Dr. Seuss, Political Cartoonist

14 June 2002

    The popular and beloved tales of Cat in the Hat and The Grinch, with their wildly hilarious verse and strangely appealing characters are familiar to us all. They are just two of the almost fifty books written by the ingenious and creative Dr. Seuss. But did you know that Dr. Seuss was also a political cartoonist?

    Theodor Seuss Geisel (pronounced GUYsell) was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904, the son of German immigrants. He graduated from Dartmouth University with rather unremarkable grades. (He just scraped through with a "C" in Botany by doing extra memorization work given by the teacher to elevate his lowly "D".) *(1) He would much rather sketch the odd-shaped animals and characters that would later be his signature artform.

    During his years at Dartmouth, Theodor was a member of the student newspaper, the "Jack-o-Lantern". He was elected to the post of editor in May of 1924. His big desire, he said, was to run the newspaper, and that if he hadn’t his “whole life would have been a failure.” He wrote and illustrated under several by-lines for the "Jack-o-Lantern", including his middle name, Seuss.

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    Geisel attended Oxford University in England in 1925 in an effort to earn his Doctorate degree in English. His disliked almost everything about the place, particularly the classes. Rather than taking notes, he sketched, drawing quirky pictures related to the lessons. He also drew cartoons displaying exactly how unhappy he felt. Finally, a teacher noticed and suggested that Oxford was not the place for him. Geisel wrote, “English and writing was my major, but I think that’s a mistake for anybody. That’s teaching you the mechanics of getting water out of a well that may not exist.”

    Leaving university behind, Geisel toured Europe, soaking up history and art on his own terms. Before he left, a fellow student caught his eye. Helen Palmer, also an American, was fascinated by his art. They fell in love. After moving back to Springfield in 1927, the couple were wed.

    "Judge" magazine hired the young man as artist and writer, at the princely sum of $75/week. In a few weeks, he changed his by-line to reflect the degree he was unable to earn at Oxford. Theodor Geisel became Dr. Seuss.

    Unfortunately, the magazine was almost always on hard times and his wages were cut to $50 and then down to barter. He was paid in cases of shaving cream, soda, nail clippers and even hotel stays that he didn’t particularly want.

    When Geisel tried to break into the open cartoon market, rejections from around New York City slapped him down. He continued to send panels into "The New Yorker", "Life" and other magazines. Soon, he had his first sale. "The Saturday Evening Post" sent him a cheque for $25 for one cartoon and he was slowly on his way.

    A miracle happened for Theodor while he was working at "Judge." He came up with a cartoon that ended up, unintentionally, as an advertisement for Flit bug spray. He was hired by the Esso company to do several more cartoons. The “Quick Henry, The Flit” campaign was born and turned into 17 years of steady employment for Theodor. He noted that the only way he could get out of drawing the Flit ads was by being drafted into WWII.

    From the late 1920s until the war broke out, Dr. Seuss was a busy man, cartooning for magazines such as "Life"and "Liberty". He wrote his first successful children’s book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and McElligot’s Pool. (The Mulberry Street book was not immediately successful – he showed it to 27 publishers before a friend of his accepted it.) He wrote a couple of books that just did not catch on, and then hit on the very popular book, Horton Hatches the Egg.

    When WWII was underway, Theodor began drawing political cartoons. The managing editor of "The New Yorker" had started his own liberal newspaper, called "PM", and hired Theodor as staff cartoonist. The cartoonist had become well-known for his racially tolerant and pro-Semetic views, and his concern for the environment. His readers were taken by surprise by his political cartoons, though not

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by the cartoon’s pro-war messages. The racist and hostile treatment of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the panels were a complete turn-about from Dr. Seuss’s usual messages. He created and drew over 400 political cartoons for "PM".

    Geisel was inducted into the military in 1943 as a captain in the Army US Signal Corps, Information and Educational Division, and posted to a Hollywood unit. His superior officer was movie director Frank Capra and his fellow soldiers included Irving Wallace and Meredith Willson. His civilian co-workers were cartoonists Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. The talented group produced training films for the military and documentarys. Geisel received the Legion of Merit Award, and two documentaries, "Hitler Lives" and "Design for Death", both won Oscars.

    After release from duty in 1946, Dr. Seuss concentrated on writing for children. He had a strong interest in encouraging kids to learn to read, and discouraged schools from using his books in the classroom. He felt that children would not be interested in books they were required to read. He took up a challenge from his publisher to write a book with 250 words or less, from a wordlist of the publisher’s choosing. Dr. Seuss used 220 words, coming up with hugely popular The Cat in the Hat. He continued in his inimitable way to write literally dozens of more books, beloved world wide by kids and adults alike, using his own name and several pseudonyms. There are now over 100 million Dr. Seuss books in print, in twenty languages.

    Helen Geisel died in 1967, leaving no children behind. Theodor re-married a year later to Audrey Stone Diamond. They also had no children, but Audrey brought a daughter to the marriage. Strangely for a man whose writing is centered on kids, Theodor was uncomfortable with children. He could handle “one child at a time for a specific amount of time,” Audrey said in a November 29, 2000 CNN.com interview. *(2)

    Along with the two Oscars, Dr. Seuss earned many awards. He received a third Oscar for his cartoon film, Gerald McBoing-Boing. For his stories, he received several Caldecott Honors, a Peabody Award, The Laura Ingalls Wilder award from the American Library Association, an Emmy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to children’s literature.

    Dartmouth University awarded Theodor Geisel the title he had yearned for. He received an official Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater in 1956. It was the first of many honorary degrees to come. His is a who’s who list of scholarly awards:

  • 1968 American International College
  • 1977 Lake Forest College
  • 1980 Whittier College
  • 1983 John F. Kennedy University
  • 1985 Princeton University
  • 1986 University of Hartford
  • 1987 Brown University
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    On September 24, 1991, the fascinating life of Dr. Seuss came to an end. Theodor Seuss Geisel died in La Jolla, California, where he had made his home since 1948. He was 87 years old. Several of his books have been published posthumously including a book of his unseen artwork entitled The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. A book of his political cartoons is now in print, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, published by Free Press, 1999. Recently, the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum held a display of 200 of his political cartoons that have been unseen for many years.

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In her husband’s memory, Audrey Geisel donated millions of dollars to libraries in California and Springfield, MA. The University of California has renamed their library the Geisel Library in his honour.

The Springfield Library unveiled a large and detailed sculpture arrangement of Dr. Seuss characters on May 30, 2002, big enough for kids to play on. It features Horton, (whose trunk is 15 ½ feet long), the Yertle Turtles and even Dr. Seuss at his desk with the Cat in the Hat looking over his shoulder. It was designed and crafted of bronze by his stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates. Dr. Seuss would be pleased.

    What is his most popular book? Guess it, guess it, if you can. The best seller, number one of all, is the great Green Eggs and Ham!

Sources about the wonderful Theodor Geisel

*(1) The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss: The Life and Work of Theodor Geisel by Thomas Fensch.
Published by New Century Books, 2000.

*(2) Audrey Geisel spoke with CNN about Dr. Seuss and The Grinch movie:
http://www.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Arts/11/29/seussical/

The Political Dr. Seuss article by Springfield Library and Museums Association
http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/1aa/1aa291.htm

Some of his cartoons (in small form):
http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dspolitic/Frame.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2002
TheCartoonists.ca  
         
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)