Today is the birthday (1904) of Theodor Seuss Geisel a U.S. writer and illustrator best known for writing and illustrating popular children’s books under the pen name Dr. Seuss. His work includes several of the most popular children’s books of all time, selling over 600 million copies and being translated into more than 20 languages by the time of his death.
Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Theodor Robert and Henrietta (née Seuss) Geisel. All of his grandparents were German immigrants. His father managed the family brewery and was later appointed to supervise Springfield’s public park system by Mayor John A. Denison after the brewery closed because of Prohibition. Mulberry Street in Springfield was made famous in Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! and is less than a mile southwest of his boyhood home on Fairfield Street.
Geisel attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1925. At Dartmouth, he joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the humor magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, eventually rising to editor-in-chief. While at Dartmouth, he was caught drinking gin with nine friends in his room. At the time, the possession and consumption of alcohol was illegal under Prohibition laws and as a result of this infraction, Dean Craven Laycock insisted that Geisel resign from all extracurricular activities, including the college humor magazine. To continue work on the Jack-O-Lantern without the administration’s knowledge, Geisel began signing his work with the pen name “Seuss”. He was encouraged in his writing by professor of rhetoric W. Benfield Pressey, whom he described as his “big inspiration for writing” at Dartmouth.
Upon graduating from Dartmouth, he entered Lincoln College, Oxford intending to earn a doctorate in English literature. At Oxford, he met Helen Palmer, who encouraged him to give up becoming an English teacher in favor of pursuing drawing as a career. Geisel left Oxford without earning a degree and returned to the United States in February 1927, where he immediately began submitting writings and drawings to magazines, book publishers, and advertising agencies. Making use of his time in Europe, he pitched a series of cartoons called Eminent Europeans to Life magazine, but the magazine passed on it. His first nationally published cartoon appeared in the July 16, 1927 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. This single $25 sale encouraged Geisel to move from Springfield to New York City.
Later that year, Geisel accepted a job as writer and illustrator at the humor magazine Judge, and he felt financially stable enough to marry Helen. His first cartoon for Judge appeared on October 22, 1927, and the Geisels were married on November 29. Geisel’s first work signed “Dr. Seuss” was published in Judge about six months after he started working there.
In early 1928, one of Geisel’s cartoons for Judge mentioned Flit, a common bug spray at the time manufactured by Standard Oil of New Jersey. According to Geisel, the wife of an advertising executive in charge of advertising Flit saw Geisel’s cartoon at a hairdresser’s and urged her husband to sign him. Geisel’s first Flit ad appeared on May 31, 1928, and the campaign continued sporadically until 1941. The campaign’s catchphrase “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” became a part of popular culture. It spawned a song and was used as a punch line for comedians such as Fred Allen and Jack Benny. As Geisel gained notoriety for the Flit campaign, his work was sought after and began to appear regularly in magazines such as Life, Liberty, and Vanity Fair.
In 1936, the couple were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when 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. Based on Geisel’s varied accounts, the book was rejected by between 20 and 43 publishers. According to Geisel, he was walking home to burn the manuscript when a chance encounter with an old Dartmouth classmate led to its publication by Vanguard Press. Geisel wrote four more books before the US entered World War II. This included The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins in 1938, as well as The King’s Stilts and The Seven Lady Godivas in 1939, all of which were in prose, atypically for him. This was followed by Horton Hatches the Egg in 1940, in which Geisel returned to the use of poetry.
As World War II began, Geisel turned to political cartoons, drawing over 400 in two years as editorial cartoonist for the left-leaning New York City daily newspaper, PM. Geisel’s political cartoons, later published in Dr. Seuss Goes to War, denounced Hitler and Mussolini and were highly critical of non-interventionists (“isolationists”), most notably Charles Lindbergh, who opposed US entry into the war. One cartoon depicted all Japanese Americans as latent traitors or fifth-columnists (his moral blind spot which he later recanted after Hiroshima), while other cartoons simultaneously deplored the racism at home against Jews and blacks that harmed the war effort. His cartoons were strongly supportive of President Roosevelt’s handling 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, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Times-Herald), 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 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. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) was based on an original story by Seuss and won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film.
After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla, California where he returned to writing children’s books. He wrote many, including such favorites as If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Horton Hears a Who! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960).
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. William Ellsworth Spaulding was the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin (he later became its chairman), and he compiled a list of 348 words that he felt were important for first-graders to recognize. He asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down”. Nine months later, Geisel completed The Cat in the Hat, using 236 of the words given to him. 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.
Geisel died of oral cancer on September 24, 1991 at his home in La Jolla at the age of 87. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered. On December 1, 1995, four years after his death, University of California, San Diego’s University Library Building was renamed Geisel Library in honor of Geisel and Audrey for the generous contributions that they made to the library and their devotion to improving literacy.
Geisel’s most famous pen name is regularly pronounced /ˈsjuːs/, an anglicized pronunciation inconsistent with his German surname (the standard German pronunciation is [ˈzɔʏ̯s]). He himself noted that it rhymed with “voice” (his own pronunciation being /ˈsɔɪs/). 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.
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.
It’s a no-brainer to choose green eggs and ham as the recipe du jour, but what recipe should I use? Many cooks get away with just putting green food coloring in scrambled eggs. This seems a bit tame for me: not especially appetizing. Also you have to consider how to parse “green eggs and ham.” Geisel’s own illustration suggests it should be “green eggs and green ham,” but the Italian translation follows the usual English understanding “green eggs and regular ham.”
I’ll go with the latter for my recipe. It’s not a vivid green recipe, but it is delicious.
Start by poaching spinach, and crisping some ham (I’m using prosciutto today because I live in Italy).
Beat 2 eggs and add the spinach. Then pour into a hot omelet pan.
Add the ham.
My breakfast this morning — a real change just to honor Dr Seuss. I normally eat leftovers: curry, pasta, fruit or whatever.