A Week to Remember: Dr. Seuss

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Author and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel "Dr. Seuss"

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904. Under the pen name "Dr. Seuss," he would become one of the best known and most beloved of children's book authors. The characters of Dr. Seuss have become part of American culture—the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Sam-I-Am, the kindly elephant Horton, the Lorax—and even after half a century, his books are still a part of learning how to read for most American children.

Geisel adopted the Dr. Seuss name while a student at Dartmouth. He was the editor of Jack-O-Lantern, a campus humor magazine when he was caught drinking on campus. This was during prohibition, so the punishment was particularly severe; Geisel was suspended from all extracurricular activities. In order to continue working for Jack-O-Lantern, he began publishing his material as Dr. Seuss. "Seuss" was his middle name, so it shouldn't have been too difficult for the university to figure out who Dr. Seuss really was, but whether through ignorance or leniency on the part of Dartmouth, he got away with it.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Geisel attended Oxford University, planning to study for a Ph.D. in English literature and become an English teacher. While there, he met Helen Palmer, who would become his first wife; she was impressed by the doodles in his sketchbook and encouraged him to pursue a career in drawing. Geisel left Oxford without a degree and returned to the United States.

His first nationally published cartoon appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927, and from that, he got a position on the staff of the humor magazine Judge, where he continued to publish under the name Dr. Seuss. In 1928, one of his cartoons mentioned Flit, a popular bug spray of the era, and Flit hired Geisel to work on their advertising campaigns. "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became so popular a catchphrase that comedians used it as a punch line, and Geisel drew ads for Flit into the early 1940s.

Between his advertising work and magazine cartooning, Geisel was able to support his family quite well and had time to pursue other creative endeavors. He wrote his first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (e-book | print), in 1936. As Geisel later told the story, the manuscript was rejected by more than 20 publishers, and it was only after he happened to run into a former Dartmouth classmate who worked for Vanguard Press that the book was finally published.

three Dr Seuss book covers

We usually think of Dr. Seuss' books as being written in verse, but his next three books were all in prose—The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (e-book | e-audio | print), The King's Stilts (e-book | print), and The Seven Lady Godivas (print). The last was even more of a departure, as it was written for adults; it did not sell well, in part because of controversy over its (very modest) illustrations of the naked Lady Godivas. Geisel returned to verse, and to children, with Horton Hatches the Egg (e-book | print).

At the beginning of World War II, Geisel turned to political cartooning, appearing regularly in the New York daily newspaper PM; those cartoons are collected in Dr. Seuss Goes to War (e-book | print). Geisel joined the Army in 1943 to make a more direct contribution to the war. He served as a captain in charge of the Animation Department of the US Army Air Force Motion Picture Unit, as an animator and writer of propaganda and military training films. One of those training films, Our Job in Japan, was expanded to a longer documentary, Design for Death, which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Geisel was involved with another Oscar-winning film in 1950, when the award for Best Animated Short Film went to Gerald McBoing-Boing, based on a Seuss story that had been released originally as a children's record.

After the war, the Geisels moved to La Jolla, California, and Geisel returned to writing children's books. In the 1950s, he produced a string of classics, including Horton Hears a Who (e-book | print) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (e-book | print). In 1954, his publisher asked him for a book for beginning readers, one that would be limited to 250 of the most basic vocabulary words; Geisel's response was The Cat in the Hat (e-book | print). That was the first in the series of "Beginner Books" that included Green Eggs and Ham (e-book | print) and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (e-book | print).

Geisel believed that it was a mistake to begin writing a book for children with a moral in mind—"kids can see a moral coming a mile off," he said—but recognized that "there's an inherent moral in any story." Several of his books addressed contemporary political issues in a way that children could understand. How the Grinch Stole Christmas warned about the dangers of commercialization and materialism; The Lorax (e-book | print) was about the importance of protecting the environment; Yertle the Turtle (e-book | print) presented the dangers of authoritarian leaders.

After his 1940s political cartooning, Geisel rarely addressed the adult political world directly but did make one small gesture in 1974. Political humorist Art Buchwald asked permission to publish the text of Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now (e-book | print) in his column, changing each occurrence of the title character's name to "Richard M. Nixon."

In 1980, Geisel received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime contributions to children's literature, and in 1984, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. He published his second, and last, a book for adults in 1986; You're Only Old Once (e-book | print) was described as "a book for obsolete children."

Geisel died on September 24, 1991, of oral cancer. In 1995, the main library at the University of California, San Diego, was renamed the Geisel Library in his honor. And in 2004, the American Library Association created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, given annually to the year's best book for beginning readers.

Also This Week

March 1, 1872

Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation to create Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States. We now have 61 national parks, the newest of which is Indiana Dunes, which was designated a national park on February 15 of this year. In A Weird and Wild Beauty (e-book | print), Erin Peabody chronicles the first explorations of the land that would become Yellowstone, and the history of the legislation that created it as a national park.

February 28, 1939

An editor at Merriam-Webster discovered that the non-word "dord" had accidentally been included in the 1934 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary. The dictionary's chemistry editor had requested that "density" be added to the entry "D or d" as one of the words for which the letter "d" could be an abbreviation; the spaces were somehow removed, and "D or d" became "dord." Kory Stamper explains the challenges of writing a dictionary in Word by Word (e-book | e-audio | print).

February 25, 1949

Jack Handey was born. Handey is a humor writer who wrote for Saturday Night Live in the 1980s and 1990s. He created several recurring characters, including Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Toonces, the Driving Cat. He is probably best remembered for the surreal one-liners presented as "Deep Thoughts." Handey now writes occasionally for The New Yorker, and published his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), in 2013.

March 1, 1969

Javier Bardem was born. Bardem had not planned to become an actor, despite coming from one of Spain's most famous families of actors. He had hoped to become a painter, and only began taking acting jobs to support his painting; eventually, he realized that he was better at acting. He was the first Spanish actor to be nominated for an Academy Award, for Before Night Falls, and the first to win one, for No Country for Old Men. With his third Oscar nomination, for Biutiful, he became the first actor to be nominated for a performance entirely in Spanish.