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How Theodor Geisel Became Dr. Seuss

By Matt Reimann. Jul 16, 2016. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Children's Books

Theodor Geisel, known today as Dr. Seuss, was a student of English literature in his youth. While attending Oxford to get a Ph.D. in the 1920s, his future-wife persuaded him to pursue his dreams as a writer and illustrator. He returned home to the United States, with little experience other than a stint as editor of Dartmouth’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern. He submitted pieces to publishers and periodicals. It was a long slog, but he eventually made his debut with a cartoon in the July 16, 1927 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. His pay was $25—enough encouragement for the young cartoonist to move to New York to take his dreams seriously.

Theodor_Seuss_Geisel_01037v.jpgGeisel took the name "Seuss" from his mother’s side of the family. Still, the story behind the moniker goes much deeper than that. While a student at Dartmouth during Prohibition, he was caught drinking gin one night with his fellow students. Being caught with contraband was a major offense at the time. He was not expelled, but he was forced to resign from extracurriculars, including his post as editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern. Not willing to quit, Theodor Geisel found a clever way to stay involved: he'd continue writing, just not under his own name. And this is how Dr. Seuss was born.

The now-famous name underwent some changes along the way. The true pronunciation of Seuss, the German-origin family name, rhymes with “voice.” From the start, most readers mispronounced it as you or I would, letting the pseudonym rhyme with “juice.” Geisel soon accepted the more popular interpretation in the end, appreciating its resemblance to the fictitious children’s storyteller, Mother Goose.

A few months after his move to New York, Geisel landed a job at Judge magazine. He would eventually apply the Dr. Seuss pen name to his work at the publication. Here, Geisel began to hone his distinct illustrative style, as can be seen in work like this 1933 cover for the magazine. Geisel also found lucrative side projects in advertising work, illustrating, and lending his vision to prominent companies like GE, NBC, and Standard Oil.

There was a ten year span between Theodor Geisel’s move to New York and the publication of his first children’s book. The author became used to rejection; over two dozen publishers declined his first manuscript. What makes for the appeal of a Dr. Seuss book today—its sense of play, its refusal to sermonize to children—was exactly what publishers were afraid of. Were it not for a chance brush with a publisher and former Dartmouth classmate on the street, it would be hard to know the fate of Dr. Seuss. "If I had been walking down the other side of Madison Avenue,” Geisel said, “I'd be in the dry-cleaning business today."

Seuss’ manuscript, about a boy who spins a false and complex tale for his father, was seen as confusing to publishers who were used to finding morals in their children’s books. Dr. Seuss books are not without lessons for children, but they are written with the understanding that kids deserve a plain good story, without, as he said, being preached to.

17988.jpgThe book took a lot of work, too. Geisel was a perfectionist, and spent six months getting his debut, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, just right, revising and conferring with his wife over every line of his verse. The book was received well, and Geisel had some advocates who were keen to the book’s originality. A librarian and educator Anne Carroll Moore found it a great book, even sending a copy to Beatrix Potter, who also admired the budding children's author. After such a long battle with publishers, it is easy to imagine why Geisel was receptive to the positive reception. He even committed to memory a positive one-sentence review of Mulberry Street published in the New Yorker, which he retained for a lifetime.

After Mulberry Street, Geisel wrote three more books in prose. One of them was a book for adults entitled The Seven Lady Godivas, in which he attempted to illustrate nude women. The book sold poorly, and Geisel would later refer to the book as his “greatest failure." Today copies of the book can sell for hundreds of dollars.

But what’s a little blunder here, or a period of anxiety there, to the legacy of Dr. Seuss? Today he remains one of the most famous authors in the English-speaking world, having sold over 600 million books. Love, luck, labor—all contribute to the achievements of Dr. Seuss, none more important than the other. Whether there’s a moral matters less than that the story is a good one.

 

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Matt Reimann
Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.

 

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