“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”
Immortal words from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Seuss (his mother’s maiden name) Geisel. My kids are in their 20s and I have not actually read a Dr. Seuss book in quite some time, but my interest in his life and love of his work were happily renewed when I read Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones.
“I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” (You can guess what book that’s from.)
I grew up assuming that everyone had read Dr. Seuss books since the beginning of time. His books were part of the culture, a necessary step in your childhood, and when you had kids, you read Dr. Seuss books to them. In fact Geisel was born in 1904, and his first book was published 80 years ago.
It was interesting to learn that Geisel was not an overnight success. He went to Dartmouth and was a mediocre student. Fellow members at a Dartmouth social society unanimously voted him Least Likely to Succeed. He entered a doctoral program at Oxford and dropped out.
Geisel initially made his living in the advertising business, beginning with a highly successful campaign to promote Standard Oil’s insecticide Flit. His tagline, “Quick, Henry! The Flit!” was, in its time, as universally accepted as “America runs on Dunkin’ and “It’s finger lickin’ good.” The copy was accompanied by drawings of creatures who foreshadowed those of his books.
“ASAP. Whatever that means. It must mean, ‘Act swiftly awesome pacyderm!” (From Horton Hears a Who)
He was also a political cartoonist and served in the Army during World War II where his artistic and humor skills enhanced publications used to train soldiers. During his stint in the filmmaking unit of the Signal Corps he worked with famed film director and multi-Oscar winner Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace.). They produced films teaching Army grunts to protect themselves from the enemy and from disease. Geisel’s instructional cartoons featuring Private Snafu (feel free to look up the origin of the name) were very popular with the soldiers.
In some ways Geisel felt that children’s literature, which he called “brat books,” was a comedown from books for grownups. But who cares? His books are still a joy to read and simply must be read out loud. He did see his books as part of a personal campaign against the dreary Dick and Jane readers of his day. He wrote over 40 books, which sold over 222 million copies, which have been translated into more than 15 languages. I was please to discover that he invented the word “nerd.”
Dr. Seuss’s rhymes seem so perfect, you could delude yourself into thinking that he wrote with ease, although those of us who write know it seldom flows like water. In reality he worked hard to perfect his writing, rhyming and illustrating, in some cases agonizing over the rhymes which, to us, seem effortless. Which, is of course, a sign of great writing.
“And that is a story that no one can beat, When I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street.” (From his first book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937. )
After finishing the biography, I simply had to visit the Dr. Seuss Museum and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in his native Springfield, Massachusetts, about an hour and a half from where we live. Sculptor and Seuss stepdaughter Lark Grey Dimond-Cates created the bronze sculptures of many Seuss characters, which seem to dance through the garden. The museum includes interactive exhibits with opportunities for kids — and adults like myself, who revel in their immaturity — to experiment with new sounds and vocabulary, play rhyming games, and invent stories. There are lifelike, if you will, full-color sculptures of characters throughout the building. I took tons of pictures and sent to friends photos of myself sitting next to the Cat in the Hat and my husband next to a pile of turtles all under Yertle.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” From Oh, The Places You’ll Go! This was his last book, which I bought for a friend when she finished her social work degree. Apparently it was often bought by adults for other adults.
Some of the exhibits were put together by both of his stepdaughters and his great nephew. This includes a recreation of his studio and living room, including furniture and art materials from his home/studio in La Jolla, California, along with his artwork, family photos and letters. Not to be left out is Theophrastus, the beloved stuffed dog Geisel’s mother gave him when he was a child.
Now I want to borrow a child and reread all of Dr. Seuss. Or maybe I’ll just curl up with my cat, who doesn’t wear a hat, and read them aloud to him.
“I led him around and I tried hard to show, There are things beyond Z that most people don’t know. I took him past Zebra. As far as I could. And I think, perhaps, maybe I did him some good…” (On Beyond Zebra)
— Ann Green
Ann Green is a freelance writer, editor, PR consultant and tutor.