Friday, March 2, 2012

I see your Sneetches and raise you a Zozzfozzle - Today in History - March 2, 1904

Every Friday, the XO sends an email to his colleagues with fun facts about that day in history.  Today he focused on the birthday of the great Dr. Seuss.  Since Dr. Seuss is a beloved children's author and the Bibliojunkies are huge fans,  I thought I would share the XO's thoughts on this day in history...

There was joy on this day like the noise of a horn

From the Fish to a Bird and the Blogg and a Florn
He did write and he drew the good words we all knew
Learning life and our words and some songs, up we grew

Theodor was his name and then Geisel his last
He wrote books about trees and a nuclear blast
Born in Springfield in Mass and a friend to us all
We read them all in the summer or into the Fall

I went all over town with those book in my hand
Matter not where I was in my mind in his land
In my mind I was there with the Yax or the Bloose
For it was on this day that was born Doctor Seuss

OK, that was a LOT harder than I expected it to be (And I cheated and made up a few words..oh come on, I’m writing about Dr. Seuss, I don’t think making up words is a crime here!).
I have a new respect for anyone who writes in Anapestic tetrameter. (see bottom for more than you EVER wanted to know about this and other writing styles)

The world gained a childhood hero on this day in 1904 when Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Mass. Geisel wrote under a number of pen names, the most fame however coming from his well know alias, Dr. Seuss. My personal favorite being “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish”, you would be hard pressed to find a child (Or even an adult) who doesn’t remember their trips to Whoville, or their journeys with the Lorax.

I will have to admit here, for accuracy, that if you ready my above (bad) prose, I sort of misled you. One of those “I can now show off how smart I am things” for you to remember, If you want to pronounce the name the way his family did, say Zoice, not Soose. However, I know no one who has EVER pronounced it correctly (Geisel himself even used ‘Soose’)!

Geisel graduated from Dartmouth College and then studied at Oxford. His college years were an indicator of his future, spending some of his time at Dartmouth as the editor of the school’s humor magazine. During his senior year, Ted and 9 of his friends got caught drinking gin in their dorm room, thus breaking the rules of prohibition. More importantly to our story, he was also stripped of his editorship. To get around this unfortunate punishment, he began publishing his cartoons under a variety of pen names, L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti ’25, T. Seuss, and Seuss. These cartoons mark the first time he signed his work “Seuss”. While at Oxford, Mr. G met Helen Palmer, his muse, who suggested that he might not be right for higher education. Taking Helen’s advice that “that’s a very fine flying cow!”, Geisel dropped out of his graduate studies, and returned to the US, with his soon to be wife, Helen. Upon returning to the states, Geisel worked for a few years as a cartoonist, working for a number of magazines and advertising agencies.

Ironically, Dartmouth gave Geisel his first honorary doctorate in 1955. He would eventually receive several others, including one from Princeton, making him fairly rare in that he earned a Ph.D. by dropping out of graduate school!

As is the case with most great figures, success was not easy nor quick. Ted and Helen married in 1927, and moved to New York’s Lower West Side. While Ted tried to find steady work as a cartoonist, they were in reality barely making ends meet. Then, fate stepped in. In a cartoon for an issue of Judge Magazine in 1928, he wrote a cartoon in which a frustrated knight remarks, “Darn it all, another Dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!.” Flit was a popular insect spray at the time, and the wife of an Ad Exec (I instantly think “Mad Men” here) convinced her husband to hire Geisel to write ads for Flit. “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” became the “Where’s the Beef” or “Got Milk?” of its day, becoming a standard line in jokes, comedy routines, and any time you needed something right now. For the next 30 years, advertising would remain Geisel’s main source of income, writing ads for Holly Sugar, GE, Ford, NBC and others. The publishing of The Cat in the Hat would change that almost overnight.

“And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street”, his first children’s book, was rejected by over two dozen publishers before finally being printed in 1937. His first bestseller took until 1957. His publisher challenged him to create a book containing 220 words identified in grade school reading primers. The children of the time period, and most likely the parents too, found the current primers boring, and lacking in imagination. Using those 220 words, “The Cat in the Hat” was born.

Geisel was notorious for embellishing the truth, and it led to some of the greatest pieces of his lore:

  • When telling the story of getting “And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street “ published, either 20, 26, 27, 28, or 29 publishers rejected the book. Walking down Madison Avenue, about to give up, Geisel runs into a former classmate who had just been appointed juvenile editor of Vanguard Press. His friend promptly took him up to his office where they signed a contract for Mulberry Street. As Geisel puts it, “That’s one of the reasons I believe in luck. If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry cleaning business today!” Would Seuss really have gone into the dry cleaning business? That’s unlikely. But the “dry cleaning” line makes for a better story.
  •  When asked why he wrote children’s books, Geisel responded “I would like to say I went into children’s book writing because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.” The truth of that statement was never proven, but he wrote his first children’s book the same year he and Helen learned they could not have children.
  • When asked where his ideas came from, “This is the most asked question of any successful author. Most authors will not disclose their source for fear that other, less successful authors will chisel in on their territory. However, I am willing to take that chance. I get all my ideas in Switzerland, near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock repaired. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.”
Geisel, sorry, Dr. Seuss, also tackled more serious issues in his works, even if disguised behind fuzzy lovable characters. 1984’s “The Butter Battle Book” talks about the arms build-up and the threat of nuclear war, and “Lorax”, about to be released as a major motion picture, is about the importance of caring for the environment. Most of his stories had much deeper meaning than the words on the page. “Horton Hears a Who” tackles isolationism and it’s dangers, “The Sneetches” is about racial equality, “Yertle the Turtle” pokes fun at Hitler and authoritarianism, a subject he also tackled for 21 months as a political cartoonist leading up to America’s involvement in WWII (You knew I’d find a tie in to WWII somewhere, didn’t you?!)

Seuss even added words to our vocabulary. And thankful I am, or I wouldn’t be your resident history nerd. The word ‘nerd’ first appears in “If I ran a Zoo”, published in 1950.

Geisel died on Sept 24th, 1991, at the age of 84 at his home in La Jolla, CA. As Seuss writes in his final book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990), “You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself / any direction you choose”

For a wonderful trip down memory lane, please visit Random House’s site for all things Dr. Seuss.

PS – Do you have any idea how hard it is to spell check a story about Dr. Seuss?! Sheesh!
On his writing Style (Sadly from Wikipedia, one of the world’s worst sources of knowledge, but it was the most succinct explanation I could find)

Anapestic tetrameter consists of four rhythmic units, anapests, each composed of two weak beats followed by one strong beat; often, the first weak syllable is omitted, or an additional weak syllable is added at the end. An example of this meter can be found in Geisel's "Yertle the Turtle", from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories:

"And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see."[52]

Some books by Geisel that are written mainly in anapestic tetrameter also contain many lines written in amphibrachic tetrameter, such as these from If I Ran the Circus:

"All ready to put up the tents for my circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
"And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance!
No former performer's performed this performance!"

Geisel also wrote verse in trochaic tetrameter, an arrangement of a strong beat followed by a weak beat, with four units per line (for example, the title of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish). The formula for trochaic meter permits the final weak position in the line to be omitted, which facilitates the construction of rhymes.

Geisel generally maintained trochaic meter only for brief passages, and for longer stretches typically mixed it with iambic tetrameter, which consists of a weak beat followed by a strong, and is generally considered easier to write. Thus, for example, the magicians in Bartholomew and the Oobleck make their first appearance chanting in trochees (thus resembling the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth):

"Shuffle, duffle, muzzle, muff"
then switch to iambs for the oobleck spell:
"Go make the Oobleck tumble down
On every street, in every town!"[53]

The Executive Officer

1 comment:

  1. I didn't read much Dr. Seuss (ah! it's even weird thinking the name now that I know I'm thinking it wrong!) growing up, but I've enjoyed him since I started participating in literacy programs . . . and seeing through to the subtext.

    However, I know no one who has EVER pronounced it correctly (Geisel himself even used ‘Soose’)
    This made me laugh, reminding me of an encounter with one of my girlfriends. I overheard her parents saying her name one time and realized I'd been pronouncing her name wrong for months. I started saying it as her parents did. We didn't see each other for a couple of years, so when I greeted her by name, she looked startled and said, "That IS how my name's pronounced, isn't it?" After a point, I guess it becomes cumbersome to keep correcting. :)