Dr. Seuss was born Theodore Seuss Geisel, the only son of Theodor Robert and Henrietta Seuss, on March 2, 1904. He grew up in the German-American town of Springfield, MA, where his father struggled to rise up through the ranks of the family’s brewing company.
As a boy, Geisel had to deal with three major obstacles within the changing face of his New England neighborhood: the threat of World War I, growing anti-German feelings, and the proposed Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite these early obstacles, Ted was a popular classmate and as a senior in high school was voted ‘Class Artist and Class Wit’, a foreshadowing of things to come.
Upon his graduation, Geisel went to Dartmouth in 1921. He entered with a major in English, but soon began spending most of his time working on the humor magazine,
, as editor and contributing writer. He quickly made a name for himself among his fellow students and professors alike through his satirical cartoons and humorous essays. In the fall of 1925, Geisel continued his academic pursuits as a doctoral student of literature at Oxford. Although planning to become a college professor of English, Geisel found himself easily distracted and ultimately frustrated with his studies. One of his fellow Oxford classmates and future wife, Helen Palmer, also encouraged him to “follow his natural inclinations away from academia.”2 With his notebooks filled with doodles rather than notes, Geisel faced an overwhelming workload and impending failure as a doctoral student. In June of 1926, he decided to drop out of school and tour Europe for a year.
Geisel returned to New York in 1927 and married the love of his life, Helen Palmer. Geisel followed her previous nudgings toward a creative career by continuing with his love of satire and humor. He began writing for magazines such as
PM, Judge, Liberty, Vanity Fair, Life, Redbook
Saturday Evening Post.
Although allowing the couple financial stability, this work did not create fame for the name of Geisel. Each of his humorous essays and cartoons was published under the name Seuss because the author himself stated that he wanted to save the name Geisel for later, more serious novels. After ten years of writing for these New York magazines, Seuss added the “Dr.” title to his pseudonym, and later quipped that “this misappropriation of the degree saved my father thousands of dollars.”3
While contributing to these magazines, Geisel also became a successful advertising cartoonist for Standard Oil of New Jersey, popularizing the insecticide known as Flit. He created millions of newspaper ads, magazine ads, booklets, window displays, posters, and even animated cartoons featuring the catch-phrase, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” While enjoying the immediate success of his advertising, Geisel found his hands were soon tied because the exclusive Standard Oil contract forbade him from exploring other commercial ventures during his “down-time”. Geisel later explained his frustration in an interview for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, “Flit being seasonal, its ad campaign was only run during the summer months. I’d get my year’s work done in about three months, and I had all this spare time and nothing to do.”4 Luckily, his lawyer found a loophole: they did not forbid him to publish children’s books. Geisel again comments on this unexpected foray into children’s literature. “I would like to say I went into children’s book work because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.”5
In 1936, he busted onto the scene with his first children’s book,
And To Think That I
It on Mulberry Street.
He continued working on children’s books over the next six years, and in addition became an editorial cartoonist for
magazine from 1940 to 1942.
In 1943 he began his duty in the Army making documentaries with Frank Capra in Hollywood. Over the next three years, Geisel advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and received the Legion of Merit for “Why We Fight”, a series of patriotic films which he produced during the war. Geisel spent some time after the war working in Japan on another documentary, and in 1954 became a foreign correspondent for
magazine in Japan, where he developed great admiration and respect for the Japanese people. During his overseas assignment, Geisel spent a considerable amount of time visiting Japanese schools where he observed the exciting new concept of recognizing the importance of the individual. This idea of individual acknowledgement
(“A person’s a person no matter how small,”) remains the center of his book,
Horton Hears A Who,
which was published later that same year.
Back in the United States, Geisel responded to the need for a basal reader replacement after the initial “Why Johnny Can’t Read” crisis swept America. With Dick and Jane proving to be less than adequate in teaching America’s young readers, William Spaulding, Houghton Mifflin’s education director, persuaded Geisel to “write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”6 Dr. Seuss made his first and most important contribution in 1957 with the publication of
The Cat in the Hat.
He later admitted, “It’s the book I’m most proud of because it had something to do with the death of
Dick and Jane
primers.”7 Because of the commercial and educational success of
The Cat in the Hat,
Random House began a Beginner Books division which Geisel helped to develop and expand over the years with many of his own titles.
In 1971, Geisel turned his focus from his Beginner Books to a series of “message books” dealing with controversial thematic material. Although often criticized for being political and moralistic, many of these books including
The Butter Battle Book
(1984) continued to win accolades for Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss continued to write and enjoyed success until his death in 1991. With over 40 books to his name, Dr. Seuss has been called among other things, “the most useful children’s writer of our time.” 8