Most writers second-guess the quality of their work, whether these doubts are frequent or limited to insomnia-causing late night angst sessions. Fewer writers guess that those on the bestseller list have these same fears. This week, a letter from a young Theodore Geisel—A.K.A. Dr. Seuss—is available at auction for $3,500. Like Geisel’s books, the letter tells a fascinating yet unbelievable story: a vulnerable, personal account of an aspiring author who nearly burned his first children’s manuscript.
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By the time Seuss ran into his old college friend, Mike McClintock, the manuscript that would become And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street had received dozens of rejections. This letter, recently available to the public, thanks McClintock for saving his book from the fire—and saving Geisel himself from the dry-cleaning business! In his 1957 letter, Geisel writes:
You picked me off Madison Ave with a manuscript that I was about to burn in my incinerator because nobody would buy it. And you not only told me how to put Mulberry Street together properly … (as you did later with the 500 Hats), but after you’d sweated this out with me, giving me the best and only good information I have ever had on the construction of a book for this mysterious market, you even took the stuff on the road and sold it.
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Throughout his life, Geisel attributed his success largely to luck. He bumped into McClintock in the literal, face-first kind of sense, their reunion nothing more than a chance encounter on the street. McClintock had only recently been promoted to an editorial role at Vanguard Press (we’re talking that morning). Geisel just so happened to be carrying his manuscript. And just so you know that fate for sure intervened, let’s examine the final detail: Geisel ran into McClintock outside of the publishing office. Geisel’s journey to publication might have been long and difficult, but in the end, it was only as hard as a walk up a flight of stairs. Twenty minutes later, Geisel’s legacy had been set in motion.
Geisel cites this incident in other writings as “one of the reasons [he believes] in luck.” Even after all his success (Cat in the Hat was selling 1,000 copies a day), he expresses disbelief in himself: “If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry-cleaning business today!”
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Writers and artists of all varieties notoriously struggle with fears that their works isn’t good enough. It can be comforting to know that writers whose work was definitely good enough have struggled with similar existential burdens… and it can be a whole lot more comforting to know that it might all work out! (Especially if you’re standing outside of a publishing house holding a copy of your manuscript.)
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