If you say “Dr. Seuss” to anyone my age (baby boomer) or younger, what will likely spring to mind is the cover of a book that will have simplistic, silly wording and wildly whimsical drawing. Probably The Cat in the Hat, for starters.
Then again, younger people these days may tend to think of a Seussified movie first, starring the Lorax or Horton.
But actually, Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, didn’t start out as a children’s book writer at all. And from what I can tell, most folks are unaware of his earlier work. So here’s a quick little overview of his career.
First off, there’s that “Dr. Seuss” thing. While in college at Dartmouth in the early 1920s, he had become editor-in-chief of the college humor magazine. But after being caught in a gin-drinking escapade (during prohibition…) he was forced by the college’s dean to quit all his extracurricular activities. In order to stay under the dean’s radar and keep working on the magazine, he gave himself the pseudonym “Seuss,” his mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. He later added the “Dr.” in recognition of his dad’s hope he would get a PhD.
He never did get that PhD, as he dropped out of his English PhD program at Oxford in 1925 before finishing. He did, however, earn several honorary doctorates much later for his literary career.
Geisel’s art career took off shortly after he left college. His first nationally-published cartoon earned him $25 from the Saturday Evening Post in 1927. He soon found work as a writer and illustrator for a popular humor magazine of the time, Judge, and began using his “Dr. Seuss” alias regularly from then on.
The real money wasn’t in humor magazines at the time, though…it was in the advertising industry. And thus Dr. Seuss soon found additional work that provided him a profitable income through doing ads for the Standard Oil Company. Particularly popular was an advertizing campaign for the company’s bug spray, Flit.
During this period he tried his hand at a syndicated comic strip aimed at all ages. The 1935 strip, running only on Sundays in the colored comic section, was quite innovative for the time, and very whimsical. But it only lasted for three months.
In the last few years before WW2, Geisel began accumulating kudos for a fledgling career in writing aimed directly at children. This included several books:
And then there was THIS one … I’m suspicious it hasn’t been “reissued” in quite a few years. Even though nudity is much more prevalent now, one doesn’t usually expect so much of it right on the cover of a children’s book! (Actually, this is very tame compared to the nudity and other R-rated content in some of the WW2-era animated films Seuss was involved in producing as appealing training films “for the troops”!)
And then came WW2. Early in the war Seuss was working at the New York PM newspaper, particularly doing editorial cartoons. Some of these had to do with somewhat partisan political issues (the paper was “pro-Roosevelt,” leaning toward the Democratic party), but many were just out-and-out “patriotic,” encouraging support of the US war effort. He particularly took out frustration in some of the cartoons on “isolationists” such as Charles Lindbergh who advocated that the US “stay out of the war.” A position that became moot, of course, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, Geisel turned his energies to direct support of the U.S. war effort. First, he worked drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board.
Then, in 1943, he joined the Army as a Captain and was commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, where he wrote films that included Your Job in Germany, a 1945 propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II; Our Job in Japan, and the Private Snafu series of adult army training films.
While in the Army, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Our Job in Japan became the basis for the commercially released film, Design for Death (1947), a study of Japanese culture that won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. [Wiki:Geisel]
Geisel was adamantly against racism when it applied to African Americans and Jews in America during the war years.
But he was surprisingly “hard-line” when it came to treatment of Japanese Americans, supporting the idea of internment camps because of the alleged danger than many would be “collaborators” with the Japanese homeland. (By war’s end, this was proven to be an unfounded concern.)
Geisel supported the Japanese American internment during World War II. His treatment of the Japanese and of Japanese Americans, between whom he often failed to differentiate, has struck many readers as a moral blind spot.
On the issue of the Japanese, he is quoted as saying:
“But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.” —Theodor Geisel, quoted in Dr. Seuss Goes to War by Richard H. Minear
But he changed his attitude later.
After the war, though, Geisel overcame his feelings of animosity, using his book Horton Hears a Who! (1954) as an allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan, as well as dedicating the book to a Japanese friend. [ibid]
[Geisel began work on Horton Hears a Who! in the fall of 1953. The book’s main theme, “a person’s a person no matter how small”, was Geisel’s reaction to his visit to Japan, where the importance of the individual was an exciting new concept. Wiki: Horton Hears a Who]
After the war, he continued writing children’s books, and even a movie. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), based on a Seuss story, won an Oscar in the Animated Short Film category.
But it was a turn of events in 1954 that catapulted Dr. Seuss to his greatest fame as a children’s writer.
In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.”
Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.
The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books written for young children achieved significant international success and they remain very popular today. In 2009, ‘Green Eggs and Ham sold 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat sold 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) sold 409,068 copies—outselling the majority of newly published children’s books. [Wiki: Geisel]
Geisel went on to write many other children’s books, both in his new simplified-vocabulary manner (sold as Beginner Books) and in his older, more elaborate style.
Geisel received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the professional children’s librarians in 1980, recognizing his “substantial and lasting contributions to children’s literature”. At the time it was awarded every five years. He won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984 citing his “contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
About that pseudonym again…I only learned today that I’ve been pronouncing his name incorrectly all along.
Geisel’s most famous pen name is regularly pronounced [sooce] an anglicized pronunciation inconsistent with his German surname (the standard German pronunciation is [zoice] .) He himself noted that it rhymed with “voice” (his own pronunciation being [soice].) Alexander Liang, one of his collaborators on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, wrote of it:
You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice (or Zoice)
But it turns out that I am OK … almost everyone else has mispronounced it for 75 years or so, and Geisel himself eventually just gave up and started using the mispronunciation too!
Geisel switched to the anglicized pronunciation because it “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose” and because most people used this pronunciation.
My own daughter had a growing set of “Beginner Books” herself back in the 1970s. They were commonly sold in “subscription” form, with a new one coming to your mailbox every month or two. There were a wide variety of authors and illustrators, including Dr. Seuss. And someone named Theo LeSeig.
It was a while before I realized who LeSeig was. Duh.
For books that Geisel wrote and others illustrated, he used the pen name “Theo LeSieg”, starting with I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, published in 1965. “LeSieg” is “Geisel” spelled backward.
So how many children and grandchildren did this beloved author of children’s books have?
Though he devoted most of his life to writing children’s books, Geisel had no children of his own. He would say, when asked about this, “You have ’em; I’ll entertain ’em.”
Which he continues to do to this day.