In the summer of 1957, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, had just published a children’s primer called The Cat in the Hat, and his newest story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was ready for publication later that year. It was during this interlude that Geisel granted his first Post interview with Robert Cahn, revealing why he became Dr. Seuss, the simple reason he draws the way he does, and the undeniable effect his wife, Helen, has had on his career.
The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss
By Robert Cahn
July 6, 1957 — Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, has captured the imagination of millions of children with his fanciful spoofs: Gerald McBoing-Boing, the Drum-Tummied Snumm, and other creatures from a world of happy nonsense.
For a man whose mind is inhabited by such creatures as a Mop-Noodled Finch, a Salamagoox, or a Bustard — “who only eats custard with sauce made of mustard” — Theodor S. Geisel looks disarmingly rational. As the renowned Dr. Seuss (rhymes with “goose”), he is not, as a few children have pictured him, a wizened old man with flowing white beard. He is whiskerless, has the standard number of arms and legs, and lives quietly with his wife and dog on a hill overlooking La Jolla, California.
Yet for the past thirty years, under the protective alias of Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel has been an apostle of joyous nonsense. He has fathered a whole modern mythology of bizarre creatures like the Remarkable Foon, “who eats sizzling hot pebbles that fall off the moon,” or the Drum-Tummied Snumm, “who can drum any tune that you might care to hum—doesn’t hurt him a bit ’cause his drum-tummy’s numb.” He has created young Gerald McBoing-Boing, the little boy who cannot speak, but makes sound effects instead. And he is still remembered for the impertinent bugs he concocted along with his famous advertising slogan: Quick, Henry, the Flit!
His annual output of picture books, like Horton Hatches the Egg, Thidwick the Big- Hearted Moose, and On Beyond Zebra, have become a part of the basic children’s literature of the country. They are in constant use at the overseas libraries of the United States Information Agency and have been translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese.
In suburban La Jolla, however, Geisel’s madcap alter ego is completely obscured. Here Theodor Seuss Geisel — Seuss is his mother’s family name — is considered a paragon of propriety. He is a director of the town council, and a trustee of the neighboring San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. His hair is cut regularly, his shoes are always shined, and he gives up his chair when ladies are standing.
The first impression of conservatism is emphasized by his polite attentiveness, not unlike that of a middle-aged bank vice president. Slim and tall, he has graying dark hair parted more or less in the middle. He is as sharp-eyed as a bird, with a long aquiline nose and a wide mouth which has a habit of twisting into puckish grins. And he speaks in the terse hesitancies of the painfully shy man.
But beneath this outer austerity beats a wildly impulsive heart. Even with the most serious intentions, the mind of Ted Geisel is so fanciful that he has never been able completely to subdue it. And he depends at all times on the levelheadedness of his wife, Helen, to pull him out of entanglements in which he has become errantly involved. Yet the unorthodox appearance of the Seuss animals is not entirely due to Geisel’s imagination. The fact is, as Geisel admits, “I just never learned to draw.”
“Ted never studied art or anatomy,” explains Helen. “He puts in joints where he thinks they should be. Elbows and knees have always especially bothered him. Horton is the very best elephant he can draw, but if he stopped to figure out how the knees went, he couldn’t draw him.”
Although the greatest audience for his animals is children, the nonsensical creatures are also in great demand among advertisers seeking a humorous presentation for their products. Sometimes, however, his business clients have lacked the willing imagination of his younger devotees. Once he had to do a horned goat for a billboard. The job was done and paid for, and everyone seemed happy, when the phone rang.
“Now, Geisel, about that goat,” said the advertising-agency executive. “We like it here and it’s a fine goat, but there is just one little thing wrong. Our client thinks it looks like a duck. So would you mind doing us another one?”
To resolve the problem, Geisel drew a duck and submitted it. The client called him up. “Geisel,” he said, “it’s perfect. Best goat I ever saw.”
Children, of course, understand and accept Geisel’s pictures, a fact which led to an unusual assignment two years ago during the height of the controversy over why Johnny can’t read. Textbook publishers and some educators and parents had realized that one trouble was that Johnny’s reader wasn’t readable. Most creators of children’s primers, though experts in form, failed miserably as storytellers. What was required, the publishers knew, was the kind of story that would lead a child from page to page with suspense and delight. Yet most writers were unwilling to accept the severe vocabulary limitations required for a first-grade reader.
Into the impasse stepped Geisel. He offered his services to one of the nation’s leading textbook publishers and was assigned to prepare a book that six-year-olds could read themselves. Unfortunately, the situation soon got out of hand.
“All I needed, I figured, was to find a whale of an exciting subject which would make the average six-year-old want to read like crazy,” says Geisel. “None of the old dull stuff: Dick has a ball. Dick likes the ball. The ball is red, red, red, red.”
His first offer to the publisher was to do a book about scaling the peaks of Everest at sixty degrees below zero.
“Truly exciting,” the publisher agreed. “However, you can’t use the word scaling, you can’t use the word peaks, you can’t use Everest, you can’t use sixty, and you can’t use degrees.
Geisel shortly found himself with a list of 348 words, most of them one-syllable words, which the average six-year-old could recognize — and not a Yuzz-A-Ma-Tuzz or Salamagoox among them. To one who was used to making up new words at will, it was a catastrophe. And yet the publisher had said, “Create a rollicking carefree story packed with action and tingling with suspense.”
Six months after accepting the assignment, Geisel was still staring at the word list, trying to find some words besides ball and tall that rhymed. The list had a daddy, but it didn’t have a caddy. It had a thank, but it had no blank, frank, or stank. Page after page of scrawls was piled in his den. He had accumulated stories which moved along in fine style but got nowhere. One story about a King Cat and a Queen Cat was half finished before he realized that the word queen was not on the list.
One night, when he was almost ready to give up, there emerged from a jumble of sketches a raffish cat wearing a battered stovepipe hat. Geisel checked his list—both hat and cat were on it. Gradually he worked himself out of one literary dead end after another until he had completed his children’s reader.
The Cat in the Hat was published last spring by Houghton Mifflin as a supplementary school text for first graders, and in a popular edition by Random House. It already has been greeted enthusiastically by parents and educators. The story line concerns fanciful adventures occurring when a vagrant cat drops in to play with two small children while their mother is out. The verse, composed from only 220 different basic words, has a delightful meter and builds repetitions through devices such as the cat adding object after object to a juggling act. And the drawings, of course, are pure Seuss.
Although the principal character of The Cat in the Hat turns out all right in the end, he is not quite in keeping with most Seuss animals, which are usually gentle, loving, and true blue. Horton, for instance, is a long-suffering elephant who sits on the egg of Mayzie the Lazy Bird through 12 trouble-filled months. And Thidwick is a moss-munching moose who is victimized by an inconsiderate assortment of freeloading friends nesting in his antlers.
“Ted’s animals are the sort you’d like to take home to meet the family,” says Helen. “They have their own world and their own problems and they seem very logical to me.”
Ted first met Helen Palmer in 1925, at Oxford. Young Geisel was studying English literature, seeking a doctor’s degree so that he could qualify for the faculty at Dartmouth, his alma mater. In one of his classes, he found himself sitting next to an attractive young schoolmarm-to-be who kept admiring the flying horses he doodled in the margin of his notebook.
“I was naturally flattered,” says Geisel, “and in a short time the horses were taking up the middle of my notebook, and my Shakespeare notes — such as they were — were in the margins.”
Within a year, Helen Palmer and Theodor Geisel were engaged. Aware that Ted loved drawing better than studying Shakespeare, Helen encouraged him to forsake temporarily his scholarship quest. In the spring of 1927, Geisel returned to his family home in Springfield, Massachusetts. For 10 weeks he drew cats, elephants, bears, and rejection slips. His family was not especially pleased that their son had junked a promising career as an educator in favor of concocting knock-kneed brown bears. On the other hand, Theodor Geisel, Sr., felt partly responsible. After all, as commissioner of parks in Springfield, he had long had a doting interest in the city zoo, where young Ted had often entered the lion cages, and had played with the kangaroos and cub bears.
Toward the end of the trial period, Geisel’s artistic talents finally were recognized when The Saturday Evening Post bought a cartoon for $25. Geisel moved to New York, sold a page of eggnog-drinking turtles to Judge, a humor magazine, and parlayed the fee into a grubstake for marriage.
It was not as Theodor Geisel that he first broke into print. Desiring to save his name for the great serious work he planned someday to write, he adopted aliases such as Quincy Quilp, Dr. Xavier Ruppzknoff, and Dr. Theophrastus Seuss.He finally settled on just plain Dr. Seuss.
It was an early Dr. Seuss cartoon published by Judge late in 1927 that abruptly changed his life. The cartoon showed a knight in bed, with armor strewn about the castle room and a dragon sticking his snout under the covers. It bore the caption, “By gosh, another dragon! And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit.”
The cartoon caught the eye of Mrs. Lincoln Cleaves, wife of a McCann-Erickson advertising executive who handled the Flit account for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. For three weeks Mrs. Cleaves badgered her husband to contact this Dr. Seuss, whoever he was. Finally weakening, Cleaves agreed. Geisel was signed to a contract, and he quickly created the slogan, “Quick, Henry, the Flit.”
A major crisis arose early in the campaign. Some company officials felt the Seuss bugs looked so sweet and lovable that no one would want to use Flit to kill them. Geisel finally convinced the executives that this was just part of a scheme to overcome women’s natural reluctance to think about bugs. “Quick, Henry, the Flit” became a standard line of repartee in radio jokes. A song was based on it. The phrase became a part of the American vernacular for use in emergencies. It was the first major advertising campaign to be based on humorous cartoons.
But Geisel had to find additional outlets for the stream of his invention. For several years he built up his own fleet, the “Seuss Navy,” as a promotion for Standard Oil’s Essomarine products. He awarded honorary admirals’ commissions in the Seuss Navy to noted yachtsmen, steamship-line captains, and naval officers and presided over a yearly banquet for the group. The Seuss admirals even flew their own burgee—a plucked herring on blue field with red trim.
As an added outlet for his fancies, Geisel dreamed up devices to make a fortune. One scheme was for an “Infantagraph.” It was just before the opening of the New York World’s Fair, when everyone was thinking of ways to make money from the out-of-towners who would swarm out to Flushing Meadows. Musing over these vistas of dollar bills, Geisel envisioned a booth on the midway with a huge sign: IF YOU WERE TO MARRY THE PERSON YOU ARE WITH, WHAT WOULD YOUR CHILDREN LOOK LIKE? COME IN AND HAVE YOUR INFANTAGRAPH TAKEN. Certainly this come-on should bring couples into the booth in droves. There they would be photographed, and out would come a composite picture of their features on a naked baby sprawled on a white bearskin rug.
All that was necessary was to devise a camera which could do the trick. Geisel acquired financing and brought a German camera technician to New York from Hollywood. A camera was built. Tests showed that the project was feasible. However, there were many problems, especially in preventing a mustache from coming through on the baby’s picture. They couldn’t perfect the camera while the fair was on, and the enterprise terminated when the war prevented importation of special lenses from Germany.
“It was a wonderful idea,” Geisel says. “Somehow, though, all the babies tended to look like William Randolph Hearst.”
Yet out of the restlessness of the Flit days, there came a rewarding byproduct. Trying to while away the hours on a long, rough Atlantic crossing in 1937, Ted began composing verses to the rhythm of the Kungsholm’s pulsing engines. “Ta-da-da-ta-da-da-ta-da-da-ta-da,” went the engines. “And that is the story that no one can beat,” wrote Geisel. “Ta-da-da-ta-da-da-ta-da-da-ta-da,” went the ship. “If I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street.”
“My contract had nothing to prohibit my writing children’s books,” says Geisel. “When we docked in New York, instead of going to a psychiatrist to get that crazy rhythm out of my head, I decided to illustrate the verses for a children’s book.” After turndowns from several publishers, Geisel interested Marshall (Mike) McClintock, a Dartmouth classmate who was working for Vanguard Press. Vanguard decided to take a chance, and in 1937 published And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.
Mulberry Street, which relates how a little boy lets his imagination run loose while walking home from school, is today in its 11th printing. It is still in demand at bookstores and libraries, although it must now compete with 12 other Seuss picture books.
Three of them —The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, The King’s Stilts, and Bartholomew and the Oobleck — are in prose and have sometimes been compared to the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.
In all his books, Dr. Seuss starts out with a premise so believably fantastic that what follows seems entirely logical. Thus, in On Beyond Zebra, once you admit that the alphabet can extend beyond Z, it follows that the letter Um is for spelling Umbus:
A sort of a cow, with one head and one tail,
But to milk this great cow you need more than one pail!
She has ninety-eight faucets that give milk quite nicely.
Perhaps ninety-nine. I forget just precisely.
And, boy! She is something most people don’t see
Because most people stop at the Z
But not me!
The all-time Seuss favorite is Horton Hatches the Egg, which in 1956 sold 15,000 copies, three times as many as when first published in 1940. Horton, a loyal, lovable elephant, gets conned by Mayzie the Lazy Bird into hatching her egg. Horton sits and sits and sits, though ridiculed by friends, frozen by cold, captured by hunters, and finally sold to a circus. When Mayzie returns to claim the egg, just as it starts hatching, it seems that Horton’s faithfulness will go unrewarded. But wait! Coming out of the egg and flying over to Horton is an Elephant-Bird, with ears and tail and a trunk just like his.
And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!
Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat!
He meant what he said and he said what he meant
And they sent him home happy, one hundred per cent.
Soon after his first book had been published, the demands on a successful author brought Ted Geisel face to face with a long-standing dread of making public appearances. He was then living in New York and he casuallyagreed to speak at a young women’s college in Westchester, thinking he had ample time to contrive an excuse to get out of it. Unfortunately he forgot the engagement until too late to break it. When Helen insisted that he live up to his agreement, he pleaded sudden illness to no avail. Finally he departed. A couple of hours later, the school called to inquire what was keeping Mr. Geisel. Alarmed, Helen instituted a search. She called his publisher, his friends, then hospitals, but he was nowhere to be found. When Geisel finally returned home, it was discovered that instead of taking the train to Westchester he had hidden out all afternoon at Grand Central Station.
As happens sooner or later with most writers, Geisel has had hit-and-run encounters with Hollywood. During the war, he was an officer with Frank Capra’s educational-film unit and won the Legion of Merit for helping to produce and direct indoctrination films. Shortly after the war, he teamed with Helen to write a screenplay about the rise of the war lords in Japan. The picture, Design for Death, won the 1947 Academy Award for the best feature-length documentary.
In 1951, Geisel created the character of Gerald McBoing-Boing. Young Gerald, whose first words were boing, boing instead of da-da or ma-ma, was originally written for a phonograph record as a satire on parents who fear that slowness in learning to speak indicates a child is dimwitted. The movie cartoon of Geisel’s story won an Academy Award for U.P.A. — United Productions of America — and for Gerald a place in the folklore of America.
In La Jolla, Ted Geisel, citizen, far outranks Dr. Seuss, artist and writer. In addition to his work on the town council and with the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, he has a special interest. This is to protect La Jolla from Creeping Urbanization. When Ted and Helen Geisel went to La Jolla in 1940, it was a quiet village mostly populated by the wealthy and retired. They bought an old tower on the highest hill and built a house around it. Then came the burgeoning growth of Southern California. Soon they found themselves in the landing path of jet planes, while the town below was invaded by big spenders. A pox of garish neon lights began to blight the community.
While he could not stop the tourist invasion or the jet planes, Geisel has been the prime mover in a campaign to ban commercial billboards and objectionable signs in La Jolla. He even enlisted Dr. Seuss to do an illustrated booklet. In it, two competitive cave men, Guss and Zaxx, engaged in a war to ballyhoo their products, Guss-ma-Tuss and Zaxx-ma-Taxx. Horrendous signs spring up all around, dwarfing their cave sites:
And, thus between them, with impunity
They loused up the entire community.
Sign after sign after sign, until
Their property values slumped to nil.
And even the dinosaurs moved away
From that messed-up spot in the U.S.A.
In their tower, the Geisels have a relatively quiet oasis. Their two-acre spot is screened by hundreds of flowering shrubs. Inside the house, all is in perfect order except the den, where Ted spends hours at his drawing board. He loves to draw, but hates to write, and sometimes will spend hours just drawing animals on large sheets of tracing paper. Many of his books, he confesses, have had their start by accident. Horton Hatches the Egg came about because Geisel inadvertently superimposed an elephant over the branches of a small tree he had drawn earlier. So he worked for days trying to figure how Horton could have got into the tree. Then Helen had to figure out how to get Horton down.
The process of turning out a Seuss book is definitely a family affair. “I keep losing my story line and Helen has to find it again,” says Geisel. “She’s a fiend for story line.”
Once the basic idea is set, nearly every line is worked and reworked until both Ted and Helen are satisfied. Geisel’s workroom is always littered with swatches of verses pinned to sketches or taped to a large plate-glass window overlooking the ocean.
All business affairs are run by Helen. Checkbooks confuse Ted, who prefers to count only in large round numbers. Helen also tries to protect Ted from visitors, although in this area she is not always successful. At the slightest provocation, Geisel will halt his work and lead the visitor into the den, where he displays the sketches for his latest book and enthusiastically reads off the verses. There is little doubt that Ted Geisel is himself the first small child for whom he writes.
A few weeks ago, the Geisel household was in one of its “deadline-time-again” emergencies. As usual, Dr. Seuss was in trouble because Geisel couldn’t figure out an ending. He had started off with a wonderful idea — he would do a Christmas book. A bad old Grinch would try to stop Christmas from coming to Who-ville. The suspense had built panel by panel as the little Whos got all their gifts and trees and fixings ready while the Grinch plotted his devilish mission. Then came the stumbling block. How could he end it without being maudlin?
“Helen, Helen, where are you?” Geisel shouted, emerging from his den into the living room. “How do you like this?” he said, dropping a sketch and verse in her lap.
Helen shook her head. Geisel’s face dropped. “No,” she said, “this isn’t it. And besides, you’ve got the papa Who too big. Now he looks like a bug.”
“Well, they are bugs,” said Geisel defensively.
“They are not bugs,” replied Helen. “Those Whos are just small people.”
Geisel retreated to his den to fix the picture and try again with the verses. The dilemma was finally resolved, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas will be published this fall.
On occasion the mother of a young Dr. Seuss follower may wish that the author were less imaginative, especially if her eight-year-old has just ruined two dozen eggs while trying to make Scrambled Eggs Super-dee-Dooper. But most parents consider the Seuss books surefire bedtime stories and are pleased by the hidden gems of wisdom. In Horton Hears a Who, for instance, kind Horton protects the microcosmic inhabitants of a kingdom which exists on a dust speck — “For a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The Whos, about to be boiled in a Beezle-Nut stew because their voices cannot be heard by the outside world, are finally saved when a lone shirker adds his tiny “Yopp” to the united efforts of the citizenry.
And that Yopp, that one small, extra Yopp put it over!
Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean?”
They’ve proved they are persons, no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved by the smallest of all!
“In our books there is usually a point, if you want to find it,” says Geisel. “But we have discovered that the kids don’t want to feel you are trying to push something down their throats. So when we have a moral, we try to tell it sideways.
Although the Geisels are childless, Ted long ago invented a daughter to vie with the progeny of their friends. Chrysanthemum-Pearl, to whom one of his books is lovingly dedicated, is a comfort to the Geisels, especially when the after-dinner conversation swings around to children and grandchildren. As might be expected, Chrysanthemum-Pearl is a precocious girl who has been able to “whip up the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate frosting and flaming Roman candles,” or who can “carry 1000 stitches on one needle while making long red underdrawers for her Uncle Terwilliger.”
Despite his label as a “children’s author,” Geisel refuses to write down to children. Because of this viewpoint, the Dr. Seuss books are enjoyed by the parents as well as the youngsters. And though contributors to the children’s-book field are often snubbed by the literati, Geisel finally received his reward. One June day in 1955, he was called back to the Dartmouth College commencement exercises.
“Theodor Seuss Geisel, creator of fanciful beasts,” the college president read from a scroll as Geisel walked to the front of the platform. “As author and artist you singlehandedly have stood as Saint George between a generation of parents and the demon dragon of exhausted children on a rainy day. You have stood these many years in the shadow of your learned friend, Dr. Seuss. But the time has come when the good doctor would want you to walk by his side as a full equal. Dartmouth therefore confers on you her Doctorate of Humane Letters.”
Occasionally these days, Doctor Geisel runs into someone who slaps him on the back and says, “Geisel, with all your education, you should be able to do better. There must be some way you could crack the adult field.”
Geisel raises an eyebrow, then smiles. “Write for adults?” he replies. “Why, they’re just obsolete children.”
This isn’t the only time Dr. Seuss has appeared in the pages of the Post. Find out more about him in “The Unforgettable Dr. Seuss.”
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.”
In a Post interview from 1977, Theodor Geisel — better known to the world as Dr. Seuss — looks back on his life and legacy, musing on his successes, his failures, and the sometimes unbelievable reactions readers have had to his work. But even at 72, Geisel has no plans to slow down. “People of my age are all retiring,” he says, “I’ve got more things I want to do now than ever.” Those plans go beyond bookmaking and into movies, television, and even, of all things, a rock opera.
Dr. Seuss at 72 — Going Like 60
By Don Freeman
March 1, 1977 — The Who behind Who-ville is busier than ever, hurling papers and tossing drawings like a tormented Grinch, until he has wrought his next 50 pages of spellbinding magic.
With his crinkly-soft eyes, his grandly equine nose, and the loping mooselike walk, he looks for all the world as though he had sprung full-blown from his own drawing board. When you see Theodor S. Geisel plain, all that seems to be missing is his signature below, two words warmly familiar to millions of children the world over and their grateful parents. The two words are — Dr. Seuss.
They are, of course, one and the same — Ted Geisel of La Jolla, California, and Dr. Seuss, the pseudonym he has employed for over 40 years while writing and illustrating, very slowly and with the deepest pains of creation, his forty-odd children’s books that have sold over 70 million copies. A number of the Seuss stories have been adapted by Geisel himself into animated television musicals, one having brought him the prestigious Peabody Award.
“Counting Lewis Carroll and allowing for A.A. Milne,” an observer once noted, “Dr. Seuss has become the most important name ever pressed on a children’s book jacket.” The late Bennett Cerf, Seuss’s publisher at Random House, once declared: “I’ve published any number of great writers, from William Faulkner to John O’Hara, but there’s only one genius on my authors’ list. His name is Ted Geisel.”
Geisel shrugs off the compliment, whipping a hand through his unkempt silver-gray hair. “If I were a genius,” he demands, logically, “why do I have to sweat so hard at my work? I know my stuff all looks like it was rattled off in 23 seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.” Geisel, in the jargon of the writer’s trade, is a bleeder. Each of his illustrated books, none over 50 pages, requires a year or more of intense Seussian gestation.
Unconcerned about his genius standing, Dr. Seuss’s juvenile readers have responded through the years with their own brightly turned words of praise. “Dr. Seuss,” wrote one admiring child, “you have an imagination with a long tail!” (“Now there,” says Geisel, “is a kid who’s going places!”) “This is the funniest book I ever read in nine years,” a nine-year-old wrote to Seuss. Another wrote about a Seuss book: “All would like it from age 6 to 44 — that’s how old my mother is.” An eight-year-old wrote the letter that Geisel finds most perplexing: “Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals . . . Who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?”
Geisel admits that he thunk up Dr. Seuss with relative ease — Seuss is both his mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. The “Dr.” he lightly assumed in view of his postgraduate pursuit of a doctorate in literature, which he never obtained. The “Dr.” preceding Seuss still bestirs some confusion among those who are uncertain of his profession. Invited to a state dinner at the White House in 1970, Geisel was nonplussed to see himself on the guest list as Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel.
The world of Seussiana, however, he thunk up only by that inexplicably mysterious process from which, over four decades, have flowed such classics as And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who and I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew and on and on and on to his latest, and one of his funniest, There’s a Wocket in My Pocket.
The years have also brought from Seuss such wildly fanciful creatures as the Drum-Tummied Snumm, who can “drum any tune you care to hum,” and Yertle the Turtle and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose and the sneetches and nerkles and nutches, “who live in small caves known as nitches for hutches,” and the Hippo-no-Bungus from Hippono-Hungus, not to mention Mrs. McCave and her 23 sons named Dave and the Tufted Mazurka from the Isle of Yerka and the Scrooge of a beast known as Grinch who very nearly stole Christmas. And, with the Seussian juices turned to fierce invective, in his musical version of The Cat in the Hat, on TV, a goldfish named Karlos K. Krinklebein sings out with soaring, yeasty chunks of language: “I’m a groffulous, griffulous groo. I’m a schoosler! A schminkler! And a poop-poodler, too! I’m a horrendous hobject which nobody loves … I’m untouchable unless you wear antiseptic gloves … I’m a punk! A kartungulous schnunck. Nobody loves me — not one tiny hunk!”
For another slice of Seuss invective, in the award-winning TV production of his How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he has a chorus lash out with: “You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel. Your brain is full of spiders; you’ve got garlic in your soul. Your heart is full of unwashed socks; your soul is full of gunk.” And then the gleefully malevolent topper: “You’re a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!”
The style of his words, as with most writers, reflects the man himself, for inside Ted Geisel there resides a full complement of wry, restlessly impish demons that help him view the world from a special, charmingly eccentric tilt. What is the Seussian wellspring, the source of his ideas? Geisel shrugs. “I get my ideas,” he confides, mischievously, “in a little town near Zybliknov where I spend an occasional weekend.”
With his wife, Audrey, who has a smile that would surely bedazzle a snerkle or a grinch, Geisel lives and works in a pink stucco showplace of a home, once a World War II watchtower atop the highest hill in La Jolla, overlooking the Pacific. The Geisels have no children of their own, and kids, says Geisel, are invariably disappointed when they encounter him in the flesh. A shy man, although not as shy as the legend he has nurtured, Geisel tends to be at his shyest and most uneasy in the presence of children.
“Kids expect Dr. Seuss to be a baggy pants character,” says Geisel. “They expect big whiskers and a nose that lights up. Instead, I come to the door, a normal old poop. Some of the kids say, ‘Go on, you aren’t Dr. Seuss.’ It can be embarrassing. Frankly, I’m terrified of kids in a mass. Individually, some kids are nice, some are little stinkers. But I don’t hold with that nonsense that children are all little angels.”
At 72, still coltish and youthful, Ted Geisel says that he has heightened his pace with age. A late riser, he usually puts in an eight-hour day at the desk and drawing board in his expansive studio, with illustrations for his current project lining the walls. If the work is going well, he may press on for 10 or 12 hours, slowly, meticulously, painfully, and usually into the night. “At night,” he explains, “nobody calls you on the phone and tries to sell you insurance.”
Geisel views himself essentially as a writer who draws. “I’m a writer who throws in the drawings for free,” he says. “The drawing is fun, the writing is murder.” When the words won’t come, Geisel will stare morosely out at the Pacific. And if the creative well turns temporarily to dust, he may topple his lean, 6-foot frame on a nearby couch, groaning and thrashing the air. For every 60 pages of manuscript he deems usable, he hurls at least 500 pages into the wastebasket. Ninety-five percent of his drawings he tosses angrily on the floor. The efforts he would formerly throw away he now dispatches, at the university’s request, to the UCLA library, which also contains the original drawings and manuscripts of most of Seuss’s works.
He bristles at talk of retirement. “People of my age are all retiring,” he says, “which is something I would never want for myself. I’m afraid the average guy enjoys his retirement because he never enjoyed his work. I’ve got more things I want to do now than ever.”
Juggling several careers at once, Geisel laboriously churns out his children’s books — on the wall now were preliminary sketches for three new stories — and he’s an editor of the Beginner’s Books division of Random House. He administers charitable works through his Dr. Seuss Foundation, which provides money for various zoos and scholarships for worthy students and has underwritten the salary of a professor of humanities at his alma mater, Dartmouth. As a relief from the delicate drudgery of authorship, he paints with serious intent.
One of his future projects is the writing of a rock opera, a musical form he finds intriguing. Television also fascinates him, and recently one of the networks presented his animated TV rock musical called “The Hooberbloob Highway.” Geisel says: “Television is the biggest, the most exciting medium there is. I just want to live long enough to do something terrific on TV.” With his television commitments, Geisel must commute frequently by shuttle flight from San Diego to Hollywood. Recently, at the Los Angeles Airport, he was returning home after a working day at the TV studio and a Los Angeles Library Association luncheon at which he was presented a bronzed Flit gun, a vintage device for spraying insects.
Years ago, in the 1930s, Geisel worked in advertising in New York, and he conceived of one of the big promotional slogans of the day, with an accompanying Seussian drawing: “Quick, Henry, the Flit.”
“So I’m at the airport,” Geisel relates, “and the guard says, ‘What’s that you’ve got there?’ I said it was a bronzed Flit gun. ‘A gun?’ he said, ‘You can’t pass through here with a gun in your possession.’ He was about 20 years old and had never heard of Flit. I told him to call the next man in charge, who turned out to be about 25, and he hadn’t heard of Flit, either. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘there must be some old poop in charge here.’ They brought out the supervisor, who was an old poop. ‘Why, that’s a Flit gun,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen one of them in years.’ Then he laughed and sent me on my way.”
Lately, to his bemused astonishment, Geisel has been the target of several women’s lib groups. At once, he says, he began receiving almost identically phrased letters (“with the same words misspelled”) from 15 cities scattered across the country. All complained about a line in his book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937. The story, a testimony to the power of a child’s imagination, dwells on a young boy who walks along Mulberry Street and sees a car and a horse. He continues to imagine other improbable occurrences, but one flight of fantasy he dismisses as too pedestrian. Referring to his little sister, the boy says: “Even Jane could think of it.”
“Suddenly, after all these years, I’m deluged with protests over that one line,” says Geisel. “They say that line will cause boys to grow up feeling superior to their sisters. They demanded that I change the line. I wrote back saying that I agree with some of their goals and I know their request may be well-intentioned. But the boy in my story did feel that way about his sister and I wasn’t about to change a word.”
Another letter brought a similar feminist complaint. It seems that the works of Dr. Seuss had been put through a computer and it was concluded that 99 percent of the animal creatures he drew in them were male. “The woman who wrote to me said this was demeaning and why didn’t I draw females?” says Geisel. “I wrote back that I was ashamed of my oversight but I’ve got this problem — I asked her, did you ever try to draw a female hippo-griff?”
Geisel concedes that he has never had the knack of drawing females of any kind. In 1939, he wrote a humor book for adults called The Seven Lady Godivas. As he recalls, thumbing through the pages, “I tried to draw my Godivas as very sexy babes. But look at them here — they’re neuter and sexless and they have no shape at all.”
On the door to the Geisels’ home is a small printed sign that warns, with typical Seussian waggishness: Beware of the Cat. There are no cats in the Geisel household unless one counts the 400 or so feline specimens in his various paintings. One painting contains 200 faces of cats in a cluster. Geisel calls it appropriately “A Plethora of Cats.” In contrast to another cherished writer-illustrator, the late James Thurber, whose specialty was wistful dogs, Geisel leans to cats, although he admits he has no particular affection for them. “The truth,” he says, “is that I like dogs better than cats but I don’t know how to draw a dog.”
It was a cat drawing, in fact, that led Geisel into a hitherto uncharted area of children’s books. In the mid-1950s, when parents were concerned that Johnny was unable to read, Geisel’s publisher urged him to fill the void with a book for six-year-olds. The story would be limited to a prescribed list of words, all of one syllable. After months of helpless thrashing, Geisel was rummaging through his discarded sketches one day when he saw a drawing of a roguish-looking cat. It was a true Seussian cat, wearing a stovepipe hat. Since both cat and hat were on the word list, and rhymed, Geisel parlayed them into The Cat in the Hat, a comic masterpiece now a supplementary text for first-graders.
Geisel’s feeling for animals can be traced to his boyhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was born of German stock on March 4, 1904. His father’s duties as supervisor of public parks included the overseeing of the city’s zoo. Young Ted and his sister often romped with the animals, and they would listen to animal stories related by their mother.
One incident in his boyhood left Geisel with a permanent dread of audiences. He rejects all invitations to give speeches and he refuses to appear on television talk shows. There is still a haunted look in his eyes as he recalls the day when he was 13 and Theodore Roosevelt came to Springfield to address a World War I bond rally and to present medals to Boy Scouts with the best bond-selling records.
With the other boys, Geisel sat nervously as the names were called out and the medals given. Finally, young Ted was sitting alone with Roosevelt on the platform. Sadly, Ted Geisel’s name had been inadvertently omitted from the list. “I can still hear it now,” Geisel says. “Teddy Roosevelt looking around and asking, ‘What is this little boy doing here?’ And all those eyes from the audience staring right through me, people whispering, ‘Ted Geisel tried to get a medal and he didn’t deserve it.’ I can still hear them saying, ‘What’s he doing there?’ Even today, I sometimes find myself asking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
At Dartmouth, Geisel majored in literature and went on to Oxford for graduate work. His plan was to return to his beloved Dartmouth as a professor. At Oxford, he was chagrined to learn that he knew much less than his fellow British students, and he casually devoted his time to drawing. Subsequently, he spent a year at the University of Vienna and at the Sorbonne. In 1927, he returned to the United States, and his cartoons, with funny two-line captions, began to appear regularly in the top magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post. He chose to sign them “Dr. Seuss.”
“I used to tell myself I used ‘Dr. Seuss’ to save my own name for when I write The Great American Novel,” Geisel says. “What isn’t generally known is that I already wrote my Great American Novel. I wrote it over 40 years ago. It went unpublished and deservedly so. First, I wrote it in two volumes. Then I cut it to one volume, then to a long short story, then a paragraph. In the end, I sold it as a two-line caption for a cartoon.”
While he was involved in the advertising campaign to promote the Flit spray-gun, he learned that his contract specifically forbade outside writing. There was one exception— he could write for children. “It was not through any love of children that I began to write for them,” Geisel says. “It all happened through a loophole in my contract.” Then he wrote and illustrated And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which was turned down by 27 publishers. The 28th was much more perceptive, and the book, by now accepted as a classic, has since appeared in over 20 editions. All of Geisel’s books are printed in a number of foreign languages and enjoy a vast international popularity, from Germany to Brazil to Japan.
In contrast to the heavy-handed sermonizing found in so many children’s stories, the Dr. Seuss tales reveal Geisel as a master of the subtle moral. “It’s impossible to write anything without making some kind of statement,” he insists. His tale of the Star-Belly Sneetches who are snooty to the Plain-Belly Sneetches is clearly a blow at snobbery. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the nasty Grinch makes off with all the presents in Who-ville, but the resourceful Whos celebrate without presents, saying for Seuss: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . means a little more.”
Aside from his Yertle the Turtle, a parable on Hitler, Geisel rarely aims for a moral. Shortly after producing a film documentary on Japan — it brought him one of his three Academy Awards — Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who, wherein the tiny Whos symbolized the Japanese people, humiliated in World War II and searching now for their own kind of democracy. One line from the story: “A person is a person no matter how small.” Another exception was The Lorax, in which he lambasted the spoilers of the land.
Several years ago, Geisel campaigned against what he termed “linguistic untidiness” with a book called Fox in Socks, which included the following tongue twister: “Clocks on fox tick. Clocks on Knox tock. Six sick bricks tick. Six sick chicks tock.” An eminent English professor wrote in admiration: “Peter Piper has picked his last peck of pickled peppers.”
As a craftsman, Geisel has never set out consciously to write for children. He treats his young readers as equals. “Too many writers have only contempt and condescension for children, which is why they give them such degrading corn about bunnies,” Geisel says. “When you write for kids, you can’t lose them for one second. If you don’t take the child forward with each turn of the page you’re cooked. I write for myself at my own level first; then I go back and shorten and simplify the sentences. A kid can understand anything.”
As he looks back on a lifetime of creativity, Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, a perfectionist with every stroke of the pen, sums up the body of his work with characteristic humility. “I just wish it were better,” he says. “But it’s all as good as I could do.” Is there anyone who could have done better, this side of Who-ville, not far from the River Wah-hoo, near the wilds of Hippo-no-Hungus, on the way to Solla Sollew?
The Post featured a number of stories about the great Dr. Seuss. Read more about the man and his work in “The Unforgettable Dr. Seuss.”