This article was written by Ann Hulbert and appeared in the November 12, 1995 edition of The New York Times.
DR. SEUSS wears a red and white stovepipe hat, white gloves and a red bow tie, and he’s a manic entertainer. Roald Dahl has a black top hat, a tail coat made of plum-colored velvet and a gold-topped walking cane, which he, like Willy Wonka, waves fiercely but hypnotically. Laura Ingalls Wilder is, well, Laura, only older and more hard-working, like Ma. Instead of churning butter, cooking, sewing and scrubbing, she sits at a desk and writes and writes and writes. Margaret Wise Brown is a quiet old lady rabbit in a rocking chair whispering “Hush.”
Brown herself recalled that as a child she conjured up no visions of the writers behind her favorite books. “It did not seem important then that anyone wrote” those books, she said; “they were true.” But something resembling this literary portrait gallery is likely to hang in the heads of the generation that grew up in the postwar “golden age” of children’s book publishing that Brown helped inaugurate.
At least it did until recently, when real biographies – of all the writers just mentioned, and more – began to pile up. A life of Theodore Geisel, the man behind Dr. Seuss, appeared this spring, written by Judith and Neil Morgan, two longtime friends of his. Jeremy Treglown, the third biographer to tackle Dahl, published an unauthorized portrait last year. Wilder looms over William Holtz’s more academic biography of her daughter and close collaborator, Rose Wilder Lane, which came out in 1993. And the year before that, Leonard S. Marcus, a critic of children’s books, presented an account of Brown’s life and prolific career.
A background reading list, in short, is now available to supplement story hour. As graduates of the golden age return to the favorite books of childhood with small listeners on their laps, they are invited to face the facts. The time evidently has come to get to know Mr. Geisel, and give up imagining Dr. Seuss as an antic cat.
Or has it? The urge to identify the writers of books with the most mesmerizing and authoritative figures in the books is admittedly unsophisticated. But it turns out that the biographies respond, with varying intensity, to a comparably fanciful impulse: to identify the writer of children’s books with, what else, a child. Side by side with a “rascally, optimistic, impulsive” Ted Geisel, the fur-suited authorial figure with whiskers doesn’t look as naive and sentimental as you might have feared. In fact, one unexpected result of the new biographies is to give the silly old images newly serious stature.
The creator as a child at heart, in easy harmony with the young, is a well-worn Romantic notion: the German poet Novalis described fairy tales as the “confessions of a true, a synthetic child – of an ideal child.” There’s a twist, though, in the current applications of the view. As they size up their very different subjects, these biographers rarely credit them with the childlike gift of preternatural wisdom the Romantics valued. (“A child is a good deal cleverer and wiser than an adult,” Novalis wrote, “but the child must be an ironic child.”) Instead, they’re eager to endow them with great reserves of immaturity.
The underlying diagnosis of arrested development doesn’t mean a parade of pathographies. (This juvenile literary precinct is the last holdout against the intrusive expose.) Here the failure to grow up beckons as an appealingly pure source of literary success, a key to the writers’ persistent power to enthrall young readers. Even when it’s a strain, the dominant tone of almost all the biographies is admiringly indulgent.
The uncurbed child, overflowing with imagination and energy, is the particular model of immaturity that keeps darting into view in these accounts. It takes tirelessness on the part of the biographers to keep up with the whirlwinds, and a determination not to be dogged. A breezy style rarely fails the Morgans in “Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel,” which sails quickly over Geisel’s less carefree moments. “Happy-go-lucky as ever,” he gets a charmed start in his delightful metier and never stops rushing headlong into the next project.
The occasional “black depths of self-doubt” hinted at in the prologue in fact register as mere dips in an exuberant adventure. Why, his whimsical inventiveness is so contagious that his first wife even signs her suicide note with “their old code words, the make-believe law firm with the Seussian rhythms: Grimalkin, Drouberhannus, Knalbner and Fepp.”
Margaret Wise Brown, too, gets a thick layer of vibrantly childish coloring in Mr. Marcus’s “Awakened by the Moon.” Descriptions of her formative days at the Bank Street School in the 1930’s leave her sounding rather like an irrepressible student in, say, the “fours” group: she’s a “wonderchild,” eager to please yet independent in her ways, sometimes unfocused but always sensitive to language, often hard to fathom but extravagantly expressive when the spirit moves her. (The author of “The Little Fur Family,” believe it or not, had her own little fur house in the 40’s – Cobble Court, a wooden farm cottage in a courtyard behind York Avenue between 71st and 72d Streets, which she lined with tiger skins and polar bear rugs.)
She has her brooding, low periods, but even when Mr. Marcus turns to the most traumatic relationship of her life, he does his best to carry on in the boosterish teacher’s-evaluation mode. Brown was the hopeful innocent in a destructive affair with John Barrymore’s former wife – and then she bounced back to her fun–-oving best. Look, there she is after her lover’s death, “playing delightfully with her new friend,” a golden Rockefeller boy 15 years her junior.
Roald Dahl seems to stand out as the exception, the writer whose zeal his latest biographer is unable to find entrancing. Yet even taking the cooler view, Mr. Treglown frequently portrays his subject in childlike terms. Dahl is a bad boy, a behavior problem. He’s a “bully,” a “troublemaker,” capriciously cruel, rudely belligerent – but not, finally, quite as wild as he likes to claim. In fact, he’s asking to be taken firmly in hand. Mr. Treglown resists Dahl’s own self-image as a writer subversively conspiring with rebellious children against adults. The truth, Mr. Treglown shows, is that Dahl the writer didn’t conspire against adults at all. There is vivid evidence in his publishers’ files of just how heavily he relied on his editors, a couple of whom served as inspired near-collaborators.
THE writer as child in need of being curbed when it’s time to buckle down to his or her best work: this notion, a natural complement to the idea of the irrepressible author, also comes into play for the more admiring biographers as they round out their stories. Geisel’s and Brown’s intense and often dependent relations with their editors are documented at length. So is Geisel’s reliance on the steady discipline and advice of his first wife. And with Laura Ingalls Wilder, the image of the immature author led by the hand – and by her daughter, no less – has become more than a subtext. It’s Rose Wilder Lane who rates the biography, because she’s judged “The Ghost in the Little House,” the title Mr. Holtz gives to his life of her. Mama Bess, as Laura is called, scribbles the first drafts, and then turns to Rose the professional writer for extensive reworkings of her manuscripts.
The collaborative process so crucial to these writers, Wilder as well as the others, has its tensions. Mr. Holtz acknowledges a drawback to Rose’s role in the emergence of the novels. The mother’s unblinkered vision, as he shows, consistently gets narrowed and reshaped to fit the daughter’s staunchly libertarian, antigovernment views. The Bank Street “here and now” theory of children’s literature, which spurred a newly down-to-earth approach to text and pictures, occasionally threatens to put a crimp in Brown’s creativity. Geisel has troubles in Hollywood. And with both Brown and Geisel, squabbles erupt when they acquire editorial power themselves, and wield it a little impulsively. In short, the free-spirited child keeps kicking, which makes the super-achieving careers all the more of a feat.
Each of these authors, prone to defensiveness and dissatisfaction in the juvenile niche, wanted above all to be taken seriously as a writer by other writers. Enshrined in biographies, they have got more than they might have dared to wish. (Geisel’s hopes were disappointed late in life when an exhibition of his drawings and paintings failed to boost him into the ranks of “real” artists.)
If the price of the approval is a patronizing glow, it’s only to be expected, and in any case not all that hard to discount. The fondly condescending tone that creeps in – quaintly protective in Mr. Marcus’s book, more polished in the Morgans’ portrait, critically detached in Mr. Holtz’s account – is undermined by the biographers’ own labors. It’s from the many details they diligently collect that the writers derive their more mature due. The narratives betray the hard-driving ambition that is part of all that boundless energy; these writers, however creatively high-spirited, were also determinedly, sometimes ruthlessly purposeful.
Similarly, the emphasis on collaborative efforts says less about the dependent psyches of the authors than about the necessarily mediated nature of children’s literature. There’s lots of machinery behind the apparent simplicity. Writers, artists, editors and marketers are constantly accommodating one another’s different aims and means, and they’re always second-guessing an audience whose desires none of them know for sure. These writers were well aware of how little purity or spontaneity their enterprise allowed.
In the end, they don’t need adult validation of their seriousness as much as they thought. Their reputations were, and are, well tended in the vivid heads of their young audiences. Those images of commanding masters of ceremony and intimidating animals turn out to be surprisingly acute – and imposing. Look beyond the whimsical costumes, and the enchanting illusions are already disenchanted to just the right degree. With a directness the biographies can’t manage, they suggest the grain of sand within the pearl of these writers’ imaginations.
Dr. Seuss is an agile, keyed-up performer more than a little anxious to keep boredom at bay. Despite his iconoclasm, Dahl is fixated on a deep sympathy between adult and child. Wilder turns out to have had quite a lot in common with Ma, above all a feisty daughter eager to make her mark; but without the vision she herself put down on page after page, her books wouldn’t have their blend of mythic and memoiristic power.
It’s only Brown, dead at the young age of 42 of an embolism after surgery, who doesn’t match up with the old furry rabbit in the rocker. But maybe you had her pegged instead as the much more active of her famous rabbits – the protean mother of the runaway bunny, insistent yet oddly distant in her efforts to keep him always within reach. The security she offers doesn’t strike all readers as cozy – but then neither does the deliberate, disembodied tone that suffuses many of the books Brown so regularly and efficiently produced for children.