24 March, 2009
Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Theodor Seuss Geisel was an American writer and cartoonist, most widely known for his children's books written under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. He published over 60 children's books, which were often characterized by imaginative characters, rhyme, and frequent use of trisyllabic meter. His most celebrated books include the bestselling Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Numerous adaptations of his work have been created, including eleven television specials, three feature films, and a Broadway musical.
Geisel also worked as an illustrator for advertising campaigns, most notably for Flit and Standard Oil, and as a political cartoonist for PM, a New York City newspaper. During World War II, he worked in an animation department of the U.S Army, where he wrote Design for Death, a film that later won the 1947 Academy Award for Documentary Feature.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts to Henrietta Seuss and Theodor Robert Geisel. His father, the son of German immigrants, managed the family brewery and after Theodor was married, supervised Springfield's public park system. Geisel was raised in the Lutheran faith and remained a member of the denomination his entire life. Geisel attended Springfield's Central High School and entered Dartmouth College in fall 1921 as a member of the Class of 1925. At Dartmouth, Geisel joined the humor magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, eventually rising to the rank of editor-in-chief. While at Dartmouth, Geisel was caught throwing a drinking party, violating national Prohibition laws of the time. As a result, the school insisted that he resign from all extracurricular activities. In order to continue his work on the Jack-O-Lantern without the administration's knowledge, Geisel began signing his work with the pen name "Seuss"; his first work signed as "Dr. Seuss" appeared after he graduated, six months into his work for humor magazine The Judge where his weekly feature Birdsies and Beasties appeared. At Dartmouth he was encouraged in his writing by professor of rhetoric W. Benfield Pressey, a beloved teacher who took a keen interest in Geisel's emerging talent.
After Dartmouth, he entered Lincoln College, Oxford, intending to earn a D.Phil in literature. At Oxford he met his future wife Helen Palmer; he married her in 1927, and returned to the United States without earning the degree. The "Dr." in his pen name is an acknowledgment of his father's unfulfilled hopes that Geisel would earn a doctorate at Oxford.
He began submitting humorous articles and illustrations to Judge, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Vanity Fair, and Liberty. One notable "Technocracy Number" made fun of the Technocracy movement and featured satirical rhymes at the expense of Frederick Soddy. He became nationally famous from his advertisements for Flit, a common insecticide at the time. His slogan, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became a popular catchphrase. Geisel supported himself and his wife through the Great Depression by drawing advertising for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and many other companies. He also wrote and drew a short-lived comic strip called Hejji in 1935.
In 1937, while Geisel was returning from an ocean voyage to Europe, the rhythm of the ship's engines inspired the poem that became his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Geisel wrote three more children's books before World War II, two of which are, atypically for him, in prose.
As World War II began, Geisel turned to political cartoons, drawing over 400 in two years as editorial cartoonist for the left-wing New York City daily newspaper, PM. Geisel's political cartoons, later published in Dr. Seuss Goes to War, opposed the viciousness of Hitler and Mussolini and were highly critical of isolationists, most notably Charles Lindbergh, who opposed American entry into the war. One cartoon depicted all Japanese Americans as latent traitors or fifth-columnists, while at the same time other cartoons deplored the racism at home against Jews and blacks that harmed the war effort. His cartoons were strongly supportive of President Roosevelt's conduct of the war, combining the usual exhortations to ration and contribute to the war effort with frequent attacks on Congress (especially the Republican Party), parts of the press (such as the New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune), and others for criticism of Roosevelt, criticism of aid to the Soviet Union, investigation of suspected Communists, and other offenses that he depicted as leading to disunity and helping the Nazis, intentionally or inadvertently.
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 and was commander of the Animation Dept 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. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), which was based on an original story by Seuss, won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film.
After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla, California. Returning to children's books, he wrote what many consider to be his finest works, including such favorites as If I Ran the Zoo, (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957). Although he received numerous awards throughout his career, Geisel won neither the Caldecott Medal nor the Newbery Medal. Three of his titles from this period were, however, chosen as Caldecott runners-up (now referred to as Caldecott Honor books): McElligot's Pool (1947), Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), and If I Ran the Zoo (1950).
At the same time, an important development occurred that influenced much of Geisel's later work. 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, Geisel's publisher made up a list of 348 words he felt were important and asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. This book was a tour de force —it retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel's earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary could be read by beginning readers. These books achieved significant international success and they remain very popular.
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. In 1982 Geisel wrote Hunches in Bunches. The Beginner Books were not easy for Geisel, and reportedly he labored for months crafting them.
At various times Geisel also wrote books for adults that used the same style of verse and pictures: The Seven Lady Godivas; Oh, The Places You'll Go!; and You're Only Old Once.
Though he devoted most of his life to writing children's books, Geisel never had any children himself.
Geisel died, following several years of illness, in San Diego, California on September 24, 1991. His ashes were scattered after he was cremated.