If you were raised anytime in the last sixty years or so, Theodore Seuss Geisel wrote at least one book that you demanded be repeatedly read to you, and that may have actually been the first book you ever read yourself after your parents plead with you for the love of God to please find another friggin’ book for once. But you prevailed, and once again you heard about how Sylverster McMonkey McBean had built a most curious machine to take the stars off those douchecanoe Sneetches’ bellies so they could feel superior to the other Sneetches and other them into the dark of the beaches.
Geisel lived an interesting life in interesting times, in all the ways that proverb can be imagined. Born in Massachusetts just after the turn of the century, he went to Dartmouth College. While there, he edited the school’s somewhat underground humor magazine and joined a fraternity. It was during Prohibition, so when he got caught drinking illegal gin in his room with nine friends (remember the frat?) he was arrested and sent to federal prison. (He did not like the nine-foot cell, he did not like it, Sam-I-am.) Actually no, remember this was during college, so the dean told him he was barred from any extra-curricular activities, including the magazine. Instead of doing what he was told, he continued to write and edit under the pen name “Seuss.” Which, by the way, was how his German family name pronounced “SZOY-ess.”
After graduating from Dartmouth, Geisel went to Oxford with the intention of getting his PhD and becoming a teacher. But then he met Helen Palmer, whom he later was to marry, and she urged him to do something with the many drawings that filled his notebooks, so he quit school and moved back home and started to send out his drawings and stories to publishers and magazines. After making his first sale, he decided to move to New York and marry Helen, who also later became a successful children’s book writer. Over the next several years, Geisel wrote and illustrated for magazines, advertising agencies, and had his own comic strip. He and Helen also enjoyed traveling, and it was on one of those trips that he was sailing back from Europe and heard the sound of the ship’s engines. It inspired him to write his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Apparently, the engines hummed in anapestic tetrameter.
Because, of course, the book that launched the career of arguably the most successful children’s author in history would need to be rejected by a publisher or two, Geisel became frustrated as he sent it out and received rejection slip after rejection slip. After the forty-third rejection, he was walking home, thinking that he would just burn the manuscript when he got there. But, during the walk, he bumped into an old friend from college, who happened to be an editor for a publisher, and after a few edits it was published. It has been in print for eighty years, inspired a concerto, and an animated adaptation of the book was nominated for an Academy Award.
So started a career, both varied and long. With books and more books and movies and song. Two Emmys, Two Oscars, a Pulitzer too; a Peabody, many Caldecotts, awards up the wazoo. The themes of his books were hidden but profound; teaching lessons to kids with rhythm and sound. From the racism of Sneetches, and how it seems so deranged; to The Lorax who warns of threatened climate change. In sixty-five languages, even Latin you see; hundreds of millions of Suess books would be.
(Sorry I lapsed into his style for a second there, it won’t happen again.)
Geisel was a complex person, filled with contradictions. He warned of the danger of Hitler in his political cartoons years before it became common to do so, and he was particularly savage about the America First group that favored appeasement and isolationism. During the war, he was also a rare voice lamenting the treatment of Jews in Europe, and the prejudice against African-Americans in war jobs and racism in society. But he also approved of the Japanese internment and drew horrible racist stereotypes of them, implying that they were all potential traitors and saboteurs. Both How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and The Lorax warn of rampant consumerism and its effect on society, but he also worked in advertising for many different companies. He wrote The Cat in the Hat on a bet that he could not write a book using less than 250 words, and he finished it at 236. He never wanted children, yet he taught millions of them to read. He was married to his first wife for forty years, yet he carried on a long-term affair with the woman who would become his second wife that lasted until his first wife committed suicide after being diagnosed with cancer. His instantly recognizable characters were absurd and fantastic, but his themes and the reality in which he placed them were universal and easily relatable.
Personally, I think Geisel’s legacy should be the joy he brought to so many children, and the efforts he made to ensure that they would learn to read and become lifelong lovers of books. I have had two near brushes with him, the first when a friend of mine showed me his house in La Jolla, where he had gone trick-or-treating only to find that nobody would answer the door to give them candy, and the second when I had a college job processing quarterly tax checks for the IRS on the graveyard shift. I was about halfway through the mind-numbingly boring work one night when I opened a pack of checks and forms to find that there was a check there from Theodore and Audrey Geisel for quarterly taxes in the amount of $888,888.00. I remember being disappointed that the check was a boring plain blue, rather than being fantastically colored with strange creatures on it, and that it was from the Bank of America, rather than the Elebendyth Bank of Wizammer Wazoo. His signature was plain and easily readable.
Every year, I would be thrilled when Christmas came around and I could watch The Grinch, and repeat all the lines, and wish that I too, would receive a giant Electro Whocarnio Flook to play loud music on as I rode it around the room with five of my friends.
Have a birthday to savor, Dr. Seuss, wherever you are.
Books Benches, Dr Seuss by Martin Pettitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License