Happy Birthday Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel!
Julio Torres, Intern
Today is technically the birthday Ted Geisel, an unexceptional student and notorious troublemaker that most know little of. His literary persona, on the other hand, is known and loved around the globe. In Theodor Seuss Geisel, the biography written by Donald E. Pease, we get a glance at the person behind the literary icon. Pease is Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African-American Literature at Dartmouth, the Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities, the Founding Director of the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth, and the Chair of the Dartmouth Liberal Studies Program. In the following excerpt, Pease chronicles how the man who created the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat, slyly concocted “Ted” into “Dr. Seuss,” the genius we celebrate today.
The year 1925, Ted’s last year of college, began auspiciously: he took over editorial responsibilities for the Jack-O-Lantern and enjoyed the social standing that came with the position. The year before, he had been one of twenty students elected as member of the Casque and Gauntlet, perhaps the most prestigious of the senior honor societies. Campbell, along with Pete Blodgett, Larry Leavitt, and Kenneth Montgomery, initiated him to the renowned Knights if the Round Table and fifteen of the twenty members moved into the Casque and Gauntlet’s house during their senior year. But Ted decided to share a more economical room with Robert Sharp in a clapboard boardinghouse for students and faculty that was run by Ma and Pa Randall.
As graduation approached Ted was surrounded by classmates who had clear plans for their future. Campbell was about to enter Harvard Law School, Blodgett prepared for a career in banking, and Sharp was going to graduate school in English. At a final meeting of the Casque and Gauntlet the members voted their predictions for one another. After ballots were counted the Knights of the Round Table achieved unanimity on only one decision: that Ted was “least likely to succeed.” With a grade point average of 2.45 and an academic ranking of 133 in a class of 387, the vote did not come as a complete surprise. He turned the incident into an occasion to demonstrate his gifts at self-caricature. Having succeeded in becoming the Jack-O-Lantern’s editor, Ted had acquitted the only honor that truly mattered to him. But he was about to undergo an experience that proved almost as disorienting as his family’s misfortunes in Springfield. On the evening of Holy Saturday, April 13, 195, Ted invited nine members of the magazine’s staff to his room at the Randall house, where they part took of the bottle of gin he had purchased that day from a bootlegger who had earned President Hopkin’s seal of approval. At the peak of the evening’s festivities, Ted and Curtis Abel climbed onto the tin roof of the source of the fluids showering down his roof (and deficient of the capacity for merriment), Pa Randall imagined the worst of the offenses and called the Hanover police. Ehen the chief of police raided the apartment, he tool all the young men into custody for violation of liquor laws.
After a hearing Craven Laycock, the roundtable dean of students, placed Ted and his friends on probation for defying prohibition on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar. Furthermore Laycock removed Ted from the poison of editor of the Lack-O-Lantern and barred him from contributing to the periodical he’d spent four years establishing as a cutting-edge college publication. Ted considered the terms of the punishment excessively severe. Laycock’s decision to remove him from the editorship of the Jack-O-Lantern recalled previous scenes of humiliation that he had undergone: his schoolmates’’ insults during World War I, Roosevelt’s public shaming, the family’s loss of its livelihood. Without his title as editor of the Jack-O-Lantern, Ted felt as if par of his identity was missing.
Ted expected his father, who had been comparably wronged by the injustice of Prohibition, to mount a campaign protesting the harshness of the dean’s decision. To his son’s disappointment, however, T.R. wrote in complete support of the terms of Dean Laycock’s punishment: “You have violated the rules and you have been penalized, consequently abide by the decision of the authorities. And in connection, Ted, I want you to serve your full sentence conscientiously…. Make an attempt the next few weeks to eradicate this blot from your good record.”
Ted obeyed the conditions of the dean’s punishment; he removed his name from the masthead and stopped publishing materials under his given name. Within the week, however, he submitted a series of cartoons that were published under sundry pseudonyms, amount them the horticulturalist L. Burbank, the biochemist L. Pasteur, and the decadent poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Finally he turned his own middle name and for the first time signed “Seuss” under a cartoon.
He had followed the letter but overturned the intent of the dean’s justice. By subtracting the patronymic from his surname, Ted had quite literally followed his father’s demand that he wipe the blot from his record. “Seuss” differed from his other pseudonyms in that it neither concealed nor obliterated his identity. Initially it may have provided the guise needed to continue publishing his cartons, but more significantly it created an extension of Ted by which he was able to liberate and realize his art.
“Seuss” turned the dean’s punishment into a prohibition that Ted enjoyed transgressing. What began as an act of rebellion became one of self-expression. Not privy to what the Jack-O-Lantern staffers and Ted’s inner circle knew all too well, the dean was turned into the dupe of one of his comic performances. The signature enabled Ted to transform his shame and indignation into pleasure by literally making a name for himself. “Seuss” was at once a password into the world of make-believe to which Nettie had introduced him in his childhood and an incitement to recover its magic.