Dr. Seuss: ‘What am I doing here?’

Theodor Seuss Geisel
Photo by Bruce Kerner, © SEPS

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In the autumn of 1965, children around the world were enjoying Dr. Seuss’s newest book, Fox In Socks. And in an interview with Post writer C. Robert Jennings, Dr. Seuss himself — 61-year-old Theodor Geisel — reminisced about the events of his own childhood that led him to become the author and illustrator that generations of parents and their children would come to know and love.

Dr. Seuss: ‘What am I doing here?’
By C. Robert Jennings

October 23, 1965 — A painfully shy former screenwriter and unsuccessful novelist named Geisel has become America’s best-known children’s writer — and he still can’t quite believe it.

“Dear Dr. Seuss,” an eight-year-old wrote one day. “You sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a millian funny animals. Now this I want to know. Who thunk you up Dr. Seuss? ? ?”

The sordid truth is that the extraordinary Dr. Seuss was thunk up by a nervous, shy, ordinary-looking man who constantly worries about living up to his own creation. “I always have the feeling that people will take one look and recognize me as a fraud,” says 61-year-old Theodor Seuss Geisel. “Kids come to my door and say, ‘I want to meet Dr. Seuss.’ “I say, ‘I am Dr. Seuss,’ and they simply refuse to believe me. Sometimes they will just sit and stare until my wife passes the cookies and eases them out. If your nose doesn’t light up and you don’t look like a baggy-pants comedian, or at least have a bifurcated beard and horns, they are disappointed.”

When Geisel was 14 years old, Teddy Roosevelt came to his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, to address a War Bond rally and present medals to those Boy Scouts with the best sales records. Among them was Teddy Geisel, who waited nervously as T.R. read off the names. Unfortunately, someone had inadvertently left his name off the list, and when Roosevelt had finally finished, young Teddy was sitting alone on the stage. “There I was with Mr. Roosevelt asking, ‘What is this little boy doing here?’ and hundreds of people staring at me. I can still hear them whispering, ‘There’s little Teddy Geisel, he tried to get a medal.’ And to this day I keep asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Geisel blames this experience, and his unfortunate encounters with his skeptical readers, for his almost pathological fear of audiences. But while Geisel regularly turns down requests to appear in public, the works of Dr. Seuss turn up everywhere in America, his harum-scarum menagerie of golliwog-eyed animals forming a sort of mythology all their own. In cheerful colors they romp bonelessly through wise, simple, and amusing misadventures looking, says Geisel, “a little drunk,” and never once saying “Run, Spot, run.”

In 29 years, Dr. Seuss has had 26 best sellers, all but three in rollicking verse and every one still in print. Since its appearance in 1957, his Cat in the Hat has grossed more than $3 million and become the most influential first-grade reader since McGuffey. His manuscripts and illustrations are of such historic moment that they can be viewed only in a special collection of the UCLA library. In the archives of the library at Dartmouth College are original manuscripts by Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington, Robert Frost, and Dr. Seuss’s 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Seuss books have been dramatized on the air, put to music, and performed in Carnegie Hall. He receives 500 letters a week, and Random House, his publisher, receives up to five tons of Seuss mail in a single year. The passion for Seuss unites such varied readers as Princess Grace’s children and Clifton Fadiman.

The phenomenal appeal of Dr. Seuss lies partly in his fresh melding of the logical with the ludicrous. As uncountable urchins know, the outlandish world of Seuss stretches from the Kingdom of Binn to the Island of Sala-ma-Sond, from Lake Winnabangs to Who-ville, where a whole kingdom exists on a dust speck. It is preposterously peopled by Norval, the Bashful Blinket; Gowdy, the Dowdy Grackle; Chingo, the Noodle-topped Stroodle; by Ziffs, Zaffs, and a Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz — anatomically odd creations of infinitely more fancy than fact. But to the Popsicle set they are as real as animals at the zoo. For they start with the premise that children readily accept the ridiculous if, once stated, it is pursued with unremitting logic. “If I start out with the concept of a two-headed animal,” says Geisel, “I must put two hats on his head and two toothbrushes in the bathroom. A child will accept a tuttle-tuttle tree [the “T” in Dr. Seuss’s ABC] as a fact and a non-fact simultaneously. He knows you’re kidding, but he goes along with it.” It’s all what Geisel calls “logical insanity.”

Unlike the characters in much current juvenile literature, Seuss’s creations are mostly uncute. He deplores what he calls “bunny-bunny” or “fuzzy-wuzzy” books. Instead, Seuss animals are saucy, like the Cat in the Hat; or gentle, like Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose; disingenuous, like Yertle, the Turtle; or simply absurd as a Nerkle, a shapeless, wobbly critter with a feather-duster tail and a cork on the end of his pointed snout. They usually point a simple moral: The Sneetches is a palatable plea for equality. There are Star-Belly Sneetches, with stars on their bellies, who look down on Plain-Belly Sneetches, who have none. In the end, of course, the starless creatures realize they’re as good as anybody else.

Horton Hears a Who is a fable extolling minority rights and resulted from a Geisel visit to postwar Japan, where he was impressed “by a people trying to find a voice and make it known.” A colony of Whos, microscopic creatures who inhabit a grain of dust on a clover leaf, are about to be boiled in a Beezle-Nut stew because they cannot be heard by the outside world. Though scorned by others for his efforts, good old Horton, the elephant, comes to their aid, for “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Scrooge-like fellow of the title tries to keep Christmas from coming to Who-ville by stealing all its holiday bounty the night before. The little Whos cheerfully celebrate anyway, proving that “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more.”

“But these morals,” says Geisel, “are never put in as morals, and children don’t read them as such. Kids gag at having morals crammed down their throats. But there is a moral inherent in any damn thing you write that has a dramatic point. People change places, and with any resolution of conflict or narrative motion a moral is implied. Still I never set out to prove a point — except for Yertle the Turtle, a deliberate parable of the life of Hitler. But to say I am the biggest moralist since Elsie Dinsmore, as one reviewer did, is ridiculous.”

When young Geisel was growing up in Springfield, his grandfather was running the Kulmbach & Geisel Brewery, known to tavern tosspots as “Come back and guzzle.” But fortunately for Ted, his father was more partial to monkeys than malt. “Come on, son, let’s go over to Forest Park and count the animals” was the sort of invitation Ted remembers best. Eventually, his father, now 85, became supervisor of parks in Springfield, which gave him blissful dominion over the zoo.

In high school, Geisel’s art course ended abruptly after one lesson because, he says, “the teacher wanted me to draw the world as it is, and I wanted to draw things as I saw them.” This setback didn’t keep Teddy from caricaturing his friends and fellow students as funny animals. “Even now,” he says, “none of my animals are really animals. They’re all people, sort of.”

At Dartmouth, Geisel edited Jack 0’ Lantern, the campus humor magazine. One of his cartoons, typical of the genre, depicted two chimney sweeps about to make the plunge. First chimney sweep: “Shall I go down first?” Second chimney sweep: “Soot yourself.”

After graduation, Geisel went to Lincoln College, Oxford, and applied himself to English literature with the notion that he might return to teach at Dartmouth. “I was horrified, however, to find that while I loved Swift, Defoe, Shaw, and Beerbohm, I knew absolutely nothing about literature.” Happily, his next-desk neighbor in one course—who insists it was called “Punctuation in King Lear” — was a pretty Wellesley girl named Helen Palmer, now editor-in-chief of Dr. Seuss and, for 38 years, wife and business manager of Ted Geisel. “When I saw the funny-looking rabbits Ted was drawing in his notebooks,” says Helen, “I said it was silly to bury himself under Shakespeare’s semicolons.”

Ted agreed. “Helen brought me to the realization that I wasn’t soundly grounded in any subject, that I had merely been playing writer and scholar.” He took her for an outing on the back of his motorcycle, a contraption which was not allowed on campus but which Ted managed to keep by posing as a poultrymonger, carrying two plucked ducks in his basket. At the moment he proposed, a tire blew and they found themselves in a ditch—and engaged.

Before returning to America, Ted Geisel took a cattle boat to Corsica where, he says, he wrote “The Great American Novel. It ran to two enormous volumes, and when it wouldn’t sell I condensed it into one volume. When that didn’t sell, I boiled it down into a long short story. Next I cut it to a short, short story. Finally, I sold it as a two-line gag. Now I can’t even remember the gag.”

Back in Springfield, he sent a couple of cartoons to the old Judge and The Saturday Evening Post, which bought them for $25 apiece. For the first time, he signed himself Dr. Seuss (after his mother’s maiden name and the Ph.D. he never got), saving his patronymic for some great future achievement. His cartooning success resulted in marriage in 1927 and a move to New York’s Park Avenue, where for the next few years he turned out stacks of cartoons for Vanity Fair, Liberty, the Post, College Humor, and the old Life. Helen Geisel resisted attempts by magazine editors to send him to art school. “The wonderful thing about his drawing,” she says, “is that it’s not at all self-conscious. I was afraid that if Ted went to school, he’d find out that he was drawing the kangaroos all wrong.”

One of his cartoons showed a knight in armor lying on a canopied bed and being rudely awakened by the nuzzling of a dragon. “By gosh,” went the caption, “another dragon! And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit.” The wife of the advertising executive who handled the Flit account spotted it in a beauty parlor and prevailed upon her husband to hire the artist; Ted Geisel spent the next 15 years exterminating bugs with “Quick, Henry! the Flit!”

Returning from a European vacation on the Kungsholm in 1937, Ted Geisel found himself mumbling “da-da’s” over and over to the monotonous beat of the ship’s engines. “Finally Helen suggested I think up nonsense rhymes to be said to the rhythm of the damned engines — just to get rid of it.” The result was Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was spurned by 27 publishers before a college crony, who had just been made juveniles editor of Vanguard Press, bought it. In 28 years, the book has gone through 20 editions and is still selling some 15,000 copies a year.

In 1939, he tried another book for adults, The Seven Lady Godivas, which also flopped. “I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could,” he says, “but they came out looking absurd. I think maybe it all went to prove that I don’t know anything about adults — beyond the fact that they’re obsolete children.” That one, like his first novel, was by Geisel. The best-sellers continued to pour forth from the apparently bottomless well of Seuss’s ingenuity, and Geisel was rarely heard from again.

But if he had little success as a serious writer, he was taken seriously as a political cartoonist. In 1940, appalled by the bleating of U.S. isolationists, he joined the old New York daily PM as “angry cartoonist in charge of Lindbergh, Wheeler and Senator Nye” — whom he once pictured as the after-end of a horse. He portrayed Pierre Laval as a louse on Hitler’s finger, and drew an avalanche of protests from dog lovers after using a low-slung dachshund to symbolize a Nazi. “I’m not proud of the way the cartoons looked or of their overstatement,” says Geisel, “but I still believe in what I was saying.”

During the war, he was attached to Frank Capra’s famous U.S. Army documentary unit, for which he wrote and directed indoctrination films. They ranged from animated discourses on Hitler’s geopolitical theories to sermons on syphilis.

After the war, Geisel went to Hollywood, where, among other things, he wrote the script and lyrics and designed the sets and costumes for a Stanley Kramer disaster called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live-action musical fantasy. Shortly afterward he quit the movies for good. “Hollywood is not suited for me,” he says now, “and I’m not suited for it. The problem there is that all these people work on things until even the author doesn’t know what’s his and what’s not. I realized my métier was drawing fish.”

But Geisel did take some honors home. He invented Gerald McBoing-Boing, the little boy who talked in sound effects and whose misadventures copped an Academy Award in 1950. One of his wartime documentaries, Your Job in Germany, was reissued after Germany surrendered as Hitler Lives?, of all things, and won an Oscar in 1945. A 1947 documentary about Japan, Design for Death, which he wrote with his wife, also won an Oscar. There were additional benefits. “I must confess I learned more about writing children’s books when I worked in Hollywood than anywhere else,” he says now. “For in films everything is based on coordination between pictures and words.” This facility is clearly evident in all his work.

In 1954, by which time he had written 10 children’s books, Geisel read an article in which John Hersey complained of the pitiful state of children’s primers and suggested that someone like Dr. Seuss give children a break. Seuss accepted the challenge and came up with Cat in the Hat, hailed by Hersey as “a gift to the art of reading.” It was the first time the arduous process of learning to read had ever seemed anything like fun.

Meanwhile, the Geisels had settled astride Mt. Soledad, the highest point in the resort town of La Jolla, California. “I wanted to live where I could walk around outside in my pajamas any season of the year,” he says. They have a pool (installed to speed Helen’s recovery from polio in 1955), a part-time secretary, one car, a 360-degree view, no pets, and no children. “You make ’em,” says Geisel, “I amuse ’em.”

Not surprisingly, Geisel is a highly disciplined craftsman. While he has severe, self-imposed rules, he writes to no set formula: “A formula is usually tantamount to writing down to children, which is something a child spots instantly. I try to treat the child as an equal and go on the assumption a child can understand anything that is read to him if the writer takes care to state it clearly and simply enough.”

For Seuss, writing simply means “no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive. Virtually every page is a cliffhanger — you’ve got to force them to turn it.

“Most children’s books are not satisfactorily resolved. You’ve got to use adult writing to the extent you have a beginning, middle, and end. And you must have the happy ending. A child identifies with a hero, and it is a personal tragedy to him when things don’t come out all right.”

Geisel is dismayed at the “contempt for this market that most juvenile authors have. They think they can put down a lot of slop-twaddle and dismiss it as ‘just for kids,’” he says. “They don’t realize that every sentence is as important as a chapter in a novel, every word is really a page. You can’t just knock them out over the weekend; you have to sweat them out.”

A 60-page book, for which he produces some 500 illustrations and up to 1,000 pages of text, represents from 12 to 18 months of the most meticulous work. “I realize they look as if they’ve been put together in 23 seconds,” he says, “but 99 percent of what I do ends up in the scrap basket.”

If both writing and drawings are galloping along nicely, Geisel is apt to work all night, eventually seeing the sun come up on his pink-stucco hacienda. If not, he will sit and stare at the Pacific in controlled fury or throw himself on the nearest divan and groan.

When a Seuss book finally gets into the Random House mill in New York, Geisel spends far more time in the production department than any other author, “trying to perfect details right down to press time.” He once spent five hours in publisher Bennett Cerf’s office working over a single line of verse until he had removed an extra beat that bothered his ear; on another occasion he fussed over two pages for a full week in his Manhattan hotel room. After 100,000 copies of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back were already sold, he ordered a new jacket made up because he felt one line was too black.

Still, for all of the anguish, Geisel wouldn’t trade places with anyone, not even a Bipp-no-Bungus from the wilds of Hipp-no-Hungus or a tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka from the Isle of Yerka. “Childhood is the one time in an average person’s life when he can laugh just for the straight fun of laughing — that’s the main reason I write for kids. As one grows older his humor gets all tied up and stifled by social, economic, and political rules that we learn from our elders, and before long our laughter gets all mixed up with sneers and leers. Kids react spontaneously to something ludicrous, so I have more freedom writing for them. They laugh at silly things their parents would feel embarrassed to be caught smiling at. I have a secret following among adults, but they have to read me when no one is watching.”

Geisel often wonders where Seuss will go from here, having worked more or less backward from older children’s books to phonetics primers like his latest, Fox in Socks, Hop on Pop, and his ABC book. “I’ve done everything but prenatal books,” says Dr. Seuss. “Now I’m trying to figure out a good alphabet soup for expectant mothers, where the child is born saying ‘Cat in the Hat.’ If that doesn’t work, I may become a gardener, and in my spare time study the heartbeat of whales.”

Dr. Seuss was a popular topic in the pages of the Post. To find out more about the man, his life, and his work, check out “The Unforgettable Dr. Seuss.”

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