Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dr. Seuss

There's a good exhibit about Theodor Seuss Geisel, to give him his full name, although he's known better by his pen name of Dr. Seuss, at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, and I decided to see it today. In terms of impact, it's hard to beat him--estimates of his total output in terms of those who have read his books: 200 million. It's also hard to think of a writer, and in his case, that includes illustrator, of course, who said and did the right thing so often.

This exhibit has clearly been prepared to travel round the U.S. and it gives good coverage to all aspects of his lengthy career, including giving younger visitors--and those inclined to those things--to exercise their own imaginations.  After graduating from Dartmouth, where he edited the humor magazine, Jack O'Lantern, and some time at Oxford and in Europe, he started out in advertising, with the famous tag line attributed to him for an ad for insect repelllent--"Quick, Henry, the Flit!" 

The exhibit notes that he and his writer friends did not suffer much in the Depression thatcame upon them a few years after arrival on Madison Ave., but there's a note in Geisel's writing about his being fired from Standard Oil, the makers of the insecticide. By the time World War II was upon him, he had done pr work for the government and now was churning out editorial cartoons for PM, probably the most leftist large-circulation daily newspaper ever published in the U.S.  PM was a perfect stage for his anti-Nazi drawings and he likely increased its appeal beyond those who enjoyed the likes of I.F. Stone, James Wechsler, and Max Lerner, the last two later moving the then-liberal New York Post when PM folded in the late 40s. A few years ago we saw a great exhibit of this work at the library named for him on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.

Now, Geisel's genius really began to emerge.  He had always drawn fantastical creatures and had a lively pen and could turn out clever verse.  He wrote a children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry St., and followed it up with more. Some had some generous themes, like Horton Hears a Who, about the elephant who realizes "that a person's a person, no matter how small" and Yertle the Turtle, when a would-be dictator turtle is upset when a rebel upends the stack of turtles atop which the ruler sat. And he contributed much to the language, such as the title character of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

His defining books, though, to me, were The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs With Ham.  He restricted the number of words he used, composed the verse using anapest, and created memorable characters and ideas for kids of all ages. Both had the word limits, he having written the latter by way of response to a challenge from the publisher Bennett Cerf that it couldn't be done.   I still love the end of The Cat, when the children face the question we all confront so often:

Should we tell her
The things that went on
there that day?"

"Well...what would YOU do
If your mother asked you?"

 And, of course, he would occasionally slip some of his old political views, such as environmental awareness, into the children's books, such as this from The Lorax:
someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

 I don't think I can recall anyone who has had the positive impact he had on so many children and adults while engaging in sheer entertainment that remains just as delightful and meaningful as when it was written.  Perhaps one of the favorite usages I've heard that was drawn from his work -- from The Cat, of course -- came at an otherwise dull meeting when someone described two henchmen as Thing 1 and Thing 2.

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