By Will Stahl
“Do you like green eggs and ham?…” How many among you cannot complete that couplet? The stories and characters of Dr. Seuss are embedded in our cultural consciousness: the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, Horton and his Who, the Lorax and of course Sam-I-Am. All of them are as familiar to Americans as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Bullwinkle, and the Simpsons.
When the really famous ones broke big on the scene, I was a bit old––I learned to read with the vapid Dick and Jane––but one of my grade-school teachers read us The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Bartholomew and the Oobleck, early works that long predated The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. She also read On Beyond Zebra, a 1955 book that I read to my own children so often I can recite bits of it to this day.
That is the way most of us know him, from the children’s books with the zippy rhymes and zany illustrations that showed comically bizarre animals and landscapes that seemed to flow like Silly Putty in the hot sun. People were portrayed as much by their appearance as by the words used, anxious, wise, pompous, or sly; timid, bold, cruel or cold, all shown in their expressive faces and postures. And often no separation was made between the world of the people and that of the animals.
Appleton’s Trout Museum of Art is presenting a show “Under the Hat: the Many Worlds of Dr. Seuss,” now through October 31, that demonstrates the creativity of Dr. Seuss extended far beyond the familiar books and the cartoon features made from them. Works shown are almost all recognizably Seussian, but expand into media such as sculpture and oil paint that few have seen until recently.
To learn more about Dr. Seuss and his diverse output, I met with Daryl Price, the collector and owner of most of the pieces in the exhibit. In a conversation at the downtown Copper Rock Coffee shop, Mr. Price told me of his interest in Dr. Seuss and much about his interesting and varied life.
Price’s enthusiasm for his subject was evident the moment I met him. He was wearing a Seuss-themed tie and a shirt embroidered with “Seuss House North,” the first name of the enterprise he has built around his interest.
A native and life-long resident of Wisconsin, Price has worked in, among others, the aviation and tech industries. In California on business for his tech company, he saw a painting in the window of a shop on Coronado Island, just across the bay from San Diego. It was a Seuss and its owner radiated a contagious enthusiasm for Dr. Seuss and told Price about the many secret works of Dr. Seuss and other little-known aspects of his career. Price bought the painting and a passion was born. He began to learn all he could about the man and collect as many appealing things as he could find.
“I only collect what I like,” Price said.
Dr. Seuss was born “Theodore Seuss Geisel” in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His middle name was his mother’s maiden name and would have been pronounced “Zoice” in the original German. Throughout his life he was affected in curiously direct ways by the big events of the twentieth century.
During the First World War, in an effort to validate an American identity despite a distinctly German name, at age 14 he worked hard to sell the most war bonds of anyone in his Boy Scout troop. Earning a spot in the top ten, he appeared on stage with the others to receive a medal from Colonel (ex-president) Theodore Roosevelt.
Someone had miscounted the medals, and Roosevelt had none left to give when Geisel, last in line, stepped forward to receive his. In order to spare the former president embarrassment, Geisel was hustled off stage, humiliated. This incident is cited as a reason for his lifelong reticence about any public appearance or interview and also for the beginning of his feeling for the individual––the “little guy”––abused or neglected by authority.
That feeling may have been exacerbated when Prohibition closed the family brewery business, and his father had to take a job managing a zoo.
Beginning at Dartmouth in 1921, by his senior year he had become editor of the Jack-O-Lantern, the university humor magazine. He contributed drawings, cartoons and pithy sayings, as in the magazine’s “Additions to Etiquette” section he wrote, “A man should not sit down before a lady. It is, however, advisable to violate this rule if the lady expects
to sit on his lap.”
Busted at a campus gin party––against the rules of campus and the laws of Prohibition––he lost his position and participation in any extra curriculars. He seems to have been the only one actually punished, another grievance with authority, but he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pennames “Seuss” and “Theo LeSieg,” spelling his last name backwards.
After graduation he tried Oxford University in England, where he met his first wife Helen, and not liking it otherwise, returned to the United States to try his luck in New York as a commercial artist, writer, and cartoonist. In 1927 the Saturday Evening Post published his first illustration and he regularly contributed there and to several other magazines.
During Geisel’s early commercial art career he began to evolve the drawing style and ideas that would underpin his later children’s books. He got a full-time job with Standard Oil, drawing the ads for their “Flit” insecticide (“Now improved with DDT”). His slogan “Quick, Henry, the Flit” became the basis of the ads and a national punch line.
Later he developed original and innovative ad campaigns for Standard Oil’s automotive and marine products, illustrating them with bizarre creatures representing various threats to engines such as cold weather, sludge and abrasion. It was during this period that he began calling himself “Dr. Seuss.”
At night he went to his art studio and began to work on the pieces that make up most of the current art show. Though his personal style is recognizable in all of them, he did them in series that reflect various art movements: Impressionism, Cubism, Art Deco. They are like the familiar illustrations but extended further in the realms of imagination and color.
They are so imaginative and sometimes nearly abstract that he feared exhibiting them would harm his very profitable commercial art career, and they remained hidden, viewed by only a few friends, until after his death in 1991. Many of these are part of the Trout exhibit.
As World War II approached, he took the Roosevelt side, drawing cartoons that mocked Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and the isolationist Republicans in Congress. When the United States entered the war, he sought a position in military intelligence, but his pre-war political forthrightness backfired, and he was viewed as a possible security risk.
But his talents were recognized and the Army gave him a position in the Signal Corps’ Information and Education Division and moved him to California where he worked under director Frank Capra. Geisel learned the arts of animation and film and used his flair for creating humorous characters to make instructional videos teaching soldiers how to cope with aspects of military life. Some of them featured “Private Snafu,” apple-cheeked and alertly dopey-looking, as the main character.
During this time he learned the value of rhyme as an engaging mnemonic device to help get his message across. Before the war he had begun writing children’s books and had some success, but though they used his whacky illustrations, they were written in a prose style.
After the war ended, he moved Helen and himself to La Jolla, California, for the rest of his life and where his second wife, Audrey, still lives today. He began to turn out ever-more-successful children’s books while continuing to do commercial art and work on his private art in his home studio.
Dr. Seuss’ books always reflected his view of the human world and made comments on its ethics and morality. Horton Hears a Who has been co-opted by the anti-abortion movement, but he saw in it a comment on the abuse of the powerless by the powerful, specifically the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
Some of them such as McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra, and Green Eggs and Ham, show what happens when people don’t limit their imaginations. Yurtle the Turtle is anti-authoritarian, The Sneetches depicts the absurdity of racial discrimination, The Butter-Battle Book takes on the arms race, The Lorax is pro-environment and anti-consumerism, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas satirizes the mean and miserable who will try to take away the happiness of others.
But these books most of us know are the tip of the proverbial Dr. Seuss iceberg. As an artist he had depths he never showed the public, rarely showed to anyone. His personal story has been obscured by his public reticence and the popularity of his books. The Trout Museum is presenting just a bit of that art, and it’s well-worth seeing.
Daryl Price is trying to bring that depth of art and personal history to groups of people with his presentations. He has four ready: one expands knowledge of Dr. Seuss and his art and other accomplishments, another describes the moral philosophy that is a subtext of the books, and the other two use Dr. Seuss material as springboard to inspire organizational leadership and planning.
“It began when local non-profits asked to visit the house to see the collection,” Price told me, “and morphed into ‘Can you speak at our event?’” Combining his experience in business and his passion for Dr. Seuss, Price developed his informative motivational presentations and has brought them to national trade organizations, corporations and executive retreats.
Though he said, “I’m not really a public speaker,” the confidence with which he expresses himself about his favorite subject suggests he is being a bit modest.
When we walked over to the Trout, Emma Reiser, operations manager at the Trout, met us and accompanied our tour of the exhibit. “The whimsical things appeal to the children,” she said, “and the other pieces are surprising to the adults.” The museum has built a variety of activities around the exhibit: field trips, story times, corporate events, community art projects and art classes with a Seuss theme.
“Over 5,000 people have engaged in our Seuss community art projects,” Emma told me, “including the two-story paper mache hat, the painting in our front window and the ‘Plethora of Cats’ painting (based on one of the works in the exhibit) completed during the farmers’ market.
“1,300 visitors have seen the exhibit since it opened on August 2. We are on track to surpass visitor totals from previous exhibits.”
Though images from the familiar books are displayed, including some originals Dr. Seuss sketched as gifts for friends, most of the exhibit is dedicated to the secret work that he kept in his studio and showed to only a few select people in his lifetime. It includes displays of what he called his “unorthodox taxidermy,” whimsical animals like those in the books, originally constructed partly from animal parts such as horns, antlers and feathers that his father brought home from the zoo.
It even includes some images from Dr. Seuss’ commercial art and army education careers, and they show the development of the images and ideas that fed the books.
Believe me, more is here than you imagined. Overcome your fear of childish things and come see these unique works.
“Under the Hat: the Many Worlds of Dr. Seuss” will be at the Trout Museum of Art through October 31. Museum hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM-4 PM. Sunday, 12 PM-4 PM. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, $2 for children 5-10, and free for children 4 and under. Admission is free for museum members.
For further information call 920-733-4089 or go to troutmuseum.org.
For information on Daryl Price’s presentations and workshops, call 920-205-2103 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Trout Museum would like to acknowledge that in addition to the works from Daryl Price, other pieces have been loaned by Kathi Seifert, Bill Heeter and Erin & Luke Tyson.