Monday, 2 March 2009

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

It was 105 years ago that Theodor Giesel was born. If you don't recognise the name, then don't worry. You will certainly recognise his nom de plume: Dr. Seuss.

In an extraordinarily long and fruit career Dr. Seuss wrote over sixty children's books. Dr. Seuss also worked in advertising, as a political cartoonist, and even as an animator. He was a man of many talents and apparently great at all of them. Indeed, it is safe to say that no other children's book author in the history of the medium equals him in either fame or stature.

Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Giesel in Springfield, Massachusetts. He attended Springfield's Central High School and later enrolled at Dartmouth College. Mr. Giesel worked on the school's humour magazine, The Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern and eventually became its editor in chief. Unfortunately he would be caught drinking, at the time not only a violation of Dartmouth policies but the Prohibition laws in effect at the time. Dartmouth allowed Mr. Giesel to remain in school, but they required him to withdraw from all extracurricular activities, including The Jack-O-Lantern. To get around this, Mr. Giesel would sign his contributions to the magazine "Seuss." He would not become "Dr. Seuss" until his humour pieces were published in the magazine The Judge.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Seuss attended Lincoln College at Oxford University where he intended to receive a PhD in literature. It was at Oxford that he met Helen Palmer. The two fell in love, married, and Dr. Seuss eventually returned to the United States without earning his degree. Having left Oxford, Dr. Seuss began submitting material to such humour magazines as The Judge, Liberty, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Vanity Fair.

Dr. Seuss's cartoons would lead directly to his career as an advertising illustrator. His first advertising illustrations would be for Standard Oil. Ultimately he would illustrate ads for Standard Oil for a full seventeen years. Manufactured by Standard Oil, Dr. Seuss also illustrated ads for the insecticide Flit. During his career in advertising Dr. Seuss illustrated ads for Ajax Cups, Ford, General Electric, NBC, Shaefer Bock Beer, and many others. Dr. Seuss would also try his hand at a newspaper comic strip. Hejji debuted on April 7, 1935 and was syndicated by King Features Syndicate. Unfortunately, it would be cancelled before the year's end.

If Dr. Seuss did not see success in newspaper comic strips, he would soon find the most successful venue in which he ever worked. Returning from an ocean voyage to Europe, Dr. Seuss was inspired by the rhythm of the ship to write a poem which would become the children's book . Published in 1937, it has the honour of being the first children's book published by Dr. Seuss. Before the United States' entry into World War II, Dr. Seuss would publish three more children's books. Surprisingly two of them, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and The King's Stilts, were written as prose rather than poetry. The third, Horton Hatches the Egg introduced the elephant Horton to the world and would become an unabashed classic. Dr. Seuss also wrote one of his few books for adults, The Seven Lady Godivas, published in 1939. At the time the book bombed, although when Dr. Seuss's fame grew it would later be redeemed.

With the start of World War II Dr. Seuss would enter the world of political cartooning. For two years he would create over 400 cartoons for the liberal New York City daily newspaper, PM as its editorial cartoonist. By 1942 Dr. Seuss would create posters for both War Production Board and the Treasury Department. By 1943 he joined the Army and became the commanding officer of the Animation Department of First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. While in the service Dr. Seuss wrote such films as Your Job in Germany, Our Job in Japan, and, most famous of them all, the Private Snafu series of training films. While in the Army Dr. Seuss worked closely with the legendary animator as Chuck Jones.

After the war ended Dr. Seuss returned to writing children's books. It was during the period that the bulk of his classic works were written, including Horton Hears a Who (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), The Cat in the Hat (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), and The Lorax (1971). Starting in the Sixties he also wrote beginning readers under the pseudonym Theo. LeSieg. While the Dr. Seuss books were only illustrated by Dr. Seuss, the Theo. LeSieg books were illustrated by a number of different artists.

Of course, it must be pointed out that Dr. Seuss did not spend the rest of his life only writing children's books. Dr. Seuss had provided the story for two Terrytoons (Put on the Spout and 'Neath the Bababa Tree as far back as 1931. In 1942 Warner Brothers adapted his book Horton Hatches the Egg as a ten minute cartoon, while George Pal adapted The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as Puppetoons in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Following the war, Dr. Seuss would create the animated character Gerald McBoing Boing and provide the screenplay for the live action classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.. In 1966 the classic holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted, directed by Dr. Seuss's old friend Chuck Jones. It would be followed by nine more specials based on Dr. Seuss's works.

Dr. Seuss also wrote two more books for adults (although all of his works are enjoyed by adults, perhaps more so than by children), Oh, the Places You'll Go and You're Only Old Once.

Dr. Seuss died on September 24, 1991. If anything, since then his fame has only grown. The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden opened in 2002 in his birth place of Springfield, Massachusetts. He has been commemorated on United States postage stamps. Dr. Seuss's birthday has practically become a national holiday, with schools across the nation commemorating his birth from simply reading his books aloud to having the children dress up as his characters.

Indeed, Dr. Seuss could well be the most successful author in the English language of the whole 20th century. At the very least I can think of no other author whose birthday is celebrating annually by children and adults everywhere. And while there are many who believe that Dr. Seuss was the greatest children's author of all time, I would argue that Dr. Seuss was the greatest poet of the 20th century. After all, most so called poets of the 20th century did not even bother to rhyme and were heard of by no one outside of a very few. In his poetry Dr. Seuss always rhymed. Of course, this points up to something important to consider about Dr. Seuss. If he is the most successful writer of the 20th century, or at least the most successful children's writer, it is perhaps because he can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike. I have been known to read the work of Dr. Seuss for entertainment. And my best friend openly admits he not only buys Dr. Seuss books for his daughter to enjoy, but so he can enjoy them as well. It is then perhaps fallacious to call Dr. Seuss a children's writer. His work transcends age.
As part of today's salute to Dr. Seuss, I thought I'd provide a links devoted to the great man:
The Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss
(A website devoted to Dr. Seuss long career in advertising)
Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden
(Self explanatory)
Dr. Seuss's Seussville
(Random House's Dr. Seuss site for children)
Dr. Seuss Went to War
(A web site hosted by the Mandeville Special Collections Library and centred on Dr. Seuss's political cartoons)

1 comment:

RC said...

what a great right up...i don't think i knew about his political's interesting about many great children's illustrators began in adult worlds (eric carl, shel silversteen to name a few).