You probably got to know Jim Henson’s creations before you came to know his name by watching The Muppet Show, Sesame Street or the many Muppet movies. Brian Jay Jones’ biography of the man behind some of the most iconic puppetry our time is highly informative, riveting, and nostalgic.
Jim Henson: The Biography
Brian Jay Jones
Originally published: 2013, USA
Rating: 4 = Recommended Reading
*Two of my 2014 New Years Resolution Goals!* — Modern Fiction (since 2010) and Biography/Autobiography
Jones’ biography of Jim Henson goes chronologically through Henson’s life. Beginning with his family history, Henson’s birth, and his childhood, Jones sets up the background of his famous subject’s life. Jones holds nothing back as he progresses through the personality traits of Henson’s family, Henson’s own marriage difficulties, and his sometimes maddening devotion to his work and creative vision. Henson comes off as a complex, imperfect man, who strove to do as much as he could during his time on earth. He lived life with passion, humor, and unboundless creativity.
• Full story
Jones’ access to personal interviews as well as family and business records allowed him to fill in not only Henson’s life but the details of his surroundings throughout his life. Jones provides family history back a couple of generations and is also able to discuss Henson’s brief Mississippi childhood in brilliant colors. Henson’s schooling and early infatuation with the technology of television is presented in detail, with a nice blend of facts and feelings. As Henson’s life becomes increasingly complex, Jones keeps the level of detail and background going, presenting the many facets of the man.
• Interview integration
Sometimes in biographies the interview data is presented in large chunks or it interrupts the text. In this book, Jones does an excellent job of integrating all of the interview information so that it does not interrupt the narrative. Jones also uses a variety of sources to avoid a strong bias and keeps conflicting points of view in the text. This enables Jones to construct a richer, more complex view of Henson and his life. Jones doesn’t shy away from including interview bits that reveal criticism of Henson or uncomfortable information like Henson’s wife’s perspective on Henson’s lovers later in their marriage.
• Emotional connection
It is difficult to write about an icon, especially one whose works the biographer encountered in childhood, without some sort of personal bias. Having grown up with the Muppet movies as well as Sesame Street and The Muppet Show in syndication (and The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth when I got older), I was also biased as I approached this book as a reader: I wanted to know how amazing Jim Henson was. I do not think this is a bad thing with biographies—it’s perhaps unavoidable—but Jones did not write an ode to Henson or a sappy feel-good biography. All of the parts of Henson are on display here, even ones the reader may find morally questionable or eccentric. What Jones does well is that he presents an honest picture of Henson’s life without forcing the reader to lose the emotional connection they have with Henson’s work. I’ll admit that the last chapter about Henson’s untimely death and his beautifully unique funeral brought me to tears, mourning a man I had never met.
Less Effective Elements:
• Information balance
Jones shows himself to be a strong researcher and a good historian by examining so many sources and collecting so many interviews; however, the research details are sometimes overwhelming and unnecessary. I found myself skimming over many of the dates and times of events like meetings and television broadcast schedules, in favor of getting to the overall story Jones was telling. While details are needed to bring Henson to life, the dense facts certainly do not make this book a quick or an easy read.
Jim Henson: The Biography is for old and new fans alike, whether you are familiar with Henson’s life or just his work. It is an ultimately triumphant story of a man with unbridled creativity who accomplished so much in his life and brought happiness and laughter to so many. Pick up a copy; you won’t regret it.