The children's-book author Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He drew constantly as a child and always had an ear for meter, as well as a penchant for the absurd. Geisel had little interest in academics or athletics. He contributed cartoons, often signed with creative pseudonyms, to his high school newspaper. At Dartmouth College he spent most of his time working on the Jack-o-Lantern, a campus humor magazine. He became editor during his senior year, signing his contributions "Seuss" after school authorities penalized him for drinking bootleg gin. He studied English briefly at Oxford University, where he met Helen Palmer, who admired the cartoon sketches in his lecture notes. In 1927 the couple married and moved to New York, where they immersed themselves in the nighttime pleasures of Jazz Age New York, drinking, smoking, and going to parties. Geisel loved to play practical jokes and to put people on (especially anyone pompous). He had a childlike imagination but also harbored insecurities and vulnerabilities that made him intensely private. Geisel and his wife were unable to have children, a loss they felt strongly, but that also freed Geisel to behave childishly himself. Helen mothered Geisel; she drove the car, balanced the checkbook, paid the bills, and ministered to his domestic needs. They traveled frequently to such far-off locales as Peru. Geisel and Helen remained married until her death in 1967; in 1968 he married Audrey Stone, who survived him.
Geisel began his career as a cartoonist in 1927, primarily contributing drawings and writings to the humor magazine Judge, in addition to College Humor, Liberty, and Vanity Fair, and signing his work "Dr. Seuss." During the 1930s Geisel also created cartoon ads for Standard Oil Company. His bug-spray catchphrase, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became a popular saying. In 1937 he sold his first children's book, Andto Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, to Vanguard Books after twenty-seven publishers rejected the manuscript because it lacked a moral message. Mulberry Street established the Dr. Seuss template; it was written in verse and illustrated with comically exaggerated drawings–a marked contrast from the pretty pictures then typical to children's books. In the next few years Geisel published several more books, including the classic Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), before he joined Frank Capra's Signal Corps and devoted his artistry to the war effort.
After a brief postwar spell in Hollywood, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla, California, and he resumed writing children's books. A string of successes followed, including The Sneetches and Other Stories (1953), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958). None could compete however with the enormous popularity of Geisel's breakthrough book, The Cat in the Hat (1957). Inspired by a challenge from his wartime friend William Spaulding, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, Geisel wrote his classic as a reading primer, using just over 200 words.
Propelled by the baby boom, The Cat in the Hat sold nearly one million copies by 1960 and seven times that figure by 2000. Its success instigated the Random House division Beginner Books, which published The Cat in the Hat ComesBack! (1958) and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses only fifty words–all of them one syllable except for the word "anywhere"–became his most popular work, selling over six million copies by 1996.
Over the following three decades, Geisel continued writing books for little children, big children, and adults. His bizarre humor, made-up words, and mellifluous rhymes attracted generations of readers, making him a celebrity. Some of his later books carried strong moral messages. The Lorax (1971) advocated conservation; The Butter Battle Book (1984) attacked the nuclear arms race. Even so, Geisel never departed from the basic formula for his success: amuse first, educate later. Geisel died in 1991 after a long battle with cancer.
See also: Children's Literature.
Fensch, Thomas. 1997. Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr. Seuss: Essays on the Writings and Life of Theodor Geisel. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Morgan, Judith, and Neil Morgan. 1995. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House.
RACHEL HOPE CLEVES