This Day In Writing History
On March 2nd, 1904, the legendary American children's book writer and illustrator Dr. Seuss was born. He was born Theodor "Ted" Seuss Geisel Jr. in Springfield, Massachusetts.
His father, Theodor Robert Geisel Sr., managed his family's brewery and later became the supervisor of Springfield's public parks. His mother, Henrietta, gave him her maiden name, Seuss, as his middle name.
Ted enrolled at Dartmouth in the fall of 1921 and joined the staff of the Dartmouth Jack O' Lantern humor magazine as a writer and cartoonist. When he was caught drinking gin in his room with a group of friends - a violation of the national Prohibition law of the time - he was forced to resign from the magazine.
Nevertheless, he continued to write and draw cartoons for the magazine without the knowledge or permission of the administration. He wrote and drew under a one-word pseudonym - Seuss.
After he graduated from Dartmouth, Ted Geisel went to Oxford, where he intended to earn a PhD in literature. He met a girl named Helen Palmer, married her in 1927, left university, and returned to the United States without obtaining his doctorate.
He began writing and drawing cartoons for the weekly humor magazine Judge, in a weekly feature called Birdsies and Beasties. He published his work under a pseudonym that would later become world famous - Dr. Seuss.
Geisel also submitted articles and cartoons to magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Vanity Fair, and Liberty. While working as an advertising copywriter and illustrator, he became nationally famous for his advertisements for an insecticide called Flit.
His slogan, "Quick Henry, the Flit!" became a popular catchphrase. Geisel's success with the Flit campaign kept him working through the Great Depression on advertising campaigns for companies like General Electric, NBC, and Standard Oil.
In 1935, Geisel wrote and drew a short-lived comic strip called Hejji. After it ended, he decided to try his hand at writing children's books. His first, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was published in 1937.
The book had been rejected by nearly 30 publishers. It wouldn't become a classic until much later. Since his soon-to-be classic style - stories told in rhyming verse (mostly in anapestic tetrameter) accompanied by humorous illustrations - didn't catch on immediately, he wrote his next three children's books in standard prose format.
When World War 2 broke out in 1939, Geisel switched gears and became an editorial cartoonist for the liberal New York City daily newspaper, PM. In his two years working for the paper, he drew over 400 cartoons.
His political cartoons would later be published as Dr. Seuss Goes To War. In them, he exposed the evils of the Hitler and Mussolini dictatorships and attacked American isolationists, including national hero Charles Lindbergh, who was also an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.
Geisel blasted the racism of his fellow Americans aimed at Jews and blacks. While at Dartmouth, he experienced anti-Semitism firsthand when he was denied entrance into certain groups because they mistakenly believed that he was Jewish.
After the Pearl Harbor attack brought the United States into the war, Geisel drew patriotic and informational posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board.
He joined the Army in 1943 and was made commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the Air Force. There, he wrote scripts for propaganda films such as Our Job In Japan and Your Job In Germany.
He also wrote scripts for Frank Capra's famous series of humorous (and raunchy) Private Snafu animated army training films. SNAFU is a military acronym that stands for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. The bumbling Private Snafu had a brother named Fubar - a military acronym that stands for Fucked Up Beyond All Repair.
The Army awarded Geisel the Legion of Merit award for his work. After the war ended, he and his wife moved to La Jolla, California, where he returned to writing children's books.
Though he wasn't a big commercial success, Dr. Seuss made a name for himself with his now classic children's books, which included Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957).
Around this time, a famous study was released called Why Johnny Can't Read. It was written by an education specialist who argued that the "Dick and Jane" primers used to teach children to read in elementary schools were "horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers."
These worthless primers taught "through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ children's activities that offer opportunities for reading 'Look, look' or 'Yes, yes' or 'Come, come' or 'See the funny, funny animal.'" Thus, they actually discouraged children from wanting to learn to read.
The study quickly became front page news and parents clamored for better educational materials. A publisher at Random House thought that a not hugely successful but very imaginative children's book writer and illustrator called Dr. Seuss may be the right man to produce them.
This Dr. Seuss might be able to write a book that could not only teach children how to read, but also make them want to read. So, he invited Seuss to dinner and challenged him to "write me a story that first-graders can't put down!"
Nine months later, Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, completed his manuscript for The Cat in the Hat (1957), a book designed for young readers that used his trademark style of combining humorous illustrations with a story told in rhyming, metered verse.
It became a huge hit, and within a year of its publication, it was selling 12,000 copies a month. He would follow it with a sequel, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958).
More Seuss classics would follow that, including such memorable books as Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Hop on Pop (1963), and Fox in Socks (1965).
Soon, children around the world were learning to read and loving it, thanks to Dr. Seuss. He would become the biggest selling writer in Random House's history. When these children who first learned to read from Dr. Seuss' books became parents themselves, their love for him was rekindled as they read the same books to their children.
Ted Geisel once proudly boasted that his Dr. Seuss books were "subversive as hell." He wasn't kidding; he often used allegory and satire to teach his young readers about the evils of such things as racism, fascism, materialism, and environmental destruction.
Some of Geisel's books are considered controversial, and the controversy hasn't died down, as conservatives still complain about the pro-environmentalist theme of The Lorax (1971).
In 1988, a school district in California refused to remove the book from its classrooms and libraries when conservative townsfolk complained that it was unfair to the local logging industry. So, several logging industry groups produced a Seuss-like book called The Truax to disseminate their pro-logging propaganda to children.
Dr. Seuss' most controversial children's book was The Butter Battle Book (1984), in which he taught children about the stupidity and immorality of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In this classic book, Seuss allegorically depicts the American capitalist government and the Soviet communist government as equally absurd and immoral and shows that their arms race can only result in mutual destruction. After a conservative outcry, many school and public libraries removed it from their shelves.
In 1989, legendary adult animated filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, famous for his classic X-rated animated satire Fritz The Cat (1972), directed a TV adaptation of The Butter Battle Book, featuring narration by Charles Durning. Geisel loved it, calling it the most faithful adaptation of his work ever made.
In the early 1970s, Geisel's friend Art Buchwald challenged him to write a political book for adults. So, he wrote a parody of his own Dr. Seuss book, Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! (1972), called Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now! Buchwald loved it and published the text in his column.
Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 87. Although he was one of the greatest children's writers of all time, he never had any children of his own. Controversy continues to follow him, even after his death. Conservatives still complain about his books, and the new Lorax feature film threatens to inspire another outcry.
Not surprisingly, Geisel's conservative critics have no problem exploiting him for their own benefit. When pro-life activists and organizations used Horton the elephant's famous line, "A person's a person no matter how small!" for their catchphrase, Geisel's widow Audrey (his first wife Helen committed suicide in 1967 after suffering from a long and painful illness) strenuously objected.
In 1995, Audrey successfully sued Penguin Books to halt the distribution of The Cat Still in the Hat, a parody of The Cat in the Hat. The parody, allegedly written by "Dr. Juice," mocks the famous O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Simpson, depicted as the Cat in the Hat, offers his perspective on the trial through tasteless verses such as "A man this famous/Never hires/Lawyers like/Jacoby Meyers/When you're accused of a killing scheme/You need to build a real Dream Team" and "One knife?/Two knife?/Red knife/Dead wife."
In recent years, the works of Dr. Seuss have inspired a TV series and feature film adaptation of The Cat In The Hat, and a feature film adaptation of The Lorax, starring the voice of Danny DeVito as the Lorax, opens this weekend in honor of Seuss' birthday.
Quote Of The Day
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." - Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel)
Today's video features a reading of Dr. Seuss' most controversial children's book, The Butter Battle Book. Enjoy!