- He Murdered Dick and Jane
During a life that spanned most of the twentieth century, Theodore Geisel worked as an illustrator for advertising campaigns, a political cartoonist for the left-wing magazine PM, an animator for the United States Army during World War II, a playwright, a documentary film maker, and a teacher. He's best known, of course, as Dr. Seuss, America's favorite writer of children's books. By turns silly, sad, smart, and (some said) subversive, his books—which include Green Eggs and Ham (1960), The Cat in the Hat (1957), Horton Hears a Who (1954), One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)—have been translated into fifteen languages and have sold more than 200 million copies.
When Geisel died in 1991, the New York Times eulogized him for meter and language that "were irresistible, especially the Seuss-speak he created when English seemed too skimpy for so rich an imagination." Columnist Anna Quindlen predicted that he would always be remembered as a man who "took words and juggled them, twirled them, bounced them off the page." Geisel made reading fun, she added, and deserves credit for a "mercy killing of the highest order": the murder of Dick and Jane, the didactic, decidedly un-dynamic duo who had dominated children's literature for decades.1
Seuss lives on. In 1999, the face of The Cat in the Hat appeared on a U.S. stamp. Five years later, the Postal Service issued a stamp with Geisel's portrait. In 2002, a Dr. Seuss National Memorial opened in Ted's hometown, Springfield, Massachusetts. And his books just keep on selling.
In Theodor Seus Geisel, Donald Pease, a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and American Studies at Dartmouth, assesses Geisel's life and legacy in a brief biography. Recognizing that half a dozen major works, most notably Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (1995) by Judith and Neil Morgan, have preceded him, Pease takes Geisel at his word: "Why write about Never-Never Lands that you've never seen—when all around—you have a Real Never-Never Land that you know about and understand" (p. 6). He focused instead on the relationship between Geisel's art and five "decisive turning points" in his life (p. xi). [End Page 112]
Pease argues that Geisel did not achieve artistic maturity until he came to terms with his formative—and traumatic—childhood experiences. Owners of the Liberty and Springfield breweries, which sold 300,000 barrels a year, Ted's family lost their livelihood and social standing when the Eighteenth Amendment became law in 1919. Forced to shut down his business, Mr. Geisel sat for days in the living room, "saying 'SOB SOB' over and over—he didn't know what to do with himself" (p. 157). Prohibition became one of Ted's "psychic fixations" as well (p. 61). Caught drinking gin just before his graduation from Dartmouth in 1925, Ted was put on probation, removed from his position as editor of The Jack-O-Lantern, and barred from contributing to the periodical. Dismayed that his father, "who had been comparably wronged by the injustice of Prohibition" (p. 36), endorsed the decision of the dean, Ted "quite literally" followed the elder Geisel's "demand that he wipe the blot from his record" (p. 37). He began submitting material under pseudonyms, before signing his own middle name under a cartoon. A "password into the world of make believe," Pease writes, "Seuss" enabled him to turn "shame and indignation into pleasure by literally making a name for himself" (p. 38). It probably didn't matter that his classmates voted him "least likely to succeed" (p. 35).
In The King's Stilts, Pease claims, Geisel "cloaked" his anti-Prohibition sentiments in a fairy tale. In helping King Birtram recover his stilts from the wicked Lord Droon, he writes, Eric, the young page, affirms the message "that all work and no play can demoralize a monarchy"—because if a king doesn...