Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

How Theodor Geisel Became Dr. Seuss

Theodore Seuss Geisel poses with some of his creations. (John Bryson/Contributor/Getty Images)
Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, by Brian Jay Jones (Dutton, 496 pp., $32)

If current trends in popular culture are any indication, millions of Americans spend their days wishing to return to preschool. You read that right: I’m asserting that a not-insignificant portion of the public wishes to revive not their wild and woolly teenage years or their carefree college days but instead the years between, oh, three and five. 

Last year, Fred Rogers — the creator of, and chief friendly neighbor on, the public-television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — was the subject of an acclaimed biography and also a much-talked-about feature-length documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Soon, Sesame Street will receive the same sort of treatment in the upcoming documentary Street Gang, which is scheduled to air on HBO. 

Now we have a hefty biography of Dr. Seuss, the moniker adopted by writer and artist Theodor Geisel for an extraordinary run of now-canonized children’s books, among them Horton Hears a Who!, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and Scrambled Eggs Super! — and that is just a selection of the titles that end with exclamation points. 

To be sure, only the Grinchiest of critics would deny the educational merit, not to mention the entertainment value, of these books. Indeed, Geisel should be commended for surpassing the inventiveness of such dull, dull, dull books as Fun with Dick and Jane. And few must be the children whose imaginations weren’t at one time overflowing with images of cats in hats, foxes in socks, and assorted others hopping on pop. Yet in taking stock of the present faddishness of Mister Rogers, Big Bird, and now Dr. Seuss, I can’t help but invoke the Apostle Paul, who had that famous line about the wisdom of putting away childish things.

Prolonged childhood can take many forms — from regarding the arrival of Avengers: Endgame as a major cultural event to becoming more proficient in video games than in the basics of everyday living — but one of its strangest incarnations is surely the present desire to revisit books and shows meant to be set aside with the end of kindergarten. 

Indeed, as the author of earlier biographies of Jim Henson and George Lucas, Brian Jay Jones seems to be working his way through the icons of early childhood. If you’ve already written books on the creators of The Muppets and Star Wars why not go for the bard of Green Eggs and Ham next? 

Jones sketches Geisel’s early life in Springfield, Mass. His parents, Nettie and T.R., nurtured an early appreciation for the power of words. “Reading was a pastime the entire family took seriously, leaving well-thumbed books casually on side tables, and the pages of the Springfield Republican newspaper folded carefully over the arm of a chair,” Jones writes. The early scribblings of young Ted are said to anticipate the mad-as-a-hatter creatures one day drawn by Dr. Seuss: “Try as he might, he found that realistic drawings of animals just weren’t his forte. Eyes went wide, with arched eyebrows over them; knee joints appeared in the wrong places; tails ended up tufted.”

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Geisel at first strove to find a grown-up audience appreciative of his creations. He tried and failed to place a series of cartoons in The New Yorker. “Not having received any checks, letters of praise or telegrams of disapproval, I take it that the Hippocrass has not been housebroken,” he wrote, with more than a hint of desperation, to a contact at the magazine, referring to a winged creature with a “dog-like face” that he had concocted. Later, Geisel caught on as a cartoonist at Judge magazine, and he was rewarded handsomely for the ad campaign he cooked up for the Standard Oil–produced insecticide Flit. “What would eventually become the Dr. Seuss empire would be laid on a foundation built and paid for with Standard Oil money,” Jones writes. 

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Geisel entered the genre of children’s literature for practical reasons. “I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract,” reflected Geisel, whose debut book in the genre, the engaging And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, emerged in painful fits and starts. “I wrote the book to get it out,” he said. “Self-psychoanalysis.”

In time, Geisel became more comfortable with the form, and once he settled into his signature style — a mix of elaborately worked-out rhymes and appealingly outlandish drawings — he came to oversee a sprawling cottage industry. In addition to writing and drawing such relatively sophisticated books as The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and McElligot’s Pool, Geisel became the head honcho of Beginner Books, a line at Random House that asked its writers — Geisel among them — to work within the parameters of a much-reduced vocabulary aimed at very young readers. 

Geisel felt hamstrung by the limitations of Beginner Books. “Green Eggs and Ham would be its own kind of misery for Ted to write,” Jones notes, “requiring him to create complicated charts, checklists, and multiple word counts as he struggled to keep track of exactly which and how many words he was using.” Yet, while the Beginner Books line was admittedly a special case, even Geisel’s most accomplished and ambitious books work best for the readership for which they were written. 

This raises a question: Can any work targeted so specifically at a single demographic — namely, rug rats — be counted as truly great literature? Whatever our view of their relative merits or demerits, The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby or The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at least capable of reaching any reasonably mature readership. Children’s literature, though, is designed to be enjoyed by children and, at most, tolerated by adults — and that includes the works of Geisel. In other words, such works are marked with a “best by” date in a way that other books are not.

There is something faintly ridiculous about a nearly 500-page book that offers exegeses on the canon of Dr. Seuss. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose may be a reasonably charming book, but does it stand up to Jones’s analysis? “Like Horton the elephant before him, Thidwick is taken advantage of because of his own mortal forthrightness — in this case, it’s his conviction that ‘a host, above all, must be nice to his guests’ — leading a large group of animals to take up residence in his gigantic curling antlers,” writes Jones, who surely should get points for reciting the plots of this and other Seuss books with a straight face.

In fact, there is abundant evidence that Geisel was sufficiently talented to have thrived outside the bounds of kids’ books. The Geisel-scripted, Stanley Kramer–produced feature film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. brims with brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed costumes and sets, while Chuck Jones’s animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is as enduring a holiday classic as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Somehow, films aimed at children seem more alive to audiences of all ages than books aimed at children. 

Geisel was all too willing, though, to deliver preachy messages aimed at advancing (or opposing) various causes. We all know that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! strikes a blow against the commercialization of Christmas, but is the saga of the title character in Yertle the Turtle really effective as “a deliberate parable of the life of Hitler,” as Geisel described it? The Butter Battle Book is said by Jones to relay “the story of nuclear proliferation, with the Yooks and Zooks patrolling the border wall separating them with increasingly larger and more dangerous weapons.” The book’s Jigger-Rock Snatchem, Jones adds, was meant to send up Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

And, speaking about The Lorax, which famously beat the drum for environmental conservation, Geisel said, “It well may be an adult book. The children will let us know. But maybe the way to get the message to the parents is through a children’s book.” Well, as a one-time reader of The Lorax, I certainly remember grasping the idea as a child that the book was inveighing against the destruction of trees, but I can’t say I was led to sign up for the Sierra Club. Unsurprisingly, Geisel didn’t want his views to be “misconstrued or misappropriated,” as Jones puts it; he objected when a pro-life group adopted a line from Horton Hears a Who!: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Nonetheless, Geisel’s more overt attempts at propaganda threaten to keep his work from the upper ranks of his genre. Because it is not tethered to a particular historical moment (or cause of the day), the moral of a tale such as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit — that children ought to follow parental commands for fear of the dangers of Mr. McGregor’s garden — is likely to have greater staying power than that of The Lorax or The Butter Battle Book.

In the end, to read about the life and work of Geisel at such length, and in such detail, is to be made grateful to have — hopefully — graduated to more-sophisticated forms of literature. Maybe the growth-stunted readers among us should take to heart not a rhyme by Dr. Seuss but the words of those other prophets of youth, the Beach Boys: “When I grow up to be a man / Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?”

This article appears as “The Beginners’ Bard” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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