Dr. Seuss (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Through his unusual drawings and unique use of language, Geisel introduced generations of children to the joys of reading and the wonders of the imagination.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the second child and only son of German-American immigrants. Geisel enjoyed a warm family life and was especially close to his older sister, Margaretha. His earliest memories of home were of a stuffed dog his mother gave him. He treasured it through life as a symbol of his loving childhood and kept it close to his drawing board.
While no record of Geisel’s elementary school education exists, he was quite interested in outdoor activities. He was also fascinated by the Springfield Zoo, where he would go with his father on Sundays and holidays. Geisel often brought along a pad and pencil, although his pictures seldom resembled real animals. Just as his father encouraged his drawing, Geisel’s mother fostered his interest in reading. He especially liked fanciful books, which taught him that writing could be fun.
In high school, while Geisel’s friends and family liked his drawing, his art teacher did not. Geisel once turned a painting upside down to see how it looked. His art teacher thought Geisel was not taking art seriously and advised him to try a career in another field.
Influenced by his favorite teacher, a Dartmouth alumnus, Geisel chose Dartmouth for his college education in 1921. By the end of his junior year, Geisel was editing the school’s humor magazine, but after a prank, he was removed from the paper. However, he continued to edit, write, and draw cartoons under the name “Dr. Seuss.” After Dartmouth, unsure of what he wanted to do, Geisel attended Oxford University in England in the autumn of 1925. His Oxford notebooks were full of strange and fabulous animals. An American woman at Oxford named Helen Palmer suggested that Geisel stop studying literature and work on his drawing.
After he returned from Europe in 1927, Geisel tried to find work as a cartoonist in New York. After several months of rejections, Geisel found a job as a staff writer and cartoonist for Judge magazine. This allowed him to marry Palmer on November 27, 1927, and she became his collaborator and editor. One of Geisel’s cartoons for Judge changed his life. An advertising executive’s wife saw the cartoon and pushed her husband to hire Geisel. By 1931, Geisel was earning a good income that allowed him and Helen to live quite well.
Despite his prosperity, Geisel found himself frustrated. In 1932, he illustrated and wrote a children’s book containing his whimsical animals. However, no one wanted to publish it. Nonetheless, Geisel refused to give up. In 1936, while onboard a ship, he began writing to take his mind off of a storm. The rhythm of the engines gradually caught his imagination, and he began to write phrases to match the beat. The one that he liked the most was “and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street,” which became the title of a story of a boy’s imagination and how it turned the ordinary into the extraordinary. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), Geisel’s first children’s book, sold well and was critically well received. It displayed a hallmark of all later Dr. Seuss books: the careful placement of words and pictures on the page to encourage children to read further in the book.
By the early 1940’s, World War II was raging across the globe. Geisel decided to use his art to help. He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and moved to Hollywood, California, to make war films. Geisel advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and also won Academy Awards in 1946 and 1947 for his war documentaries. Significantly, it was in Hollywood that he learned to edit a story to move the plot along, and this would later help his children’s books.
After the war, Geisel settled in California. In 1951 he had the chance to combine children’s stories with films, and so he wrote the script for a cartoon, Gerald McBoing Boing, which won him another Academy Award. However, it also led to one of Geisel’s greatest failures, the live-action film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. While it was a critical failure when it opened in 1953, in later years it did develop a cult following.
The Cat in the Hat, the book for which Dr. Seuss is probably most well known, was born out of a bet in 1957. A friend of Geisel who published children’s books complained that reading primers were bland and boring. He presented Geisel with a list of 225 words appropriate for young...
(The entire section is 1924 words.)
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