Beyond ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ Dr. Seuss created political cartoons, films and even a couple of books for grown-ups.
On March 2, 1904, Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. Twenty-seven years later, under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, he released his very first book, The Pocket Book of Boners.
The book, which is very much not what you’re likely thinking it is, collected “boners” — a now-outdated term for silly errors, found in classroom papers. It sold 1.34 million copies by 1945.
In 1937, after dozens of rejections from publishers, Dr. Seuss made his first contribution to children’s literature: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Within two years, he’d released two more children’s books and begun a hugely successful relationship with Random House that would last the rest of his life.
In 1939 he released a book for an adult audience, a humorous spin on the legends of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. The Seven Lady Godivas was a critical and commercial flop. Geisel himself said, “I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.” With only 2,500 books sold out of the 10,000 printed, Dr. Seuss refocused on children’s books.
An ocean away, German forces invaded Poland, sparking World War II. During this tumultuous time Dr. Seuss became something of a pen-wielding soldier. “While Paris was being occupied by the clanking tanks of the Nazis and I was listening on my radio, I found that I could no longer keep my mind on drawing pictures of Horton the Elephant,” he said. “I found myself drawing pictures of Lindbergh The Ostrich.”
“Ted was haunted by the war in Europe,” Judith and Neil Morgan wrote in Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, “and one evening in Manhattan he showed an editorial cartoon he had drawn to his friend Zinny Vanderlip Schoales, the brilliant, hard-drinking intellectual…. She had joined the patrician liberal Ralph Ingersoll when he launched the tabloid newspaper PM in New York with the backing of Marshall Field III. Zinny took Ted’s cartoon to Ingersoll and PM published it on January 30, 1941.” Dr. Seuss continued drawing political cartoons until 1948, contributing over 400 to PM, to critical acclaim.
Meanwhile, in 1942, Seuss turned his attention to supporting war efforts, creating propaganda posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. In 1943 he moved to California to join the Army, commanding the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. There he wrote short films, including the 1946 Academy Award–winning Hitler Lives, and worked (uncredited) on cartoons alongside Warner Bros. animation directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. Made for a military audience rather than for families, the cartoons were far racier than Looney Tunes, featuring course jokes and mild profanity as they followed Private Snafu (voiced by Mel Blanc of Bugs Bunny fame) in his military misadventures.
Though Dr. Seuss earned the Legion of Merit award, he returned to civilian life in 1947 with regrets. According to Ron Lamothe, who made the film The Political Dr. Seuss, Seuss’s biographers said, “…he was regretful about some of his cartoons for PM and some of the propaganda work he did for the Army Signal Corps.” Many of his propaganda cartoons had depicted Japanese Americans in offensive caricatured styles and represented them as traitors.
By 10 years after the war, while Japan was still occupied by American forces, Dr. Seuss appears to have been actively working to show Americans the shared humanity of Japanese people. As a correspondent for Life magazine, he traveled across Japan to ask children to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. “The results were fantastic,” he said in an interview, though he said Life misrepresented those results in the final published article. “Only one kid drew himself in military costume. Many kids wanted to be aviators, to go to Mars, or to be scientists and work on the rice shortages…that sort of thing. Most had visions of themselves working for a better world.”
While in Japan, Dr. Seuss was inspired to write Horton Hears a Who! as an allegory for the Japanese people using their voices to create a peaceful and hopeful future. Japan became the first country to translate the book.
For the rest of his life, Dr. Seuss continued to use his whimsical children’s literature to try to make a positive impact on the world. In 1984 he released The Butter Battle Book as an allegory for the arms buildup and nuclear war threat during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Another of his most famous books, The Lorax (1971), advocated for protecting the environment.
One of his children’s books, with a lighter message and the goal of increasing literacy, had an unusual inspiration. Dared by his publisher Bennett Cerf to use fewer words than he had in Cat in the Hat (225), he went to work on Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses only 50 words, making his work even more accessible to new readers.
The renowned children’s author made another lesser-known contribution to children’s entertainment in 1953: the feature film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Though it bombed at the box office and Seuss himself called it “a debaculous fiasco,” it has a cult following now. The movie took viewers on a nightmarish, fantastical journey that only the mind of Dr. Seuss could produce.
Almost half a century after Dr. Seuss’s first illustrated book for adults flopped, he tried his hand at another. At 82 years old and after a series of hospital visits that tested his patience, he wrote You’re Only Old Once (1986). Unlike the disappointing The Seven Lady Godivas, this one was a number-one New York Times best-seller.
Theodor Seuss Geisel passed away in his home in La Jolla, California, in 1991. He was an artist. A highly unique individual who refused to let the outside world mold him into anything else. He believed in his art and had confidence in the stories he wanted to tell. In his lifetime, the man most of the world would know only as Dr. Seuss would win the Pulitzer Prize, two Oscars, an Emmy and a Peabody. LIFE Books would name him one of the “100 People Who Changed the World,” along with the likes of Shakespeare, Einstein and da Vinci. He had a style all his own, and artists continue to take inspiration from him, aspiring to make their own unique vision — no matter how quirky — reality.