here, in the Seuss house at 22 Howard Street-just down the street from the Seuss family bakery-that T.R. and Nettie Geisel had their second child and first son on March 2, 1904, a cold but fair-weathered Wednesday. Like his father and grandfather before him, the boy was named Theodor, with the middle name Seuss-pronounced Soyce, in proper German fashion-affixed as a recognition of his mother's side of the family.

Table of Contents

Part I And that is a story that no one can beat

Chapter 1 Minnows into Whales 1904-1921 3

Chapter 2 The Slob Generation 1921-1925 35

Chapter 3 Strange Beasts 1925-1926 56

Chapter 4 The Flit 1927-1936 74

Chapter 5 Brat Books 1936-1940 110

Chapter 6 Cockeyed Crusader 1940-1943 134

Part II It is Fun to Have Fun But You Have to Know How

Chapter 7 Snafu 1943-1946 161

Chapter 8 A Good Profession 1946-1949 191

Chapter 9 A Person's a Person 1950-1954 214

Chapter 10 A Literary Straitjacket 1954-1957 243

Part III Oh, The Thinks You Can Think Up If Only You Try

Chapter 11 Beginner Books 1958-1969 275

Chapter 12 The Work 1961-1963 304

Chapter 13 Stink, Stank, Stunk. 1963-1967 321

Chapter 14 I Intend to Go on Doing Just What I Do 1967-1971 343

Chapter 15 You'll Miss the Best Things If You Keep Your Eyes Shut 1971-1978 362

Chapter 16 A Few Years Longer 1979-1984 384

Chapter 17 Off and Away 1984-1991 405

Acknowledgments 431

Selected Bibliography 435

Notes 437

Index 475

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