“Most authors will not disclose their source for fear that other, less successful authors will chisel in on their territory. However, I am willing to take that chance. I get all my ideas in Switzerland, near the Forka Pass” –Dr. Seuss, on where he got his ideas.
No one can question the influence of Dr. Seuss. But questioning minds have always wondered, what influenced the man himself? Today, we'd like to dive in and explore a couple of theories.
In his introduction to a collection of cartoonist Gary Larson’s Far Side comics in 1993, the late comedian and actor Robin Williams noted,
“I love the Larson flair for drawing humans. Future civilizations may dig up his cartoons in archaeological expeditions. Their scientists will examine them and they’ll think that twentieth century man was a lumpy troglodyte with bad eyesight, buck teeth, and cow licks.”
What does this have to do with our topic today? Well, if we apply the same type of inquiry to the inimitable work of Theodor Geisel, known better as children’s book author Dr. Seuss, we find that generations of children have been shown and have delighted in a vision of humans as whimsical, even surreal—but above all fun and playful—creatures. When one sees the delightfully imaginative portrayals that define works like The Cat in the Hat (1957) and The Seven Lady Godivas (1939), it’s hard not to wonder just where they come from.
Though Seuss was notoriously cagey about his influences (perhaps because he was unable to identify them himself), we can glean a lot from his biography. Raised in Springfield, Massachusetts by the children of German immigrants, Seuss gained much from both his surroundings and his upbringing. While his father was the one who originally encouraged him to draw (and obligingly took him to the zoo with his sketchpad), it was his mother whom he credited “for the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it.”* Rather than reading to her children at bedtime, Seuss’ mother opted for a sort of rhythmic chanting, the compelling meters of which both lulled Seuss to sleep as a child and brought out his inner artistry.
If his poetical instincts were born at home, his artistic ideas were waiting for him just outside the house. His first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), referred to an actual street in his hometown, which was, at the time, a manufacturing hub for cars, board games, and firearms. The smokestacks, fountains, and distinct architectural features of the town, reimagined into things both strange and fantastical, would help to form mise en scène of books like The Lorax (1971).
Beyond the far-reaching influence of his adolescent years, it can be difficult to speculate on what influenced the seminal writer and illustrator. Some have noted, for instance, that his use of anapestic tetrameter as his meter in Yertle the Turtle (1958) is a nod to Lord Byron, who frequently relied on it. While it’s not obvious if this is the case, the fact that Seuss spent one year pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Oxford before beginning his career as a writer suggests a certain amount of plausibility.
Others see the influence of his fellow purveyor of neologisms Lewis Carroll. Seuss and Carroll share a sense of playful nonsense and both boast contributions to the modern English lexicon ("nerd" and "chortle", respectively, among others).
As a visual artist beyond children’s books, Seuss spent some years in Paris producing surrealist paintings alongside Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee, and it’s not hard to see such surrealist influences in his illustrations.
In contrast to the uncertainty around the underpinnings of Seuss’ work, of course, his legacy as one of the most influential and beloved creators of children’s literature is positively unquestionable.