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Dr Seuss

Rhymes, but no punishment. Robert Butler hears how Dr Seuss did it

Robert Butler | November/December 2015

Theodor Geisel became “Dr Seuss” after he was caught drinking gin with nine others at his Ivy League university and lost his position as editor of the humour magazine. From then on, he contributed pseudonymously, using his mother’s maiden name which was also his middle one. A German surname, Seuss rhymes with “voice”, but as his fame grew the rhyme shifted towards the more child-friendly “goose”. (Geisel added the “Dr” as that’s what his father had wanted him to be.) After Dartmouth College Geisel went to Oxford to do a PhD in English literature, but his future first wife Helen – perhaps seeing the doodles of “Jeff” Chaucer he made in margins – persuaded him to quit and become an illustrator. 

During the Depression, Geisel drew ads for insecticide and oil companies, and travelled widely. He said it was the rhythms of an ocean liner that gave him the idea of writing verse for children. His subject matter, though, often addressed the world of grown-ups: “Dr Seuss Goes to War” deals with Hitler and Mussolini, “The Lorax” with environmental destruction and “The Butter Battle Book” with the arms race. From his studio home in La Jolla, California, his oeuvre grew to nearly 50 books, including bestsellers such as “Horton Hears a Who!”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat” (which has sold 10m copies). His most recent book, “What Pet Should I Get?”, was published this year – 24 years after his death. It sold 200,000 copies in its first week.

KEY DECISION (1) Not to have children. “You have them,” he told interviewers, “I’ll entertain them.” There was one childhood he drew on, his own. (2) To write in verse, the one medium where it’s more than OK to repeat yourself. (3) To accept a challenge from a publisher to write a genuinely entertaining book for first-grade readers that used a tiny number of words. What would matter most were the sounds the words made. For “The Cat in the Hat” Seuss used 220, for “Green Eggs and Ham” he used 50, of which 49 had one syllable (the other was “anywhere”). Till then reading primers for children had been thoroughly dull and proper. As the New Yorker wrote, Seuss’s work “killed Dick and Jane”. (4) To invent new words — “nerd” is the most famous (from “If I Ran the Zoo”, 1950). There are vibrant new communities (“Thneeds”, “Wockets”, “Once-lers”, “Whos” and “Befts”), new concepts (“un-slump”) and new pollutants (“gluppity-glup” and “schloppity-schlopp”).

STRONG POINTS Two qualities play off each other. One is the severe constraint of the rhyming couplets and comic metre. The other is the antic, whiskery abandon of the drawings. Both owe a debt to surrealism (Geisel visited Paris in 1926). The verse pursues dream-like Dada-ist twists of logic, and the drawings share the liquidity of Dalí’s melting watches and the bendy, ornamental perpendiculars of Gaudi’s architecture. The drawings came easily, the words took months: a paragraph in a children’s book, he remarked, was as demanding as a chapter in an adult book.

GOLDEN RULE However crazy, it must always be logical. “If I start with a two-headed animal,” he said, “I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom, two sets of spectacles on the night table.”

FAVOURITE TRICK Reversal and repetition. The phrase “eggs and ham” is itself a reversal, but the plot reversal in “Green Eggs and Ham” – which reads like an exhausted parent capitulating to a maddeningly single-minded child – allows each individual example to come round again.

ROLE MODELS As a child he read and re-read Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales” (1907) and “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” (1896), which featured exotic animals like “The Yak” (“It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back”).

TYPICAL SENTENCE Would have to be simple, rhythmic, fantastical and public-spirited: “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds/And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.” (The Lorax)

The Lorax Old Vic, London, 3rd December 2015 to 16th January 2016

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