March 18, 2018

"...Gone With a Tip of His Hat"

On this day in 1991 Theodor Seuss Geisel died at the age of eighty-seven. Geisel turned to children's books in his late twenties, when his job creating ads for "Flit" insect repellent-his "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became a household slogan across America-left him comfortable and bored. His first children's book, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937) was rejected by twenty-seven publishers, but over the next fifty years he would write and illustrate forty-eight books, collect a Pulitzer, two Emmys and three Oscars, and make the more lasting household contributions of Horton, Yertle, the Cat in the Hat, et al. Many of these now appear much larger-than-book in The National Seuss Memorial, a storybook garden of sculptures in hometown Springfield, Massachusetts (though not on Mulberry Street).

The evolution of the "Dr. Seuss" pseudonym began during Geisel's senior year at Dartmouth College. When the dean forced him to resign his editorship of the school's humor magazine as punishment for having too much fun and too few marks, Geisel continued to contribute as "Ted Seuss." During his time at the humor magazine, Judge, he was "Dr. Theophrastus Seuss," an attempt to add a 'wacky professor' air to his menagerie of cartoon animals, many of which shared the gene pool with later Whos and Zooks. The name and word fun reflects a streak of whimsy and putting-one-over that lasted a lifetime and became a mission. When Geisel was a student at Oxford, and banned by school regulations from driving a motorcycle, he tied dead ducks to his handlebars to pass his vehicle off as that of a poultry deliveryman. When living in New York City and finding himself with a telephone number one digit different from a local fish market, he would send his own cardboard fish to those who called him with their order. When trying to quit smoking in his fifties, he carried a corncob pipe empty of tobacco but full of dirt, in which he had planted radish seeds; he would suck on the pipe while riding the bus, stopping every now and then to take out an eyedropper of water and squeeze a few drops into the bowl. To anyone who took the bait he would explain that he was "Watering the radishes."

At the age of eighty, Geisel had his anti-nuclear war Butter Battle Book on the best-seller lists for months; at eighty-two, he published his last book, You're Only Old Once, and told reporters that "Age has no effect on me. I surf as much as I ever have. I climb Mount Everest as much as I ever have...."
    . . . Then we saw him pick up
    all the things that were down.
    He picked up the cake,
    and the rake, and the gown,
    and the milk, and the strings,
    and the books, and the dish,
    and the fan, and the cup,
    and the ship, and the fish.
    And he put them away.
    Then he said, "That is that."
    And then he was gone
    with a tip of his hat.

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