Better Than This

Better Than This
The man behind The Cat in the Hat.

by Susan Warren Utley

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna.

            I sit before my printer watching as it inhales one white page after another into its guts and spews out mass amounts of black type. So mechanical, I think, almost as mechanical as my prose. I bow my head in defeat as I read the words I have chosen to describe a man who is virtually indescribable. My words are not colorful, my composition is inferior, and I have failed. Once again, I crumple the pages and toss them in the trash. I look out my window at the dreary, wet day, stare back at my keyboard with nothing to say. I pick up a pencil and doodle on a page of discarded type.  In between the words, emerges a familiar looking fellow in a tilted stovepipe hat. Then something magical occurs. He grins at me mischievously as if to say, “Have no fear, little fish . . . These Things are good Things” (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat 37). With newfound confidence and enthusiasm, I retrieve the pages one by one from the trash and start again.

To say that Theodor Geisel was simply a writer-illustrator of children’s books, would be to say that the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground.  For Theodore Geisel was much more than a composer of words and drawer of pictures. Theodor Geisel was Dr. Seuss. Though the title of “Dr.” was an honorary one bestowed upon him by at least eight colleges and universities, his reputation as an educator was genuine (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 73-81; “Dr. Seuss Remembered” 32).  During his lifetime, he revolutionized the way children learn to read and how they relate to the world around them (Lystad 1). He possessed the ability to use small words to make big impressions. He fabricated a unique world of mayhem and magic, frolic and fancy, whimsy and wonder.  The inspiration and meaning behind his peculiar kingdom of strange creatures possessing odd characteristics and unusual enigmas sparked decades of controversy among teachers and parents alike (Moje, Shyu 28). What we do know for sure, is that Geisel’s books imitate life, and they stem from almost nine decades of experience and curiosity beginning in Springfield, Massachusetts in the late winter of 1904 (Kanfer 71).

On the second of March, four years into the twentieth century, Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Ted by friends and relatives, was born into a family of proud immigrant brewers and bakers fulfilling their “New World dreams” in the bustling community of Springfield, Massachusetts (Morgan 3).  Springfield was the home of dictionary publishers Merriam Webster, revolver manufacturers Smith & Wesson, game creators Milton Bradley, and brewmeisters Kalmbach and Geisel, affectionately known as “Come Back and Guzzle” (Morgan 5). Ted’s father was Theodor Robert Geisel, the son of a German brewer and future superintendent of parks. His mother was the former Henrietta Seuss (pronounced Zoice), the daughter of a prominent Bavarian baker (Morgan 6).  The Geisels had three children, of whom Ted would be the only sibling to realize his aspirations. Ted’s sister Margaretha, two years his senior and known affectionately as Marnie, was an honor student who had unfulfilled aspirations of earning her Ph.D. at Radcliffe and died at the age of 43, an alcoholic recluse (Morgan 114).  Henrietta, born two years after Ted, lived only eighteen months before dying of pneumonia (Morgan 8).  Though the death of his young sibling would taint his memories of early childhood, his natural curiosity and vivid imagination would set the stage for a bright future.

Ted grew up in a two-story house located at 74 Fairfield Street, not far from the hustle and bustle of Mulberry Street (Morgan 4).  Within the walls of Forest Park School, he began his public schooling at the age of four and a half (MacDonald 1). Outside those walls and within the confines of its namesake, the 500 acre Forest Park, the young Geisel encountered the building blocks for a brilliant and imaginative career.  It was on the winding bike paths and seemingly endless trails that Ted first came across a tree whose curious color and name would have a lasting effect–the pink dogwood (Morgan 12).  It is possible this whimsical tree laid the foundation for the fantastic plants and animals that would come to life on the pages of future Dr. Seuss books.

As his father acted as superintendent of the Springfield park system, Ted enjoyed many indulgences that a child of his age would revel in.  During off-hours visits to the Springfield Zoo, located within Forest Park,  the young Geisel, with sketch pad in hand, would draw the animals at his leisure.  Of course, his drawings were a bit odd, as the animals were generally out of proportion and often bore no resemblance to their subjects. Attempting to perfect his artistry, Ted enrolled in an art class at Springfield’s Central High. With charcoal as his medium, he attempted a still life of daisies in a milk bottle.  Frustrated, he searched for new perspective and eventually turned his picture upside down and began to draw.  Dismayed, his teacher retorted, “No, Theodor, not upside down!  There are rules that every artist must abide by.  You will never succeed if you break them” (qtd. in Morgan 21).  An accomplished deviate, Ted insisted on breaking the rules.  He dropped the class, but not his art.  In later years, his strange drawings and characters would be dubbed fresh and eccentric–the products of a colorful imagination (“Dr. Seuss Remembered” 32).  Ted, on the other hand, maintained they were simply the result of a lack of talent and formal training. In an interview with The New Yorker in December of 1960, he would explain, “My animals look the way they do because I’ve never learned how to draw” (qtd. in Kahn 53).

The young Geisel’s perception of the world manifests itself not only through his art but through the stories he would write later in life.  In 1953,  he wrote a children’s story entitled The Sneetches, wherein, “…the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars” (Seuss, The Sneetches and other stories 1). As the story goes, the Plain-Belly Sneetches paid an enterprising young businessman to place stars upon their bellies in order to gain acceptance from the Star-Belly Sneetches. While author Tim Johnson of Whole Earth Review ties the story to segregation, it is possible that a stronger connection exists between the Sneetches’ behavior and Ted’s experiences as a young German-American during World War I (3).

Ted’s traditional upbringing revolved around his solid German heritage.  His grandparents told tales of trolls, elves, and other magical creatures that flourished in old German folklore (Starr 1). He and Marnie spoke fluent German, the language of the Geisel household, and took part in many German festivities. Later, with the onset of World War I, their birthright would become a hindrance. Often, they were the objects of cruel ridicule and prejudices. English replaced German both at home and in church.  The family retired the German in their hyphenated identity, and they would henceforth refer to themselves as Americans.  The Seusses and Geisels of Springfield would go to great lengths and expense to forego their traditional German values and prove their loyalty to America (Morgan 19). Ted was no exception, but his loyalty would not come without a price.

Authors Judith and Neil Morgan recount the following story in their book entitled Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel. When Ted was fourteen, he participated in a Boy Scout effort to support American troops fighting on German soil by selling United States Liberty Bonds. With the aid of his wealthy grandfather, Ted’s sales climbed, and he anticipated the ceremony in which he and nine fellow Boy Scouts would be honored for their patriotism. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt would issue the awards in person. When it came time for Ted to receive his award, he stood alone on the stage of Springfield’s Municipal Auditorium face to face with the former president who was one medal short.  “What’s this little boy doing up here?” he shouted. The Scout leader quickly ushered Ted off the stage (Morgan 22).  Was the error intentional or just a simple mistake?  No one can say for sure, but  it left the young Theodor Geisel with a great sense of inequity and an incurable case of stage fright (Kahn 54).

Ted’s fear of exposure did not extend to the pen.  At the onset of the Roaring Twenties, he entered Dartmouth College and began hanging around the office of the Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 17).  Among the staffers, he found a quick ally and friend in a young man by the name of Norman Maclean, the son of a Presbyterian preacher from Montana who would later write the literary classic A River Runs Through It (Morgan 27).  With the aid of his new-found friend, Ted managed to get a few lines and illustrations published.  The response was overwhelming, and by his senior year he secured the position of editor in chief of the magazine.  It was Maclean’s support that put Ted over the top. Years later, he would reflect, “If Mac hadn’t picked me as his successor, my whole life at college would have been a failure” (qtd. in Morgan 33).

As it turned out, Ted’s involvement with the Jacko constituted the high point of his few college successes.  He put little effort into his course work, and his grade point average plummeted to 2.4 (Morgan 29).  He often exploited his ancestry by enrolling in German language and literature courses.  He became a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and engaged in a number of pranks and shenanigans.   In April of his senior year, one indiscretion, in particular, proved to be his downfall.  In his room, Ted and friends passed a pint of bootleg gin amongst themselves and engaged in jovial conversation and antics. Their conduct that evening was exceptionally unruly, for it resulted in a police raid on the party.  Often referred to as a petty violation of school policy, the incident occurred during the height of prohibition and was not taken lightly by the Dean (Moje, Shyu 26; Morgan 36).  The institution forced Ted to inform his parents of his infraction and discharged him from his duties as editor of the Jack-O-Lantern.  Undaunted, the resourceful Geisel submitted his contributions to the magazine under various pseudonyms including the notable Seuss–the product of his own middle name (Moje, Shyu 26).

Upon graduation from Dartmouth and with few promising prospects for future academia, Ted falsely informed his father about his plans to attend Oxford University on a fellowship. The news quickly spread throughout Springfield and even adorned the pages of the Springfield Union.  Forced to disclose the truth to his father, Ted expected the worst. Much to his surprise, Ted’s father agreed to send him to Oxford, presumably to ward off any subsequent embarrassment (MacDonald 3).

In 1925, Ted embarked on his schooling at Oxford with intentions of becoming a college professor of literature, but he lacked discipline. His attention to his studies paled in comparison to his nominal achievements at Dartmouth.  Doodles of whimsical characters filled the pages of his lecture notebooks (MacDonald 4).  In between the lines, dogs performed heroic feats on high wires and windmills replaced tail feathers on chickens (Morgan 45).  During one lecture, a young woman named Helen Palmer leaned over Ted’s shoulder to find him engrossed in a drawing of an angel sliding down an oiled sunbeam with a tuba, an illustrated version of Milton’s Paradise Lost (Morgan 45).  Helen remarked about his lack of attention to the lecture but praised his ability to draw.  Intrigued by Helen, it wasn’t long before Ted proposed and they became engaged.  Subsequently, it was Helen who encouraged Ted to abandon his studies and give in to the lure of the pen (MacDonald 5). This decision would lead to a year long excursion throughout Europe.

Helen returned to the states in December of 1926 in search of a teaching position.  Not long after, in February of the following year, Ted set sail from Rome to New York (Moje, Shyu 26). Helen was successful in obtaining a position at a private school for girls, but Ted’s possibilities for employment remained weak. Pounding the pavement of New York, he submitted cartoons to various publications.  Life and The New Yorker virtually ignored him, which prompted his retreat to his hometown of Springfield.  Finally, in July of 1927, The Saturday Evening Post published one of his cartoons for which he received a check in the amount of twenty-five dollars (Morgan 58).  With renewed ambition, he returned to New York and his relentless pursuit continued.  Before long, he gained employment as a writer and artist for Judge, a weekly humor magazine.  It was here that Ted would annex his signature Seuss with the title of “Dr.,” an egotistic compensation for his lack of an Oxford doctorate (Morgan 62).   Henceforth, he became known as Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, Dr. Theodophilus Seuss, Ph.D., I.Q., H2SO4, and finally, Dr. Seuss for short (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 19).  He later explained, “I was saving the name of Geisel for the Great American Novel” (qtd. in Morgan 62).

His attempts at serious novel writing were futile, but his doodling managed to pay the bills (Kanfer 71).  With confidence restored and a meager, but steady, income secured, Ted married Helen on November 29, 1927 (Morgan 60-61).  Despite their humble beginnings, the pair would soon be on their way to fortune and fame. In a 1928 issue of Judge, a Dr. Seuss cartoon appeared featuring a Medieval knight pinned upon his bed underneath a dragon.  The caption read, “Darn it all, another Dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!” (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 25).  This publication led to Ted’s famous “Quick, Henry, the Flit” ad campaign for Standard Oil–the manufacturers of Flit bug spray–and a salary that far surpassed the income earned by fellow Dartmouth graduates (Morgan 65).

Over the next few years, Ted and Helen would upgrade their living quarters from a walk up flat on the Lower West Side to a trendy fourteenth floor apartment on Park Avenue (Morgan 74). They would travel abroad, visiting some thirty countries in all.  For a time, it seemed, the sun shone brightly upon the Geisels, but shadows lurked in the background. While Dr. Seuss cartoons adorned the covers of Judge and Life, and his advertising clientele expanded to include the Ford Motor Company and NBC Radio, his mother’s health began to deteriorate, and she grew weak and confused (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 25; Morgan 71).  At Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, doctors diagnosed Henrietta Seuss Geisel with an inoperable brain tumor.  She died on March 8, 1931, at the age of fifty-two (Morgan 71).  Her death took its toll on the family, and Ted retreated to Yugoslavia for a seven week hiatus in order “to clear the air and get new ideas” (qtd. in Morgan 72).

It was right around this period that the Geisels gave birth to their only child, Chrysanthemum-Pearl (Morgan 90).  Ted boasted to his friends the amazing talents of his extraordinary daughter who could “whip up the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate frosting and flaming Roman candles” (qtd. in Morgan 90).  Performed in jest, it was a charade that masked the Geisels’ true agony: their inability to conceive.  Sometime around their fourth year of marriage, Helen had taken ill with painful stomach cramps.  The ordeal culminated in a hastened surgery to remove Helen’s ovaries.  The Geisels vowed to conceal their anguish, and so began the hoax of Chrysanthemum-Pearl (Morgan 90-91).  To people who considered it a tragedy that a man such as he would be childless, he would respond, “You have ’em, I’ll amuse ’em” (qtd. in Kahn 47).

The year of their incredible sorrow also marked the year that Ted would first enter the world of children’s literature, though not as an author, but an artist (Moje, Shyu 27). Ted’s experience as an illustrator for the children’s book Boners in 1931 and its sequel, More Boners, inspired him.  In 1936, aboard the M.S. Kunsholm, a Swedish American cruise ship bound for Europe, Ted drafted the beginnings of his first full-length children’s book (MacDonald 17).  It was to the grinding rhythm of the ship’s engines that he composed the first rudimentary elements.  Upon his return to the states, he linked his jotted notes and scribblings together and developed a story that he entitled A Story That No One Can Beat  (Morgan 81).  Quite proud of his accomplishment, he set out to get it published.  Twenty-eight publishing houses rejected the story (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 29).  A perturbed Geisel moped along Madison Avenue with intentions of burning the manuscript and returning to his cartoon work.  It was then that he bumped into Mike McClintock, an old college buddy from Dartmouth and new children’s editor for Vanguard Press (Morgan 82).   The first edition hit the bookstores under the new title of And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in September of 1937.  It met with rave reviews and propelled his career as a winning children’s author.

Following Mulberry Street, came the equally successful The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins in 1938.  Before it came out in print, Bennet Cerf of Random House stole Ted away from Vanguard Press with the promise of granting Ted the freedom to write whatever he wanted (Morgan 93).  His first action was to write and illustrate an obscure book formulated for an adult audience. The 1939 publishing of The Seven Lady Godivas featured his feeble attempt at drawing the human form–in all its naked glory (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 31).  Although quite humorous, the book  failed miserably.  In a 1965 interview with C. Robert Jennings of the Saturday Evening Post, Ted admitted, “I tried to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.  I think maybe it all went to prove that I don’t know anything about adults–beyond the fact that they’re obsolete children” (qtd. in “Geisel, Theodor Seuss” 139).

With his singular assault on the adult audience behind him, Ted completed  The King’s Stilts, which seemed to mimic 500 Hats in both prose and story line (MacDonald 38).  Its unsuccessful debut was a disappointment to Ted, but he continued to labor in his search for new ideas. In January of 1940, while away from his drawing board, a gentle breeze entered through his window and scattered several sketches on his desk.  Upon his return and much to his delight, he found a sketch of a gentle pachyderm sitting atop a sketch of a tree (Moje, Shyu 29).  He asked himself the question, “What is an elephant doing in a tree?” (Morgan 97). He answered it in Horton Hatches the Egg, published by Random House in 1940.

Over the next seven years, Ted took a break from children’s books and occupied himself in various ways.  World War II prompted his return to cartooning, and his political antics appeared in the tabloid newspaper PM on a weekly basis (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 75).  His cartoon series entitled Mein Early Kampf was a spoof on Hitler that portrayed the leader as an ungrateful child (Morgan 102). As an Army Captain, Ted produced and directed several instructional films including Our Job in Japan and Hitler Lives, which won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1946 (Novak 16; “Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 75).  In 1947, Ted and Helen were honored with yet another Oscar for Design for Death, a documentary of the history of the Japanese people (Morgan 120).  It wasn’t until late that year, that Ted would return to his books with the publishing of McElligot’s Pool, a story about a boy who contemplates catching fish in a pond whose only fish are imaginary.

Next came Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose in 1948 and Bartholomew and the Oobleck in 1949.  In between these endeavors, Ted and Helen moved to La Jolla, California and took up residence in an abandoned lighthouse.  The heart etchings and carved initials that decorated the walls of the tower gave testimony to the affections of bygone lovers (Morgan 135).  It was here that Ted set up his studio and completed the illustrations for the 1950 publishing of If I Ran the Zoo, an imaginative tale about young Gerald McGrew who rejuvenates the job of zookeeper and adds “something new” to the zoo (MacDonald 66):

My New Zoo, McGrew Zoo, will make people talk.
My New Zoo, McGrew Zoo, will make people gawk.
At the strangest odd creatures that ever did walk.
I’ll get, for my zoo, a new sort-of-a-hen
Who roosts in another hen’s topknot, and then
Another one roosts in the topknot of his,
And another in his, and another in HIS,
And so forth and upward on onward, gee whizz! (Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo 8).

Upward and onward is exactly where Ted’s career took him.  His preoccupation with filmmaking earned him his third Academy Award for the 1951 animated Gerald McBoing-Boing and his induction into Hollywood with the 1953 release of his feature-length cartoon entitled The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (“Geisel, Theodor Seuss” 140). He published several more children’s books during the next few years including Horton Hears a Who! (1954) and If I Ran the Circus (1955).  Then in 1954, author John Hersey, in an article that appeared in Life magazine, challenged Dr. Seuss and a number of other illustrators to tackle the growing problem of illiteracy (MacDonald 106). He made the claim that traditional primers contained “insipid illustrations” of “abnormally courteous [and] unnaturally clean boys and girls” (Hersey 136).  He sought a primer with illustrations that would broaden the message of the written word. Ted accepted the challenge. Following the publication of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1957), Dr. Seuss tackled his biggest foe–illiteracy.  The ensuing battle between man and words brought forth the following:

We looked!
Then we saw him step in on the mat.
We looked!
And we saw him!
The Cat in the Hat (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat 6).

On a cold, wet day, two young children discovered a friend in a marvelous character who stepped in from the rain and turned their house upside down.  Their lives would never be the same, and neither would the lives of millions of readers to come.  The Cat in the Hat made literary history when it was first published in 1957 by Random House Publishing (“Geisel, Theodor Seuss” 140).  The book, which targeted first grade readers, made a 180° turn away from the conventional Dick and Jane primers (MacDonald 106).  The Cat in the Hat originated from a select list of some 250 common words within the average first grader’s reading comprehension (“Somebody’s Got to Win” 69). What’s so extraordinary about that?  Nothing, unless the composer happens to be Theodor S. Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.  From 250 words, Ted created an imaginative, rhyming masterpiece complete with a quick-witted cat in a striped hat, an overprotective goldfish, a couple of Things, two bored children, and a mother due home any minute.  Its success was nothing short of a literary coup, which shook the foundations of the educational community (Morgan 155).

Following the triumphant debut of The Cat in the Hat, Ted and Helen headed up a new venture called Beginner Books, which would later become a division of Random House (Moje, Shyu 27).  The arrangement led to a long procession of Dr. Seuss books poised to convince children that reading could be fun. Among the many titles published in the Beginner Books series were The Cat in the Hat Comes Back in 1958 and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in 1960.  Helen, the backbone of the enterprise, made her own literary contribution with her book entitled A Fish Out of Water (Morgan 174).  Then came the best seller Green Eggs and Ham. Published in the fall of 1960, it was the product of a fifty dollar wager between Ted and Bennet Cerf. Cerf bet Ted that he would be incapable of composing a Beginner Book using only fifty words (“Somebody’s Got to Win” 69). Ted won. The words “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am” became immortalized in the hearts and minds of children both young and old (Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham 16).

While their mailbox in La Jolla overflowed with gifts of green eggs and ham, Ted toiled over I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew (1965), and Helen grew frustrated trying to hold everything together.  As their marriage deteriorated, so did Helen’s health.  Some years before, she suffered from immobilizing pain throughout her body. Tests revealed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare and sometimes fatal form of paralysis (Morgan 149).  Though her recovery amazed doctors, Helen would never be free of the pain caused by the debilitating disease.  On Monday, October 23, 1967, the Geisels’ housekeeper discovered Helen in her bedroom lying next to a bottle of pills (Morgan 195). A note written to Ted read, “I love you so much. . . . I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you. . . . My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed. . . . Sometimes, think of the fun we had all thru the years. . . .” (qtd. in Morgan 195).  For Helen, death provided the least painful path to leaving the man she loved so much.  After the memorial service, a despondent Geisel retreated to his tower and immersed himself in his work.

His first book, following the death of his wife, was The Foot Book published in 1968, the year he would marry Audrey Stone Dimond.  Audrey and her husband Grey had been close friends of the Geisels for many years.  Shortly after Helen’s death, Audrey realized that Ted needed her support and that her marriage to Grey had been over for a long time.  Grey took the news well, and the couple divorced on the twenty-first of June.  Audrey and Ted married on August 5, 1968 (Morgan 202).  Although rumors ran rampant along the beaches of La Jolla and through the offices of New York, it wasn’t long before Audrey’s sincerity and enthusiasm won her skeptical audience’s approval (Morgan 204-205).

Ted, it seemed, had more to prove to his audience. Could he really make it without Helen, his ever faithful assistant and confidant?  In 1970, he turned out two Bright & Early readers for the very young entitled I Can Draw It Myself and Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? (“Dr. Seuss from Then to Now” 79).  Despite their success, Ted found his work mediocre and mundane.  He longed for a new outlet.  All the while, he grew increasingly agitated with the state of the environment.  In September, Audrey urged Ted to escape to Africa (Morgan 210).

Sitting poolside at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, Ted watched a herd of elephants traveling across a hillside. Grabbing a laundry list, the only slip of paper he could find, Ted spent the next forty-five minutes writing what would become The Lorax, an impassioned tale about a wise, little creature who speaks out for conservation (“Somebody’s Got to Win” 69). He found his inspiration in a herd of elephants and completed ninety percent of the book that day (Morgan 210).   In an interview with U.S. News & World Reports in 1986, Ted said, “I’ve looked at elephants ever since, but it has never happened again” (“Somebody’s Got to Win” 69).

Sales of the The Lorax were small, but its message was big (MacDonald 154).  It challenged a fast-paced, forward-moving society to slow down and contemplate the possible consequences of its actions.  Viewed as an aggressive attack on big business, pollution, and the degradation of the environment, it met with sharp criticism and mixed reviews (MacDonald 153).  Eventually, the environmental movement caught up with Dr. Seuss, and today The Lorax is recognized as a book that appeared on the shelves slightly ahead of its time. (MacDonald 153).   The ominous words of the Lorax continue to leave young readers with the impression that they can and should do something about the plight of their planet (Lystad 2):

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not (Seuss, The Lorax 58).

Throughout the years, many of Ted’s books came to be regarded as vehicles to express his passionate beliefs (“Dr. Seuss” 2.)  This reputation prompted teachers and critics to sift through the marvelous creations of Dr. Seuss searching for moral messages that contain the power to reform society (Moje, Shyu 28).  Was Dr. Seuss an engineer of societal modification?  The answer is one that continues to incite controversy. Green Eggs and Ham is one example of a book that stands accused of containing valuable behavioral messages for children.  In actuality, the origins of the book sprang from a mere wager (“Somebody’s Got to Win” 69).  On the other hand, many critics, who accused Ted of using his books as a sort of pulpit from which to preach to children, seem to have some basis for their claims (“The Butter Battle Book. Rev. of” 1). In addition to The Lorax, they cite Yertle the Turtle (1958) and The Butter Battle Book (1984), which voice concerns about the hazards of warfare. Both the environment and war were issues that troubled Ted, and the messages delivered were anything but subtle. Nevertheless, he maintained that he rarely began a book with ethical intentions  (Moje, Shyu 29). He did state, however, that as in any children’s book, “somebody’s got to win”  (qtd. in “Somebody’s Got to Win” 69).  The winners, it seems, are children both young and old, for following The Lorax, came Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! (1972) and Great Day For Up! (1974).

In 1975, Ted began having problems with his vision.  He had trouble focusing and saw squiggly lines in front his eyes. A diagnosis of glaucoma prompted five years of treatment and cataract surgeries (Morgan 228). So came the inspiration for the 1978 publishing of I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!  In addition to his eye problems, Ted’s hearing was failing him, he had a bout with cancer, and his speech began to slur. As a result, he spent many agonizing hours in hospital waiting rooms drawing pictures of all the things the doctors were going to do to him (Morgan 261).  From the drawings came a book about growing old and the trials and tribulations of getting there.  At the age of eighty-two, Ted published You’re Only Old Once! (1986) and dedicated it to the members of the Class of 1925.  For the first time since The Seven Lady Godivas, his writing seemed to target the adult audience.  Even so, the subtitle reads A Book for Obsolete Children (Seuss, You’re Only Old Once!).

So the question comes to mind, exactly who is Dr. Seuss’ audience?  While the Beginner Books series targeted readers ages five to nine, many critics argued that the age bracket encompassed those from two to ninety-two (Kahn 47).  The dispute was finally settled with the publishing of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in 1990.  It tackled the meaning of life and encouraged children to dream of new horizons.  Most importantly, it offered hope (“Dr. Seuss” 1).  When the book had spent two years on the New York Times adult best-seller list, Ted exclaimed, “That proves it! I no longer write for children. I write for people!” (qtd. in Morgan 283).

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  was Ted’s last salute to the world.  On September 24, 1991, in the studio of his lighthouse tower and with Audrey by his side, Theodor Seuss Geisel passed away in his sleep.  He was eighty-seven. His death met with somber resistance. One father described his five year old’s reaction to the news: “[he simply] put his head down on the dinner table and cried” (Berstein 64).  For the next few days, headlines across the nation said good-bye to Dr. Seuss (Morgan 290).

Dr. Seuss left behind a legacy of wit and wisdom.  During his lifetime, he gave the world forty-seven literary treasures and the posthumous collection included two titles: Daisy-Head Mayzie and My Many Colored Days.  Each book reflects the generosity of a man who shared the wealth of a lifetime of knowledge and creativity.  The world has shown its appreciation for his contributions to children’s literature by honoring him with awards, doctorates, and a Pulitzer Prize special citation.  No award can express, however, the gratitude and love that millions of children and obsolete children have felt for him throughout the years.  While his death brought sorrow to children of all ages who grew up with Dr. Seuss, his lifelong contributions to children’s literature will bring enjoyment and an enthusiasm for reading to generations to come.


The final paragraphs of this paper were an agonizing and painstaking feat.  Weeks of research into the life of Theodor Geisel left me with a feeling of closeness to this man who so generously gave his magical words to generations of children. Over time, I came to dread the paragraph in which I would need to recount his death.  When the time came, I found it physically impossible to write a coherent sentence. Finally, with tears in my eyes, the words came.

In many ways Ted and I are quite alike. Like him, I am a perfectionist. Like him, I throw ninety-nine percent of my work in trash before I am satisfied (“Geisel, Theodor Seuss” 141). And like him, I am never completely satisfied.  I always feel as if I have left something unsaid or maybe I didn’t say it quite right.  Before his death, Ted was asked if there was anything that he had left out of his books–anything that remained unsaid.  His response was this:

Any message or slogan?  Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.’

The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be: ‘We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this’ (qtd. in Morgan 287).

Works Cited

“The Butter Battle Book.”  Rev. of The Butter Battle Book. National Review 27 July 1984: 15-16. Available: Cannell/Infotrac Academic Index Backfile.

“Dr. Seuss.” Life July 1989: 104-108. Available: Cannell/Infotrac Academic Index Backfile.

“Geisel, Theodor Seuss.” Current Biography. 1968.

Harrison, Gerald, et al. “Dr. Seuss Remembered.” Publishers Weekly 25 Oct. 1991: 32-33.

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