This is Dr.Seuss week and what better way to celebrate it than to recap his life and learn from it?
When asked, “Where do you get all your great ideas from”, he responded-
“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 Über Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. 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.”
This is why we all love him.
This is a long post. So pull up a chair, get a drink and get comfortable.
Dr.Seuss led such an illustrious life – packed with life lessons, that it was impossible and unfair to cut any part of it.
He knew what his passion was and stuck with it till the end
Dr. Seuss’s passion was humor. Humor laid down the brick road into the hearts of children and everyone else with a child’s heart.
Dr.Seuss realized that he gravitated towards the Dartmouth humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. He joined it and worked on it relentlessly.
He and his editor-in-chief Norman McClean wrote the whole thing between them. Soon Norman McClean started working on a novel, and found less and less time to devote to Jack-O-Lantern. At this point, Dr.Seuss worked on the entire thing himself.
His work paid off and in his fourth year, he became the editor-in-chief.
Caught drinking, changed his name to keep writing.
The night before Easter of his senior year, Dr.Seuss and ten of his friends were caught drinking in his room at the Randall Club.
Dr.Seuss recalls, “We had a pint of gin for ten people, so that proves nobody was really drinking. But Pa Randall, who hated merriment, called Chief Rood, the chief of police, and he himself in person raided us. We all had to go before the dean, Craven Laycock, and we were all put on probation for defying the laws of Prohibition, and especially on Easter Evening.”
As a result of this, Dr. Seuss was banned from his duties at Jack-O-Lantern.
Did that stop him? He simply signed his name as “Seuss” instead and kept writing. That is how ‘Seuss’ first came to be used as his signature.
Got his revenge
While he was at Oxford, he illustrated a large part of Paradise Lost.
For the line ‘Thither came the angel Uriel, sliding down a sunbeam.‘ Dr.Seuss, illustrated Uriel with a long, locomotive oil can, greasing the sunbeam as he descended – to lessen the friction on his coccyx.
He then took it to Blackwell – a famous bookseller and publisher and asked them to commission him to do the whole thing.
He was rejected with, ‘This isn’t quite the Blackwell type of humor’
It was a set back, but he wasn’t discouraged. He got his revenge, 20 years later, when he went past Blackwell’s and found the whole window, full of his books.
It had apparently become ‘the Blackwell type of humor’.
A wait of 37 years
When his cartoon was accepted to The Saturday Evening Post, he thought “his future was assured”.
But, it didn’t work out that way. It took another thirty-seven years, before they bought a second Seuss – an article in 1964 ironically named, ‘If At First You Don’t Succeed – Quit!’.
Never stopped writing
Even when he was making a decent living and was busy with the flit advertising and his work with the Esso Marine, he kept up his regular contributions to humor magazines.
He wasn’t afraid to quit when something didn’t work
Oxford – hampered his creativity
Dr. Seuss started his Oxford education with a lot of dreams. But, he found the Oxford atmosphere tedious. It was doing absolutely nothing for his creativity, actually it was killing it. So he packed his bags and quit the education which wasn’t fulfilling his goals.
Dr.Seuss, while talking about a don at the university, said “That was the man who really drove me out of Oxford. I’ll never forget his two-hour lecture on the punctuation of King Lear“.
Vanity Fair – concerned with style than content
Dr. Seuss career took off and he soon found his way into other magazines, including Liberty, College Humor, and Life. He teamed up with the famous humorist, Corey Ford for Vanity Fair– which he abandoned, in the end, out of pure frustration.
The art director of Vanity Fair was more concerned with style than content, lamented Dr.Seuss.
“The art director laid the thing out before I did the drawings, and he insisted that my average picture was to be nine inches wide and three quarters of an inch high. Corey and I remained good friends, but we didn’t work together after that.”
Flit – Changed his life, but also bored him to death
His whole life took an upturn when his cartoon featuring ‘Flit’ insecticide was noticed by the Flit marketeers and he got the opportunity to continue drawing for flit.
What started off as a tremendous opportunity, soon soured. He had drawn millions of them, for newspapers, magazines, window displays and animated cartoons.
In his own words, “Flit was pouring out of my ears and beginning to itch me”.
The Flit ad illustration frustrated him so much, that he even credits Adolph Hitler for getting him out of it.
“The only good thing Adolph Hider did in starting World War II was that he enabled me to join the Army and finally stop drawing ‘Quick, Henry, the Flit!'”.
Stumbled and rose every single time.
Great American Novel
During the time, Dr.Seuss was travelling around Europe, he decided he wanted to be a ‘Great American Novelist’. So he sat down and wrote the ‘Great American Novel’.
It didn’t turn out great. So he reworked it into ‘The Great American Short Story’. Still not great, he further re-worked on it and sold it as a two-lined joke to ‘Judge’, the magazine he worked in.
Move to New York City
After his cartoon got accepted to the Post, Dr.Seuss moved to New York City with great dreams and conviction that his life was destined for better days. But for months, he wasn’t able to get any of his cartoons published.
He tried magazines in all different caliber, the sophisticated Vanity Fair and the unsophisticated Daily mirror.
Finally he got into a second rate magazine ‘Judge’ – where he would finally see his life changed.
His first book, ‘ And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street’ was rejected by a whooping 27 publishers.
Had a strategy to overcome failure
During his Dartmouth days, he worked from time to time on another another campus publication, The Dartmouth – “America’s Oldest College
Whit Campbell, the editor of The Daily Dartmouthat the time, and Dr.Seuss played poker while waiting for the morning publication. Whenever one of his news stories didn’t turn out as expected,
“they’d put their royal-straight flushes face down on the table, rewrite the story together, and then pick up our royal-straight flushes again — and sometimes raise each other as much as a quarter”.
What a wonderful ,proactive way to face and fix failure. They did not dwell on the moment of failure. They kept moving forward and even found a fun way to do it.
Unlike his friend , he never gave up
Norman Maclean, the editor of Jack-O-Lantern when Dr.Seuss joined the magazine, was a source of great encouragement to Dr.Seuss. Jack-O-Lantern was practically run by these two, who put in hours of work to get it out.They were driven by their passion.
Norman, at that time, started writing a novel. Finally, when he completed his novel, he went out to celebrate. While he was out celebrating,his boarding house burned down and his novel burned up.
He never re-wrote it.
He gave up – like the majority of us when all his hard work went down the drain – one time. He had the same passion and drive as Dr.Seuss, but lacked the perseverance.
Accepted criticism and worked to improve
In Oxford, Dr.Seuss met A.J.Carlyle – a tutor. In Dr.Seuss’s words, “He was a brilliant scholar who had taken ‘Firsts’ in every School in Oxford, excepting medicine, without studying”.
A.J. Carlyle, patiently tutored Dr.Seuss on essays and history and quickly found that he wasn’t interested in both.
He admonished Dr.Seuss for being ignorant and suggested, he should just travel around Europe with a bundle of high school history books and visit the places as he read about them.
And that is what Dr.Seuss did.
Breaking a habit
All of us know how annoyingly frustrating it is to break a bad habit.
To break a bad habit, we will have to replace it with another one. Easily said- but so hard to actually do. Ask me, I have been trying to quit my nail biting for years.
But Dr.Seuss came up with a genius idea.
He smoked pipe. To quit this habit, he put sttrawberry seeds in his pipe.
Every time he had the urge to smoke, he would take an eye dropper and water the strawberry plants instead.
Creative ways to beat writers block
It’s hard to imagine that the creative genius was ever at a loss for a good idea, but like all writers, he was occasionally hit with writer’s block. When that happened, he had a few tricks.
Who would wear this hat?
He collected hats in all shapes and styles, and when he needed inspiration, he tried on a few dozen hats.
He would then sit and ruminate for hours on, what sort of personality would wear this type of hat.
One of his early books, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, even pays homage to this habit.
Creative way he came up with his friend.
Norman Mclean and Dr.Seuss had a peculiar method of creating compelling work.
Norman, hunched behind his typewriter, would bang out a line of words and the next line was Dr.Seuss’s turn.
“Sometimes he’d tell me what he’d written, sometimes not. But, then, he’d always say, ‘The next line’s yours’ And, always, I’d supply it. This may have made for rough reading. But it was great sport writing.”
Worked under heavy constraints
One of his famous work, was written on a bet with Seuss’s publisher, Benett Cerf.
His publisher goaded him that he absolutely wouldn’t be able to write an entire book with just 50 words.
And Seuss did it. He wrote Green eggs and ham with just 50 words.
In time with the engines
His very first book, was born in a very unusual way.
He was on a long, stormy crossing of the Atlantic, and it was too rough to go out on deck.
“Everybody in the ship just sat in the bar for a week, listening to the engines turn over: da-da-ta-ta, da-da-ta-ta, da-da-ta-ta….”
To keep from going nuts, he began reciting silly words to the rhythm of the engines.
“Out of nowhere I found myself saying, ‘And that is a story that no one
can beat; and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street'”
Six months later he had a book called, ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street‘.
Struggled to find his talent
Did you think he was a born genius? He struggled to find his talent like any of us.
He did a book review of the Boston & Maine Railroad timetable, to prove subject matter wasn’t as important as method (which he no longer believed in his later years).
Nobody in his class found it funny except him and his friend Ben.
Pictures and words
He realised when he was working for the Jack-O-Lantern magazine that words and pictures are the yin and yang.
But it took him a quarter of a century to find the proper way to get the words and pictures “married”. He said when he was at Dartmouth, “I couldn’t even get them engaged”.
Writing for adults
He failed two attempts to write for adults.
One was the book The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, and it was a complete failure.
His only other adult picture book was called You’re Only Old Once. It was published in 1986 and was all about the unpleasantness of growing old.
He was slogging in anonymity till ‘The cat in the hat‘
Despite his enduring legacy, his contributions went relatively unnoticed until the publication of “The Cat in the Hat” in 1957.
“The Cat” brought fame to his previous books.
Learnt from his experiences
All of his life experiences went into the legend he would go on to become.
He was asked to help make war propaganda films with Frank Capra and children’s book author/illustrator PD Eastman.
He created the character Private Snafu (a popular military term meaning Situation Normal, All Fouled Up) who taught recruits how to be good soldiers.
These cartoons served as a lesson in story development and vocabulary, which Seuss would apply to his books, later on.
Write and Draw
Dr.Seuss got the opportunity to illustrate a collection of children’s verse called ‘Boners’, (which meant something very different back then).
That was the year of the great depression. The books did amazingly well, but Dr.Seuss was still worried about money.
This is the point when he first started to realize that to succeed in the book world, he would have to write and draw.
The story of Oxford
The story of how Seuss ended up in Oxford is a funny one.
It all started when his father wrote to ask him, what he was planning to do after his graduation.
Dr.Seuss worte back “Don’t you worry about me, I’m going to win a thing called the ‘Campbell Fellowship in English Literature’ and I’m going to Oxford”.
Got to admire his confidence.
His father read the letter in a hurry, and told his neighbor, who happened to be the editor of the Springfield Union, –
“Ted won a fellowship called the “Campbell Fellowship” and he’s going to Oxford”.
The next day , every one called to congratulate Seuss’s father, because, his neighbor had run his picture on the front page with the headline ‘GEISEL WINS FELLOWSHIP TO GO TO OXFORD.’
It so happened that, that particular year they found nobody in the College worthy of giving the Campbell Fellowship.
So, Seuss’s father, to save face, had to dig up the money to send him to Oxford, anyway.
Well, his confidence paid off I guess.
His submission to The Saturday Evening Post was finally accepted and it appeared in the magazine’s issue for July 16,1927
The Post paid him twenty-five bucks for that picture.
Seuss was ecstatic. He was living in his parent’s house at that time.
He informed his parents that, “my future success was assured. I would quickly make my fame and fortune in The Saturday Evening Post“.
On the strength of this single moment, he moved from springfield to New York City.
As we know, things didn’t turn out the way he thought.
He had imaginary children
He and his wife didn’t have children. But that didn’t get him down.
He made up imaginary little ones to brag about when his friends boasted about theirs.
Chrysanthemum Pearl, Norval, Wally, Wickersham, and Thnud were all his brain children.
He even signed their names on the family holiday cards.
Married on the strength of $75 a month
When he got a job in Judge and got paid $75 , he got married to his long-time girlfriend on the strength of it.
Next week , the magazine went semi-bust and his salary went down to $50.
A matter of perspective
The Judge magazine had almost no advertising. The advertisers it did attract, paid the magazine with due bills. And that’s what, the artists and writers, ended up with in lieu of salary.
For instance: the only way to get a hundred dollars from the ad for Hotel Traymore was to go down to the Hotel Traymore in Atlantic City and move into a hundred-dollar suite.
Dr.Seuss, once got paid a hundred cartons of Barbasol shaving cream.
But he took it all in his stride.
“Looking back on it, it wasn’t really so bad, because I didn’t have to balance any checkbooks — or file any income tax.How can you file an income tax when you’re being paid in cases of White Rock soda?”
Kept exploring new venues to expand his talent
His contract with standard oil forbade him to do a lot of stuff.
Flit insecticide was seasonal. The ad campaign ran only during the summer months. So his work was done in 3 months.
He was already established in magazines, so no challenges there either.
So he started exploring the world of children literature (which wasn’t excluded by the standard oil contract).
Worked and reworked his books
Successful people fall under two categories.
One who get better, by sheer quantity of their work and the other by paying attention to their quality.
Dr.Seuss falls under the second category. He was a perfectionist. He would sometimes spends months or even up to a year creating a book.
Despite this, he somehow found time to write over 45 children’s books during his colorful career.
Once we stop being self critical, we stop improving.
The world might think he was a genius, but Dr. Seuss viewed himself in a different light, which pushed him to improve constantly.
His view about Jack-O-Lantern
“The best I can say about the Jacko of this era is that they were doing just as badly on the Harvard Lampoon, the Yale Record, and the Columbia Jester.”
His Great American Novel
“The main reason that I picked ‘Seuss’ professionally is that I still thought I was one day going to write the Great American Novel. I was saving my real
name for that — and it looks like I still am.”
When you have been working hard enough, the universe conspires to send an ‘accident‘ your way.
The ‘accidental cartoon’ that changed his life
Four months into working for the Judge magazine, Dr. Seuss drew this ‘accidental cartoon’, an insecticide gag – that changed his life.
It was a picture of a knight who had retired to his canopy bed, with his armor stacked beside him. A tremendous dragon was sort of nuzzling him.
“He looked up and said, ‘Darn it all, another Dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with… .’
“With what? Dr.Seuss wondered.
There were two well-known insecticides – Flit and Fly Tox. So, he made the decision by tossing a coin. Flit it was.
So, the caption read, ‘Darn it all, another Dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!”
Here is where the universe conspired.
Hardly any people bought Judge, that it was continually in bankruptcy.
One day the wife of Lincoln L. Cleaves- the accountant executive on Flit,
failed to get an appointment at her favorite hairdresser. She went to a
second-rate hairdresser’s, where they had second-rate magazines around.
She found this picture in Judge. She ripped it out of the magazine, put it in her reticule, took it home- to her husband.
And that’s how Dr.Seuss became the illustrator of the very successful art campaign for Flit and “Quick,Henry,the Flit” became a popular catch phrase.
Going into the children’s world.
While Dr.Seuss was looking into new venues to expand his talent – because most possibilities were forbidden in his standard oil contract – he decided to test the waters in children literature. The rest is history.
“I would like to say I went into children’s-book work because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.”
His first book was rejected by 27 publishers, mainly because there was nothing like it on the market at that time. So, of course the assumption was, it wouldn’t sell.
Dejected, Dr.Seuss was taking the book back to his home, intending to burn it in the incinerator, when he bumped into Mike McClintock.
McClintock asked, ‘What’s that under your arm?’
Dr.Seuss replied , ‘That’s a book that no one will publish. I’m lugging it home to burn.’
McClintock pondered for a moment and said, ‘This morning I was appointed juvenile editor of Vanguard Press, and we happen to be standing
in front of my office – would you like to come inside?’
Twenty minutes later Dr.Seuss was signing contracts with the president of the Vanguard Press.
Later Dr.Seuss said –
“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.”
And what an era the dry cleaning business would have had!