Always Watching

8688 K Pearlman Photography_previewThis me lecturing on Jim Henson last week — I had to step in when a regularly-scheduled lecturer was taken ill.

One is truly never really out from under the gaze of Ernie and Bert.

At Work in the Geisel Library

I’m sitting in the San Diego Airport, waiting for my flight back to Baltimore, which has already been announced as an hour late.  Vacation? Nope. I’ve been in San Diego for the last ten days, doing research on Dr. Seuss, since his archives are held at the Geisel Library (see the connection?) at the University of California at San Diego.

It’s been a good trip. I couldn’t dig into all of the archival files I wanted; apart from sheer time limitations, some of the Seuss-related materials remain tantalizingly restricted, which — while it leaves those of us who love research going Oooooooo, I wonder what’s in there? — isn’t necessarily unusual (at Dartmouth, for example, materials relating to financial transactions or donations were also restricted). But I still got my hands on lots and lots and lots of great stuff, and I’m grateful for the assistance of the library archivists, who willingly lugged in box after box and always cheerfully promised to check on the status of just ONE more! box or folder for me.

I also had the opportunity to talk with one of Ted’s friends, in a home perched high atop Mount Soledad with a stunning view of the Pacific.  Not bad.  San Diego and La Jolla are a pretty nice place to be in January — especially as I’m flying head first into a swirling winter storm back east, which may be one reason why my flight is already delayed.

Here’s a look at the exterior of the Geisel Library.  While Ted didn’t have anything to do with the architectural design of the building, it certainly looks like a library where he’d want to store his papers, doesn’t it?

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Once inside, this is the entrance to the archives, with your way marked by a quote from The Lorax.

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This is the view from inside the fishbowl.  I was the only researcher in the room the entire week–and while photography of materials isn’t permitted, I don’t think they’ll mind a shot of the workspace.  If you look just to the left of the glass door, you’ll see the tops of two rolling carts, each containing archival boxes.  Those are the materials I was working from.

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As I mentioned, I wasn’t permitted to take photos of any of the materials in the collection (policies vary from place to place — I could photograph materials at Columbia and at Dartmouth, for instance).  But UCSD is still very generous about giving the public a look at some of what they’ve got on hand, and keeps a regular display of materials moving through cases just outside the archival doors.  At the moment, there’s an original typewritten manuscript of the text from Green Eggs and Ham on view . . .

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. . . as well as this really gorgeous original art from Horton Hatches The Egg! 

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Just as there was in Springfield, there’s a statue outside the library of Ted with the Cat in the Hat (and for some reason, it looked particularly great in the rain).

IMG_5302 2So long, Geisel Library, and so long San Diego and La Jolla.  You were lovely.

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George Lucas Goes Around the World

IMG_5287This is kinda fun: on a bookshelf in my office — it’s actually a wooden crate at the base of my desk — I like to keep every edition of the three books I’ve had published over the last decade. For Washington Irving, that meant I had it in hardcover and softcover.  For Jim Henson, apart from the U.S. hardcover and paperback, there was a UK edition, a Polish edition, and an audiobook — the first time I have ever had an audiobook of my work, and I gotta admit, I still get a bit weepy listening to Kirby Hayborne read the heck out of it.

George Lucas, however, has made it into a few more foreign markets.  Apart from the U.S., UK/Australian editions and the audiobook, it’s also available — so far — in Italian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Finnish, and Polish. While there can sometimes be cover or artwork variations on the foreign versions, for the most part, the overall look and feel of the U.S. version of George Lucas remains intact — a testament to the beautiful design work by the folks at Little, Brown.

If you’re a foreign reader of George Lucas, let me sincerely say Grazie. Kiitos. Je nous remercieVielen Dank. Obrigado. Dziekuje Ci. Gracias.

Where I’ll Be

If you’re in or around the Washington, DC area on Wednesday night, you should come by the University Club of DC for its 28th annual Meet the Author Night & Book Fair. More than 65 authors will be there — including yours truly, where I’ll be sitting behind a pile of the newly-printed George Lucas paperbacks.

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The University Club of DC is located in a really impressive building at 1135 16th Street N.W., right off Sakharov Plaza.  For more information about the book fair, and the club itself, you can check things out at www.universityclubdc.com.

Nuts and Bolts

I spent the better part of this past week in New York City, doing research on Dr. Seuss at the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room at Columbia University.  The Butler Library at Columbia holds the papers of Random House — as well as those of its co-founder, Bennett Cerf — which has published every Dr. Seuss book since 1939. Before that, Dr, Seuss was published by Vanguard, a company Random House then-president Bob Bernstein made a point of acquiring in 1988, largely to ensure Random House would own all of Dr. Seuss’s books. How do I know that? This past week I also interviewed Bob Bernstein–still spry at 94-years-old, and full of lots of interesting stories, some of which had to do with Dr. Seuss, some of which didn’t.  The man has lived a pretty incredible life (his Wikipedia entry barely scratches the surface).

Archival research is one of the foundations of biography–and for some of us, it’s the really fun part as well.  These are the nuts and bolts that help biographers do what we like to do: it’s just you, a laptop, pencil and paper (ink pens are usually prohibited in an archive), and one archival box after another.

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The nuts and bolts of biography.

How’d I get here?

*RECORD SCRATCH*

Let’s start here, with the rather imposing-looking Butler Library.  It sits on the south side of the commons at Columbia University, a hop-skip-and-jump from the 116th Street subway stop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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The Butler Library at Columbia University.

Once inside, the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room sits on the 6th floor, behind glass doors that make the place feel somewhat hermetically sealed.  Outside the reading room, you’ll be required to check your backpack, briefcase, jacket . . . anything with pockets or hidey-holes where documents might be smuggled out (think I’m being dramatic? The National Archives begs to differ).

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The entrance to the Rare Book and Manuscript reading room at Butler Library. You’ll be offloading most of your belongings into lockers before entering (use the table at the right to unpack).

I had e-mailed the archives in advance with my request for the archival boxes I wanted to look through — they were all stored off-site, and needed to brought to the reading room for me to use, which is why researchers should always check in advance on the mechanics of the research at any archive they might be visiting.  Archivists are your friend, no doubt — heck, they want to help people use their resources — and they’re also some of the unsung heroes of history and biography, pointing researchers in the right direction when we’ve stumbled into archival dead ends, or even directing us to other archives that might be of use. The archivist I had corresponded with, Karla Nielsen, was helpful and enthusiastic, patiently walking me through nearly every step of the front-end of the process, including locating and then navigating the library’s lengthy “Finding Aid” for the collection. Because of her help, I had no doubt that everything I’d asked for would be there waiting for me.

Once you’re ready to sit down and do your research, it’s a little like entering a fishbowl as you take your seat inside the main reading area — another glassed-in room, where you’ll present your credentials to the librarian, who will then have your archival boxes brought to you one- or two-at-a-time. I sat at one of the wooden tables about three rows back, directly behind several other researchers who were just as intently going through their archival boxes.

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Inside the fishbowl.

Sometimes, as you’re on your way to your own relevant documents, you come across other files you might be itching to explore, given more time.  Often, the unopened files can be as tantalizing as those you opened or looked through.  For example, the file for Dr. Seuss’s early book The Seven Lady Godivas was filed alphabetically under this real name (Theodor “Ted” Geisel), which put it directly in front of the file for Nobelist Andre Gide.  Pretty neat.  And no, I didn’t open it.  THERE WAS NO TIME.

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Geisel . . . Gide.

Ted sigI went through my boxes slowly, taking notes both on my laptop and in my notebook.  But one of the great benefits of the iPhone age is that many archives will permit you to photograph your documents with a digital camera, just so long as the flash is off.  Once I get back home, I download and print out every document and file it in black binders for reference — but the cellphone photo policy is a real boon to biographers and historians (and anyone who thrives on documentation, really) as it permits us to have copies of much-needed documents — and not just our own written description of them — on hand at any time,  (I’m sure they won’t begrudge me reproducing just this signature from a little snippet of one memo, part of an ongoing string of letters between Ted and Random House president Bob Bernstein about a French translation of The Cat in the Hat Dictionary.)

Anyway, this is the “laws and sausage” side of producing a biography.  And there’s still a long way to go before it’s  even close to ready to land in your hands.

Olkoon voima kanssasi.

The Finnish version of George Lucas is now available . . . in Finland, at least.

And yes, the book is finished. Don’t start.

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George Lucas is coming in paperback…

So, this showed up in the mail today.

Photo on 10-25-17 at 5.10 PM #2 (1)George Lucas: A Life arrives in paperback in a galaxy near you on November 21. If you’re so inclined, you can preorder it here, here, or here — or better yet, at your local brick and mortar bookstore.

Über George Lucas mit Geek! reden (and now in English, too!)

geek33_coverGerman friends and fans: the latest issue of the German pop culture magazine Geekfeatures not only a terrific photo of Mark Hamill on the cover and lots of cool articles on All Things The Last Jedi, but you’ll also get a three-page interview with me talking about George Lucas and the cultural significance of Star Wars.

For those of you who won’t be getting to Germany any time soon — and who may not understand German — journalist Christian Endres, who conducted the interview, was kind enough to permit me to post our conversation in its entirety — and in English — here on the blog.

Hello Brian! Have you ever met a person who didn’t know Star Wars?

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I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who doesn’t know what Star Wars is, but I have met several people who’ve never seen it. These generally tend to be people who were in their 30s when the movie first came out in 1977, didn’t get swept up in the zeitgeist, and then just never got around to seeing it. But Star Wars still creeps into their references, whether they know it or not – just like people say, “Rosebud” without ever seeing Citizen Kane, these folks will still say things like, “There is no try,” or “May the Force be with you.” Star Wars is truly in us all.

Would you call Star Wars the greatest myth of our age? And does this make George Lucas the greatest fairy-tale-storyteller of modern time?

 I think it’s definitely right up there, though it’s in good company with things like Lord of the Rings and perhaps Star Trek and the DC Comic/Marvel universe. These are all mythologies with gigantic canvases, enormous numbers of characters, and sprawling story arcs. George Lucas—consistent with his driving need to control his creative destiny—is the one who single-handedly created, scripted, wrote the story, or set the ground rules of the Star Wars mythology. If that doesn’t make him singlehandedly the greatest mythmaker of all time, he’s definitely in the running. Continue reading

It’s Jim Henson Day!

Okay, maybe it’s really not Jim Henson Day — but it’s Jim’s 81st birthday, so over on Twitter I suggested we make #JimHensonDay a thing.  And really, when the President of the United States is tweeting like a lunatic, all but taunting another country into nuclear war, I figure now is as good a day as any to remind ourselves that there are still a lot of good people and good things going on in the universe — and that Jim, his life, and work remain an inspiration for fun, creativity, and basic decency.

Here’s the string of Twitter posts I put up this morning.  Feel free to comment on what Jim and his work mean to you in the comments — or join the conversation on Twitter on the hashtag #JimHensonDay.

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Go out and do something silly today.  Jim would approve.  Heck, he’d encourage it.

Project Lorax: The Research Zone

Over the past week, I’ve been on the road doing research on Dr. Seuss, a road trip that took me from Fredericksburg up to Hanover, New Hampshire — where young Theodor (Ted) Geisel attended Dartmouth from 1921 to 1925 — then down the Connecticut River to Springfield, Massachusetts, where the future Dr. Seuss was born and raised.  And yeah, there’s even a real Mulberry Street here, though contrary to rumor, Ted didn’t live on it.

My first stop, then, was Dartmouth, where I hoped to have a peek at the papers of Ted Geisel (Dartmouth class of ’25) held at the Rauner Library, housed in the Webster Building, right on the edge of the historic Dartmouth Green. For two-and-a-half days, I worked with a very helpful (and patient) group of librarians and archivists, who brought me one rolling cart after another loaded up with archival boxes.

Seuss ArchivesSome were full of press clippings — and believe me, Dr. Seuss generated a LOT of press in his lifetime — while others contained correspondence or photos or even his high school and college transcripts. Another contained a much worked-over mock-up of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, with Ted’s careful notes about color use, margin heights, even changes to the copyright page.  There were back issues of Judge magazine, where Ted submitted cartoons back in the late 1920s, pages of art drawn for Dartmouth fundraisers, and a large envelope — think four feet long by two feet wide — containing advertising work and a large black and white drawing of a Seussian Noah’s Ark on white cardboard.

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And of course, I always love to go through correspondence — and the Dartmouth collection didn’t disappoint, with folders full of letters Ted wrote to college friends reporting on trips in Europe, commenting on his mother-in-law, or pitching projects to editors at various magazines. Letters are one of my favorite parts of research, as it’s just you and your subject together, listening as they speak candidly in their own voices, make inside jokes or — in those really wonderful moments — nervously reference projects they’re pitching, wondering if anything will come of them.

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And to think that I saw Mulberry Street.

After wrapping up my time in Hanover, I drove 90 minutes south to Springfield, where Ted was born in 1904. Springfield is rightly very proud of its most famous son (and that’s saying something, as the town actually has quite a few famous sons and daughters), and it shows: all the signage for the Springfield Museums prominently features Seuss characters, and the complex itself centers on a fun sculpture garden featuring Horton, the Lorax, Thidwick, Sam-I-Am, and — sitting in front, with one foot up on a drawing table — Ted himself, being given a coy hat tip by the Cat in the Hat.

IMG_4472I spent several days in the Springfield City Library, rolling one wheel of microfiche after another onto the viewer as I read through issues of the The Springfield Republican and The Springfield Union from the early 1900s. While inconvenient compared to modern online archives, there’s still something wonderful about the old-school experience of working with microfiche, from sorting through the huge drawers of film boxes (you can see them in the background in the photo at left) to that satisfying thwack-thwack-thwack sound the film makes as it rapidly spools back onto the feed reel.  The only real drawback — and this is purely personal — is that staring at the screen for hours on end as the film goes whizzing by in blur always makes me feel slightly seasick. Agh.

From here, I burrowed into the archives in the basement of the History Museum, going through various Geisel/Seuss histories and family trees.  When I was done, I had the happy experience of touring The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, the latest addition to the city’s cluster of permanent museums.

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IMG_4493I also had the pleasure of talking with museum administrators and staff, who helpfully arranged for me to walk through Ted’s childhood home (shown at right), still standing on Fairfield (not Mulberry) Street, and still looking — at least structurally — much as it did when Ted and his family lived there more than a generation ago.

All in all, it was a terrific trip up to Dr. Seuss territory. His legacy is in good hands in Hanover and Springfield, and I so appreciate everyone letting me be a small part of it.