Theodor SEUSS Geisel
The first major biography—Judith and Neil Morgan's Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography (1995)—is the primary source, giving us the facts and charting a path from which many others (myself included) have profited. The second, Charles Cohen's lavishly illustrated The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography (2004), found the life through the stuff, constructing the man through his vast creative output, [End Page 111] including much that was obscure or unknown until Cohen uncovered it. The third, Donald E. Pease's Theodor SEUSS Geisel (2010), is the psychobiography, probing the tripartite self of Ted (the child), Geisel (the man), and Dr. Seuss (the creative persona).1
These three books taken together create a composite portrait, comprised of contrasting if complementary facets of their subject's life and work. For example, addressing the subjects that make Seuss scholars uncomfortable—Ted Geisel falling in love with Audrey Dimond (who would become his second wife) and Helen Geisel (his first wife) committing suicide—the Morgans note that Helen had been ill and overworked, and that, upon meeting "[p]etite and pretty" Audrey Dimond, Ted was "enchanted" by her sense of humor (185). As the Morgans do, Cohen divulges that Ted fell in love with Audrey only after reporting Helen's death but situates these events in what he calls "the worst period of his professional life"—the failed lawsuit against the Liberty Library Corporation's unauthorized use of his 1932 cartoons and the commercial failure of The Cat in the Hat Songbook (344-46). In contrast, Pease considers the dissolution of the first marriage and attraction to Audrey as an outgrowth of Ted's search for a family. As he puts it,
The need to separate from Helen impelled Geisel to repeat the quest for a substitute family that he had embarked upon four decades earlier. Following the return of Helen's illness in 1964, he began to transfer his primary sense of belonging onto another family. That family was composed of Audrey Stone Dimond, who was then married to the chief cardiologist at Scripps Hospital, Grey Dimond, and her daughters, Lark and Lea.(130)
Throughout Theodor SEUSS Geisel, Pease returns to this theme, probing the ways in which Ted's family informs Dr. Seuss's work and motivates Geisel's artistic and professional choices. All three books offer insight into the man who was Dr. Seuss, but Pease's conveys the most interest in his psychology.
In the four books he dubs "the Springfield cycle"—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), McElligot's Pool (1947), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and If I Ran the Circus (1956)—Pease sees Dr. Seuss working through his relationship with his father. Geisel takes his mother's maiden name (Seuss) as "the surname of his story-telling persona" because she encouraged his imagination and his father did not (9). In Mulberry Street, Pease argues, the character Marco's "unbeatable story" replaces the "competitive drive" of Theodor Robert Geisel (Ted Geisel's dad, a.k.a. "T.R.") "to continue running his business" (a brewery) during Prohibition, but Geisel (via Marco) "cannot communicate with his father's unacknowledged need to recover his self-worth without defying his command" (19). The later three Springfield books allow Geisel to successfully work "through the trauma that started the compulsion," "releas[ing] him from the hold of the emotions that incited it" (85). In McElligot's Pool, dedicated to T.R., Marco enters another fantasy world but this time "directly responds to the adult" (87). Having written a book in [End Page 112] which a boy convinces a single adult of his fantasy, Seuss then created If I Ran the Zoo, in which a boy "turns his fantasized take-over of the zoo into the means to win the approval of everyone he encounters" (88). If I Ran the Circus, also dedicated to his father, goes a step further: it is "the first of Dr. Seuss's books in which a child narrator includes an adult onlooker as a participant in the fantasy" (88). From denying his childhood imagination to placate the father in Mulberry Street, Seuss brings the father figure into the fantasy in If I Ran the Circus. The Springfield cycle stories "enabled Dr. Seuss to heal Ted's emotional wounds by inventing spaces that lacked the hostile conditions that motivated them," Pease writes (90). At moments such as these, Pease is at his most insightful, offering valuable contributions to the study of Seuss and of children's literature in general.
And now, a confession. When I read the proposal for this book, I thought: Cool! Donald Pease is writing a book on Dr. Seuss! (I also thought: Whoa. I've been asked to review a book proposal by Donald Pease. I'm not worthy!) I was also excited that he would be focusing his considerable intellect on children's literature. When Salman Rushdie writes on The Wizard of Oz, Michael Chabon writes a novel for young readers, or Donald Pease writes about Dr. Seuss, the field of children's literature benefits from the attention. Though no longer "the great excluded" (to borrow Francelia Butler's term), children's literature still ranks a little lower in academe than, say, Shakespeare or modernism. As a contribution to Oxford's Lives and Legacies series, Theodor SEUSS Geisel joins books on Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, T. S. Eliot, and William Faulkner. That places Seuss in fairly august company—which is precisely where he belongs. But Theodor SEUSS Geisel is a worthy book not only because it may increase its subject's cultural capital, nor because it's written by the Dean of American Studies. Pease offers some genuine contributions here—the idea that "Geisel did not achieve artistic mastery until he discovered that the deep sources of his art lay sedimented in his Springfield experiences" (75) is a provocative claim, offering a useful way of examining Seuss's artistic development.
That said, Theodor SEUSS Geisel is unlikely to have the impact of Pease's Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993, co-edited with Amy Kaplan) or Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (1987), to name but two of his many books. However, at 178 pages (including index), Theodor SEUSS Geisel also does not harbor the ambitions of those earlier volumes. Similarly, it may not advance Seussology to the same degree that Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999) did, but nor does it intend to. It's a brief meditation on Seuss's life and cultural significance.
Those who study Seuss might—well, OK, I might—query claims like this one: after the war, "Geisel aspired to dissociate his art from a war mentality. He wanted to let go of the emotional baggage that had informed the aggressive satire of his wartime art. When he turned to children's literature, he renounced the artistic [End Page 113] practices that sprang from such animosity" (80). Although I see Seuss's postwar message books (The Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who!, etc.) as the direct outgrowth of Seuss's wartime experience, Pease offers a fresh way of thinking about how World War II changed Seuss. Two different interpretations, both defensible. Similarly, those who study children's literature may pause when they read "The children's literature scholar Henry Jenkins" (75) or "the Seuss scholar Henry Jenkins" (93). Jenkins is a brilliant media scholar and pop culture scholar; though he has written on Seuss and edited The Children's Culture Reader, those areas of interest have not (as yet, at any rate) dominated his field of inquiry. Nor have they have (thus far) dominated Pease's, but his scholarship here is typically sound, and these minor quibbles do not undermine the argument. Pease has a rapacious curiosity: perhaps children's literature will become part of his repertoire?
Theodor SEUSS Geisel brings valuable attention to one of America's greatest children's writers, and I'm all for it. Though I've thought (and written) a fair bit about Dr. Seuss, Pease came up with ideas that produced new possibilities, shifting my thinking. For instance, in the beginning of The Cat in the Hat, Pease describes Sally and her brother "sitting mesmerized in front of a window whose panes resemble blank television screens" (103). That got me considering historical context (the percentage of American homes with television sets nearly doubled between 1953 and 1960), the competition between TV and playing outside (which the abandoned outdoor toys, on the left-hand page, signal), and the debates pitting television against literacy (especially apt, because Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat to teach reading). A book that causes me to revise my own lines of thought is the kind I like to read—and the kind of which Seuss himself would approve. As his Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975) advises, "Think left and think right / and think low and think high / Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!"
Philip Nel is professor of English at Kansas State University, where he directs the graduate program in children's literature. His most recent book is Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature, co-edited with Julia Mickenberg.
1. I'm excluding Thomas Fensch's The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss: The Life and Work of Theodore Geisel (Xlibris Corp, 2001) because it adds little to the Morgans' account. I've omitted Maryann Weidt's Oh, the Places He Went: A Story About Dr. Seuss—Theodor Seuss Geisel (Carolrhoda, 1994)—though it is a thorough work, using original research—solely because it is a juvenile biography that (understandably) lacks the same degree of analytical detail of the others. For similar reasons, I've not included the many other biographies for younger readers. Though some reviewers called it a biography, my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (Continuum, 2004) is a critical study—hence its omission here, as well.