In 1995, co-authors Judith and Neal Morgan, discussed their biography of Theodor Geisel with Liane Hansen. The biographers noted that Dr. Seuss was shy and was afraid that he would disappoint children when kids would meet him.
Courtesy Dr. Seuss Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego
Courtesy Dr. Seuss Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego
Instead of "Do you hear?" the typescript on the colored-pencil sketches (above) has the fish saying, "Look! I see her!" The change to "Do you hear?" for the final version (below) gives the fish a more parental tone, writes Philip Nel in The Annotated Cat. And the original illustration shows much more through the window. The mother's foot and hem are there, but so is a row of identical houses. So, in addition to placing his perspective closer to that of the children, the fish's "Look, I see her!" directs attention to the mother specifically, distinguishing her from everything else that is visible outside.
We looked! Then we saw him step in on the mat! We looked! And we saw him! The Cat in the Hat!
The Cat in the Hat, the book about a mischievous, irrepressible soul who always seemed kind of ageless, is 50 years old. At the time of its debut in 1957, the Cat was an instant success. The Dr. Seuss classic is still captivating to children and the adults who read to them.
It has everything a classic needs — a great plot, great characters, wonderful illustrations and a unique voice, says Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children.
"Some books we read and we forget them right away," she says. "But there are those other books, that they just stay with us. And The Cat in the Hat is that kind of book."
And that means if you grew up reading The Cat in the Hat, there's a pretty good chance your children will read it, too.
On a cold, snowy, winter afternoon, Sonya Cohen curled up on a living room couch to listen to her children, 9-year-old Dio and 6-year-old Gabel read from one of her favorite childhood books.
Cohen began reading the book to her children while they were much younger. Dio, now a proficient reader, says she can remember sounding out the words to The Cat in the Hat when she was first learning to read .
"I liked the rhythm and the choice of words because they were not too easy and not too hard," she says.
In fact, the words to The Cat in the Hat were drawn from a vocabulary list for 6- and 7-year-olds. The list was given to Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss, by William Spaulding, then the director of Houghton Mifflin's educational division.
According to Philip Nel, author of The Annotated Cat, Spaulding had seen a 1954 Life magazine article by the writer John Hersey. In that article, Hersey took on a problem that was bothering Americans at the time: Why Johnny can't read. Hersey concluded that the "Dick and Jane" readers that most schools used were just too boring. Hersey suggested that Dr. Seuss write a new reading primer for the nation's schoolchildren.
Nel says that Spaulding liked that idea and issued a challenge to Dr. Seuss.
"He said, 'Write me a story that first-graders can't put down.' And so Seuss did and he wrote The Cat in the Hat to replace Dick and Jane. And it was a huge hit. It was a huge commercial success from the moment of its publication. It really is the book that made Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss," Nel says.
Dr. Seuss had been a fairly successful children's book author up until then, though he was not yet a household name. He thought it would be easy to write the book Spaulding wanted, and expected to dash it off in no time. It took him a year and a half. Seuss underestimated how hard it would be to write a book using just over 200 words, Nel says.
"Seuss was used to inventing words when he needed them, so to stick to a word list was a huge challenge for him," Nel says. "And, in fact, his favorite story about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is that it was born out of his frustration with the word list. He said he would come up with an idea, but then he would have no way to express that idea. So he said...: 'I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said I'll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book. I found cat and hat and I said the title will be The Cat in the Hat.'"
In the end, Nel says, Seuss used exactly 236 words to write The Cat in the Hat, words that young readers can understand.
But if the words are important, so too are the characters and situations that Seuss created: An outrageous cat and two strange things creating havoc on a rainy day. And perhaps the most controversial character: the scolding goldfish who warns of dire consequences.
The secret to Dr. Seuss' success may be his ability to zero in on what kids like and, Nel says, his ability to create a character like the cat who embodies that.
"He breaks the rules and gets away with it. He's a lot of fun. He creates chaos and creates excitement, and relieves the boredom of a rainy day. And in the end, everything's cleaned up, mother comes home and is none the wiser."
hide captionIn 1956, Dr. Seuss wrote this letter to Random House in which he predicted The Cat in the Hat would make a "tremendous noise" in the debate over children's literacy.
Courtesy Random House
In 1956, Dr. Seuss wrote this letter to Random House in which he predicted The Cat in the Hat would make a "tremendous noise" in the debate over children's literacy.
Courtesy Random House
Courtesy Random House
It was 1954, and many Americans were worried: Why can't Johnny read? In a Life magazine article, John Hersey said that Johnny and Susie were not learning to read because the Dick and Jane primers were boring.
Hersey proposed that Dr. Seuss write a reading primer to replace Dick and Jane.
Seuss had already published nine books for children. The first, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, came out in 1937. The tenth, Horton Hears a Who!, would appear in the fall of 1954. He had received some acclaim for his books, winning Caldecott Honors for McElligot's Pool (1947), Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), and If I Ran the Zoo (1950).
But Dr. Seuss was equally famous for "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" — his slogan for Flit insecticide. After first appearing in an ad in 1928, it quickly became a national catchphrase. And his work in the field of advertising was his primary source of income.
The Cat in the Hat would change all that. Seuss wrote the book to teach children how to read, and its success allowed him to write full-time for children. Indeed, the Cat made "Dr. Seuss" a household name. With the publication of The Cat in the Hat in the spring of 1957 and of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! later that year, Dr. Seuss became an icon of American children's literature.
He was born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904. His family called him Ted. As Judith and Neil Morgan's Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography (1995) tells us, Ted's paternal grandparents, Theodor Geisel and Christine Schmaelzle, emigrated from Germany. His maternal grandparents, George J. and Margaretha Seuss (pronounced Zoice), emigrated from Bavaria. Grandpa Geisel ran a brewery, and Ted's father, Theodor Robert Geisel, joined the family business. Grandpa Seuss was a baker, and Ted's mother, Henrietta Seuss, worked in her father's bakery before becoming Mrs. Geisel in 1901. At bedtime, Ted and his older sister, Marnie, often went to sleep to the sound of their mother chanting to them "softly, in the way she had learned as she sold pies, 'Apple, mince, lemon . . . peach, apricot, pineapple . . . blueberry, coconut, custard, and SQUASH!'" He later said that his mother was most responsible "for the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it."
Ted Geisel began attaching pseudonyms to his work early on: in his high school newspaper, he signed his work under his own name and the names Pete the Pessimist, Ole the Optimist, and T. S. Lesieg — "Lesieg" being "Geisel" backward. He didn't start using "Seuss" as his pen name until his senior year at Dartmouth College.
During the spring of 1925, Geisel was the editor of and a contributor to Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth's humor magazine. The night before Easter, Geisel and nine friends were caught drinking gin in his room. As he recalled, the dean put them all "on probation for violating the laws of Prohibition, and especially on Easter Evening." The dean then stripped Geisel of his editorship of Jack-O-Lantern. To evade the punishment, Geisel published cartoons under other names — L. Pasteur, L. Burbank, D. G. Rossetti '25, T. Seuss, and Seuss. This was the first time he signed his work with the name "Seuss." As a magazine cartoonist, he would give himself the mock-scholarly title of "Dr. Theophrastus Seuss" in November 1927, and he shortened that to "Dr. Seuss" in May 1928. Since Americans tended to pronounce the name Soose instead of Zoice, Geisel's middle name acquired a new pronunciation.
Geisel came to professional magazine cartooning by way of Oxford, where he pursued graduate studies in English during 1925 and 1926. His notebooks reveal a young man more interested in doodling than in studying literature. Fortunately, his classmate Helen Palmer noticed that his talents lay beyond academia. Looking at his notebook one day after class, she told him, "You're crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw." And she said, "That's a very fine flying cow!" They got engaged, she finished her M.A. . . . and he did not. In early 1927, they returned to the United States, and — with Helen's encouragement — Ted Geisel began sending cartoons to magazines. In July, the Saturday Evening Post published a cartoon. In it, two dumpy American tourists ride on camels in a desert. One says to the other, "I am so thrilled, my dear! At last I can understand the ecstasy Lawrence experienced when he raced posthaste across the sands of Arabia in pursuit of the fleeting Arab." By the end of the year, Geisel's cartoons were appearing regularly in Judge, a humor magazine.
On November 29, 1927, at the age of twenty-three, Ted married Helen. In 1928, he became a successful advertising artist with cartoons for Flit (a product of Standard Oil), which in turn led him to create ads for Holly Sugar, NBC, Ford, General Electric, and many others. Geisel often said that a clause in his Standard Oil contract prevented him from undertaking many other types of creative work. But it did not prohibit him from publishing children's books. As he told Edward Connery Lathem in 1975, "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."
Ted began writing children's books at roughly the same time that he and Helen found they could not have children. According to the Morgans, by about 1931, Helen was hospitalized "with worsening abdominal pain," and "after hurried conferences doctors removed her ovaries." Throughout his life, interviewers would ask him how he, a childless person, could write so well for children. His standard response: "You make 'em, I'll amuse 'em." (Though Geisel didn't point this out, such a question ignores the fact that many great children's writers have had no children of their own — Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, Crockett Johnson, and Ruth Krauss, to name a few.)
In 1931, Geisel wrote and illustrated his first work for children — an ABC of fanciful creatures. The publishers weren't interested, and so the manuscript never became a book. In 1936, returning from Europe on the M.S. Kungsholm, he began composing a story to the rhythms of the ship's engines: "And that is a story that no one can beat, and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street." Upon his return home, he worked for months writing and illustrating this tale of an imaginary parade. Again, he could not interest any publishers. Depending on the version of the story he tells, either twenty, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, or forty-three publishers turned down the manuscript.
As Geisel liked to say, one day he was walking down Madison Avenue, manuscript in hand, and was thinking that he would never sell the book. He happened to bump into Mike McClintock, a friend from Dartmouth:
He said, "What's that under your arm?"
I said, "A book that no one will publish. I'm lugging it home to burn."
Then I asked Mike, "What are you doing?"
He 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?"
So, we went inside, and he looked at the book and took me to the president of Vanguard Press. Twenty minutes later we were signing contracts.
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!
In the fall of 1937,Vanguard published And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book won strong reviews and sales, and so began the career of Dr. Seuss as we think of him today — Dr. Seuss, the author-illustrator of books for children.
He published The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) with Vanguard, and then publisher Bennett Cerf wooed him to Random House. Seuss published his next two children's books — The King's Stilts (1939) and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940) — with Random House, which would be his publisher for the rest of his career. But he wrote only these four children's books before the Second World War pulled him in a new direction.
Concerned that American isolationism left the country vulnerable, in 1941 Dr. Seuss began his twenty-one-month career as a political cartoonist for New York's Popular Front newspaper, PM, creating over four hundred cartoons — as many as five per week. In January 1943, he and Helen left New York for California, where he became a captain in the U.S. Army's Information and Education Division — Hollywood's Fort Fox. Serving under Major Frank Capra, Captain Geisel was in the same unit with composer Meredith Wilson, who would later write The Music Man. Also in the unit was former Disney animator Phil Eastman, who, as P. D. Eastman, would later write Go, Dog. Go! and Are You My Mother? for Seuss's Beginner Books series at Random House. During the war, they produced documentary films, cartoons, and booklets in support of the U.S. effort. Their best-known creation is Private SNAFU, whose name is an acronym of sorts for "Situation Normal All . . . All Fouled Up," as the first SNAFU animated cartoon put it. Created by Geisel, Eastman, and civilian directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, SNAFU failed to maintain his weapon, let confidential information slip, and neglected to protect himself against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In other words, Private SNAFU taught by negative example.
After the war, Dr. Seuss returned to children's books and continued his advertising work. He and Helen bought a former observation tower atop La Jolla's Mount Soledad, then had it converted into a home, and there they would live and work for the rest of their lives.
In this house, he wrote The Cat in the Hat for Random House and Houghton Mifflin. He struggled to keep his vocabulary within Houghton Mifflin's word lists for beginning readers and nearly gave up in frustration. As he said, upon starting to write this primer, "I figured I could knock it off in a week or so." However, "it took a year and a half." Or, as he observed in one semifictional account of writing The Cat in the Hat, the experience was like "being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love. The only job I ever tackled that I found more difficult was when I wrote the Baedeker that Eskimos use when they travel in Siam."
One part of Seuss's difficulty was that he always worried whether what he had written was good enough. This feeling motivated his perfectionism, pushing him to revise and revise again. Yet, when after much revision he finished The Cat in the Hat, he seemed unusually confident that the book would be a success. On June 11, 1956, he wrote to Random House:
Don't ever show this letter to anyone, but I've got a hunch . . . (very immodest) . . . Namely, according to Houghton-Mifflin, who will be releasing my First Grade Reader to schools early in Jan. or Feb., we've got a possibility of making a tremendous noise in the noisy discussion of Why Johnny Can't Read. The Random House trade edition won't come out until later, and the big noise may never come off.
Seuss then talked about potential press coverage in Collier's and the Saturday Review and the possibility of his making a television appearance to promote the book. He added, "Too early to tell yet, so you and I should just watch and wait. But if Houghton Mifflin is right, we'll be plumb in the middle of a great educational controversy."
As Seuss's letter discloses, Houghton Mifflin published the edition marketed to schools; Random House published the one sold to the general public. (Though their covers differed, the content of the books was the same.) This unusual arrangement came about because William Spaulding, a friend from his army days and then director of Houghton Mifflin's educational division, had asked Seuss to write the primer in the first place. As Judith and Neil Morgan report, Random House president Bennett Cerf agreed that Seuss "could write the reader" as long as Random House retained "the rights to market the trade edition in bookstores. Houghton Mifflin would publish only the school edition."
The school edition did not sell as well as the trade edition because, according to Seuss, educators considered his book too subversive. As he told Jonathan Cott, Houghton Mifflin "had trouble selling it to the schools; there were a lot of Dick and Jane devotees, and my book was considered too fresh and irreverent. But Bennett Cerf at Random House had asked for trade rights, and it just took off in the bookstores."
Published on March 1, 1957, and priced at $2.00 (later reduced to $1.95), Random House's edition of The Cat in the Hat was an immediate hit. Its first printing was selling so well that Random House ordered a second printing in April. As the Morgans write, the book's average sales began at "about twelve thousand copies a month" and only increased thereafter. The Cat became a phenomenon because, "spurred by playground word-of-mouth, children nagged their parents to buy it."
The overwhelmingly positive reviews must have helped to persuade parents. The first review I can find, published in Kirkus Reviews on March 15, 1957, says that the book "is a perfect specimen of what can happen and the Seuss drawings tell as much of a story as his simple verse." If Kirkus Reviews is mostly descriptive, the New York Times Book Review's March 17 review by Ellen Lewis Buell is enthusiastic, setting the tone for subsequent reviews: "Beginning readers and parents who have been helping them through the dreary activities of Dick and Jane and other primer characters are due for a happy surprise." The Cat in the Hat, she says, is "one of the most original and funniest of books for early readers."
As Buell did, most reviewers praised The Cat in the Hat as a successful reading teacher. The Saturday Review's Helen Adams Masten wrote, "Theodor Geisel has accomplished a tour de force. . . . Parents and teachers will bless Mr. Geisel for this amusing reader with its ridiculous and lively drawings, for their children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all." The Chicago Sunday Tribune's Polly Goodwin thought that the book would make seven- and eight-year-olds "rejoice" and "look with distinct disfavor on the drab adventures of standard primer characters." According to Library Journal's Helen E. Walker, "this hilarious tale" would "quickly become a favorite with first- and secondgraders," but all "youngsters . . . will enjoy the humor, rhythm, and illustrations." Like Walker, the New Yorker's Emily Maxwell also felt that the book would appeal to both new and more experienced readers. The Cat in the Hat, she wrote, "uses only words familiar to first-grade readers and pretends to be intended to make learning to read palatable, but it is really the sort of book children insist on taking to bed with them."
One contemporary reviewer, however, thought the book neither up to Seuss's usual standard nor appealing to a wide range of readers. The Horn Book Magazine's Heloise P. Mailloux thought that the cover's "For Beginning Readers" would be a turnoff: "This is a fine book for remedial purposes, but self-conscious children often refuse material if it seems meant for younger children." She also claimed that The Cat's limited vocabulary prevented it from having "the absurd excellence of the early Seuss books." In contrast, the New York Herald Tribune Book Review's Margaret S. Libby suggested that the book's limited vocabulary made Seuss a more disciplined and successful poet: "Restricting his vocabulary to a mere 223 words (all in the reading range of a six- or seven-year-old) and shortening his verse has given a certain riotous and extravagant unity, a wild restraint that is pleasing."
By May 1958, Random House had sold over 200,000 copies of The Cat in the Hat. By November, it had sold 300,000. And, as E. J. Kahn, Jr., wrote in his New Yorker profile of Dr. Seuss, by the end of 1960 The Cat in the Hat was about to reach a million copies sold, its $1.95 price bringing "its retail gross to nearly two million dollars — equivalent to the gross on six million copies of a thirty-five-cent paperback. Only two works of fiction, God's Little Acre and Peyton Place, have sold as well as that in paperback form." A year later, The Cat in the Hat was already well into its second million in sales.
The baby boom was a major factor in Seuss's success. In 1952, women in the United States gave birth to 3.9 million children. Those children turned five in 1957, the year The Cat in the Hat came out. In 1957, the peak year of the baby boom, 29.1 million children were in kindergarten and elementary school — and another 4.3 million children were born. By way of comparison, in 2000, when 4 million children were born, the birth rate was 14.4 per 1,000 women; the birth rates in 1952 and 1957 were, respectively, 25.1 and 25.3. As an article in a 1964 issue of Business Week reported, the "60 million children now under 14" represented a huge market for children's books: "The yearly total of titles has doubled since 1954, to nearly 3,000 last year (including 371 new editions). Total juvenile sales have doubled since 1957, from $56 million to an estimated $138 million in 1963." In other words, the baby boom created a boom in children's books.