Pure Nonsense

An Interview with Brian Jay Jones

Octavian Report: What was Dr. Seuss’s early life like? How does he first become an artist and an illustrator?

Brian Jay Jones: What I think is so interesting about his childhood is, for the most part, how unremarkable it is. And that's not to say it wasn't important to him. But he's not one of these kids who was like Steven Spielberg, filming his trains crashing into each other when he's eight years old. Who from day one knows what he wants to do.

Seuss is the son of very successful brewer. He's heir apparent. But there's a lot going on in his hometown of Springfield, MA, that informs that big imagination. The architecture in town looks like it belongs in a Doctor Seuss book and there's people with interesting names in that town. Growing up the son of Germans, he heard that language spoken at home and he spoke it fluently. Germans have a funny, interesting language where if you want to make a word mean a little more you just keep adding onto it. I think he loved the sound and the look of that language. There's a lot going on in his childhood that I think informs his imagination. But when you see him doing his art and his cartoons when he's in high school, they're not anything terribly remarkable. As he gets into college, he's determined to be editor of the humor magazine at Dartmouth. That's where he starts developing his craft and his sense of humor.

Still, once he graduates from Dartmouth he heads off to Oxford with hopes of being a college professor. I don't even know that he's convinced that being a cartoonist is something a responsible human being does for a living until he runs into his future wife Helen at Oxford who says, "You're a fantastic cartoonist, you should be doing this." What I love about his story are the big arcs it contains, where any time he could have gone off in any number of directions and been derailed from ever becoming Doctor Seuss. He's ready to ad-lib, which is what we as Americans tend to do. He's very flexible and he's always constantly feeling his way. I think he's very relatable in that sense: he's not always sure what he wants to do with his life. And for the first part of his career, essentially he's still feeling his way and having a great time in New York as a young man during the age of Prohibition but still uncertain whether this is what he wants to do with his life.

OR: What is the first book he manages to publish?

Jones: The first book he publishes is And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But that book isn't necessarily — and he even said this in his lifetime — driven by some compelling need he felt to tell stories for children. The decision was made largely because there was money on the table.

He had a successful advertising career. His primary client was Standard Oil. He had a semi-exclusive contract and couldn't do a lot of outside work. But one of the things he wasn't prohibited from doing was writing and drawing children's books. He was looking for another creative outlet, but also another source of money.

It takes him a while to get it published. He is rejected by 30 or so publishers. He's walking back down Madison Avenue with the manuscript in 1937 and he's taking it home to burn it and he runs into an old Dartmouth friend of his who says, "What have you got there?" And he says, "I've got a book no one will publish. I'm taking it home to burn it." And his friend says, “I actually just got a job with Vanguard Books. We're standing outside my office. Why don't you come upstairs and let's see what we can do?” And Vanguard ends up publishing that first book. Seuss always said later, "Had I been walking down the other side of the street, I could well be in dry cleaning today."

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is next, which is very different from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. He does those two books and then Bennett Cerf of Random House falls in love with his work and says, "Let me know what you want to do and I'll publish it." So Seuss continues to write and draw kids' books, about one a year, up until World War II starts.

He actually isn't doing well enough off those books to do them for a living. I think that's remarkable: Doctor Seuss couldn't live off of Doctor Seuss books until much later in his career. We always view him as this huge icon but it took him quite a while to get there. That first phase of his career — Mulberry Street and Bartholomew Cubbins and Horton Hatches the Egg — is him figuring out the form and being very particular with colors and the art. The next really big moment comes when he goes into the Army, into the Signal Corps, and he's working under the legendary director Frank Capra.

Capra is the one who says: this is how you write a script where every word counts and this is how you tighten up your plots and this is how you make sure that what you're doing is well-said and relevant. Seuss works with animation titan Chuck Jones, as well; both he and Capra teach him how to storyboard. This is the next kickstart he needs in his career. It teaches him about concision and storytelling.

The next major turning point for him — and I think this is one of the most important parts of his career — comes in 1949, when he's invited to the University of Utah to do a writer's workshop. He’s supposed to teach a class on writing for children. It's the first time in his life he's had to really sit down and think about it: why do you do it; what are the conceits and traditions you're working in; what are the clichés; how do you write to reach a kid. His lecture notes were among of the best documents I got ahold of when I was researching the book. They show him going through these pages and writing things down and scratching things out and really thinking about it.