BALTIMORE -- I know it is wet
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!
-- from "The Cat in the Hat," by Dr. Seuss
Childhood, no matter what the sentimentalists say, is a frightening time.
For a child, forks and fathers are too big to grasp, candy and counters out of reach. Only the dog and the cat and the stray mouse are on eye level. The world is so vast, the seconds are so long, the problems so immense.
Childhood is a time when fantasy is fact, and the other way around. Where upside down is right side up and vice versa. All is possible and much is probable. To be young is to believe, to be old to doubt.
Theodor Geisel is three months short of 84. But Dr. Seuss, born of Geisel's nimble brain in the mid-'20s, still keeps childhood's sense of wonder.
"Seuss From Then to Now," a show through Jan. 17 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is evidence that Geisel's forever-young other self has kept those intimations of mysteries that most people lose along with their wisdom teeth.
The exhibit shows close to 300 original pencil, ink, crayon and watercolor drawings and paintings; the first drafts of the doggerel (or should it be catterel?); other stages in the productions of his 45 books; tear sheets from his advertising years (those old enough will recall the "Quick, Henry, the Flit" campaign); the citation on his 1984 Pulitzer Prize; and bits and pieces of thoughts of a lifetime from the good doctor himself. Most visitors will wish to have the exhibit codified in its proper form, the "Dr. Seuss From Then to Now" catalogue, a Seuss sampler.
Wandering through the galleries, I remembered those exhilarating moments when we first realized our daughters laughed at some of the same things we did. That's an event that makes being a parent -- and perhaps being a child -- worthwhile. Fragments of the sacred works still bounce through our conversation, and we apply Seuss sayings the way Victorians quoted William Wordsworth.
One fish, two fish,
Red fish, blue fish ... And the perfect admonition to tangly hair:
All girls who like to brush and comb
Should have a pet like this at home. And what parent has not needed this directive?
Stop! Don't Hop on Pop!
Mixed in with the wonderful drawings of things no one else has ever dreamed up are revelations of how Geisel's genius jells. A letter on exhibit tells how the children's books started. It was the summer of 1936, and he was in the bar on the M.S. Kungsholm, hearing "the rhythm of the rudimentary refrain" hummed by the ship's motors.
He scribbled on a piece of ship stationery, his tale becoming more grandiose as it grew: "A stupid horse and wagon ... horse and chariot ... chariot pulled by flying cat ... flying cat pulling at Viking ship ... Viking ship sailing up a volcano ... Volcano blowing hearts diamonds & clubs ... I saw a giant eight miles tall ... who took the cards 52 in all ... And this is a story that no one can beat ... I saw it all happen on Mulberry Street."
Recalling these first words he ever wrote for children, he writes, "... so I decided to get it published. It was rejected by twenty-eight publishing houses before the twenty-ninth, Vanguard Press, agreed to take a chance ..." The others, he says, rejected "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" (1937) because "it was too different from other children's books then on the market."
So much for wiser heads. For Mulberry Street became a place like Oz or the Rabbit Hole, where the imagination goes in search of sustenance.
The drawings from his next book, this one for adults, "The Seven Lady Godivas" (1939), make it plain why an original copy of the out-of-print volume sells for thousands of dollars.
Geisel's drawing style has been very consistent, beginning when he was editor in chief for Dartmouth's humor magazine, Jack-o-Lantern. He used his middle name and the doctoral title as a nom de mischief to sign his work when he was in trouble for a minor infraction of the university rules.
There's further evidence that he had achieved his full-blown style in his Oxford University notebook -- so full of drawings of curious creatures there's no surprise to find out he left school shortly after, to start a lifetime safari hunting for fantastic fauna. Some of his trophies can be seen on his magazine covers for Judge (leaping everything but lizards on one; birds, beasts and fish of strange shapes on another) and Life (a bird says to a monkey mother, "I know, my dear, but that's NOTHING compared to having an egg!").
And who could forget the greatest advertising campaign before Bartles & Jaymes? Seuss' "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" In these 1930s and '40s ads for an insecticide, a warlike insect takes on a tank single-handedly, or more properly single-stingerly; and in another, three winged destroyers upset a fishing party. Geisel drew Flit for 17 years, and the cartoon advertisements were subsequently collected in books.
Dr. Seuss, who as Geisel says "incorporated my pencil slips with my style," also worked in the 1940s as a political cartoonist for the liberal New York newspaper PM. One of his cartoons shows a man praying "... and protect my beddie from the Communist Boogey Man!" Under the bed, a masked burglar with a swastika on his sleeve and a gun says, "Ain't that cute! Same prayer the Fuehrer taught me when I was a kid."
His liberal views can still be seen in some of his later books. "The Butter Battle Book" (1984) is a metaphorical denouncement of nuclear buildup. And the catalogue tells of the copy he made for Art Buchwald of "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!" (1972), crossing out Marvin K. Mooney and writing in Richard M. Nixon. Buchwald wrote about the book, quoting lines such as:
If you wish you may go by lion's tail.
Or stamp yourself and go by mail.
Nixon resigned a day after the column appeared.
All well and good, but all right-thinking people will head first for "Green Eggs and Ham" (1960) -- the third-largest-selling book of any sort in English -- to see again Sam-I-am.
I do not like
And who is more famous than "The Cat in the Hat" (1957), where we meet:
You will see something new.
Two things. And I call them
Thing One and Thing Two.
His father was actually a zookeeper, but Geisel still has this trouble with his elephants sprouting extra legs. Horton the elephant, as you can see in the original drawings and sometimes hand-lettering of "Horton Hatches the Egg" (1940), has done more for elephants than circuses. Remember the great promise by Horton, as Maysie leaves her egg in his care:
"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant ... an elephant's faithful -- one hundred per cent."
And, of course, Scrooge would have no competition if it were not for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1957), with its happy ending:
And he ...
... HE HIMSELF ...!
The Grinch carved the roast beast!
"You're Only Old Once," his latest (1986), is especially well-represented, from the first pencil, ink and crayon "Bone Pile" illustration through working drawings to the production copy.
The San Diego Museum of Art organized and circulated the exhibit for five museums and libraries (Baltimore actually is the fourth stop). Indulgent children are taking their parents to see it as a holiday gift. Fortunately, adults do not have to be accompanied by children, though they must be ever vigilant against crushing one of the small life forms that flit in and out, darting through quicker than a guppy's gulp.
A number of visitors with gray heads and worldly-wise eyes testify that the good doctor's fountain of youthful imagination is an elixir good for what ails you at any age.
Faith Holland, counting for the Baltimore Museum, says 5,800 of all sizes, shapes, ages and descriptions made their way through Sunday -- and all survived.
Of course the attendance may have something to do with Baltimore truly having a Mulberry Street, though it's been a while since anything so astonishing has been seen there.