In 1990, Donald E. Pease, a leading scholar of American literature and culture, held the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professorship in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. In 2009, he published the book about Ted Geisel (1904-91) that he began to think about the year he held the chair. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, graduated with a degree in English from Dartmouth in 1925. As Pease demonstrates, Dartmouth faculty and students, including Norman MacLean, provided a valuable support community for Geisel who cut his teeth as a satirist for the college's humor journal, Jack-o-Lantern. After a year of study at Oxford, Geisel benefited from Dartmouth connections as he entered the world of New York advertising and cartooning in the late 1920s. Geisel first signed his cartoons as Seuss when Dartmouth administrators banned him from publishing with the Jack-o-Lantern after violating alcohol rules during the Prohibition era. The Seuss name served as a subterfuge, allowing Geisel to publish art that defined his "performer, pretender, artist, clown" personae in his college years (17). The pseudonym also paid homage to his mother, Nettie Seuss, who encouraged her son's creativity. Ted's father, a German American brewer named Theodor Robert, sternly rebuked his artistic ambitions.
Pease's intention to engage "the question of the relationship between Dr. Seuss's art and Geisel's life" is already evident in the anecdote about how Geisel became Seuss, as it speaks to how he transformed prohibitions into creative spurs (x). One thinks not only of how the Nineteenth Amendment became the foil for Geisel's post-college satires, but also of how The Cat in the Hat (1957) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960) resulted from word-count challenges set by publishers William Spaulding and Bennett Cerf. Pease writes, "Dr. Seuss deftly circumvented moral inhibitions and logical constraints. His postwar art transformed overcoming prohibitions from the major theme of his caricatures and satires into a defining structural feature of his books" (80).
Pease explores the psychological needs and analyzes the social vision that informed Seuss's sixty-five year career. His comic art served a therapeutic function, enabling Geisel to deal with traumatic elements from his childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts. The traumas included his family's loss of status when Prohibition ruined the family's brewery business, anti-German sentiment during World War I, and a humiliating moment when President Theodore Roosevelt failed to award young Ted a medal in front of a large crowd. According to Pease, the children's books at once "recover, transform [End Page 161] and conserve traumatic memories" (18). Geisel's books for children were also the site where he instructed children (and perhaps adults as well) on how to come to terms with pressing social concerns and mid-to-late-twentieth-century historical traumas. Some examples: Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949) deals with ecological dangers; Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (1948) concerns World War II and its aftermath as it "rework[s] the wartime realities of assault from the air and territorial occupation into backdrops for children's tales" (117); Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958) focuses on Cold War issues of social and political hierarchy as well as themes of the "reversibility of power and the need for communal interdependence" and a "postwar critique of Hitler's authoritarian rule" (118); The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961) is a critique of anti-Semitism; and The Lorax (1970), with its focus on deforestation and pollution, illustrates the "symptoms of ecological disaster" (139). The Butter Battle Book (1984), published when the author was 80, deals with the absurdity of nuclear war.
A Professor of English whose work is informed by poststructuralism, Pease quite naturally (and deftly) attends to Geisel's extraordinary linguistic inventiveness. The Beginner's Books series, he writes, "are as much about words and syntax as about plotted events. . . . Dr. Seuss constructed comic devices that turned words into sources of pleasure. [His work] displays several language games—internal rhyme, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, alliteration—in which Dr. Seuss separates words from their normal function...