Seuss was one of the pseudonyms of Theodore Seuss Geisel.
He’d started using it in college when he’d gotten caught drinking (breaking Prohibition) and was forced to quit editing the college humor magazine. He also used L. Pasteur and D. G. Rossetti. (Makes you wonder if the teachers weren’t paying attention or were turning a blind eye…)
When he graduated and started doing cartoons for magazines he signed his work Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A year later he shortened it to Dr. Seuss. He tried to make a name for himself as a cartoonist and sort of fell into advertising, which became his career.
Before World War II he wrote a piece that became his first children’s book:And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
During the war he concentrated on political cartoons and doing propaganda and training animations for the military. His work was very supportive of Roosevelt’s handling of the war and went on the offensive against those who criticized Roosevelt back home. (Interestingly, he did cartoons about how racism against the Jews and African Americans was damaging and how it hurt the war effort, yet in his cartoons he treated all Japanese Americans as traitors. The dedicated one of his later books to a Japanese friend. Complicated man.)
After the war he returned to writing children’s books. Why children’s books? His story was that it was the only type of writing that his advertising contracts didn’t forbid. Biographers wonder at the timing-his first book was written the year his wife found out that she couldn’t have children.
The Cat in the Hat was the result of a challenge from Ellsworth Spaulding, director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin.
Spaulding had read a report on illiteracy among schoolchildren which concluded that they didn’t like learning to read because it was boring. Geisel seemed like the right man to change that. Spaulding came up with a list of what he thought were the most important words for first graders to know and narrowed it down to the 250 words, which he gave Geisel.
Nine months later Geisel gave him The Cat in the Hat, using 236 of those words.
It was an enormous hit, and its success inspired Geisel and his wife to start Beginner Books, a division of Random House. (Besides his own work, they published the Berenstain Bears and my childhood favorites, the P.D. Eastman books.)
Green Eggs and Ham came from another bet-write a book using only 50 different works.
He wrote these beginner books with their limited palette of words, as well as continuing to write books with a point. The Lorax dealing with environmental destruction (as he put it-it’s anti-pollution and anti-greed-it’s a powerful book, still challenged in some places and banned in others) and the Butter Battle Book dealing with the terrifying ridiculousness of the nuclear arms race.
Oh, The Places You’ll Go was Geisel’s last book, written in 1990. And left it with good parting advice.
“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”