By Donald E. Pease
Oxford University Press, 2010, 192 pp., $19.95
In 1936, Theodor Seuss Geisel was returning home to the United States from Germany aboard a luxury liner when a ferocious storm began to batter the ship. After passengers were ordered to return to their cabins, Geisel was plagued by memories of the doomed Titanic of 1912. To divert himself, he headed to the ship’s lounge, where he focused on scribbling out lines on ship stationery that were associated with more pleasant memories of his youth. The steady sound of the chugging engine gave him a sense of courage and the anapestic rhythm for his verse—which also matched the cadence of “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”
The images recalled what he had seen as an eight-year old watching a Fourth of July parade in 1912—including a float commemorating the Titanic—going down Mulberry Street in his hometown of Springfield, Massachussetts. But Geisel was already adding his own fantasies to childhood memory: “Chariot pulled by flying cat. Flying cat pulling Viking ship.” For the rest of the trip, Geisel remained fixated on the rhythm of the engine and the memories of Mulberry Street. His wife encouraged him to develop a story line combining the two. The result, published the following year, in 1937, was a book called And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
That book, which came out eleven years after A.A. Milne introduced Winnie the Pooh to readers, would not rival the delicate intelligence or the imaginative nuance of the world’s most popular teddy bear. Nor did it have the psychological impact and mythical grandeur of the European fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. But it marked the beginning of Geisel’s career as an extremely influential author of children’s books now known to generations of children and their parents around the world. This trajectory wasn’t immediate. The Cat in the Hat, for example, Geisel’s best-known book, wasn’t written until two decades later. But it and others like Green Eggs and Ham and Horton Hears a Who are among the most instantly recognizable and beloved titles of the 20th century—a love affair that shows no sign of fading after the first decade of the 21st. It was certainly not surprising that President Obama chose a Dr. Seuss book to be seen reading to his family in the White House garden last Easter.
More than 200 million copes of his books have been sold worldwide. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed 14 of them among the top 100 best-selling hardcover children’s books, with Green Eggs and Ham at number four. His work has been awarded two Oscars, two Emmys and a Peabody, among other awards.
Critics who dismiss the simplistic rhythms and lack of substance or moral content of Cat in the Hat-style children’s books are doomed to remain frustrated. The Seussian view of life will remain appealing, particularly given that books now have to compete with a ubiquitous online world and the inanities of social networking via Facebook and Twitter accounts. Parents will love books, any books, that encourage their young children to learn to read and, more importantly, to like to read. Indeed, the fact that the rhythms of Dr. Seuss books are so unchallenging—and the concepts so nonsensical—only reinforces their appeal for a population ever more attracted to instant gratification, ever more suspicious of authority figures, and ever more repelled by anything that smacks of a challenge, or of work. Simplicity in children’s books is increasingly its own virtue relative to the alternatives. Current fare is no match for A.A. Milne or the Brothers Grimm, true enough, but it certainly beats a constant diet of television or computer games as young brain food.
Now comes Donald E. Pease who in his new biography of Geisel tries to explain the far more complicated character, intellect and life of the man behind the books. He draws on several other biographies and analyses of the Dr. Seuss phenomenon, particularly what he calls the authoritative biography by Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995), which included long interviews with the author. However, he describes his own work as a modest effort to explore the relationship between Dr. Seuss’s art and Geisel’s life. Each chapter is organized around a particular event or work that demonstrates that intertwining. He makes it clear that Geisel’s ability was grounded in a prodigious wit and a love of exaggeration, combined with the melodious nature of rhyme and a wealth of literary knowledge.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 to parents well established at the center of Springfield’s thriving German community. His father, T.R. Geisel, came from a successful brewing family. His mother, Henrietta Seuss, was the daughter of the owner of the Seuss bakery and founding president of the Springfield Turnverein, a club key to German community life in this busy, prosperous town.
It was Henrietta who nurtured her son’s imaginative life as a storyteller and player of language games. She would read him tales in German from the Brothers Grimm and Goethe. She would sing to him the names of the pies she sold in the bakery shop. She would take him to the Springfield zoo, and encouraged his love of scrawling cartoons of fantastical creatures (and their even more fantastical names) on his bedroom walls. The main protagonist for his drawings was a stuffed dog named Theophrastus, given to him by his mother. He kept the dog near his worktable for the rest of his life. He would later say that he thought there was no reason to write about fantasy Never Never Lands when there was a real Never Never Land he knew and understood in his family life in Springfield.
The Great War—and, with it, the outbreak of anti-German sentiment in Springfield—rocked his sense of family security. Young Ted was frequently mocked and assaulted by schoolmates ready to rough up the “Kaiser’s Kid.” The end of the war didn’t end the family’s problems; the advent of Prohibition in 1919 forced the closure of the family brewing business. But by then, Ted Geisel was already finding a level of self-protection in writing and acting at school, assisted by a teacher and Dartmouth graduate, Red Smith. Smith introduced him to the rhymed “Beast Books” of Hillaire Belloc, which would become a lasting inspiration for his own work.
But Geisel’s own Dartmouth career, and the enduring friendships he made there, would prove even more significant. The book’s focus on this period may be influenced by Pease’s own position as a Dartmouth English professor, but Geisel obviously cherished the lifetime association. It was also Mike McClintock, a former Dartmouth classmate and new head of children’s books at Vanguard Press, who agreed to publish And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, after the book had been rejected by many other publishers.
Geisel indeed had good material for Dartmouth nostalgia. He was inexhaustible in his efforts for the Jack-O-Lantern, the college humor magazine, where he loved to make fun of literary and cultural icons with his cartoons. This was not all done with innocent irreverence. At the time, he was willing to draw on racial stereotypes as it suited. Geisel was once denied a fraternity bid because he was thought mistakenly to be Jewish, but rather than sympathize with the victims of prejudice, he joined the mob: He drew another cartoon using Jewish stereotypes as his ticket to admission and acceptance.
But his primary targets, according to Pease, were Prohibition, sex and gin; the subtext of his own life was never too distant. Near the end of his college days in 1925, Geisel was removed from his position as editor of the magazine and barred from contributing to it after an incident involving violation of the liquor laws. Ted was soon submitting cartoons under pseudonyms, finally turning to his middle name as his signature.
His brief time at Oxford, where he travelled in 1925 to study literature, was far less enjoyable. Even for a man who wanted to be a professor of literature and to write the Great American Novel, he found the place stultifying. He preferred to doodle in the margins of his notebook. A fellow student looking over his shoulder told him he had drawn a very fine flying cow, and suggested that he should forget about being a professor and draw instead. Her name was Marian Helen Palmer, a Wellesley graduate. He took her advice, and also made her his wife, collaborator and editor for decades.
After quitting Oxford Geisel started submitting cartoons to various magazines. When the Saturday Evening Post accepted one in 1927, he moved immediately to New York. Through another Dartmouth connection, he started regular cartoon work for a magazine called Judge and added the honorific “Dr.” to make up for the doctorate he hadn’t received from Oxford. He cartooned on many topics, but alcohol continued to be a constant theme, with Dr. Seuss as the comic antagonist of Prohibition and hypocrisy. Once again, he used animals ranging from elephants to turtles, all done with his characteristic exaggerated and phantasmagoric style. One outlandish example included animals from “Goah’s Ark”, as hallucinated by Noah’s dissolute brother Goah.
But booze did not advance his career; bug spray did. Geisel’s big commercial break came via the unlikely route of Standard Oil of New Jersey, then makers of a product called “Flit.” Flit was a mineral-oil-based insecticide first introduced in 1923. Geisel had drawn a drunken knight sprawled across a bed and being menaced by a dragon. The caption had the knight complaining that he had just sprayed the whole castle with Flit. The Standard Oil men loved it. Geisel began a lucrative career creating Flit cartoons while enjoying an amusing social life in ever more fashionable New York apartments.
Nonetheless, Geisel became increasingly drawn to writing children’s books, so well suited were they to his love of fantasy. After the modest success of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, he wrote The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins in 1938. This book had both a happy ending and a moral message about the value of democracy. It was dedicated to the imaginary child Chrysanthemum Pearl, created to help make up for the children the Geisels could not have.
The royalties from this and subsequent children’s books like Horton Hatches The Egg weren’t enough to pay the rent, however. And by then Geisel had become preoccupied with a much more sobering topic: He started drawing political cartoons for a Popular Front newspaper called PM. This time his targets were American isolationism and the evils of Nazism and Fascism. In this work he also made amends for the anti-Semitism and racism of some of his earlier cartoons. But he wasn’t entirely cured of bigotry, it turns out; in 1941–42 he drew some very nasty anti-Japanese cartoons in support of the Roosevelt Administration’s concentration camps for American citizens of Japanese descent. One of them featured a Japanese saboteur disguised as a shopper.
By 1942, too, Newsweek was describing Geisel’s satire as “razor sharp.” In 1943, aged 39, he applied to join the military and was assigned to the Education and Information Division, with a commission in Frank Capra’s unit that was run out of a Hollywood studio. It was known as Fort Fox and its members included writers like Irving Wallace, John Cheever, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw and Lillian Hellman. Typically, Geisel used humor to get his messages across, including helping produce the animated cartoon Private SNAFU.
By war’s end, however, he was confused about which direction his career should take. Jack Warner offered him a $500 contract to work on the script of Rebel Without a Cause, but he resigned after a few months because of his aversion to working with a committee of screenwriters. In the aftermath of the war, he was also coming to realize that writing for children might be the most effective way to start political education and an intelligent appreciation of life when it most mattered. Not that he admired what Pease describes as “sugar-coated and condescending tales fostered by adult sentimentality.” In a 1947 writers’ seminar, Geisel said the best children’s stories were those that addressed children’s seven basic needs: love, security, belonging, achievement, knowledge, change and aesthetics. “They want fun. They want play. They want nonsense”, he insisted. He also declared there had to be a logic in the way an author kidded children, a concept of plausible nonsense. He called his method of manipulating everything, but in a way that appeared reasonable to a skeptical audience of children, “logical insanity.”
By 1952, he wrote that children made a better audience for “maverick humorists” than adults because there was no political or social pressure gauge for humor, no being hemmed in by regulations or by perceived levels of advantage or inferiority or prejudice. He was no longer interested in writing aggressive satire. Instead, he wanted to expand and delight the minds and imaginations of his young audiences. He got them to participate in his plausible nonsense via a child narrator facing a challenge from an adult.
Pease describes Geisel’s construct of logical insanity with a line from the eighth book he wrote between 1947 and 1956, On Beyond Zebra: “In the places I go there are things that I see/That I never could spell if I stopped with a Z.” Logical insanity included trying to educate children in the complexities of democracy and respect for others. The well-known maxim of Horton the elephant is, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Such formulations led to a growing audience enthused about the impact of Geisel’s social messages.
Yet it was a seemingly absurd challenge that led Geisel to his most iconic success as a children’s author. William Spaulding, who met Geisel at Fort Fox, challenged him to write a primer of no more than 225 unique words selected from a list of 348. Geisel accepted the challenge and in 1957 Random House published The Cat in the Hat. It was an instant and incredibly popular counter to the blandness of the traditional American Dick and Jane primers. Within three years, The Cat in the Hat had sold nearly a million copies, and its rhymes and demand for attention—Look at Me!—became instantly recognizable in playgrounds in many countries (most of them English-speaking, naturally enough, but Seuss has since been translated into 15 languages, including Japanese. Chinese, French and Swedish).
How the Grinch Stole Christmas quickly followed, with Dr. Seuss turning out a series of titles for children that had strong social content under the title of Big Books. But it was another nonsensical Beginner Book that solidified Geisel’s status. Green Eggs and Ham had to follow even tighter and more ridiculous restrictions than The Cat in the Hat. Publisher Bennett Cerf bet Geisel $50 he couldn’t write a book with fewer than 50 words and make six-year olds want to learn to read all by themselves. Cerf was happy to pay up.
In contrast to his professional life, the Geisels’ long collaboration was not going so well. Helen had developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which returned in 1964. Geisel distanced himself and his work from his wife and her illness and began a relationship with a family friend, Audrey Stone Dimond, a married woman with two daughters. In 1967, Helen committed suicide. “Sometimes think of the fun we had all through the years”, she wrote in her last note.
Geisel married a freshly divorced Audrey within the year. The second marriage also signalled a change in the direction of his work, after Audrey told him he was writing for humanity, not just for children. His books from then on incorporated an appeal to the child in the adult reader. Two of them, The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book, took on issues like pollution and nuclear weapons. The latter book irritated some, who sniffed the rot of moral equivalence in it. Geisel’s politics, after all, seemed about as weighted with reality as his cartoons. In any event, none of his later children’s books could compete with The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham for sheer popularity.
By 1989, knowing his cancer was spreading, Geisel began work on his final book: Oh the Places You’ll Go. It was another reference to his days at Dartmouth, when the phrase doubled as the equivalent of a handshake. In the biography, Pease circles the author back to the beginning, describing a child setting out on a journey that will show him sights even more wondrous than those on Mulberry Street. Geisel had wanted his last words to be those of the book: “We can and we must do better than this!” Instead, they were Geisel’s request to his step-daughter to take care of Theophrastus.