Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
by Janice Albert
Seuss's view of the Pacific
might find it hard to imagine a category that would include Dr.
Seuss (Theodor Geisel), the poet Robinson Jeffers and the playwright
Eugene O’Neill, yet we can group them under the heading
of “American Authors and California literary sites.” Each
of these authors moved to California, after which he arguably
did his best work. All three set up households in spots of isolated,
pristine beauty--Jeffers amid the fog and sand of Monterey Bay,
O’Neill on the slope opposite Mt. Diablo, and Geisel on
a shoulder of Mt. Soledad, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Ironically,
each of these sites today is congested, crowded with the necessities
of urban life.
The last bit of road to
house might be mistaken for the driveway of the mini-mansion built in
front of it. Standing on the hilltop which was his home for many years,
we must use our imaginations to conjure the atmosphere that Geisel sought
during the time he was creating works such as Horton Hears a Who!,
The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Because the year 2004 marks
the 100th anniversary of the birth of Geisel, newspapers have been
full of the details of his life. Born on March
2, 1904, in Springfield,
Massachusetts, Theodor grew up in a household with an older sister, Margaretha
Christine, called Marnie. His sister’s story, from start to finish--the
degree from Smith College, the decision to marry rather than finish a Ph.D.
at Radcliffe, the divorce, the return home to work as a tutor and stenographer,
her isolation as a single mother taking care of her widowed father, and her
at age 43--is the kind of tale that makes many women grind their teeth, especially
when compared to the cheerfully serendipitous life of her brother Ted.
For Ted was not held to
a very strict account, and lived to see most of his foibles rewarded
with fame, praise and lots and lots of money. His career at
seems to have been close to an academic joke, but it gave him a chance to
become editor of the campus humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. Even this
fizzled when he was caught drinking with his friends. He spent the rest of
year publishing under a pseudonym, actually his mother’s maiden name,
and his first use of the name Seuss.
At graduation he boasted
that he was to attend Oxford under a certain scholarship, and when
the award failed to come through, his father sent him off to Oxford
anyway. At the venerated university, Geisel doodled his way through a few
muffed social opportunities, and generally waited for the year to be over.
His Oxford record simply states, “June 10, 1926: Name Removed.” But his
doodles were noticed by a classmate, Helen Marion Palmer, who commented “What
you really want to do is draw.” In November 1927, they were married.
But life is not that tame
thing we seem so sure of in grades K-12. In fact, life is a lot more
like the images Seuss created in books that children took
hearts--unpredictable, sometimes more picturesque, sometimes more monstrous
than anything we can imagine for ourselves. The music of language, the
of words, the unexpected fun—these qualities are celebrated by Seuss.
The risks we confront on every page are the qualities that separate him
Disney and from many others who have worked both in words and pictures
for children. And, while there are those who flatly do not like Seuss,
it is a fact that his
books have outsold even those of the redoubtable J. K. Rowling.
In the late 20s, Helen and
Ted lived and worked in New York City where he sold his cartoons to
magazines of the day. One such drawing was spotted
of an advertising executive while she was having her hair done. She urged
her husband to hire the cartoon’s author, and Ted Geisel went to work for the
next thirteen years rendering fanciful situations over the caption “Quick,
Henry, the Flit!” (Flit was the name of an insecticide manufactured
by Standard Oil.) His salary, which was substantial, enabled the Geisels
to Europe and to accept invitations, such as the one to visit a friend
in La Jolla, California, the spot they eventually came to call home.
Geisel’s first children’s book was an ABC illustrated with fanciful
animals, but he was so exacting about the colors of the ink that no one could
afford to publish it. The inception of his first published children’s book
is a famous anecdote. Coming home from Europe by ship, Geisel began to notice
the rhythm of the ship’s engine, and to compose sentences with the same
cadence. He was working in something we would call anapestic tetrameter, which
is also the rhythm of “Twas the night before Christmas.” By the end
of the voyage, he had composed a long poem, ending with the line “And that
is a story that no one can beat, and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.” All
that remained was to draw the fantastic parade that Marco conjures
in his imagination, to polish the writing and to find a suitable title.
Geisel repeatedly failed
at finding a publisher, and on the day of his twenty-seventh rejection
decided to get rid of the manuscript.
down Madison Avenue,
he ran into a school friend, Mike McClintock, who three hours earlier
had been named the juvenile editor of Vanguard Press. The association
of Mulberry Street under his newly invented honorific “Dr.” Seuss
and to the subsequent book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Life
for the Geisels was good. Though they had no children of their own,
they were able to
live well in New York City, and to prosper.
The advent of WWII changed
their lives, and drew Geisel into years of work for the US government
as a writer pf propaganda and morale
military. Among his work was a film entitled “Your Job in Germany,” which advised
American troops on how to behave while occupying the soon-to-be-defeated country.
Since Geisel’s family was of German origin, and he knew his German relatives,
he had reservations about a script that stated that Americans were not to fraternize
with Germans. Later, he wrote, “I strongly believed in everything I wrote
in the film with the exception of the Non-Fraternization conclusion…which
I wrote as an officer acting under orders…and later worked to get rescinded.”
The war had taken him to
Hollywood, and caused him to think of working in the medium of film.
His legacy consists of the short work “Gerald McBoing Boing” and
a feature film, “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” A more
consequential decision was to relocate to the West Coast and build
a house in La Jolla, at
the terminus of Encelia Drive, a hilltop home in which Dr. Seuss
spent the next 43 years.
In the 1950s, Americans
were beginning to worry about their children’s
progress in the schools, and complaints were leveled at the Dick and Jane readers,
considered to be boring and idealized. Geisel was challenged to write a children’s
book with a compelling story line using a basic 225-word vocabulary. His opus, The Cat in the Hat, published by Random House, led to the founding of Beginner
Books, a company consisting principally of Geisel, his wife Helen and Phyllis
Cerf, wife of Bennett Cerf. So began another series of projects involving work,
profit, and impossible lunches of “green eggs and ham” served
by well-meaning hostesses.
Seuss is now part of our
cultural fabric. The famous striped hat is offered for sale everywhere,
including Europe. The Cat himself
a US postage
stamp. In Ottawa, Canada, the Roman Catholic Diocese appropriated
for an anti-abortion poster Horton’s line “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (The
Seuss estate sued.) Modern critics claim attention for themselves by asserting
without irony that Geisel’s propaganda drawings of the Japanese during
WW II “promote stereotypes.” In the world of serious scholarship, The Oxford Companion to the English Language uses lines from Fox
in Socks to
illustrate the linguistic phenomenon “compounds in context.” It’s
entirely possible that all of these busy folk owe their own literacy
in part to the work of a man who seems to have been ordered by
Fate to develop his playful
side and share his doodles with the world.
US Commemorative Stamp
centennial of his birth, the town of Springfield, Massachusetts
dedicated a sculpture garden of Seuss creatures as part of the
celebration. His La Jolla home is a private residence, but his
papers have been donated to the University of California at
San Diego. Those interested in a fuller account of Seuss’s
life may consult Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995) by
Judith and Neil Morgan. An even more recent look at the Seuss
legacy comes from Philip Nel of Kansas State University. His
book Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) examines the impact
of Seuss on American life and letters.