March 2, 2013
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Mass., on Mar. 2, 1904. All of his grandparents were German immigrants, and Springfield had a strong German community. His father’s family owned a brewery, until Prohibition forced them to close the business. His mother, Nettie Seuss (pronounced to rhyme with voice), came from a family of bakers.
Geisel wrote fondly of his mother’s influence in a Dartmouth Alumni magazine interview in 1983: “My mother over-indulged me and seemed to be saying, ‘Everything you do is great, just go ahead and do it.”
At Dartmouth College, Geisel lost his position as editor-in-chief of the campus humor magazine when he was nabbed for drinking gin in his room with a number of friends, but he sidestepped the Dean’s punishment by submitting pieces as T. Seuss. After graduating from Dartmouth, he attended Oxford University, with the intention of getting his doctorate in English literature; he did not earn a degree, but did get engaged to Helen Palmer, who became his creative inspiration, his trusted critic, and collaborator.
He returned to Springfield, but had meager success in getting his articles and illustrations published; the Saturday Evening Post published his first cartoon as Seuss in July 1927, and he moved to New York to live with an old Dartmouth classmate. “Judge” magazine began running his cartoons, and he added “Dr.” to his signature.
Most of his early work cast Dr. Seuss as a comic antagonist to the perceived hypocrisy of Prohibition. He developed the Hippocrass as an imaginary creature to convey his messages. In his xxx biography about Geisel, “The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Suess,” Charles Cohen said the Hippocrass was “an imaginary beast come to life – a product of delirium tremens inhabiting the real world.”
The limited success would not pay the bills, but gave Geisel an introduction into advertising when he used a Standard Oil insecticide brand, Flit, in a cartoon. Rather than being irked, Standard Oil hired Geisel, and his illustrations helped drive sales. He also penned national campaigns for General Electric, NBC, Narragansett Brewing Company, and other Standard Oil brands, including creating the Seuss Navy with Esso Marine.
His mother died in 1931, and Geisel, perhaps to take his mind off that, took his first commission to illustrate some children’s books for Viking Press. The books were successful, and Geisel wrote his first children’s book; publisher after publisher turned it down.
Christopher Klein wrote that it was a chance sidewalk encounter that led to a contract for the manuscript. Geisel was dejected after another rejection and was walking home to burn the manuscript when he ran into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who had just started at Vanguard Press children’s section. Vanguard Press published “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street” in 1937, and Dr. Seuss, the children’s author was “born.” Geisel later said, “If I had been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.”
With advent of war with Germany, and a growing children’s market, Geisel encourage the Anglicized pronunciation of his name Seuss (to rhyme with goose, as in Mother Goose).
“Cat in the Hat,” his 15th children’s book, was published in 1957, and was intended for the scholastic market. William Ellsworth Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin asked Geisel to write a primer limited to words chosen from a list of 348 words every six year old should know. Cat in the Hat uses 236 distinct words, but Houghton Mifflin could not sell it to schools. Random House created a new imprint, Beginner Books, based on Geisel’s book. The imprint was a huge success.
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."