Cartoonist, illustrator, animator, poet, storyteller
Theodor S. Geisel
Theodor Seuss Geisel (pronounced /ˈɡaɪzəl/; March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991) was an American writer and cartoonist most widely known for his children’s BOOKS written under the pen names Dr. Seuss, Theo LeSieg and, in one case, Rosetta Stone. He published 44 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, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton Hears a Who!, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 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.
Read Across America is an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. One part of the project is National Read Across America Day, an observance in the United States held on March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Theodor Robert and Henrietta (Seuss) Geisel. His father, the son of German immigrant parents, managed the family brewery and later supervised (1931-1960) Springfield’s public park system. Geisel was raised in the Lutheran faith and remained a member his entire life.
Geisel attended Springfield’s Classical High School, and entered Dartmouth College in fall 1921 as a member of the Class of 1925. At Dartmouth, he joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the humor magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, eventually rising to the rank of editor-in-chief.
While at Dartmouth, Geisel was caught drinking gin with nine friends in his room, violating national Prohibition laws of the time. As a result, Dean Craven Laycock insisted that he 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.” 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. Geisel was encouraged in his writing by professor of rhetoric W. Benfield Pressey, whom he described as his “big inspiration for writing” at Dartmouth.
After Dartmouth, he entered Lincoln College, Oxford, intending to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in English literature. At Oxford, he met his FUTURE wife, Helen Palmer; he married her in 1927, and returned to the United States without earning a degree.
His earliest post-college publications
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. In 1935, he wrote and drew a short-lived comic strip called Hejji.
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!. Less fortunately for him, it was rejected almost 30 times, and when it was finally published, no one wanted to buy it because Mulberry Street was real and people assumed that he wrote about their secrets. Geisel wrote three more children’s books before World War II, two of which are, atypically for him, in prose.
His World War II-era work
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 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 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 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 many works, including such children’s favorites as If I Ran the Zoo, (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956),”Cat In The Hat”, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). 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). Dr Seuss also wrote the musical and fantasy film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which was released in 1953. The movie was a critical and financial failure, and Geisel never attempted another feature film. 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, William Ellsworth Spaulding, a textbook editor 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. This book was described as a tour de force by some reviewers[who?]-—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. The Beginner Books were not easy for Geisel and reportedly took him months to complete.
On October 23, 1967, suffering from a long struggle with illnesses including cancer, as well as emotional pain over her husband’s affair with Audrey Stone Dimond, Geisel’s wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, committed suicide. Geisel married Audrey on June 21, 1968. 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.”
Death and posthumous honors
Geisel died of THROAT CANCER on September 24, 1991, following several years of poor health, in San Diego, California. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered. On December 1, 1995, four years after his death, UCSD’s University LIBRARY Building was renamed Geisel Library in honor of Geisel and Audrey for the generous contributions they made to the library and their devotion to improving literacy.
While living in La Jolla, the United States Postal Service and others frequently confused Geisel with another La Jolla resident, Dr. Suess (Hans Suess). Their names have been linked together posthumously: the PERSONAL papers of Hans Suess are housed in the Geisel Library at UC San Diego.
In 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden opened in his birthplace of Springfield, Massachusetts; it features sculptures of Geisel and of many of his characters. On May 28, 2008, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced that Geisel would be inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. The induction ceremony took place December 15 and his widow Audrey accepted the honor in his place. On March 2, 2009, the web search engine Google temporarily changed its logo to commemorate Geisel’s birthday (a practice it often follows for various holidays and events). At his alma mater, Dartmouth, where over 90% of incoming first-year students participate in pre-REGISTRATION Dartmouth Outing Club trips into the New Hampshire wilderness, it is traditional for students returning from the trips to overnight at Dartmouth’s Moosilauke Ravine LODGE, where they are served green eggs and ham for breakfast in honor of Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss’s honors included two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Pen names and pronunciations
Geisel’s pen name is regularly pronounced /ˈsuːs/ or /ˈsjuːs/, an anglicized pronunciation inconsistent with his German surname. He himself noted that it rhymed with “voice” (his own pronunciation being /ˈsɔɪs/) and Alexander Liang (his collaborator on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern) wrote of him:
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 from German [ˈzɔʏs] 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.
For BOOKS that Geisel wrote and others illustrated, he used the pen name “Theo LeSieg;” “Theo” is short for his own PERSONAL name of “Theodor,” and “LeSieg” is “Geisel” spelled backwards.
Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. His early political cartoons show a passionate opposition to fascism, and he urged Americans to oppose it, both before and after the entry of the United States into World War II. His cartoons tended to regard the fear of communism as overstated, finding the greater threat in the Dies Committee and those who threatened to cut America’s “life line” to Stalin and Soviet Russia, the ones carrying “our war load”.
Geisel’s cartoons also called attention to the early stages of the Holocaust and denounced discrimination in America against African Americans and Jews. Geisel himself experienced anti-Semitism: in his college days, he was mistaken for a Jew and denied entry into WASP-dominated social circles, although he was actually of German ancestry and a practicing Christian.
However, Geisel supported the Japanese American internment during World War II. His treatment of the Japanese and of Japanese Americans, whom he often failed to differentiate between, 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 Dr. Richard H. Minear
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.
In 1948, after living and working in Hollywood for years, Geisel moved to La Jolla, California. It is said that when he went to register to vote in La Jolla, some Republican friends called him over to where they were registering voters, but Geisel said, “You, my friends, are over there, but I am going over here [to the Democratic registration].”
In his books
Though Geisel made a point of not beginning the writing of his stories with a moral in mind, stating that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off,” he was not against writing about issues; he said that “there’s an inherent moral in any story,” and he remarked that he was “subversive as hell.”
Many of Geisel’s BOOKS are thought to express his views on a myriad of social and political issues: The Lorax (1971), about environmentalism and anti-consumerism; The Sneetches (1961), about racial equality; The Butter Battle Book (1984), about the arms race; Yertle the Turtle (1958), about Hitler and anti-authoritarianism; How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), criticizing the materialism and consumerism of the Christmas season; and Horton Hears a Who! (1954), about anti-isolationism and internationalism. Shortly before the end of the 1972–1974 Watergate scandal, in which United States president Richard Nixon resigned, Geisel converted one of his famous children’s BOOKS into a polemic. “Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!” was published in major newspapers through the column of his friend Art Buchwald.
Although Geisel never wrote about or expressed any public opinion on the abortion debate, the line “A PERSON’s a person, no matter how small!!” from Horton Hears a Who! has grown, despite the objections of his widow, into widespread use on the pro-life side of the issue.
Geisel wrote most of his BOOKS IN anapestic tetrameter, a poetic meter employed by many poets of the English literary canon. This characteristic style of writing, which draws and pulls the reader into the text, is often suggested as one of the reasons that Geisel’s writing was so well-received.
Anapestic tetrameter consists of four rhythmic units, anapests, each composed of two weak beats followed by one strong beat; often, the first weak syllable is omitted, or an additional weak syllable is added at the end. An example of this meter can be found in Geisel’s “Yertle the Turtle”, from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories:
“And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.”
Geisel generally maintained this rhythm quite strictly, but in his later career somewhat relaxed this tendency. The consistency of his meter was one of his hallmarks; the many imitators and parodists of Geisel are often unable to write in strict anapestic tetrameter, or are unaware that they should, and thus sound clumsy in comparison.
Some BOOKS by Geisel that are written mainly in anapestic tetrameter also contain many lines written in amphibrachic tetrameter, such as these from If I Ran the Circus:
“All ready to put up the tents for my circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
“And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance!
No former performers performed this performance!”
Geisel also wrote verse in trochaic tetrameter, an arrangement of a strong beat followed by a weak beat, with four units per line (for example, the title of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish). The formula for trochaic meter permits the final weak position in the line to be omitted, which facilitates the construction of rhymes.
Geisel generally maintained trochaic meter only for brief passages, and for longer stretches typically mixed it with iambic tetrameter, which consists of a weak beat followed by a strong, and is generally considered easier to write. Thus, for example, the magicians in Bartholomew and the Oobleck make their first appearance chanting in trochees (thus resembling the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth):
“Shuffle, duffle, muzzle, muff”
then switch to iambs for the oobleck spell:
“Go make the Oobleck tumble down
On every street, in every town!”
At work on a drawing of The Grinch for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in 1957.
Geisel’s earlier artwork often employed the shaded texture of pencil drawings or watercolors, but in children’s books of the postwar period he generally employed the starker medium of pen and ink, normally using just black, white, and one or two colors. Later books such as The Lorax used more colors.
Geisel’s figures are often rounded and somewhat droopy. This is true, for instance, of the faces of the Grinch and of the Cat in the Hat. It is also true of virtually all buildings and machinery that Geisel drew: although these objects abound in straight lines in real life, for buildings, this could be accomplished in part through choice of architecture. For machines, for example, If I Ran the Circus includes a droopy hoisting crane and a droopy steam calliope.
Geisel evidently enjoyed drawing architecturally elaborate objects. His endlessly varied (but never rectilinear) palaces, ramps, platforms, and free-standing stairways are among his most evocative creations. Geisel also drew elaborate imaginary machines, of which the Audio-Telly-O-Tally-O-Count, from Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, is one example. Geisel also liked drawing outlandish arrangements of feathers or fur, for example, the 500th hat of Bartholomew Cubbins, the tail of Gertrude McFuzz, and the pet for girls who like to brush and comb, in One Fish Two Fish.
Geisel’s images often convey motion vividly. He was fond of a sort of voilà gesture, in which the hand flips outward, spreading the fingers slightly backward with the thumb up; this is done by Ish, for instance, in One Fish Two Fish when he creates fish (who perform the gesture themselves with their fins), in the introduction of the various acts of If I Ran the Circus, and in the introduction of the Little Cats in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. He was also fond of drawing hands with interlocked fingers, which looked as though the characters were twiddling their thumbs.
Geisel also follows the cartoon tradition of showing motion with lines, for instance in the sweeping lines that accompany Sneelock’s final dive in If I Ran the Circus. Cartoonist’s lines are also used to illustrate the action of the senses (sight, smell, and hearing) in The Big Brag and even of thought, as in the moment when the Grinch conceives his awful idea.
Geisel’s early work in advertising and editorial cartooning produced sketches that received more perfect realization later in the children’s books. Often, the expressive use to which Geisel put an image later on was quite different from the original.
• An editorial cartoon of July 16, 1941 depicts a whale resting on the top of a mountain, as a parody of American isolationists, especially Charles Lindbergh. This was later rendered (with no apparent political content) as the Wumbus of On Beyond Zebra (1955). Seussian whales (cheerful and balloon-shaped, with long eyelashes) also occur in McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Circus, and other books.
• Another editorial cartoon from 1941 shows a long cow with many legs and udders, representing the conquered nations of Europe being milked by Adolf Hitler. This later became the Umbus of On Beyond Zebra.
• The tower of turtles in a 1942 editorial cartoon prefigures a similar tower in Yertle the Turtle. This theme also appeared in a Judge cartoon as one letter of a hieroglypic message, and in Geisel’s short-lived comic strip Hejji. Geisel once stated that Yertle the Turtle was Adolf Hitler.
• Little cats A B and C (as well as the rest of the alphabet) who spring from each other’s hats appeared in a Ford ad.
• The connected beards in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? appear frequently in Geisel’s work, most notably in Hejji, which featured two goats joined at the beard, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, which featured two roller-skating guards joined at the beard, and a political cartoon in which Nazism and the America First movement are portrayed as “the men with the Siamese Beard.”
• Geisel’s earliest elephants were for advertising and had somewhat wrinkly ears, much as real elephants do. With And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! (1937) and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), the ears became more stylized, somewhat like angel wings and thus appropriate to the saintly Horton. During World War II, the elephant image appeared as an emblem for India in four editorial cartoons. Horton and similar elephants appear frequently in the postwar children’s books.
• While drawing advertisements for Flit, Geisel became adept at drawing insects with huge stingers, shaped like a gentle S-curve and with a sharp end that included a rearward-pointing barb on its lower side. Their facial expressions depict gleeful malevolence. These insects were later rendered in an editorial cartoon as a swarm of Allied aircraft (1942), and again as the Sneedle of On Beyond Zebra, and yet again as the Skritz in I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.
Further information: Dr. Seuss bibliography
Over the course of his long career, Geisel wrote over 60 books. Though most were published under his well-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss, he also authored over a dozen books as Theo LeSieg and one as Rosetta Stone. As one of the most popular children’s authors of all time, Geisel’s books have topped many bestseller lists, sold over 222 million copies, and been translated into more than 15 languages. In 2000, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time; of the top 100 hardcover books, 16 were written by Geisel, including Green Eggs and Ham, at number 4, The Cat in the Hat, at number 9, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, at number 13. In the years after his death in 1991, several additional books have been published based on his sketches and notes; these include Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! and Daisy-Head Mayzie. Though they were all published under the name Dr. Seuss, only My Many Colored Days, originally written in 1973, was entirely by Geisel.
At various times Geisel also wrote books for adults that used the same style of verse and pictures: The Seven Lady Godivas (1937; reprinted 1985), which included nude depictions but failed because of his inability to draw them; You’re Only Old Once! (written in 1987 when Geisel was 83) which chronicles an old man’s journey through a clinic, a satire of the inefficiency of clinics and his last book (written a year before his death) Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, a popular gift for graduating students.
Further information: List of Dr. Seuss television adaptations
Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure in Orlando
For most of his career, Geisel was reluctant to have his characters marketed in contexts outside of his own books. However, he did allow for the creation of several animated cartoons, an art form in which he himself had gained experience during the Second World War, and gradually relaxed his policy as he aged.
The first adaptation of one of Geisel’s works was a cartoon version of Horton Hatches the Egg, animated at Warner Brothers in 1942. Directed by Robert Clampett, it was presented as part of the Looney Tunes series, and included a number of gags not present in the original narrative, including a fish committing suicide and a Katharine Hepburn imitation by Maisie.
In 1959, Geisel authorized Revell, the well-known plastic model-making company, to make a series of “animals” that snapped together rather than being glued together, and could be assembled, disassembled and re-assembled “in thousands” of ways. The series was called the “Dr. Seuss Zoo” and included Gowdy the Dowdy Grackle, Norval the Bashful Blinket, Tingo the Noodle Topped Stroodle and Roscoe the Many Footed Lion. The basic body parts were the same and all were interchangeable, and so it was possible for children to combine parts from various characters in essentially unlimited ways in creating their own animal characters (Revell encouraged this by selling Gowdy, Norval and Tingo together in a “Gift Set” as well as individually). Revell also made a conventional glue-together “beginner’s kit” of The Cat in the Hat.
In 1966, Geisel authorized the eminent cartoon artist Chuck Jones, his friend and former colleague from the war, to make a cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas; Geisel was credited as a co-producer, along with Jones, under his real name, “Ted Geisel.” The cartoon, narrated by Boris Karloff, who also provided the voice of the Grinch, was very faithful to the original book, and is considered a classic by many to this day; it is often broadcast as an annual Christmas television special. In 1970, an adaptation of Horton Hears a Who! was directed by Chuck Jones for MGM.
From 1971 to 1982, Geisel wrote seven television specials, which were produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises and aired on CBS: The Cat in the Hat (1971), The Lorax (1972), Dr. Seuss on the Loose (1973), The Hoober-Bloob Highway (1975), Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977), Pontoffel Pock, Where Are You? (1980), and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat (1982). Several of the specials were nominated for and won multiple Emmy Awards.
A Soviet paint-on-glass-animated short film called Welcome (an adaptation of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose) was made in 1986. The last adaptation of Geisel’s works before he died was The Butter Battle Book, a television special based on the book of the same name, directed by adult animation legend Ralph Bakshi. Geisel himself called the special “the most faithful adaptation of his work.”
After Geisel died of cancer at the age of 87 in 1991, his widow Audrey Geisel was placed in charge of all licensing matters. She approved a live-action feature film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Jim Carrey, as well as a Seuss-themed Broadway musical called Seussical, and both premiered in 2000. The Grinch has had limited engagement runs on Broadway during the Christmas season, after premiering in 1998 (under the title How the Grinch Stole Christmas) at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where it has become a Christmas tradition. In 2003, another live-action film was released, this time an adaptation of The Cat in the Hat that featured Mike Myers as the title character. Audrey Geisel was vocal in her dislike of the film, especially the casting of Myers as the Cat in the Hat, and stated that there would be no further live-action adaptations of Geisel’s books. However, an animated CGI feature film adaptation of Horton Hears a Who! was approved, and was eventually released on March 14, 2008, to critical acclaim.
Two television series have been adapted from Geisel’s work. The first, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, was a mix of live-action and puppetry by Jim Henson Television, the producers of The Muppets. It aired for one season on Nickelodeon in the United States, from 1996 to 1997. The second, Gerald McBoing-Boing, is an animated television adaptation of Geisel’s 1951 cartoon of the same name. Produced in Canada by Cookie Jar Entertainment, it ran from 2005 to 2007.
Geisel’s books and characters are also featured in Seuss Landing, one of many islands at the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida. In an attempt to match Geisel’s visual style, there are reportedly “no straight lines” in Seuss Landing.