Dr. Seuss at 100: Oh, the honors you'll get

A stamp, a statue and maybe a Cat in the Hat celebrate Geisel's centennial

For the Record

March 07, 2004|By Douglas Brinkley | Douglas Brinkley,New York Times

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Dr. Seuss is getting a U.S. postage stamp, a statue and, on Thursday, a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. It's all part of a bicoastal celebration of the centennial of Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss, the man responsible for the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat and the Lorax, among other unforgettable creatures.

Here in his hometown, the University of California, San Diego, has a Geisel Library, which this past week unveiled a bronze statue showing "Ted sitting at his desk, one of his legs plopped on its top with The Cat in the Hat standing behind him," his widow, Audrey, said. "It's perfect because that man never had both feet on the ground. One leg represents reality, the other his imagination."

Theodor Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in the industrial city of Springfield, Mass. At an early age he began to draw animals, often adding an extra hump in a camel's back or a long snout on a hyena's face for comic effect. While attending Dartmouth College he edited Jack O'Lantern, a humor magazine. But it was his Latin classes that had the most enduring influence on his future art.

"It allows you to adore words," Geisel once said about Latin, "take them apart and find out where they came from."

After briefly studying at Oxford University and the Sorbonne, he headed for New York and began as an essayist and illustrator for thoroughly adult publications like PM, Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post.

During the Depression, Geisel signed on as the advertising cartoonist for Standard Oil of New Jersey and other companies. His moment of creative epiphany came in 1936 when he was crossing the Atlantic aboard the Kungsholm. Annoyed by the ship's engine's anapestic rhythm, he decided to embrace it, using its incessant beat to help him compose his first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937).

Although this tall tale of a boy named Marco was rejected by 27 publishers, it was eventually bought by Vanguard Press, a division of Houghton Mifflin. Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, praised it as near-perfect art. Geisel, using the pseudonym Dr. Seuss -- Seuss was his mother's maiden name -- was on his way to becoming America's most popular children's book author.

Today, Dr. Seuss' 44 books have been translated into 21 languages, selling more than 500 million copies. "We're even in Braille," his widow said from her home here, an old observation tower overlooking the Pacific, where her husband did his illustrations.

Geisel died in 1991, at 87. A private man, during his lifetime Geisel never sold his art; he hoarded everything. "No house could hold all of Ted's stuff," she said. "So I'm happy it's all found the perfect home."

The home she is referring to is the postmodern Geisel Library at the university, where the Dr. Seuss Collection is open to scholars. There are more than 8,000 archived items on file, including a 1921 program from a minstrel show written by a precocious, 17-year-old Geisel, Chicopee Surprised, and the original sketches of The Cat in the Hat.

Anyone interested in the evolution of Geisel's art can study his notebooks, begun while he was an Oxford student. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps' Information and Educational Division, under Frank Capra; his hundreds of propaganda cartoons from that period are still riveting.

"What has me most excited is that the Seussian papers are right next to those of Jonas Salk" in the Geisel library archives, his widow said with a laugh. "Unlike Salk's papers, the Seussian files are all out of order. The archivists are perplexed why things keep jumping out of place. It makes perfect sense to me."

She is quick to point out that if you cannot make it to La Jolla -- or for that matter, Springfield, which is the home of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, and where the city's museum complex is currently exhibiting "The Art of Dr. Seuss" -- you can follow the centennial happenings on the Seussville Web site (www.seussville.com), which is maintained by his publisher, Random House, and receives some 100,000 hits daily.

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