Today in Literary History – March 2, 1904 – Theodor Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) is born

The children’s author and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to the world as Dr. Seuss, was born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Dr. Seuss books were a big part of my childhood as they were – and are – for many later generations of kids.

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Geisel, whose father had been the manager of a brewery before Prohibition, was caught drinking gin in his dorm room at Dartmouth College in 1925. This was a serious offence during Prohibition but Geisel wasn’t expelled.

He was however no longer allowed to participate in any extra-curricular activities on campus, including working on the student newspaper. To get around the restrictions Geisel signed his stories and drawings with the pseudonym “Seuss,” his middle name.

He later studied at Oxford University, hoping to earn a PhD in English literature but left before getting a degree. When he returned to the United States to try to become a professional cartoonist he started using the pen name “Dr. Seuss.” (Dartmouth gave Geisel an honorary doctorate in 1956.)

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He worked as a cartoonist and advertising illustrator for years before publishing his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937. He went on to write over 60 more books, including Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who, The Cat in the Hat and If I Ran the Zoo.

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Part of what appeals to kids in Dr. Seuss books are his catchy and repetitive rhymes and nonsense words. His illustrations are fantastical but elegant and economically drawn.

Before he became famous Geisel drew many cartoons that were highly racist. He drew blacks as savages with big lips and bulging eyes and even used the n-word in his cartoons. During the Second World War he drew political cartoons depicting Japanese Americans in insultingly stereotypical ways and treating all Japanese Americans as traitors.

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Geisel later offered apologies for his offensive cartoons but they remain a blot on his reputation. He died in 1991 at the age of 87.

 

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