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Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

by Janice Albert

Dr. Seuss's view of the Pacific

Some 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 Geisel’s 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 death 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 Dartmouth 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 opportunity fizzled when he was caught drinking with his friends. He spent the rest of his senior 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 classes, 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 to their hearts--unpredictable, sometimes more picturesque, sometimes more monstrous than anything we can imagine for ourselves. The music of language, the quixotic nature of words, the unexpected fun—these qualities are celebrated by Seuss. The risks we confront on every page are the qualities that separate him from Walt 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 by the wife 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 travel 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. Walking 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 led to the publication 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 films for the 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 has appeared on 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.

2004 US Commemorative Stamp

On the 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.

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