Celebrating nonsense with Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel looks happy to have company. He leans back slightly in his cushiony chair, his right foot propped against the edge of his drawing table and his hands folded comfortably over his knee. His hair is swept back from his forehead and big-framed glasses, which don’t quite hide the gleam in his eyes. He has a warm smile.

The cat beside him looks happy too—so delighted, in fact, that its left hand touches the brim of its red-and-white striped stovepipe hat, ready to tip it politely or, perhaps more likely, sweep it from the top of its head in a grand, theatrical gesture. Beneath the hat, perhaps, stands a smaller hat-topped Cat A, with a smaller hat-topped Cat B beneath its hat, and so on and so forth, down to microscopic Cat Z.

That Ted Geisel and the six-foot-tall cat are both cast in bronze seems almost beside the point. After all, Ted Geisel is Dr. Seuss, so the rules are different. With Dr. Seuss, the rules are always different.

“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living,” Seuss once said. “It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

Seuss has been gone since 1991, but his spirit, of course, lives on in the sixty-plus books he wrote and illustrated. That spirit is enshrined in the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Springfield, Massachusetts—the town where Theodore Geisel was born in 1904. His family owned a home on Howard Street, then later moved to a house on Fairfield Street. His father, the city’s parks commissioner, oversaw the nearby Forest Park Zoo.

Fitting, then, that the Dr. Seuss Memorial sits in a small park at the center of a quadrangle created by the city’s museums—a history museum, an art museum, a fine arts museum, and a natural history museum. The city also boasts the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and the Eastern States Expo, plus it has its own symphony and minor-league basketball and hockey teams.

Geisel lived in Springfield until he went to college at Dartmouth in 1921. His first book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, took its name from one of Springfield’s streets. (The book was turned down by twenty-seven publishers before finally being picked up by Vanguard Press in 1937.)

By the time he assumed the Seuss moniker, Geisel had moved away from Springfield for good. As an adult, he took up residence in La Jolla, California, but in 1986, he made a much-celebrated return to his hometown as part of “Seussmania”—and the city’s love affair with its favorite son hasn’t stopped since.

In 2002, after a ten-year fund-raising and planning effort, the city unveiled the Dr. Seuss Memorial. Sculpted by Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, Seuss’s step-daughter, the project cost $6.2 million. It’s at once intimate, imaginative, dignified, and fun, and it invites exploration.

The bronze Seuss and his Cat in the Hat alter ego make up the memorial’s centerpiece. A few feet to Seuss’s right is the sprawling Horton Court, an open storybook laying open on the ground with various Seussian figures popping up from the pages. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, with a daisy in his mouth, sits on one edge. Sam-I-Am, with green eggs and ham, springs up in another direction.

Sally and her unnamed brother, the protagonists from The Cat in the Hat, watch in glee as Thing One and Thing Two spring from the giant book’s pages. Thing One leaps from the head of Thing Two. Their body suits, which look like a combination of unitards and footie-pajamas, have a faint sheen of red and their shocks of Don King-like hair have a faint sheen of light blue.

In the center of the book stands Horton, his trunk extended upward with a clover clutched gently at the tip, some fourteen curly-cue feet high. He looks immensely satisfied.

But the platform of Horton Court isn’t the only open book in the memorial. On the other side of Seuss, a bronze edition of Oh, The Places You’ll Go stands ten feet tall. The open pages contain the full text of the book—the last one Seuss published during his lifetime—which contains one of his most affirming messages:

“And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed.
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

No wonder the book remains a wildly popular gift for high school and college graduates.

While Seuss reveled first and foremost in the fun of language and pictures, he was never shy about slipping a message into his stories. The Grinch, for instance, reminds us about the true meaning of Christmas, which doesn’t come from a store. “Christmas,” Seuss wrote, “means a little bit more.”

The Lorax was unabashedly pro-environmentalist, at a time when environmentalism had not yet come into fashion. A small bronze statue of the Lorax stands at the entrance to the Quadrangle, near the natural history museum; he’s perched in a stump that says “Unless…” Seuss wanted to remind readers that

“UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

You’re Only Old Once celebrates the trials and tribulations of getting old. Yertle the Turtle—who sits atop a stack of ten bronze turtles around the corner from the main sculpture garden—offers a lesson in humility. Even Green Eggs and Ham, a book Seuss wrote when Random House publisher Bennett Cerf bet him that he couldn’t write a story using fifty words or less, urges kids to try new things.

The Cat in the Hat undoubtedly contains Seuss’s most subversive message: Have fun! In an era dominated by the safe and easy pace of Dick and Jane and their orderly, tow-the-line existence, the Cat in the Hat celebrated the sheer unadulterated joy that comes with being a kid and the chaos that comes with unfettered imagination.

The Cat in the Hat represented a gestalt shift in publishing. Learning to read went from being functional to being fun. Kids couldn’t get enough of the Cat and his antics. Parent groups were indignant that a reading primer would urge kids to break the rules, but Random House ignored those protests in favor of the ca-ching of cash register sales. In its life, more than eleven million copies have been published, and it’s been translated into twelve languages.

Most of Seuss’s books celebrate the power of imagination. “I like nonsense,” he once said. “It wakes up the brain cells.”

He invites kids to see what they might find if they extend the alphabet On Beyond Zebra. He urges kids to imagine how things would be different if they ran the zoo or ran the circus. What might they catch if they fish in McElligot’s Pool?

Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! he tempts.

The Dr. Seuss National Memorial invites people to join in the imagining. In front of the open pages of Oh, The Places You’ll Go sits a Seussian storyteller’s chair, which beacons visitors to have a seat. The Grinch and his dog, Max, peek out from around the corner of the book to cast an approving glance. Gertrude McFuzz, the prettiest bird that ever there was, perched atop the book, adds her assent.

It’s a heady feeling to sit in that chair and feel the Seussness all around you. Ted Geisel had, undoubtedly, one of the most powerful and most celebrated imaginations of the Twentieth Century, and every single story invited readers to be a part of the fun. The Seussian world meant Adventure of the First Magnitude. All you had to do was read along, and your imagination could do the rest. Oh, the thinks you could think.

Seuss has certainly given us much to think about—and much to smile about, too. The last laugh, his bronze smile suggests, will always be his.

No wonder he’s happy for the company.

3 replies »

  1. Great reminder for those of us who grew up with his early work (as well as Dick and Jane) of the importance of imagination, fantasy, and fun. Thank you for sharing….looks like an amazing place to visit as well.