Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

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.

IMG_4880

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.

IMG_4973 (1)

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).

IMG_4971

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.

IMG_4943

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.

IMG_4945

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.

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.

21558830_1903653879889257_1119887575632869871_n

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.

IMG_2996

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.

IMG_4488

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.

Project Lorax: An Update

It’s been several months now since I unveiled the subject of my current project, Dr. Seuss. Since that time, papers have been signed and we’ve made things officially official (the formal announcement should be arriving any day now), and I’m very excited about spending the next year not only with my subject, but with my editor, John Parsley, who I worked with on George Lucas.  It’s doubly thrilling, in fact, because I was able to follow him from the offices of the fine folks at Little, Brown (where we worked on George Lucas) over to Dutton, where John now serves as Editor-in-Chief.  It’s a good place to be; Dr. Seuss was a staple at Random House (which now owns Dutton) for nearly his entire career (it’s where he also established Beginner Books), so it seems only fitting to be working on his biography under the larger roof of Penguin Random House. I’m delighted to be there.

IMG_2955

My colorful bookshelf.

I’ve started my research–but first thing’s first: I had to stock up my library shelves with All Things Seuss. Mostly, I ordered books in large bunches from Amazon and other booksellers, which really threw off the way Amazon generates its recommendations. “BASED ON YOUR ORDER HISTORY,” it tells me, “YOU MAY LIKE GO, DOG, GO!” Which, I suppose, is certainly true.

But not everything Seuss wrote or drew is in print and easily available; I had to scour eBay, for instance, for The Seven Lady Godivas (a book Seuss called his “greatest failure . . . it was all full of naked women, and I can’t draw convincing naked women”). eBay was also my go-to to procure copies of two small humor books Seuss illustrated (but didn’t write) back in the early 1930s called Boners (by Those Who Pulled Them!)and its sequel titled (wait for it . . . ), More Boners. I know, I know . . . the jokes just write themselves.

C7O1gSqU4AEFc7U.jpg-large

Get your mind outta the gutter. I know it’s hard. (That’s what she said.)

My next task was to start gathering and reading as many existing books on Seuss as I could find . . . and really, there aren’t many (some terrific analyses of his work, but only one real bio, dating to 1995).  Beyond that, one of my first big dives was into newspaper and magazines archives — mainly just New York TimesWashington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as some selected magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life — for contemporary accounts, interviews, reviews, cartoons . . . pretty much anything I can find.  Even in a limited scope like this, archival research is one of my favorite parts of the project.

Then, as I always do — because I’m terribly analog — I print everything out, three-hole punch it, and file it (for the most part) chronologically in binders.  Naturally, new binders get added as things proceed, and I have to change some of them out with larger versions as I stuff them full.  But this is how I start developing one of my most crucial documents: a timeline of the entire life that I can refer to as I write, and make sure everything is in order.

FullSizeRender-1

The first binders. Titles change and binders expand as the research proceeds, but — for me, at least — it’s a good way to keep everything organized.

At the moment, I’m deep into research on the years from 1922, when Seuss* entered Dartmouth, to the end of World War II, when he returned to the United States determined to write books that mattered.

When I’m done here, I’ll work my way backwards to his childhood, which will be the perfect excuse to head for Springfield, Massachusetts, where I can walk the streets Seuss walked as a boy, scour the local archives, and visit the newly-opened Dr. Seuss Museum.

* Yeah, I know his real name is Ted Geisel. For the moment, I’m simply referring to him by his pen name.

Your Mountain Is Waiting…So Get on Your Way!

Who do those crinkling, smiling eyes belong to? Why, none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel — the good Dr. Seuss, whose birthday just happens to be today.

seuss-with-figuresI’m SO thrilled to be working on the life of yet another wonderful, creative, inspiring iconic subject — and I’m just as happy, too, that I’ll be working with the same terrific team at Little, Brown that helped put the George Lucas bio in your hands.