Dr. Seuss

 Childhood

Yes, there really was a Dr. Seuss. He was not an official doctor, but his prescription for fun has delighted readers for more than 60 years. Theodor (“Ted”) Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Childhood

Yes, there really was a Dr. Seuss. He was not an official doctor, but his prescription for fun has delighted readers for more than 60 years. Theodor (“Ted”) Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

 

Dartmouth

If you’ve never seen a photograph of Dr. Seuss, you probably picture him as a young child or a grandfatherly gentleman. You may not have considered his robust years as a college student.

Ted attended Dartmouth College and by all accounts was a typical, mischievous college student. According to Judith and Neil Morgan, co-authors of Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel and personal friends of his, “Ted grew to respect the academic discipline he discovered at Dartmouth—not enough to pursue it, but to appreciate those who did.” (Morgan, p. 28) He worked hard to become the editor in chief of Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine.

His reign as editor came to an abrupt end when Ted and his friends were caught throwing a party that did not coincide with school policy. Geisel continued to contribute to Jack o, merely signing his work as “Seuss.” This is the first record of his using the pseudonym Seuss, which was both his middle name and his mother’s maiden name. It was a perfectly innocent pseudonym; it squeaked Ted’s work past unsuspecting college officials, yet clearly identified him as the creator.

Oxford

Graduation from Dartmouth was approaching, and Ted’s father asked the question all college students dread: what was Ted going to do after college?

Ted claimed to have been awarded a fellowship to Oxford University and the elder Geisel reported the news to the Springfield paper, where it was published the following day. Ted confessed the truth—Oxford had denied his fellowship application—and Mr. Geisel, who had a great deal of family pride, managed to scrape together funds to send him anyway. Ted left for Oxford intending to become a professor. (He couldn’t think of anything else to do with an Oxford education). It would be the first of many turning points in his career.

Sitting in his Anglo-Saxon for Beginners class, his doodling caught the eye of a fellow American student named Helen Palmer. Helen suggested that he should become an artist instead of a professor. He took her advice and, eventually, he took her hand in marriage as well.

Publishing

Ted was still contributing to Life, Vanity Fair, Judge, etc., when an editor at Viking Press offered him a contract to illustrate a collection of children’s sayings called Boners. While the book received bland reviews, Ted’s illustrations were championed; he considered the opportunity his first official “big break” in children’s literature, and another turning point in his career. (Morgan, p. 72)

By this time, there was no question that Ted could make a living as an illustrator and cartoonist—but he also enjoyed writing. While traveling on the luxury liner M.S. Kungsholm, Ted became bothered by the rhythm of its engines. At Helen’s urging, he applied the incessant rhythm to his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

Though Mulberry Street is a delightful peek into the vivid imagination of a child, publishers in 1937 were not receptive; in fact, Ted presented his manuscript to 27 publishing houses and received 27 rejections. Discouraged, Ted literally bumped into an old Dartmouth friend who happened to work at Vanguard Press, a division of Houghton Mifflin. His friend offered to show the manuscript and illustrations to key decision-makers. Vanguard wound up publishing Mulberry Street, which was well received by librarians and reviewers.

In an unusual act of sharing an author, Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked Ted to write a children’s primer using 220 new-reader vocabulary words; the end result was The Cat in the Hat. Houghton Mifflin reserved textbook rights and Random House reserved retail trade rights. While schools were hesitant to adopt it as an official primer, children and parents swarmed for copies.

Though Ted’s road to children’s books had many twists and turns, The Cat in the Hat catapulted him from pioneer in children’s literature to definitive children’s book author illustrator, a position he has held unofficially for many decades since.

Posthumous Works

Six books were produced posthumously, all based on Dr. Seuss materials, with one exception: My Many Colored Days was written by Ted himself in 1973, but the text was not discovered until after his death. Many of these posthumous books, such as Daisy-Head Mayzie and My Many Colored Days, were made into animated specials.

New Media Forms

Though Ted was fascinated with computers, he himself never learned to use one. He was certain that they could be used effectively to supplement reading and teaching; the question that remained, however, was how? CD-ROMs were mere blips on technology’s screen at the time of Ted’s death in 1991.

His dream was realized in 1994 when Living Books began producing CD-ROMs of Dr. Seuss books, packaged with smaller book versions of the same titles. Children could follow along, matching words with pictures and recognize words as a result.

Shortly before his death, when Ted was asked if there was anything left unsaid, he pondered the question and finally responded: “The best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: ‘We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this.’” (Morgan, p. 287)

After devoting 53 years to creating entertaining and instructive books, the good Dr. Seuss taught all that he could teach. Theodor Seuss Geisel died on September 24, 1991, at the age of 87. As permanent reminder to the reading public, the final line in Ted’s final book (Oh, the Places You’ll Go!) issues the following charge: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So . . . get on your way!

Bibliography

Cohen, Charles. Personal Interview. August 2001.
Dr. Seuss from Then to Now. San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 1986.
Morgan, Judith & Neil. Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995

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