Immortal, Dr. Seuss reaches 100, deserving a splendid biography

On Books

March 07, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

I grew up on A.A. Milne, the Brothers Grimm, Babar and, most of all, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Though I now learn that Theodor Seuss Geisel began writing and publishing children's books in 1937, he did not become widely read until the late 1950s, by which time I was a hard-bitten newspaper reporter. I read my first Dr. Seuss book -- The Cat in the Hat (Random House, 61 pages, $8.99) -- last week, to celebrate what would have been Seuss Geisel's 100th birthday, March 2.

A grand work! I don't need to tell you that. But I will tell you this:

It is superbly simple and direct, containing a total of 220 words, with most lines rhymed and wonderfully ordered, along with lots of rollicking, rough illustrations that intertwine with them perfectly. Of those words, most are of one syllable, there's a single three-syllable "another," and just 24 words with two sounds -- but six of those are "Sally" and 10 are "mother," which shouldn't really count. In Aristotelian terms, the antagonist cat's long rising action is extraordinarily energetic and ultimately threatening to the protagonist children, but then a crisis and resolution go almost completely their way, driving the tale convincingly into classic denouement -- enigmatic, with a dangling question of human integrity.

What more could you ask?

Well, I could ask that even a small portion of that book's clarity, focus and energy might have seeped into Dr. Seuss: American Icon by Philip Nel (Continuum International, 320 pages, $27.95). But no -- not a dollop, not a drop.

Still, the book contains a great deal of interesting information. So, first, who's Dr. Seuss?

Seuss Geisel adopted the Seuss pseudonym in 1925 while an undergraduate at Dartmouth. In 1927, he added the "Dr." mainly in signing cartoons for a number of magazines. In the 1920s he was very successfully writing advertising copy, including "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" -- an insecticide sales line that pervaded the American market and language.

Nel writes interestingly about Seuss' early observations on politics -- he visited Europe in 1936 and was repelled by the Nazis, and Nel finds suggestions of his opposition to Hitler in the early children's stories. His first book was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937.

He was strongly interventionist when the United States was still not engaged in World War II. He served 21 months as a political cartoonist for PM, the short-lived left-wing New York evening tabloid, drawing 400 cartoons between April 1941 and January 1943. (Dr. Seuss Goes to War, based on his cartoons, came out in 1999, written by Richard Minear.) On Jan. 7, 1943, he became a captain in the U.S. Army's Information and Education Division, a propaganda bureau, working on documentary films.

His books, Nel writes, were initially very unpopular with many teachers and children's librarians who judged the stories to be vulgar and the drawings crude and ugly. Nel reports that Seuss' favorite book was The Cat in the Hat: "It's the book I'm proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers." The Cat was published in 1957 and its and Seuss' popularity began to surge. By 1975 he dominated the American children's book market, with the five top sellers, ranking above Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web.

In total, he is credited with 85 books, including co-authored ones and a few illustrated by others. All but five are in verse. He lived to age 87. There have been two other biographies before Nel's, in 1988 and 1995.

Seuss's work, of course, is pure delight, joy and great fun. Sadly, there are none of those characteristics in this biography. It must be said that this is an academically responsible book: There are footnotes and intertextual references galore -- and an immense annotated bibliography with every imaginable citation, from parodies to cartoons to academic works, all arranged elaborately under such headings as secondary sources, exhibition catalogs and interviews. Nel is an English professor at Kansas State University, having earned a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt in 1993. He's written two other books and a vast number of academic papers and articles. Perhaps his book should be forbidden to anybody not sequestered in an academic tower.

Nel cites a couple of dozen academic papers and studies of Seuss -- research based on ostensible disciplines, among which are politics, gender, psychology, art, folk tales and liberation. He declares that his own methodology includes formalism, historicism, cultural studies, American studies, art history and biographical criticism.

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