My schooling initially took me from New York to an area outside of Philadelphia, where I was an English major at the uniquely formative Haverford College. But, as the comedian Gallagher once asked, "What are you going to do with an English major if you don't teach--open a Poem Repair?" So it was off to Boston for the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and finally to Illinois for the orthodontic program at the University of Illinois at Chicago--get an education, see the country.
Wondering where I might want to settle, I first had to rule out Corfu, Greece, which was gorgeous but impractical for someone who could only say "good morning," "good evening," "good night," "thank you very much," and "melon" in Greek and knew nothing about the state of Grecian dentistry (or taxes--how much would be Owed on what a Grecian Earned?). So I mused over what was really important to me and decided that I wanted to live somewhere that had four distinct seasons. Taking out a map and compass (the kind with a point and a pencil), I drew a circle demarcating a two-hour radius with Hartford, CT as the center, then started looking for jobs as a dentist within that circle. I ended up settling Northampton, a liberal community that welcomed the arts in western Massachusetts.
As I established my dental career, I continued to be fascinated and distracted by random things about which that I wanted to know more. I decided that I ought to know something about bourbon, for example, so I tried every different nip of bourbon I encountered and learned as much as I could about them. After about six months, I felt like I knew enough about bourbon and heartburn and it was time to move on to my next curiosity.
Tired of always arguing about who the best baseball players were, I wanted to know who the worst baseball player of all time was. I discovered players like Bill Bergen, whose .170 average and 2 HR over 11 seasons easily enshrined him in the Hall of Infamy--an abysmal offensive career that is unlikely to ever be equaled. But as I continued my little independent study course, I also learned that Bill's brother, Marty, may have had more batting prowess (.265 and 10 HR in just 4 years of professional baseball), but he more than made up for it by axe-murdering his family and then killing himself with a razor. Naturally, I next had to know whether I could collect baseball cards of the Bergens, which led to research about the history of baseball cards. Again, after about a half a year, I'd learned what I needed to know.
I took many other six-month-sojourns into new realms of folly but, eventually, a time came when I wanted to know something about what Ted Geisel did beyond his famous Dr. Seuss books. The problem was that by the six-month mark, what I'd learned was that no one had yet written the biographies that I had assumed existed about this famous author and that what had been written most often turned out to be wrong.
The more frustrated I became by the misinformation, the deeper I delved into finding out what the truth was. I'd see a picture of a delightful color cover he did for Life magazine and the caption would say "circa 1929-1930." I'd curse aloud and wonder why, if you had the magazine in front of you to photograph it, you couldn't just tell the reader the correct date. Then I'd travel an hour and a half to the Boston Public Library and have them pull out all 104 Life magazines from 1929-1930, only to find out that none of them had that cover. So I'd put in requests for the librarians to retrieve each successive year until, several hundred magazines later, I learned that the one in question was actually from May 1934. Brighter people wouldn't care. Obsessive people like me questioned what else wasn't true.
That led to many trips back and forth to Boston, up to Dartmouth College in NH where Ted Geisel went to school, down to the Library of Congress in DC, and out to the Geisel Library on the UCSD campus in CA. At some point as I got deep enough into this research, I began to think that someone should clear up all of the misinformation that existed because the more it was retold, and the wider and quicker it was spread via the Internet, the more it became entrenched. With Ted gone and his contemporaries aging, who would be around to to keep these errors from becoming accepted as historical facts?
That led to my first book--The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss (Random House, 2004)--which came out around Ted's 100th birthday to kick off the celebration of the Seussentennial. It's a visual biography with 400+ pages and 700+ images of all manner of first hand sources, which I used to demonstrate the variety of things that Ted created in his lifetime, as well as to clear up some of the misconceptions about him and his work.
The response was very gratifying. Richard Corliss of Time magazine called it the "Best Pop Culture Book [of 2004]," adding that it was a "splendid compendium of...[Ted Geisel's] work as a college wit, a deviser of cunning ad campaigns, a political cartoonist and a writer of the most impish war propaganda. Handsomely designed, and with laffs on every page." And Publishers Weekly (11/22/2004) chose it as one of the two "Best Children's Books of 2004" in the non-fiction category, reporting that "In this hefty, assiduously researched volume, generously sprinkled with crisp reproductions of the artist's work, Cohen sets out to demystify Geisel's genius. He provides insight into the evolution of a remarkable creative mind, allowing the story to unfold largely through Dr. Seuss's own words and pictures."
Perhaps the most astonishing comment arrived in a 01/23/2004 letter from Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's widow, Audrey Geisel, who wrote, "I am truly in a state of complete awe and amazement! No one, but no one has this incredible background on Ted that you have...not anyone in his family or anywhere else."
Of course, if there had been a great deal of scholarly work in the field of Seussiana at the time, I never would have embarked on this latest adventure as a non-fiction writer. But due to the dearth of information in the field, I found myself unexpectedly being sought out as an "expert."
That led to a host of new Seuss ventures and extended what I had intended to be a brief independent study course on Geisel. An intriguing synergy happened and I found that I had jumped into this field just as the 50th anniversaries of some of the most famous Dr. Seuss books were about to occur. In need of a special edition of How The Grinch Stole Christmas! for its anniversary in 2007, I appended the famous story with three thematically-linked but rarely seen Seuss pieces ("The Hoobub and the Grinch," "The Perfect Present," and "Prayer For A Child") and traced the main themes and characters of the book through Ted's life and work, utilizing some interesting archival images to illustrate the new information.
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories had its 50th anniversary in 2009, so I did a similar retrospective edition, adding two more thematically-relevant "lost stories" ("The Ruckus" and "The Kindly Snather").
For 2011, I collected seven more of my favorite "lost" stories into a new anthology, The Bippolo Seed and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss. For most people it was the first time in 50-60 years that they'd had the chance to read delightful stories like "The Bippolo Seed," "The Rabbit, the Bear, and the Zinniga-Zanniga," "Gustav, the Goldfish," "Tadd and Todd," "Steak for Supper," "The Strange Shirt Spot," and "The Great Henry McBride." The response was wonderful, with the book debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for children's picture books.
Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories (2014) contains four more stories that originally appeared in magazines in the 1950s. In the titular tale, the earnest elephant encounters a conniving insect that is every bit as selfish as Mayzie in Horton Hatches The Egg or the kangaroo in Horton Hears A Who! In "Marco Comes Late," the boy you remember from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street and McElligot's Pool tells another fanciful yarn. Speaking of Mulberry Street, that's where a policeman walks his beat in "How Officer Pat Saved The Whole Town." Rounding out the book is "The Hoobub and the Grinch," which involves another grinch with a consumerist view of the world.
Meanwhile, I continue to spend thousands of hours in an ambitious and foolhardy attempt to create a database of information pertaining to all of Theodor Seuss Geisel's works. The goal of this effort has been to find, salvage, restore, and chronicle the parts of the Seuss legacy that are being lost over time, preserving them for posterity. The resulting collection has been providing firsthand access to a wealth of material and information and I've tried to share this knowledge not only through writing books, but also through museum shows, like the exhibition of 750-1,000 items that I curated for The Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (now the Pynchon House) in coordination with the unveiling of the National Seuss Memorial in Springfield, MA (Ted's birthplace). I've also loaned Seussiana to the Children's Museum of Manhattan in NY, The Bremen Museum in Atlanta, GA, the Art on 5th gallery in Austin, TX, Michelson's Galleries in Northampton, MA, and the Chase Group's traveling exhibit "The Art of Dr. Seuss."
Perhaps one of my future independent study courses will lead to the establishment of a Seuss museum in which to store and display as exhaustive a chronicle of Ted Geisel's endlessly creative mind as I can manage. I don't know anything about creating a museum, but I didn't know anything about the publishing world either when I started out...