Theodor SEUSS Geisel
Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 111/112.]
Ah, Dr. Seuss. Every knows his lines: “A person’s a person no matter how small” (Horton Hears a Who); “And the turtles, of course . . . all the turtles are free / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be” (Yertle the Turtle, orig. ellipsis)—as well as less morally intended statements: “I do not like green eggs and ham! / I do not like them, Sam-I-Am!” (Green Eggs and Ham).
Since Theodor Geisel died in 1991, a number of books, M.A. theses, and articles have been published about him—in fact, the first book appeared in 1988. Pease’s book is intended to be relatively short, biographical, more concerned with content than artistry; but it reprints (in black and white) forty-seven of Dr. Seuss’s drawings and offers some analysis of the poems and stories—particularly of plot patterns. Pease has used well Seuss’s archive at the University of California at San Diego—often cited in the endnotes.
The book begins with Geisel’s rough voyage back across the Atlantic in 1936 (via ship, of course), returning from a visit to Germany, when he began jotting notes that resulted in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), his first book for children. Pease reads this partly in terms of Geisel’s home town, Springfield, Massachusetts, since that has its Mulberry Street, but also in terms of Geisel’s family—a fact-minded father (in the poem) and a fantasy-encouraging mother (not in the book). (The facts and fantasies in the early days were in terms of Geisel’s drawings of zoo animals.)
When Geisel published the poem, he already had a background of writing, art, and humor. Due to the pre-World War I anti-German sentiments, while he was nine years old, kids threw stones at him as he was walking to and from school. By the time he was in high school, he was compensating by playing the jokester—appearing in a minstrel show he wrote, and providing art and jokes for the weekly school newspaper. After the war, the family business—a brewery—was closed during Prohibition, and the family’s financial status fell.
Geisel continued this role at Dartmouth College. When, in his senior year, he was barred from contributing to the Dartmouth humor magazine (and was removed as editor) for an alcoholic party during Prohibition, Geisel began contributing under pseudonyms, including that of his middle name, Seuss (not yet Dr. Seuss). After Dartmouith, he attended Oxford University (Lincoln College) for one year. Pease mentions Geisel attending a “class on Anglo-Saxon for beginners” in 1925-26. Tolkien was elected to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford on 21 July 1925. Tolkien taught at both Leeds and Oxford during the Michaelmas Term (October-December). Obviously “Anglo-Saxon for beginners” was not a job for a professor, but it would be nice to think that Geisel attended some of the new professor’s lectures. (Pease, of course, does not digress onto such matters.)
Geisel met his first wife, Marian Palmer, at Oxford (she was an American). She encouraged his life as an artist, and after their marriage they collaborated on all of his work until her first attack of Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1954. (After that he seems to have feared depending on her because she might get ill again and not be able to help him. Instead, a few years later, he put her in charge of the Beginners’ Books series that he had started with The Cat in the Hat, dealing with the other authors and their works.)
The period of Geisel’s first marriage was the best part of his career. He had begun as a cartoonist and gag-man, appearing in (first) Saturday Evening Post and (soon) regularly in Judge, a humor magazine something like The New Yorker in the period. It was in Judge that “Dr.” was first added to “Seuss.” After their marriage, Geisel chanced upon a commercial job, producing “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” cartoons for the Flit Product Division of Standard Oil, in the years 1928-1938, 1940-1941. His sales to magazines went up with his commercial recognition. The children’s books were at first side-lines, although appearing once every year—the Mulberry Street rhyme and then, in 1938, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and, in 1939, The King’s Stilts—both in prose with clear morals. The adult-aimed Seven Lady Godivas (also 1939), like The King’s Stilts, had poor sales. But then in 1940 came Horton Hatches an Egg. Pease indicates that it was Helen who got Horton out of the tree and who wrote the climactic couplet.
In 1941 came World War II—and Geisel’s commercial writing was put on hold. He drew political cartoons for PM, and, volunteering for the Army in 1943 at the age of 39, he was assigned to a Hollywood-centered Information and Education Division, making newsreels for the armed services, which included animated cartoons. (He managed to end up behind German lines in Europe for a few days, but he was not at the front to fight.) Helen provided their primary income during the war by writing books for Disney and Golden Books.
Then, after the war, after a brief scattering of efforts, Geisel turned to children’s books. Pease writes of a Springfield cycle of three new books that related to And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Eight books, in toto, appeared between 1947 and 1956, including Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (1948), which Pease sees as one of the two tied (indirectly) to war.
Pease sets up a complicated pattern in the early ‘50s. He reports, correctly, that Geisel did not give up advertising and movies, along with children’s books, until 1953, after the failure of a movie that was reshaped by producers. In 1954 came Helen’s illness. If I Ran the Circus (1956), the last of the Springfield cycle, Pease says, is the first of Seuss’s children’s books to have “an adult onlooker as a participant” in the fantasy. And, then, in 1957 came The Cat in the Hat. Pease provides an elaborate discussion of the book, comparing and contrasting it to Geisel’s previous work; but for this Society it is enough to say that the Cat in the Hat is a trickster figure.
The next years went well for Geisel. He published seven books for older children, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), Yertle the Turtle (1958), and The Sneetches (1961); and such books for younger readers as Green Eggs and Ham (1960) and for pre-readers Hop on Pop (1963). But in 1964 Helen’s Guillain-Barré syndrome returned, and she committed suicide in 1967.
Geisel remarried the next year, and Audrey—who divorced in order to marry him, and who brought her two daughters with her—proved even better than Helen at their finances, but she may have helped cause a shift by telling him that he wrote for humanity, not just for children. Pease points to the adults who influence the resolutions of the new books: the Once-ler in The Lorax (1971), the old man’s song in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (1973), the grandfather in the unresolved Butter Battle Book (1984), and the narrator in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990). This increased use of the significant adult is prepared for by Pease’s earlier comment on If I Ran the Circus.
One flaw in Pease’s book, at this point, is that he limits “Dr. Seuss” to the books bearing that name. (Probably Pease simply did not have space to give to the others because of the Life and Legacy word restrictions.) Geisel also wrote (but did not illustrate) thirteen books under the name of Theo. LeSieg and one book under the name of Rosetta Stone. But another one of these non-Seuss books is important here: the anonymous Gerald McBoing Boing (1952), two years before If I Ran the Circus. Gerald McBoing Boing first appeared as a U.P.A. cartoon in 1950, winning an Academy Award—which brings it back to four years before If I Ran the Circus. Pease mentions this film briefly (90), but not its book version (with Mel Crawford’s illustrations based on the animated cartoon’s style). The verse begins:
This is the story of Gerald McCloy
And the strange thing that happened to that little boy.
They say it all started when Gerald was two—
That’s the age boys start talking—least, most of them do.
Well, when he started talking, you know what he said?
He didn’t talk words—he went Boing boing! instead.
Gerald goes through one rejection after another, and then, when he’s ready to hop a freight train, he is stopped by a man with a white moustache and white hair, with a three-bar xylophone, who owns “the Bong-bong-bong Radio Station” (obviously NBC, given NBC’s use of three tones). The adult hires him to be a one-person sound-effects provider for radio shows. Success follows. But the point is that the resolution is provided by an adult—an adult ex machina, so to speak. Geisel had started moving in that direction before Helen’s first attack of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The book by Pease is, given its intent to be a fairly short introduction to Geisel’s life and legacy, well done. He mentions the “authoritative” biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, by Judith and Neal Morgan (1995); they are cited sixty-seven times in the endnotes. He quotes from Geisel’s writings about children’s literature, which reveal different types of didactic intent. Perhaps the humor could have been treated more fully, but humor is notoriously difficult to discuss; at least Pease shows that it began as a defense mechanism, as a disguise. In the early years of writing, it was perhaps a commercial device (as in the offerings to Judge). But it also became an ingrained habit at some point. No doubt it is hard to say fully what the humor became. Also, this reviewer would have liked to have known more about Geisel’s membership in the Lutheran Church—how often did he go as an adult? But Pease’s book is very good for its length, with a satisfactory index at the back; it accomplishes its purposes.