Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities. -- Dr. Seuss
He wasn’t an official doctor, but his prescription for fun has delighted readers for more than 70 years.
Childhood and Education
Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Ted”) was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Mass. Geisel enjoyed a fairly happy childhood; his parents were strict, but very loving. His mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, had worked in her father’s bakery before marrying Geisel’s father, often memorizing the names of the pies that were on special each day and “chanting” them to her customers. If Geisel had difficulty getting to sleep, she would often recall her “pie-selling chants.” As an adult, Geisel credited his mother “for the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it.”
Geisel attended Dartmouth College and by all accounts was a typical, mischievous college student. He worked hard to become the editor-in-chief of Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine. His reign as editor came to an abrupt end when Geisel and his friends were caught at a party that did not coincide with school policy. Geisel continued to contribute to Jack-O-Lantern, merely signing his work as “Seuss.” This is the first record of him using the pseudonym “Seuss.”
After college, Geisel claimed to have been awarded a fellowship to Oxford University and the elder Geisel reported the news to the Springfield paper where it was published the following day. Ted confessed the truth—Oxford had denied his fellowship application—and Mr. Geisel, who had a great deal of family pride, managed to scrape together funds to send him anyway. Geisel left for Oxford intending to become a professor (he couldn’t think of anything else to do with an Oxford education). This would be the first of many turning points in his career.
While Geisel sat in his "Anglo-Saxon for Beginners" class at Oxford, he met Helen Palmer. His doodling during class caught Helen’s eye and she suggested he should become an artist instead of a professor. Geisel decided that he could make a living as a cartoonist, and was thrilled when one of his submissions was published in The Saturday Evening Post. His work caught the eye of the editor for Judge, a New York weekly, and he was offered a staff position.
Standard Oil also recognized Geisel’s talent—or at the very least, his interest in Flit, the pesticide Standard was manufacturing at the time—and offered him a job in their advertising department. In all, Geisel spent over 15 years in advertising, primarily with Standard.
During the War
During World War II, Geisel contributed anywhere from three to five urgent political cartoons each week to the “popular front” tabloid newspaper, PM. Despite the steady work from PM, however, Geisel wanted to contribute more to the war effort. At 38, Geisel was too old for the draft, so he sought a commission with naval intelligence. Instead, he wound up serving in Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (U.S. Army) making movies relative to the war effort. He was introduced to the art of animation and developed a series of animated training films, which featured a trainee called Private Snafu.
Venturing into Children’s Literature
Geisel was still contributing to Life, Vanity Fair, Judge, etc., when an editor at Viking Press offered him a contract to illustrate a collection of children’s sayings called Boners. While the book received bland reviews, Geisel’s illustrations were championed; he considered the opportunity his first, official “big break” in children’s literature and another turning point in his career.
His next career turning point was in response to Rudolf Flesch’s book and John Hersey’s article, both entitled Why Johnny Can’t Read; the premise for both article and book were that children’s books were boring. John Hersey asked Geisel to write a children’s primer using 250 new reader vocabulary words; the end result was The Cat in the Hat. While schools were hesitant to adopt it as an “official” primer, children and parents swarmed for copies.
Though Geisel’s road to children’s books had many twists and turns, The Cat in the Hat catapulted him from pioneer in children’s literature to definitive children’s book author and illustrator, a position he has held unofficially for many decades since.
Geisel enjoyed writing entertaining books that encourage children to read. There are several—his later books, in particular—that were, in fact, inspired by current events or his own personal concerns.
For example, Geisel was upset about the billboards and construction that threatened his tranquil community of La Jolla. On a broader spectrum, however, Geisel was concerned about the environment as a whole; he wanted manufacturers, businesses and individuals to take responsibility for their actions. The Lorax, published in 1971, weaves a familiar tale of a good thing gone wrong: the irresponsible, ambitious Once-ler builds a huge, thriving business at the expense of Truffula trees and the creatures that depend on them. Remaining true to the Seussian style, Geisel demonstrated some of the pitfalls of progress and challenged the next generation to make it better.
Nearly 30 of Geisel’s Dr. Seuss books have been adapted for television or video and more than 600 million of his books have been sold around the world.
Seuss’s “Secret Art”
A doodler at heart, Geisel often remarked that he never really learned to draw. For more than 70 years, Dr. Seuss’s illustrations brought a visual realization to his fantastic and imaginary worlds; however, his artistic talent went far beyond the printed page. His “Secret Art” works reveal the paintings and sculptures he did at night for himself that weren't exhibited during his lifetime. Seuss always dreamed of sharing these works with his fans and entrusted his wife, Audrey, to carry out his wishes once he was gone.
In 1997, this dream was realized when "The Art of Dr. Seuss" project was launched. For the first time in history, collectors were able to see and acquire lithographs, serigraphs and sculptures reproduced from Geisel’s original drawings and paintings. This historic project has opened the world’s eyes to the unique artistic talent of Dr. Seuss and, as such, galleries, museums and collectors have helped make Audrey Geisel’s promise, and Dr. Seuss’s dream, a reality.
Now, 20 years after Geisel has passed away, these artworks have toured leading galleries and museums across the world, establishing Seuss as a significant artist of the 20th century.
End of an Icon
After devoting more than 50 years to creating entertaining, instructive books and iconic art, the good Dr. Seuss taught all that he could teach. Theodor “Ted” Seuss Geisel passed away on Sept. 24, 1991, at the age of 87.
Did you know that…?
… Geisel answered a challenge to write a book using 50 words or less, and the result was Green Eggs and Ham.
… Geisel was a "rogue taxidermist" before there was a name for it? Using as a resource the zoo where his father was superintendent, he fashioned real animal parts into mixed-media sculptures of fictional creatures like the "Two Horned Drouberhannis."
… The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was about 500 boys forced by the musical maniac Dr. Terwilliker to play a giant piano, in this 1953 film with screenplay and lyrics by Dr. Seuss. See the trailer of the only feature film he ever wrote.
Please note that photography is not permitted in this exhibit.
TM & © Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. All Rights Reserved.
Retrospective Art and Sculpture Garden Exhibition portions organized by Chase Art Companies and curator, William W. Dreyer.
- Happening Now
Seventy years ago, a historic landing changed the world.
The longest running exhibition of African-American art in the U.S. features more than 100 works.
- Coming Soon
See a favorite film, catch one you missed, or experience a new one.
Join us for hands-on projects, student discussions, live science experiences and more!