Biographies > Dr. Seuss
Writer, illustrator. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904, Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known under his pseudonym "Dr. Seuss") was "probably the best-loved and certainly the best-selling children's book writer of all time," wrote Robert Wilson of the New York Times Book Review. Seuss entertained several generations of young readers with his zany nonsense books. He had originally intended to become a professor of English, but soon became bored and frustrated with the direction his career was moving in. After leaving graduate school in 1926, Seuss worked for a number of years as a free-lance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humor magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these works are collected in The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough. One of Seuss' cartoons--about "Flit," a spray-can pesticide--attracted the attention of the Standard Oil Company, manufacturers of the product. In 1928 they hired Seuss to draw their magazine advertising art and, for the next fifteen years, Seuss created grotesque, enormous insects to illustrate the famous slogan "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" He also created monsters for the motor oil division of Standard Oil, including the Moto-Raspus, the Moto-Munchus, and the Karbo- Nockus, that, said Kibler, are ancestral to his later fantastic creatures.
It was quite by chance that Seuss began writing for children. Returning from Europe by boat in 1936, Seuss amused himself during the long voyage by putting together a nonsense poem to the rhythm of the ship's engine.
Later he drew pictures to illustrate the rhyme and in 1937 published the result as And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, his first children's book. Set in Seuss' home town of Springfield, Massachusetts, Mulberry Street is the story of a boy whose imagination transforms a simple horse-drawn wagon into a marvelous and exotic parade of strange creatures and vehicles. Many critics regard it as Seuss' best work.
Mulberry Street, along with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton Hatches the Egg and McElligot's Pool, introduces many of the elements for which Seuss has become famous. Mulberry Street features rollicking anapestic tetrameter verse that compliments Seuss's boisterous illustrations. Jonathan Cott, writing in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature, declared that "the unflagging momentum, feeling of breathlessness, and swiftness of pace, all together [ act] as the motor for Dr. Seuss's pullulating image machine." Whimsical fantasy characterizes The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, while Horton Hatches the Egg introduces an element of morality and McElligot's Pool marks the first appearance of the fantasy animal characters for which Seuss became famous.
The outbreak of World War II forced Seuss to give up writing for children temporarily and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary films for American soldiers
One of these Army films--"Hitler Lives"-- won an Academy Award, a feat Seuss repeated with his documentary about the Japanese war effort "Design for Death," and the UPA cartoon "Gerald McBoing-Boing," about a little boy who can only speak in sound effects. "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T," which Seuss wrote with Allen Scott, achieved cult status during the 1960s among music students on college campuses. Later, Seuss adapted several of his books into animated television specials, the most famous of which, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, has become a holiday favorite.
The success of his early books confirmed Seuss as an important new children's writer. However, it was The Cat in the Hat that really established his reputation and revolutionized the world of children's book publishing. By using a limited number of different words, all simple enough for very young children to read, and through its wildly iconoclastic plot--when two children are alone at home on a rainy day, the Cat in the Hat arrives to entertain them, wrecking their house in the process--The Cat provided an attractive alternative to the simplistic "Dick and Jane" primers then in use in American schools, and critics applauded its appearance. For instance, Helen Adams Masten of Saturday Review marveled at the way Seuss, using "only 223 different words, ... has created a story in rhyme which presents an impelling incentive to read." The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Seuss to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.
In 1960, Random House acquired the company and made Seuss president of the Beginner Books division.
Seuss and Beginner Books created many modern classics for children, from Green Eggs and Ham, about the need to try new experiences, and Fox in Socks, a series of increasingly boisterous tongue-twisters, to The Lorax, about environmental preservation, and The Butter Battle Book, a fable based on the nuclear arms race. In 1986, at the age of 82, however, Seuss produced You're Only Old Once, a book for the "obsolete children" of the world. The story follows an elderly gentleman's examination at "The Golden Age Clinic on Century Square," where he's gone for "Spleen Readjustment and Muffler Repair." The gentleman, who is never named, is subjected to a number of seemingly pointless tests by merciless physicians and grim nurses, ranging from a diet machine that rejects any appealing foods to an enormous eye chart that asks, "Have you any idea how much these tests are costing you?" Finally, however, he is dismissed, the doctors telling him that "You're in pretty good shape/For the shape that you're in!"
Seuss died of cancer on September 24, 1991, in La Jolla, California. In 2000, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was made into a highly successful film directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch.