Dr Seuss and his Nerkle Corral (1956)

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Ted Geisel Dr. Seuss half-length portrait
Dr Seuss (Theodore “Ted” Geisel) in 1957 at work. Photo by World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Horton lives at Soledad with Nerkles and Nerds

By Norman Bell

The home of a strange elephant named Horton is on top of a mountain called Soledad. It means “lonely place” in Spanish, but it isn’t lonely.

That’s what 4-year-old Lucinda discovered when she called on Horton.

seuss horton the elephantHis keeper — who also has a fantastic collection of other creatures, such as Ziffs and Zuffs and Nerkles and Nerds, as well as a hospitable moose known as Thidwick — welcomed the child with grave courtesy.

For, after all, as Horton himself says: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

That also explains the keeper’s success.

He creates picture-word-sound stories aimed at grownups to captivate children. He is known to his public as Dr. Seuss. His real name is Theodor Seuss Geisel.

Lucinda and her adult escort were invited to enter his mountain menagerie. It is actually a spacious home built around a former lookout tower, from which there is an unbroken view of ocean and shoreline and mountain ranges. The “village” of La Jolla nestles below and the mushrooming city of San Diego sprawls all around.

The menagerie, being entirely make believe, consists of figures on drawing paper at the artist-author’s desk or papier-mache models on the walls.

Geisel treated Lucinda and her escort with equal consideration during the tour of the tower. He made it clear that he shares Horton’s view — he doesn’t underrate a person — “no matter how small.”

“I write all my books on simple, adult level,” he said. “I do it on the theory that a child can understand anything — you can even explain an atomic pile to a 6-year-old, if you are able to put it down in the right form.”

He uses simplicity — the modern method of reaching the mass mind — and capitalizes on the wonderful, unspoiled imagination of childhood.

What if Umbus, a cow, has 98 faucets or if another of his creature’s knees are on wrong?

“I draw the best I can,” says Geisel, who makes a point of the fact he never took an art lesson. “If things come out wrong, the child doesn’t care. Legs on backwards are even more fascinating.”

Thus, a 4-year-old like Lucinda has no trouble accepting the idea that infinitesimal beings — queer little “Whos,” who only Horton, the elephant, can hear — inhabit a dust speck which, when magnified by Geisel’s illustrations, appears something like a curved section of the world.

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Geisel, whose kindness is reflected in his quiet, brown eyes, wouldn’t sadden even adults with a tragic ending to any of his stories.

>> Also see: How Dr Seuss became an icon

He goes so far as to offer hope that America can be saved from what he and the La Jolla Town Council, Inc., a civic group in that “village” section of San Diego, say is the threat of being “messed up” by uncontrolled advertising signs.

vintage seuss mulberry streetGeisel and the town council, of which he is a member, use Dr. Seuss pamphlets in their war against oversized, gaudy or flashy signs which exceed the limits of “good taste.” The pamphlets blame a couple of stone-age “guys” named Guss and Taxx for originating such advertising to market rival products called “Gus-Ma-Tuss” and “Zaxx-Ma-Taxx.”

The La Jolla campaign is catching on elsewhere, says Geisel. He hopes it will spread and spread.

Yet, it was advertising of a commercial product that started Dr. Seuss on his way to fame and fortune, and his current commitments include some billboard illustrations for sugar.

It was in the ’20s that Geisel, who had been editor of the Dartmouth Jack O’Lantern, gave up his ambition of becoming a highbrow professor after studies at Oxford and the Sorbonne in favor of “noodling” pictures for a living.

A girl he met at Oxford, Helen Manon Palmer, now his wife and collaborator, encouraged him. One of his cartoons, appearing in the humor magazine Judge, showed a knight in armor facing a dragon with a spray gun. By toss of a coin, Geisel chose one of two rival products for the caption, which said: “Quick Henry, the Flit.”

The manufacturer was enraptured and engaged the talents of Dr. Seuss for a campaign that continued through the 1930s without lapse.

Geisel also credits luck for leading him to a publisher, after 25 rejections, of his first children’s story, in 1937. It was a rhythm tale, later set to music by Deems Taylor, of a little boy whose imagination runs away with him on “Mulberry Street.”

His father admonishes:

“Your eyesight’s much too keen.

“Stop telling such outlandish tales.

“Stop turning minnows into whales.”

The Geisels, with Mrs. Geisel in the role of Dr. Seuss’ severest critic, say that the first fantastic premise of a story is the one to get across. Once it is accepted by the reader, anything goes — as in the latest Seuss volume, in which the alphabet begins with “Z” for zebra.

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“On Beyond Zebra,” the reader finds winn, um, humpf, fuddle, glikk, nuch. snee, quan, thnad, spazz, flobb, vroo, yukk and so on to yuzz, which is short for yuzz-a-ma-tuzz. This book of nonsense and another,

“If I Ran the Circus,” also to be published by the fun-loving Bennett Cerff of Random House, demonstrate Dr. Seuss’ talents which now are being directed to a serious enterprise. The Geisels are working on helping Johnny to read with three supplementary textbooks, for the first, second and third grades, to be published by Houghton-Mifflin.

Each tells a story in simple vocabularies of the respective grade ages, with phonetic pronunciations and Seuss’ animal illustrations to help the small pupils. “The aim is to make their first experience in reading pleasurable,” said Geisel, “not difficult.” He is doing the hard work for them, he explained. His rate of production is about four well-polished lines a day.

Seuss political cartoon, courtesy of The National WWII Museum
Seuss political cartoon, courtesy of The National WWII Museum

Geisel says his fantastic creatures spring from a genuine interest in real animals, which runs in the family. His father is park department and zoo superintendent in Geisel’s native Springfield, Mass.

He also likes children in person, although he and Mrs. Geisel have none. Geisel, in his role as a trustee of the San Diego Fine Arts Museum, would like to introduce a new sort of children’s section, with equipment for their use in various types of creative artistry.

During World War II, he served with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps motion picture unit as producer in animation of intelligence and educational films. He was awarded the Legion of Merit.

His postwar film creations, including the cartoon character Gerald McBoing-Boing, have won four Oscars for the producers. He smiles when he remarks that his textbook project is finally achieving, in a limited way, his old ambition to be a professor. An honorary degree at Dartmouth, awarded last year, made him a doctor of humane letters and, he says, an honest man out of Dr. Seuss.

He might like to know that that Dr. Seuss’ illustrations aimed at pulling a stop to the advertising excesses of Guss and Taxx didn’t get the message over to Lucinda. Now she scolds them, but in a tolerant way that indicates her first impression still stands.

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