The secret world of Dr. Seuss

Detail of an advertising cartoon by Dr. Seuss, on display at the Jean Stephen Gallery.
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Detail of an advertising cartoon by Dr. Seuss, on display at the Jean Stephen Gallery.

The Cat in the Hat is now 54, which is a long life for an anarchic feline. One supposes, upon reading Dr. Seuss’s iconic children’s book, that the cat would run through all nine of his lives in short order, as is often the case with adventure-seeking personalities.

The thing about the Cat in the Hat’s age is that, for most of us, he’s always been around, lurking in his series of books with his bizarre companions, known only as Thing One and Thing Two, and creating (and then repairing) extraordinary messes. For a good percentage of humanity, there was no time when the Cat and the Hat didn’t exist, and so his creator, Theodor Seuss Geisel, has always been Dr. Seuss.

But he was 53 when he wrote and illustrated “The Cat in the Hat.” And this means that there was a lot of living he did prior to becoming the illustrator we have always known. There was, for instance, his education at Dartmouth, which he nearly forfeited due to drinking illegal gin. His dean demanded he end all extracurricular activities, including his participation in the college humor newsletter. He continued anyway, surreptitiously, using his middle name as a pen name. So that’s how Theodore Geisel became Seuss, 30 years before The Cat in the Hat.

He had a long career as a cartoonist and advertising illustrator, and there’s a growing interest in this work. Back in 1999, a book called “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” collected his wartime cartoons for a New York newspaper called PM. 1995 saw the release of a slim volume called “The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss,” which collected work from his estate. The book revealed some of the influences on Seuss’ style, including expressionism, the art of the Far East, and the pineapple, which was reportedly his favorite fruit; once you know this last fact, it becomes possible to see pineapples in everything Seuss did. His was a round and spiky world.

Suess’ estate has been selling serigraphs and other branded Dr. Seuss art for a while now, and has recently released some previously unseen work by the artist, along with a companion book called “Secrets of the Deep.” In a lot of ways, the book is an expansion of the material found in “The Secret Art,” but it’s a huge expansion, representing more than 300 pieces. And, as it turns out, Seuss’ work is represented in the Twin Cities in a storefront down on Nicollet Mall called the Jean Stephen Gallery, so it’s possible to see massive prints of Seuss’ work up close.

It will surprise nobody that, in whatever he did, Theodor Geisel’s imagination was wild and prodigious. Starting in the 1930s, Suess made use of beaks, horns and other spare parts from deceased animals (acquired from the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Mass., where his father worked) to create what is now called “rogue taxidermy.” There are, on the walls of the Jean Stephen Gallery, a number of trophy animals, all decidedly Seussian, with unconcerned grins, wide eyes, and a vague sort of pineapple-ness. These same sorts of beasts rise from the briny depths is a series of ads intended to sell motorboats; the secret of the deep is, it seems, that it is possible to turn a pineapple into an octopus.

There is also some slightly racier material. Suess, after all, once authored a book called “The Seven Lady Godivas,” detailing a collection of voluptuous sisters who refused to wear clothes. And so it is that voluptuous women, in various stages of dress, continued to appear in his work. One of them, in fact, is shown carrying a familiar-looking cat.

So the Cat in the Hat is also on hand, in a variety of incarnations. Seuss seemed to see the cat as a sort of alter-ego for himself. He had started including a behatted feline in his work years before the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” and the cat continued to pop up every so often in his work for the rest of his life. It’s a bit startling to see the character in other contexts, particularly in the presence of unclad females. But, then, Theodor Geisel had a life before The Cat in the Hat. It’s not too much to assume the cat may have, too.

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