Dr. Seuss: The man-child remains an enigma

April 09, 1995|By Jan Winburn

"Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography," by Judith and Neil

Morgan. 293 pages. New York: Random House. $25 It's not hard to be enthusiastic about the man who liberated generations of children and their parents from the tyranny of "Dick and Jane." Only a Grinch would pen an unkind word about the Modern Mother Goose, Theodor Seuss Geisel. With loopy language and irresistible characters, his books pass his own test for great children's writing: Can it be read with pleasure by adults?

But just as a Seuss book is like a precocious child - enchanting, but only in small doses - so it appears to have been with the author himself. A demanding man-child, as eccentric in private as he was in print, he apparently seduced his biographers with the same mysterious character who parents know, affectionately, as Dr. Seuss.

Unfortunately, "Dr Seuss & Mr. Geisel" by Judith and Neil Morgan is an adoring depiction of the man who was the biographers' neighbor, a book that is fascinating in its detail but lacking in interpretation. A reader of the biography is left with much the same feeling one gets from reading Seussian nonsense: As entertainment, it's a lollapalooza. But insight? Go figure.

The book begins ploddingly, with Ted Geisel's beginnings as a child of German immigrants in Springfield, Mass., neither vivid nor insightful. By the time young Ted enters Oxford, one-dimensional memory is abandoned for a life more fully drawn - as cartoonist, advertising hack and then to the birth of his first successful book. The reader begins to encounter in exuberant detail the man who never grew up.

Many of the darker moments of his life go largely unexplored, most notably the suicide of Helen Palmer Geisel, his editor, business manager and wife of 40 years, and his lightening-quick remarriage, at 64, to his best friend's wife, 18 years his junior. The same is true of Geisel's childlessness.

In failing to examine these and other losses, the authors deprive the reader of any chance to square our perceptions of the clever, up-beat character we all assume must be Dr. Seuss with the human being who suffered.

Perhaps the man himself is partially to blame. Left in his hands, even the most unhappy moments of his life are recalled with wit. For instance, Geisel described his greatest "down period" as the time he worked on the script and lyrics for a fantasy movie. During shootings, he recalls, 150 boys engaged in "the greatest mass upchuck in the history of Hollywood. When the picture was finally released, the critics reacted in much the same manner." We either laugh at - or are shielded from - the real stuff of the man's life.

"As to who was most responsible for this debaculous fiasco," Geisel says of the movie, "I will have nothing more to say until all the participants have passed away, including myself." Were the great Seuss to plead guilty to that one, even from the grave, one suspects we would never know. His biographers undoubtedly would protect him there, as well.

Jan Winburn has been a writer and editor on newspapers and magazines for 20 years. She has worked on the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Mo.; the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Hartford Courant. She works as enterprise editor for The Sun, when she is not reading to her daughter, Ella, 4.

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