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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Oh The Places He Did Go
by Robert Sullivan

 
     

Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss

I drove up a road lined with exotic, subtropical trees (Truffulas, perhaps? Tuttle-Tuttles?) I reached the summit of La Jolla's Mount Soledad, and knocked on the door of the
house that Seuss built. A diminutive, pretty, bright-eyed woman opened the door, and introduced herself as Audrey. This was Ted's widow, and as we talked that day it became
clear to me that the dual persona that had famously attached itself to her late husband, Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss, had been bequeathed. Quite happily, this vibrant, cheerful woman presented herself during our chat as Audrey Stone Geisel and also as Mrs. Seuss, preserver and defender of all things Seussian, keeper of the flame.

In this capacity she has signed off on everything from Jim Carrey's Grinch to the deal that led to Mike Myers' less felicitous Cat. Audrey's signature is on contracts for posthumous publications of Ted's work and the production of Seussical the musical. It was Audrey who sanctioned the ongoing Seussentennial celebrations nationwide marking the
hundredth year of Ted's birth, and the related exhibitions and activities at UCSD that reached an apex on March 2—the day itself—and that extend not only throughout 2004 but (again thanks to Audrey) forevermore. The Mandeville Special Collections in UCSD's Geisel Library is home to a Yertlesque pile of Seussiana, by far the tallest in the world, and this is because Audrey wanted it to be so.

“I took Ted up there one day, and I showed him that most original building—just glorious and wild, whereas librar­ies are usually so stodgy,” she told me. “He let out one of his snorts—hmmpf!—and said, ‘Well, if I had ever strayed into architecture, I might have produced something like that.' That's when I determined that this would be the library for Ted.”

Ted's eternal presence in the library is a story we will get to shortly. But it is best, in discussing the whys and wherefores of an artist's work, to know a bit about the person behind the art. So before we tell the Southern California part of the Seuss saga, let's travel back a century and cross the country to Springfield, Mass., where our tale begins with Theodor Seuss Geisel's birth on March 2, 1904.

Young Ted, son of a succesful brewer, grew up comfortably in a three-story white Victorian on Fairfield Street. Only three blocks away was the Forest Park branch of the town library; six blocks away was the Springfield Zoo. Of
all the places Ted would go in his long and eventful life, no others would have more pleasant associations. The library stirred Geisel's creative juices and, interestingly, so did the zoo; all the first models for Dr. Seuss's wondrous menagerie lived there. “That zoo,” said the eventual creator of Zooks, Yooks and Barbaloots, “was where I learned whatever I know about animals. I was always drawing—with pencils, pens, crayons or anything. Nearly always, it was animals. Goofy-looking ones. My mother overindulged me and seemed to be saying, ‘Everything you do is great.' ”

His doting mother was Henrietta, maiden name Seuss. Now, surely, you just said to yourself: “suice,” like juice.   But back then, it was pronounced, in the German, Soice (rhymes with “voice”). Young Ted knew himself to be Thee-o-door Soice GUY-zel. When the larger world told him he was Seuss as in Zeus, he went along without complaint.

Ted was a well-adjusted kid. “Childhood,” he once said, clearly basing the observation on experience, “is the one time in the average person's life when he can laugh just for the straight fun of laughing.” The happy boy possessed not only a precocious sketching talent, but a gift for rhyme; it is only a tad ripe to say that iambic pentameter came to him as naturally as melody to Mozart. He contributed a lot of   “knock-kneed poetry and stupid, so-called ‘humorous' essays” to both his high school newspaper and later to his college humor magazine at Dartmouth. Ted was a four-year stalwart at The Jack O'Lantern , but “the night before Easter of my senior year,” he later related, “there were 10 of us gathered in my room at the Randall Club. We had a pint of gin for 10 people, so that proves that nobody was really drinking. But Pa Randall, who hated merriment, called Chief Rood, the chief of police, and he himself in person raided us.” As part of his punishment, Geisel could no longer function as editor of The Jack O'Lantern . The spring edition of 1925 carried a suspiciously high number of cartoons by several brand-new artists: “L. Burbank,” “Thos. Mott Osborne '27,” “D.G. Rossetti '25,” “T. Seuss” and one simply by “Seuss.”

“To what extent that corny subterfuge fooled the dean, I never found out,” Geisel said. “But that's how ‘Seuss' first came to be used as my signature.”

In Geisel's early career as a magazine humorist and
advertising-copy artist, the nom de plume underwent a number of per­mutations—“Theo Seuss 2nd,” “Dr. Theo­phrastus Seuss,” “Dr. Theodophilus Seuss, Ph.D, I.Q., H2SO4.” Geisel started to recede, even as Seuss enlarged. When a children's book titled And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by “Dr. Seuss” appeared in 1937, the future was set.

Geisel, who had endured slurs for his German heritage during the first world war, grew to be a fierce patriot: a vocal interventionist during the drumbeat to World War II and an early enlistee after Pearl Harbor. Eventually attaining the rank of colonel, he collaborated on propaganda films with none other than Frank Capra, who in civilian life directed such classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington .

After his discharge, Geisel looked like a man whose career might take any one of several turns. He had Mulberry Street and three other kids' books to his credit, but he appeared to others as an ad man, the fellow behind the humorous pitches (“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was a famous slogan from Geisel's 17-year liaison with the manufacturer of the ubiquitous insecticide.) To still others, Seuss was a rambunctious adult cartoonist, the fellow who had contributed to the humor magazines Judge and the original Life , had drawn anti-fascist editorial cartoons for the newspaper PM , and had written and drawn the ribald The Seven Lady Godivas for Random House. Then again, Geisel had won two Oscars for his work on war documentaries, and if you had bumped into him on the Warner Brothers lot in the late 1940s, you would have found him working on a screenplay that would become, much amended and a decade later, Rebel Without a Cause .

But the studio scene didn't suit the shy ex-colonel; he wasn't comfortable with the confusing, collaborative process of movie-making. “I quit because I realized my metier was drawing fish,” he said simply. Others maintain that once Ted and his first wife, Helen, who died in 1967, had bought an abandoned observation tower atop Mount Soledad in 1947, Ted's desire to work alone became irresistible. He published the fantastical McElligot's Pool that year, and in the next decade came Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose ; Bartholomew and the Oobleck ; If I Ran the Zoo ; Scrambled Eggs Super! ; Horton Hears a Who ; On Beyond Zebra ; If I Ran the Circus and then in 1957, assuring Seuss's renown, both the Cat and the Grinch .

It is uncertain when Geisel started to believe that his might be a career worth collecting, but it seems the notion came in the early 1950s. “He wasn't a vain man at all, and I don't think he ever put a ‘collectible' value on his work,” Audrey told me. “But he did put SAVE in the corner of his folders, so maybe he had a premonition.” A friend of Ted's from Dartmouth told me that, around 1950, Ted wrote a pained letter to the college's president, John Sloan Dickey, informing him “that he was going to give his material to UCLA because he wanted it where he lived and worked.” It was a good fit there. UCLA had a major children's book collection. UCSD wasn't even around then.

How much Dartmouth might have cared in 1950 that a successful but hardly iconic alum was taking his strange drawings elsewhere is unknown. But after The Cat in the Hat became a nationwide phenomenon and set off a revolution in the way children were taught to read, Seuss began to be regarded in a different light. Critics went beyond remarking at his uncanny ability to entertain the young and started trying to fathom what it was that made his work so special. Could it be that this funny fellow was producing something akin to ... art?

“Oh God, yes,” the poet Sydney Lea told me, when asked that very question. “Just look at The Cat —the part where the fish in the bowl, the super ego, is having those problems. What we're dealing with there is called ‘dactylic diameter,' and he really knew how to exploit that poetic foot for its full worth. This does matter. Kids wouldn't have stuck with him if he were bad. It's impossible to divorce style and content, and the thing that made his poems so memorable was his mastery as a formalist.”

And he could draw, to boot: drawings that, beyond their individual delight, were a perfect match for Seussian verse. In Geisel's time, perhaps only Thurber was his equal at deftly illustrating his own words, and if you want to focus more tightly on poets who executed their own pictures, you might have to travel back to Blake. Of course, Geisel would demur; he always demurred. “I am not a poet, really,” he said. “And I'm a cartoonist, not an artist.” But his reputation was not in his own hands. It was in the hands of critics and, more important, children. By the time Ted died, on September 24, 1991, that reputation was immense.

Eventually the question arose: Where would the Seuss material go? UCLA surely had a fair expectation of being the recipient. Dartmouth thought perhaps it could get back in the game. “We certainly went after it,” I was told by Philip N. Cronenwett, who at the time was director of special collections at Dartmouth's Baker Library. “We made a pitch, obviously, and we would have loved to have got it. But UCSD is a great place, and the collection will be incredibly well kept out there. It's in a good place.”

It's where Audrey decided it should be, on that day she went walking with Ted. And yet, she didn't make the initial overture.

“They approached me,” she said, referring to UCSD. “I was happy with the plan, but then we had all kinds of trouble wresting the other stuff from UCLA—they really didn't want to give it up. But we finally got that signed. I'll tell you: It's amazing how fast a truck can go up there and get stuff back down here.”

The Seuss archive wound up at UCSD for none of the usual reasons, which involve affiliation, cash or both. During our conversation, Cronenwett offered an insider's view of the rough-and-tumble of library building: “It's actually quite small, the network of people who are interested in buying stuff like this. When the Intercollegiate Rare Book and Manuscript Association meets, that's maybe 250 people. All of them are doing the same thing—trying to get materials for their institutions that make them better, more valued places. How? First, through gifts. Now, even with gifts you're still talking about lots of dollars because you have to process and house the gift, and make it available. So you don't take every gift.

“Then, second, there's buying. How you go about this
really does depend on cost. Sometimes you're talking about a significant amount of money being spent, as with Stanford's million for the Allen Ginsberg archive.”

In making decisions, the concept of “fit” also figures predominantly. “For instance,” said Cronenwett, “at Dartmouth, we were strong in late 19th and early 20th century British and American literature, and Mencken, Robert Frost, Erskine Caldwell. We also had a wonderful Arctic and Antarctic exploration collection. If I saw items that could profit those archives, I was interested.”

UCSD did not have the children's literature strength of UCLA. It is very solid in experimental American poetry, the Spanish Civil War, Baja California, 20th century science and public policy, among other subjects. Nor was it going to pay big bucks for Seuss. But it had a neighbor who had benefited any number of local institutions, and who felt that her late husband's work should stay near home. “Audrey has been incredibly generous to most cultural institutions in San Diego,” said Lynda Claassen, director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UCSD. “And she was generous to us.”

She certainly was. In a 1995 agreement that turns the usual valuable-archive equation on its head, Audrey pledged the University the largest gift it had yet received, and that was in addition to the material. That is why today the Dr. Seuss Collection resides in the Man­deville Special Collec­tions Library, which is part of the over­arching Geisel Library.

The collection, numbering some 8,500 items, includes original drawings and sketches dating from Ted's high school days; proofs and drafts; audio- and videotapes; commercial art for Ford Motor Company and Flit; illustrations from Judge , Redbook and other Jazz Age magazines; some 400 anti-fascist PM cartoons; speeches, screenplays and adaptations; Seuss toys; photos, awards and memorabilia; and original artwork from most if not all of the 46 children's books. “ The Lorax drawings are at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, because LBJ told Ted he liked the book and Ted gave them to him,” said Claassen. “There are a few holes, but it's a very complete collection. It's exciting, fun and extremely useful. The letters from the kids are hysterical!”

How the collection is used is twofold: as the basis for exhibitions, and for scholarly or literary examinations of Geisel's life and career. “Grad students will spend a couple of days researching some aspect,” said Claassen. “His biographers basically live here. Philip Nel came to research Dr. Seuss: American Icon , and when Richard Minear was doing his book on the PM cartoons, he came out here.”

Minear is a professor at the University of Massachusetts who, in 1999, published Dr. Seuss Goes to War . I asked him about the value of the collection. “What struck me at the archive was the 1930s advertising stuff—drawings, captions. It seems to me that those materials help explain the transition from the fairly precious Dartmouth work to the more universal material.

“I think Dr. Seuss is an important figure in American culture—not as ‘children's author' but as ‘author.' Hence the collection is enormously significant.”

The archive is getting a thorough public airing during the Seussentennial. “Ordinarily, we do an exhibit in March, at the birthday,” said Claassen, “and then we do one in the summer, when the tourists come. We have bigger collections at Mandeville, but half the world thinks we're the Dr. Seuss Museum, so we've conceded the point. The emphasis in the summer is always on the fantastical creatures.

“This year,” she added, “we're putting on three giant exhibits—‘The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew,' which deals with the advertising work and PM cartoons; ‘Dr. Seuss Between the Covers,' about the children's books; and ‘The Cat in the Hat for President,' an election-year special about Ted's influence on pop culture.”

In addition to organizing the exhibits this year, Claassen was also at the eye of the storm for the swirl of celebrations on and around March 2. There were galas, parties and performances, with two unveilings as highlights. “On the day of the anniversary, the Postal Service was here for the issuance of the Dr. Seuss stamp,” Claassen said. “That was a bigger deal than I would have expected. All these philatelists flew in.

“And then, we dedicated the new statue in front of the library.” The bronze, executed by Audrey's daughter Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, shows Ted sitting at his desk, one leg propped atop it and the other on the floor, while the Cat stands behind him.

“That's exactly him,” Audrey said in admiration of the piece. “One leg up in imagination, one down in reality.

“Oh, what a day that was!” she continued. “It's a lovely stamp, and I think the statue does add an additional something to the library.”

I had heard something concerning the statue, and I felt compelled to follow up with Audrey. When I had first visited her several years ago, she showed me an urn that she kept on the mantel of the living room in Seuss House. “That's Ted,” she said simply. “He was so claustrophobic. I just would never put him in the ground.” Recently, I heard Audrey had hatched a new plan for her late husband's ashes, but the State of California had nixed it. I had to ask her
if it was true. “Yes!” she acknowledged readily. “I had what
I thought was a weird, wonderful idea. There's a certain amount of hollowness to that bronze statue, and I thought to put him inside his own statue. But you had to go through so many stations of the cross to get such a thing approved, and finally my daughter helped convince me to not do something so flamboyant.

“So, yes, he's still here in Seuss House. I'm looking out over the Pacific just now, the view that he used to have when he worked, and he's still here with me.”

Robert Sullivan is the editor of LIFE and LIFE Books , and the author of several books including “Flight of the Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission.” He lives in Westchester County, N.Y with his wife and three children.

RELATED LINKS

Seuss Land Online
VIEW

Dr. Seuss in the Mandeville Special Collections Library
VIEW

Dr. Seuss National Memorial
VIEW

The Grinch Movie Site
VIEW

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose."

Dr. Seuss -

Oh The Places You'll Go

TM & © 1960 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. All rights reserved.
TM & © 1960 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. All rights reserved.