Katy Burns: The other Dr. Seuss

  • John Simpson (left), project director of exhibitions for The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, and his wife Kay Simpson, president of Springfield Museums, unwrap a statue of the "Cat in the Hat," at the museum in Springfield, Mass., on May 4. AP

Monitor columnist
Sunday, June 11, 2017

When I was 16, I worked in our small town’s library after school and on Saturdays. My boss was the librarian, a sophisticated older woman (in my eyes) who traveled to exotic places – Jackson Hole, Wyoming! – and had a gentlemen friend she discreetly met at restaurants in nearby towns. We had in common a great pleasure in reading and reverence for books.

Especially Dr. Seuss books. Whenever a new one was published we bickered companionably about who got to read it first.

The wisdom and wit – and brilliant drawings – of the beloved children’s book author Dr. Seuss have been adored by generations of Americans young and old. And so many of us couldn’t resist smiling when we heard that an interactive museum for children has just opened in his native Springfield, Mass.

The museum’s bright murals awash in color and densely populated with Seuss’s immortal creations – Horton the elephant, Bartholomew Cubbins and his 500 hats, the Grinch and the Lorax are just a few – fill the walls along with more conventional paintings of Seuss characters.

There are 3-D sculptures and interactive exhibits using digital technology, according to Boston.com’s Kristi Palma. Kids “can sit on a Seven Hump Wump and rhyme at a Green Eggs and Ham rhyming station,” and they can actually move and pose a Cat in the Hat sculpture. And there are rafts of Seuss’s personal possessions, including both his original oil paintings and his huge and celebrated collection of zany hats and bow ties.

I’m willing to bet, though, that the museum doesn’t include three dimensional models of – or in fact any reference at all to – the Seven Godiva sisters in all their Rubenesque (and naked) glory.

There was, it seems, a whole lot more to Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Seuss Geisel, than most of today’s fervent young fans realize.

In fact, the good doctor wasn’t even a doctor – or at least wasn’t, for much of his career, until his alma mater, Dartmouth College, awarded Theodor Geisel an honorary doctorate in 1956. It was also Dartmouth that prompted him to adopt the Seuss pseudonym in the first place.

Young Theodor, an aspiring writer, was an undergraduate there in the 1920s and was editor-in-chief of the school’s humor magazine when he was caught drinking gin with a bunch of classmates in his dorm. It was still Prohibition. Geisel had broken the law, so he was barred from extracurricular activities. A sympathetic professor advised him to use his middle name. “Seuss” – later “Dr. Seuss” – was born.

After college and a brief sojourn at Oxford, he set his sights on a serious career in New York City. His drawings and writings soon attracted interest. His biggest initial successes were in advertising, with his first big hit being for a then-common bug spray called Flit (“Quick, Henry, the Flit” became a catchphrase that caught fire and was eventually a favorite of comedians). He supported himself and his wife through his work for such big operators as Standard Oil, GE and NBC, even as he continued his other writing and drawing, and he established himself solidly in the public mind.

In 1936, he published his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was followed by five others before 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II. Four of them were delightfully imaginative children’s books, still popular today.

One was what he called his “adult book,” The Seven Lady Godivas, “the true facts concerning history’s barest family.” Copiously illustrated by drawings of wonderfully Seussian naked ladies of various sizes and shapes – none even remotely erotic and all carefully screened in strategic places – it told the romantic travails of the daughters of the late Lord Godiva as they strove to wed their beaux, the seven Peeping brothers, one named Tom.

As their proud father described them, “they had brains.” There could never be “a group of young ladies that wasted less time upon frivol and froth. No fluffy-duff primping, no feather, no fuss. They were simply themselves and chose not to disguise it.”

The Seven Lady Godivas was decidedly not a hit in 1939. Only 2,500 copies were sold.

Which didn’t stop Random House from publishing a re-issue “by Multitudinous Demand” in 1987. We stumbled across a copy in an artists’ gallery/used bookstore (what else?) on a back road in Goshen about 20 years ago and still find it cheerful, silly and utterly delightful.

Not that it mattered. Geisel’s – Seuss’s – career was firmly on its way. Until the war erupted, and he took another break, this time to be the political cartoonist for the New York daily PM, a fiercely left wing and pro-FDR newspaper. Geisel himself was also fiercely left wing and pro-FDR, and in the course of two years he drew some 400 cartoons, most of them directly denouncing fascism and savaging the German and Japanese war machines.

He was especially sulfurous in his depiction of our Japanese foes, with caricatures that – like many others of that era – were shockingly racist, and he made no distinction between our Japanese foes and Japanese Americans. He supported the latter’s internment, no matter how loyal they might be.

After several years at PM he joined the war effort more directly, working for the War Department producing posters and films.

After the war he returned to his popular books for children, including a series for beginning readers, starting with The Cat in the Hat. But he had other projects as well, including a movie – a critical and financial failure – a play, various cartoons, animated projects and TV adaptations.

He remained a liberal Democrat all his life, supporting progressive causes and damning the excesses of McCarthyism, and he tried to make some amends for his over-the-top anti-Japanese writing and drawings. Horton Hears a Who! was meant as a parable about the American postwar occupation of Japan and was dedicated to a Japanese friend he made in the course of a 1953 trip there.

It’s worth noting that during his lifetime Geisel successfully combined his genuine gift for fantastical and inspiring children’s stories and drawings with a ferocious dedication to his political beliefs. And suffered virtually no blowback. It’s unlikely that would be the case today.

Posturing politicians would excoriate him for hyper-partisan purposes, painting him as un-American or worse. He would be savaged in online forums hosted by shadowy groups and besieged by anonymous trolls, who would post scurrilous lies about all aspects of his life. And it’s quite possible his books would be boycotted, even banned in some corners of the country.

His career would be seriously hobbled, even destroyed.

Instead, in the course of his lifetime, he published 60 books, most under the Dr. Seuss moniker. They were translated into more than 20 other languages and sold over 600 million copies. They still sell today.

In the end, Dr. Seuss – a.k.a. Theodor Geisel – became a genuine American original, beloved by virtually all, young or old, and his work has brought joy to generations of Americans. That is how he’s remembered – and how he should be remembered. He is now honored by a museum in the town of his birth 113 years ago.

This man who never had children himself would, I think, be thrilled that he still inspires the imaginations of yet new generations of children.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)