Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Theodor Seuss Geisel: A Psychological Biography of Dr. Seuss

By Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 11:13 am

There are biographies, and then there are psychological biographies. The fallacies and hazards of the psychobiography form are easy to name, but the form can produce miracles when used well. Donald E. Pease's Theodor Seuss Geisel, a brief, spirited new study of the life and work of the great Dr. Seuss, provides a satisfying and surprising look at the motivations and half-hidden meanings behind classic children's books like Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

The biographer brings out the heavy psychological equipment to analyze the first Dr. Seuss children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 when the author was 33 years old. The book depicts a child with a vivid imagination facing off against a stern father who rejects his son's artistic spirit. Pease argues convincingly that young Theodor Seuss Geisel's moral battle with his strict father shaped everything about his work, and that it was the very intensity of this father-son battle that gave the early Dr. Seuss books their power and energy.

Young Theodor Seuss Geisel preferred his gentle mother (who also provided him with the family name "Seuss") to his domineering father. He left the family hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts (where the Seuss and Geisel families were deeply entrenched in a German-American community) for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he quickly fell in with the campus comedians running a plucky college humor magazine called Jack-O-Lantern. It must have been a golden age for satire at the Ivy League colleges:

In the 1920s the Jack-O-Lantern was sold in newsstands in New York and Boston. Its chief competitors included the Harvard Lampoon, where Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood were featured writers; the Yale Record, to which Cole Porter regularly contributed; the Columbia Jester, whose staff included Bennett Cerf; and the Brown Jug, which had S. J. Perelman.

Geisel found his identity here. He began signing cartoons as "Seuss" after being barred from contributing to the humor magazine following an incident with some bootleg gin, and kept the name during his early years as a popular cartoonist and magazine/advertising illustrator. He followed politics intensely, and appeared to feel the heavy weight of his German ancestry while observing the rise of Hitler and the looming threat of a return to global war in the 1930s. He began publishing bitterly angry anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese cartoons. His outspokenness against Hitler certainly placed him on the good side of history, though Pease's biography indicates that a strong sense of ethnic self-hatred (which must have intersected with hatred of his Germanic father) pervaded his liberal political sensibility.

Dr. Seuss's books were always moral and quasi-political exercises -- he knew exactly what he was preaching in the early and wonderful Horton Hears A Who, in the anti-materialistic Grinch Who Stole Christmas and in the anarchic Cat in the Hat, which finally gave the author a gigantic hit when it was published in 1957 (according to Pease's persuasive account, this hatted cat symbolizes the power of reading itself). Later works like The Sneetches (which parodied social anti-semitism) and the pacifistic Butter Battle Book continued this trend, though Seuss never managed to write a book to address the private anguish he went through when his once-happy marriage floundered in middle age (Seuss fell in love with another woman, causing his wife to commit suicide).

After reading this book, I reopened every Dr. Seuss book I could find, enjoying them anew. This biography may not be for every reader, because some may not care for analytic equations like these:

Children's ability to reimagine the rules by which people live convinced Geisel that writing children's books might transform the cognitive structures behind political parties and social formations. He began to think of childhood as a quasi-utopian space in which belief in peace, social equality, and democratic participation could be reanimated.

The biographer might possibly be shoveling some deep oobleck our way here, but I don't think so. The evidence for his conclusions is usually strong, and I doubt that a better explanation of the strange career of Dr. Seuss can be found. A good psychological biography of a literary figure can amount to a reconsideration of an entire body of work. That's what author Donald Pease manages to pull off with this enjoyable and informative study.

14 Responses to "Theodor Seuss Geisel: A Psychological Biography of Dr. Seuss"

By coincidence(?), I was just reading about a bizarre movie made in 1952 called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, based on a Dr. Seuss book. I've never seen it, but the reviewer says it was rather disturbing for a 1950s children's movie.

by Levi Asher on

Yep, Bill, that movie was discussed in the book. I didn't know it existed either. Based on the account in the book, it wasn't one of the Doc's more successful outings.

by TKG on

Han Conreid played Dr T ( image here) -- the evil Dr Terwiliger who enslaved young piano students for this giant 500 pianist piano concert he was going to put on. 10 fingers per boy = 5000 fingers.

The movie is worth checking out. It's available as one of those 5 dollar or so DVD's that can be bought at the supermarket or other random places. I bought that recently and had seen it at an art house in the 80's -- it was quite a trip to see. And actually saw it on TV when they used to show old movies on saturday mornings.

It's not that good a movie, ultimately a failure as a truly compelling cohesive movie. But it's still amazing to see and the idea or attempt behind it could have been a great movie (it'll probably be re-made).

It was definitely a Seuss world transformed to screen. That's it's major value. This is in the sets and in the characters. It looks like a Seuss book. Characters are Seuss characters. Dr T has a pair on roller-skating siamese twin henchmen. They are siamese twins via being connected through their beards. here's an image

Was it a wild surrealistic Suessian morality play about the dangers of forcing things like piano practice on children or was it a typical 50's domestic story along the lines of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best? Problem is it was neither but a slow paced mix of both.

Seuss supposedly thought it a wretched mess.

It's not horrible and just being an original interpretation of Seuss for the screen makes it worth while to watch.

_____

On a broader note, I think the less we know about Seuss, in some ways, the better. He was a poet and artist who merged the two incredibly well.

His personal life would be interesting to learn about, but any political idealistic claptrap that might make these great visual verbal lyrical works of art seem to be polemic would not help.

by C. Godot on

When she committed suicide in 1967, Helen Geisel had been very ill for a long time. While his love affair with Audrey (with whom he had been friends for years, and whom he subsequently married) was certainly a factor, I think it is unfair and certainly inaccurate to say his affair caused Helen's suicide. The affair was certainly a factor, as were the months and years of cancer that Helen suffered before she took her own life.

I haven't read this psycho-biography, but if it asserts the affair is the sole cause of that tragedy, then it has already committed enough of an error that I consider whatever else it may have to offer specious at best. I really can't see how any biography could ignore her physical health and focus on the affair, unless it is to make some point about Seuss' callousness, similar to how many want to paint other children's authors as actually very mean-spirited and not childlike at all. Which is why I tend to not like psycho-bio: it's rare the author doesn't have some pre-formed theory that he'll cherry-pick anecdotes and highlight conjecture or gossip in order to promote.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of my favorites, and is definitely not what you'd expect from 1950s (or even today's) children's movies. It reminds many of Roald Dahl and/or Willy Wonka. If you're a Seuss fan and haven't see the film, get thee to a rentery.

by TKG on

Here's a good piece at Guardian Blogs on the Dr T movie here.

The picture shows what I mean by putting a Seussian world on film.

by Levi Asher on

Cal Godot, you bring up a very serious point, so I'll supply more info from the book. Yes, this biography does have a lot of information about Helen Geisel's illness (referred to as Guillain-Barre syndrome), which apparently did hasten the breakdown of their marriage. But the book also quotes her suicide note directly, and this supports the idea that she killed herself because of their marital problems.

The note was addressed to her husband, and here are some of the lines: "What has happened to us?" ... "I cannot conceive of life without you" ... "My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your fans will not be harmed".

So, it doesn't seem to me that the biographer has gone too far here. The "psychobiography" element that I'm referring to in this book has to do with the fact that the author interprets Dr. Suess's books as related to his events of his life. There is not much psychoanalyzing in the sad section about Helen's death.

I'm curious, Cal, how do you know so much about Dr. Seuss?

by Milton on

Allow me to second the recommendation for Dr. T. Not a good movie in any traditional sense, but a fascinating and entertaining failure, which sometimes can be just as satisfying.

I love certain movies that are not considered "good in any traditional sense." The films of Ed Wood come to mind, though I would guess Dr. T is not as appallingly bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space.

by Levi Asher on

I can't believe we're talking about bad Dr. Seuss movies from the 1950s and nobody's mentioned the terrible live-action/hyper-animation movie versions of Cat in the Hat, Grinch That Stole Christmas and Horton Hears A Who that have come out recently. I think it just goes to show how forgettable these films are that we all forgot they existed.

by C. Godot on

Seuss was the first author who became subject of my nearly-inborn literary obsessiveness. Not only did I write a few letters (and receive a few back) as a kid, but later I read obsessively about him in old Time and Life magazines (which is probably where I learned to love newspaper archives). I met Audrey years ago and corresponded with her a bit. She's quite accessible to fans, having been told by him that keeping his legacy would be very important and a lot of work. In my view, she has done a masterful job of managing his estate.

I demur: 5,000 Fingers is not a bad movie, but sensibilities dulled by contemporary film and its relentless menu of explosions, car chases, and improbable love affairs my find it challenging.

As for other Seuss film fare: I didn't even bother to watch the live-action Seuss movies (in fact, I had forgotten there was more than one). Audrey Seuss hated the live-action Cat, but before I even knew that it stank of Mike Myers for me, and he's a comedian I simply cannot stomach. (I had a friend working on props for that film, who took the job because of a love for Seuss, and was disgusted by the end of it. "It's Mike Myers' Cat in the Hat," I was told.) I suppose Jim Carrey could possibly be amusing as Scrooge, but stretching that story to a feature-length film had to require something being added - and that's where things would go awry in my view. Seuss blends a unique poetic voice with a distinct artistic style in short, simple tales, a synthesis that cannot likely be duplicated in live-action feature film and cannot be amended with subplots. As Horton Hears a Who was my first and favorite Seuss tale as a child, I'm going to do my psyche a favor and once again forget a feature-length version exists.

For me, it's first the books, always the books, and almost only the books - except that Chuck Jones and others did great work with the source material, so I adored the animations as a child, and still do.

But the books, oh those books, and a rainy day alone with them, the good Doctor and my Imagination.

C. Godot,

I agree with you about the Mike Myers version of The Cat In the Hat, even though I really like many of Myers' other films, like the Austin Powers series and Wayne's World. Cat seemed like something thrown together to ride the wave of Jim Carrey's Grinch movie, which was okay, but the cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff will always be my favorite.

you ever see the Dr. Suess documentary hosted by Matt Frewer? Curious to know what you thought of that.

by Joelle Biele on

Thanks so much for this! My kids had Dr. Seuss birthday parties at their schools--and like you, we re-read everything we had-- I've got to check this out--we all love him so.

by joe on

i agree my brother from a nother mother

by Sammiy J on

Dr. T's 5000 fingers, as i remember it, was one of my favorites, mind you, i am only 17, so i havent seen many good ones...

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