Consider Dr Seuss. The writer and illustrator behind the most absurd books in the library, whose wordplay and neatly illustrated doodles are forever alive in the imagination of children. In Seuss’ universe, full of impossible creatures, eye-popping characters and memorable puns, cats wear red-and-white floppy hats, eggs have green yolks and foxes sport socks. Seuss’ tools were the building blocks of the alphabet, his lyricism the result of years daydreaming at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and working as an advertising illustrator in New York.
There’s as much of Massachusetts in his books as there is make-believe
Yet stand in front of the quadrant of museums on Edwards Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, and you can quickly grasp another truth woven into his fantasies. Seuss’ real genius was superimposing his surreal world over the real one, and it is easy to see his stories emerge in the streets, parks and pavements of his hometown.
This is what visitors to Springfield are eager to find out today. “There’s as much of Massachusetts in his books as there is make-believe,” said Kay Simpson, president of Springfield Museums, when we met on a brilliant blue morning this summer. “Our eclectic, Victorian-era buildings caught young Ted’s eye, and none of it passed him by over the years. It left a profound impression.”
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The story of Theodor ‘Ted’ Seuss Geisel, born 2 March 1904, begins on the front steps of The Amazing World of Dr Seuss, a museum that charts his fantastical journey from big-thinking, small-town kid to international brand. The gallery is in its infancy, only one year old and still expanding with new exhibits, and yet it’s already ground zero for Seussian whimsy and a must-see for fanatics. Here, everyone has an appointment with the doctor.
Past wiggly pink railings and a giant archway with the outline of an extravagant big top, our museum visit started at the ‘Seuss Bakery’, a reimagining of one owned by the author’s grandparents. “This is critical to the Seuss timeline,” said Simpson, pausing in front of the exhibit. “As a child, his mother would sing songs to him about the names of the pies: ‘apple, mince, lemon, peach, pineapple, blueberry, coconut, custard and squash’. His lyricism was influenced by their time together, and she fostered his creativity. Believe it or not, but she let him draw on the walls of his bedroom with crayons.”
As time passed, Seuss’ formative early years proved crucial to his later career choice. By 1937, age 33, he had finished And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, his first children’s book and a light-hearted homage to the street he used to walk down on his way to school. The problem was it had been rejected by publishers 27 times and, considering himself a failure, he was determined to burn the manuscript. The story has since persisted that on the way home from his latest rejection he bumped into a friend from Dartmouth College who worked in publishing. Soon after, he had his first book deal.
The watershed moment came in 1954 when his editor William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, offered him an even bigger opportunity. In response to a Life magazine article criticising children’s reading habits, Seuss was challenged to write a book that kids couldn’t put down. The result? The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957, which has sold more than 16 million copies in nearly 20 languages.
He created a whole new world
What followed was a succession of smashes, totalling more than 650 million sales: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham. As the ultimate tribute, the self-proclaimed doctor was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and his birthday was adopted as the annual Read Across America Day in 1997.
Artist and Seuss obsessive John Simpson, who happens to be Kay’s husband and has contributed several artworks to the museum’s galleries, has another theory about how Seuss became such an exemplar for child literacy. “He had a way of creating magic from the ordinary,” he told me. “It wasn’t just his prodigious artwork, either. He created a whole new world and had an eye for merchandising. He knew how to imagine products and sell ideas from his time in New York.”
In the museum’s upper gallery is a replica of the living room and studio in La Jolla, California, where Seuss lived and worked in his later years. Picture him breakfasting on a plate of eggs and ham surrounded by unorthodox taxidermy sculptures collected from his travels in South America. Coffee drunk and newspaper digested, he’d move from his favourite chair to sit in front of a drawing board to work all day, only interrupted when answering calls on a brilliant candy-red phone. That he had a disciplined routine is clear: the desk is recreated as it once was, with oil paints, coloured pencils, comic proofs and a well-thumbed document valise. Seuss’ glasses rest on the desk as if he has just left the room.
Beyond the museum, Springfield’s grid of streets, parks and pavements is equally compelling. Across from Howard Street, where Seuss was born, is the castle-like structure of the Howard Street Armory. Another literary nod to Springfield, its turrets and curved windows appear in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. In Forest Park, one of the US’ largest publicly owned municipal parks, Seuss wandered with his sketchbook every day, and there’s no mistaking its Monkey House, frog pond, amphitheatre, rose garden and the Barney Mausoleum in stories such as McElligot’s Pool and If I Ran the Zoo. The list of Springfield influences goes on.
Of course, Seuss was not the first person to create barely believable worlds for children, prompting laughter by pulling stories out of everyday life. The Cat in the Hat, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears a Who can find their ancestry in stories like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but also in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers.
But what’s not in doubt is the enduring influence of his creations. His books have survived with a richness of character and colour that distinguishes them from those penned by others. From the earliest readers of his books today, to the proud parents who make Oh, the Places You’ll Go! the top-selling book for graduates in the US, there is an unbroken line to follow.
Escapism and undiluted pleasure is what immersing yourself in the world of Dr Seuss is all about
“Seuss’ work is intergenerational,” said Simpson as our visit ended outside in the Dr Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, opened in 2002, 11 years after the author’s death. “There’s so much depth to it and I don’t think there’s another children’s author who matches that. Escapism and undiluted pleasure is what immersing yourself in the world of Dr Seuss is all about – regardless of age.”
The Seuss in Springfield project is an ongoing one. Following the opening of the museum, a walking tour debuted this autumn to bring further tales from the author’s timeline alive. An electric trolley – with Seussian flourishes – is going to be introduced to take readers on a loop of highlights, from Mulberry Street to Forest Park to Fairfield Street.
But the last word must go to Seuss himself. Springfield, in his eyes, was more than just a hometown. It was a place to sit, daydream, grow, learn and change. Despite the writer never having kids, he wanted to tell stories and provide an imaginative trigger for children – not load his work with metaphor or any deeper psychological insight. For him, laughter and nonsense was enough.
As he once wrote: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” Especially if you know where and what to look for when visiting Springfield, Massachusetts.
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