It’s official: I have a subject for my next biography of an iconic American character. Let me show you a childhood photo of them, and see if you can guess who it is:
Let’s see if their high school yearbook photo is any more helpful:
Got it yet? Here they are all grown-up:
To say I’m excited about writing the story of the U.S. Capitol would be an understatement. It’s a subject very dear to me; for nearly a decade, I worked in the building as a U.S. Senate staffer. It’s also a pivotal character in our own story as a nation, as a culture, and as citizens–and suffice it to say, after watching the events of the last eight months unfold, it’s a character I thought was worthy of its first-ever biography.
Over on Twitter, someone recently asked me the really fun question, “What are the oldest books in your collection?” I’m don’t really have many old books, but those I do have tend to be associated with — c’mon, do I really have to say it? — Washington Irving.
Let me talk about three in particular, going from newest (a relative term) to oldest — which also means saving the best for last.
The first, and most recent, is an 1864 “Artist’s Edition” of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which Irving’s short stories were illustrated “with 120 engravings on wood from original designs” by some of the most noted artists of the day.
What’s missing on the title page? Why, Washington Irving’s name, of course; “Geoffrey Crayon” was just one of many pseudonyms Irving would publish under during his long life. Not to worry, though — Irving’s authorship was one of the world’s worst-kept secrets on both sides of the Atlantic.
The signature you see here for Mr. Crayon is part of the book — it’s not an actual signature, in ink, inscribed on the page — but the handwriting is definitely Irving’s. The artwork in the book is gorgeous, and printed with care. Above, for example, you’ll see an illustration for the Sketch Book‘s first show stopper, “Rip Van Winkle.”
The book is also full of what we might today call Easter eggs — little in jokes, or sly nods at the reader. Take, for example, this illustration for Irving’s “The Voyage,” in which Crayon reflects on his ocean voyage from the United States to England, and warns travelers of the dangers of sea trips. The illustration features four gentlemen in conversation around a table during their voyage across the Atlantic — and the figure in the middle is Washington Irving himself, based on a popular engraving of Irving from the era (the equivalent of a modern author’s headshot).
Later, in the Sketch Book‘s gangbuster’s closing number, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an illustration is meant to convey the charming nature of the quaint old Dutch houses in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The picturesque home in the engraving is clearly “Sunnyside,” Irving’s beloved home in Tarrytown, NY — just down the road from Sleepy Hollow — which he had built in the Dutch style (and other elements, including the Spanish-influenced tower) in the 1840s.
The next oldest book in my collection is one of the first I bought when I began researching Washington Irving in the late 1990s: a four-volume biography of Irving — the first one, in fact — written by his nephew Pierre M. Irving, and published in 1862, just three years after Irving’s death.
The true gem in my collection, though, dates back to 1819 (I nearly added, “….which makes it more than a hundred years old” and then realized it’s actually more than two hundred years old. And it’s just sitting there on my desk like it’s no big deal). It’s a first printing of the fifth American installment of The Sketch Book, which Irving was publishing serially and simultaneously in the United States, where it would eventually run to six volumes, and in England (publishing on both sides of the ocean at the same time prevented his work from being poached by publishing pirates — the 19th century equivalent of copyright infringement).
This particular volume has a special place on my desk, and in my heart. If I could have only one installment of The Sketch Book, it would be this one — because it’s the volume in which Irving’s five influential Christmas stories first appeared. (They would later be bundled as “Old Christmas.”) If you’re wondering why we associate Christmas with yule logs and wassail, carols and gifts, sleigh rides and family parties . . . blame Washington Irving. He made it all up, and then told us it had always been that way.
Anyway, it was my fascination with Irving’s Christmas stories that originally got me started on my journey as a biographer. That makes a first printing of his Christmas stories pretty special.
Oh, and if you’re a collector of old books who’s wincing at the bookseller’s sticker on the cover, you can relax — Moses Thomas was one of Irving’s handpicked U.S. booksellers, selling The Sketch Book out of his shop in Philadelphia; it was Thomas himself who stuck it there.
Also, I do love that the printer is serendipitously named . . . Van Winkle
75 cents was considered almost insanely expensive for a book — it’s about 15 bucks today — especially because this was just one book in a series. When some American readers objected, Irving brushed them off. “If the American public wish to have literature of their own,” he wrote, “they must consent to pay for the support of authors.”
Posted onApril 28, 2021|Comments Off on Celebrating The Rainbow Connection
It’s a great privilege to be in this NPR piece on “The Rainbow Connection,” celebrating its recent preservation by the Library of Congress as a “culturally significant” recording. You’ll hear me alongside Cheryl Henson, songwriter Paul Williams, the amazing Frank Oz, and Muppet performer Matt Vogel doing the voice of Kermit.
Oh, and we were NOT all in the same room together. I wish. I recorded my part at a local NPR affiliate here in Albuquerque — and fun fact: I had to do it TWICE. The first time, a power problem covered the entire recording with a loud buzzing, so I had to go back downtown and be interviewed AGAIN.
But it all came out all right. As you can tell if you listen.
Posted onMarch 14, 2021|Comments Off on Out of Print . . . and Back Again
Say, did you know that in his lifetime, two of Dr. Seuss’s books were taken out of print?
Yup. One was his famous “naked lady book,” the other was a songbook.
The Seven Lady Godivas (1939) was Seuss’s third book, and his debut title with Random House. It wasn’t a good start. The book ended up being quickly remaindered, and was eventually sold only through cigar shops. Written when Seuss was 35 years old, it would be brought back into print–“by multitudinous demand!”–in 1987, when Seuss was 83.
Meanwhile, The Cat in the Hat Songbook (1967) was filled with Seuss-written songs, scored for guitar and piano by Eugene Poddany, who also scored How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Seuss was really proud of the book–he loved writing songs–but parents didn’t want a book full of songs to sing; they wanted funny books to read. The book bombed on release, and Random House let it quietly die on the vine (it got better, and is back in print and widely available today).
All week long, I turned down requests from radio, TV, and print reporters who wanted to talk “for just a minute” about the DSE decision—and I did so because Seuss and race is a really complicated matter that requires more than 90 seconds (or, in the case of Twitter discussions, 280 characters). Add the heated terms “cancel culture”, “woke mob”, and the general disinformation I often see about Seuss (“He beat his wife!” “He was a Nazi!”) to the conversation, and the air quickly becomes too toxic or heated to have a genuine discussion.
Nearly a week later, however, I’m still seeing so much flat-out misinformation being flung about that I thought it was time to blow the whistle and step in to try to provide a little context on Dr. Seuss, race, and racial imagery, as well as set straight what DSE has and hasn’t done.
First, then: the six books that DSE is taking out of circulation are:
And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street
If I Ran the Zoo
On Beyond Zebra!
Scrambled Eggs Super!
The Cat’s Quizzer
That’s it. Six books. No How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on the list. No Cat in the Hat on the list. No Green Eggs and Ham on the list. Dr. Seuss books aren’t cancelled. There are still more than 50 Dr. Seuss books out there, and if you’re like me — at least pre-writing the bio — you probably didn’t recognize any of these, beyond, perhaps, Mulberry Street.
Now, the obvious first question is: Am I okay with this?
My somewhat complicated answer is, “Er, well . . . I get it.” I never like it when we police books and reading, whether it’s Huckleberry Finn or Tales from the Crypt. I think such material provides us with a learning opportunity — and in Seuss’s case, there are still some interesting things going on in these books. McElligot’s Pool, for example, is one of the very few Seuss books with pages printed in full color; meanwhile, If I Ran the Zoo! is the place you’ll find the word “nerd” making its debut in print for the first time anywhere in American English.
But let’s be clear here about what’s really going on: the six books in question aren’t being banned; rather, this is an acknowledgement by the copyright holder that a particular work no longer reflects its own brand, message, or thinking. This happens all the time, whether it’s Warner removing problematic Looney Tunes cartoons from circulation (the so-called “Censored 11”), Disney quietly shelving Song of the South,or even Disney+ adding a disclaimer to the beginning of episodes of The Muppet Show containing material that raises modern eyebrows. This is curation, not cancellation—and DSE, which engages in the difficult discussion of, and self-reflection on, Seuss and race almost annually on his birthday (which is, uncoincidentally, National Read Across America Day), finally decided enough was enough.
It’s at this point now that that the conversation tends to move along to: “But why just those six books? Wasn’t Dr. Seuss racist AF anyway?”
Often, those who posit this will point to an academic study where researchers examined all of Dr. Seuss’s work and catalogued “hundreds” of instances in which Seuss could be deemed offensive or insensitive. Fair enough; in the 1920s, while working for joke magazines like Judge—the 1920s equivalent of, say, MAD—and well before he ever thought of writing children’s books, Seuss could be too quick with a casual racist or misogynistic joke. And some of his advertising work of the 1930s could be truly, head-shakingly gross.
I’d caution you, however, that this study included not just those humor mags and ads — and his work in his college magazine at Dartmouth, which was filled with lechers and drunks — but also all of his WWII-era editorial cartoons and propaganda/training materials he produced while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. This WWII-era work contains lots of problematic portrayals of residents of Axis nations, especially the Japanese — but so did nearly every American editorial cartoon and every inch of U.S.-produced propaganda of the era (Seuss’s portrayal, however, never devolves into depicting the Japanese as monkeys, as many cartoonists of the era did).
The cited research, then, is fair, but skewed–you have to know what “all Seuss work” really means in order to arrive at such a staggeringly-high number. So, let’s stick with just the Dr. Seuss books here; in scouring the 50+ books Dr. Seuss produced for children—including those written under pseudonyms like Theo. LeSieg* — six were determined to contain problematic material.
And the material *is* problematic. Just below, you’ll see a few examples — but there are more, in both pictures and text, scattered throughout the six books in question. Given these examples alone, I think DSE’s decision to pull the plug on these books was a tough call, but the right one. Because hoo boy, Seuss is clearly being racially insensitive.
But—and here’s where it gets sticky—I don’t believe that Seuss’s use of racially-insensitive imagery means the man himself is a card-carrying racist. Mostly, he’s pictographically lazy; Seuss too easily lapses into the stereotypes and tropes of his era, especially when it comes to portraying exotic people or cultures, whether African, Inuit, or Asian. (Of the six books being removed, five were published between 1937 and 1955—an era when Charlie Chan was still being portrayed by white actors in pancake makeup and overly-slanted eyes, speaking in pidgin English to the “numbah wan sahn.”)
Keeping that partly in mind, then, it’s likely that not only did Seuss not intend to offend, but he likely didn’t even realize that his art was offensive. To Seuss, these sorts of depictions were an easy way of conveying that people were “exotic,” in the same way that he tended to draw millionaires in striped trousers and monocles, and every politician in a top hat. It was, in a sense, illustrative cosplay—creatively lazy, certainly, and definitely insensitive, but mostly just graphic shorthand. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that Seuss’s white privilege is unquestionably showing. (I know mileage varies on this, with some insisting that despite intent or lack thereof, “race is a feature, not a bug.” I’ll continue to disagree—but in this case, I’ll also refer you to my biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss, for more details.)
Later in life, Seuss came to publicly acknowledge that some of his earlier work was indeed problematic, essentially saying, “I thought it was funny then; today, I’m not so sure.” And when it came to the Japanese, he became something of a Japanophile; Horton Hears a Who!—with its recurring message that “A person’s a person, no matter how small”— is Seuss’s love letter and apology to the Japanese people, dedicated to his guide and interpreter, “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan,” who took him on a tour of the country after the war. He would also tinker with the depiction of a “Chinese boy” in Mulberry Street in an effort to make the character look like less of a stereotype, but really to no avail (Seuss said at the time, somewhat unhelpfully, “now he looks like an Irishman.” Oof.).
Dr. Seuss came a long way over the arc of his life, advancing beyond the cringe-inducing work of the 1920s and 1930s, the problematic propaganda of the 1940s, and the insensitive, easy stereotypes of the early 1950s, to become—starting in 1957, with the publication of The Cat in the Hat – the progressive advocate for children and reading that we now think of when we hear the name Dr. Seuss. That artist who lapsed into racially insensitive stereotypes? He’s also the one who later created The Sneetches, a book that openly embraced tolerance and diversity; sent a fascist terrapin tumbling into the mud in Yertle the Turtle; gave the fledgling environmental movement its first true spokesman with The Lorax; and warned of the Cold War’s inherent danger of Mutually-Assured Destruction in The Butter Battle Book. Dr. Seuss was imperfect, but he also did his best to constantly do better, and do good.
Thanks for reading.
* spell it backwards, and you’ll find Seuss’s real last name.
With all five seasons of The Muppet Show arriving on Disney+ on February 19, it seemed as good a time as any to rejoin my pal Rob’t Seda-Schreiber with the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice on their Social Justice Power Hour and rank the Top 10 Muppet Show Social Justice Moments. If you’re a fan of The Muppet Show, you might even be able to guess the top moment–but I hope we surprised you with a few others.
While I’m always running my mouth over on Twitter about stuff I’m doing and places I’m talking, it’s embarrassing how absolutely terrible I’ve been about making making that same information available over here. New Year’s Resolution, then: let’s change that. We’ll see how I do.
Let me start then with a really interesting one: I had the pleasure of being part of an episode of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s online magazine, DIA Connections, where I talked all about Dr. Seuss (and Frank Capra AND Chuck Jones) and the hilarious — and effective! — Private SNAFU training films they produced for the U.S. Army during WWII. My segment begins about 15 minutes in, but you can listen to the entire thing below.
Next up, I made my third appearance with Dan Heaton on his Tomorrow Society podcast, where this time we talked — and talked and talked — all things Mandalorian (if you’re not watching it on Disney+, go get it. You’ll love it. Promise.) I always have a blast talking with Dan — he really knows his Star Wars — and this time we discussed Westerns and pirates, potential Star Wars spinoffs, Boba Fett fetishists, and that spectacular Season Two ending. I hope you’ll give it a listen, thanks.
I’m also looking forward to participating in the WED Reads book club, which brings their monthly book group conversation to Twitter. The name of the game at WED Reads is to cover Disney-themed books, so we’ll be talking all about Jim Henson’s relationship with the Walt Disney Company, and how the House of Mouse is handling — or not handling — the Muppets franchise. It’ll happen on March 1, so join us on Twitter at the WED Reads account at @WEDReads.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The George Lucas Talk Show, the fantastic improv/comedy show/performance art presided over by the talented Connor Ratliffe doing a spot-on, and hilarious, George Lucas impression. You can catch it over at Planet Scum–and you may find me wandering into their episodes from time to time.
In 1974, Dr. Seuss sent a marked-up copy of his book Marvin K. Mooney, Will You please Go Now! to humorist Art Buchwald, with RICHARD M. NIXON written over every mention of the name Marvin K. Mooney. (Buchwald, Seuss said later, had gotten Seuss’s dander up by remarking that he was”incapable of writing anything political.”)
After receiving the book, Buchwald LOVED it — and on July 30, 1974, ran the revised text in his syndicated newspaper column, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the country, like the clipping below from the Las Cruces (NM) Sun-News.
Nine days later, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.
“We sure got him, didn’t we?” Seuss wrote enthusiastically to Buchwald. “We should have collaborated sooner.”
Many people read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! as allegory. With its oft-repeated mantra of, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” it’s been read as Seuss’s hat tip to post-war Japan (probably partly right). The anti-abortion movement has also embraced it (Seuss threatened to sue).
But its actual meaning, according to Seuss himself?
Remember the plot: Horton finds a clover containing a microscopic society of Whos. Horton protects the clover with his life (and at the expense of his dignity), even as countless baddies — who don’t believe the Whos exist — threaten to steal the clover and destroy it.
As the bad guys move in, Horton implores with the Mayor of Who-ville to encourage his citizens to shout as loudly as loud as they can:
“‘Don’t give up! I believe in you all! A person’s a person, no matter how small! And you very small persons will not have to die If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!'”
The Mayor frantically appeals to his people to raise their voices in what he calls their “darkest hour”:
“‘The time for all Whos who have blood that is red To come to the aid of their country!’ he said. ‘We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!’”
But despite their best efforts, their shouting isn’t quite enough to be heard . . . until the smallest of Whos adds just *one more voice* to the crowd, shouting YOPP!
“And that Yopp,” writes Seuss,
“. . . That one small, extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover Their voices were heard!”
That one voice was enough to make a difference, and saved Who-ville. Without it, no one would’ve heard the Whos, and the story would have had a *very* different ending.
As Seuss said later, “’A person’s a person no matter how small,’ . . . And of course when the little boy stands up and yells ‘Yopp!’ and saves the whole place, that’s my statement about voting—everyone counts.”
Posted onOctober 11, 2020|Comments Off on Talking Steinbeck with Biographer William Souder
If you’re a fan of John Steinbeck, or just love great biography, trust me on this: you’re gonna wanna pick up William Souder’s Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, which arrives in bookstores on October 13. It’s the first biography of the great American writer in . . . well, a long time. It’s getting great reviews — like this one from TheWashington Post — and typical of everything Souder writes, it’s deeply researched, thoughtfully contextual, and beautifully written. In short, I loved it, and I’m pretty sure you will, too.
It probably goes without saying that I’m a fan of both Souder and Steinbeck–and that’s why it was such an honor to be asked to be a part of Bill’s hometown book launch –virtually, of course — hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers in Minnesota. I’ll be interviewing Bill Inside the Actor’s Studio-style to talk all about John Steinbeck and Mad at the World, as well as the nuts and bolts of researching and writing literary biography, and anything else we can think of.
If there’s a bright side to the bizarre new normal that’s sent us all to our laptops for remote interaction, it’s that events like this–or any number of wonderful presentations from, say, the Museum of the Moving Image, or even the Mads from MST3K–have become much more widely available to the public. Before, you had to be there; now, you can be there from anywhere.
So wherever your anywhere may be, I hope you’ll join us.