The centennial of Dr. Seuss's birth is celebrated at the University of San Diego's Geisel Library
Here is knowledge that at points in my education I struggledto retain and failed: The difference between Ionic and Doriccolumns. The color coding for electrical resistors. The quadraticformula.
Here is knowledge I encountered at age 7, made no effort toremember, but that decades later I can recall word-for-word: "Up atLake Winna-Bango ... the far northern shore ... Lives a huge herdof moose, about sixty or more."
You may remember these lines too. They come from the tale of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, and their author is TheodorSeuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.
This year marks the centennial of Dr. Seuss's birth ― anevent that in a strange way seems slightly beside the point. Likeall great literary creations, Thidwick and The Cat in the Hat and their frenetic siblings seem to haveexisted forever, as if they composed their own element in theliterary periodic table: Seussium. Still, Dr. Seuss's adoptedhometown, La Jolla, California, is staging exhibits and otherevents to honor its most famous son.
Geisel started out a New England boy, born in Springfield,Massachusetts, which supplied the Mulberry Street that wouldinspire his first children's book. He went to Dartmouth, where hiseditor on the college humor magazine was a young Montanan namedNorman Maclean, who would one day write A River Runs Through It. In the late 1920s, Geisel firstvisited Southern California, which he took to, well, like Horton toa Who. Eventually he sequestered himself in a tower on Mt. Soledad,overlooking La Jolla, and wrote book after book after book.
"An idea would come to him through doodling," recalls his widow,Audrey Geisel. "Some little animal critter, and he would weave astory around it. Or he would have something running through hishead ― a word, a lilt ― and start that way."
The end results of those doodles, those lilts, hit the politeworld of children's publishing like a cherry bomb at a garden fete."It's really hard to remember how refreshing his style was at thetime," says Judith Morgan. She and her husband, Neil, both wereGeisel's biographers and longtime friends. "You never knew what wasgoing to happen on the next page."
What was the Seuss secret? Start with those manic drawings, thecharacters ready to leap off the page at high velocity to land inyour lap. Then there's the verse, the galumphing iambs and anapeststhat pull you forward with the force of the Cat in the Hat leadingyou off a cliff. And behind them both is the alluring anarchy thatunderlies great children's books from Alice in Wonderland onward. If spoilsport teachers orparents tut-tutted that the Cat in the Hat was too loud, toodisruptive, too impolite, Geisel had an answer: "If I were invitedto a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up."
In fact, Judith Morgan recalls, Geisel was an off-and-on guestat big La Jolla cocktail parties. "You could never count on himshowing up." When he did, he entertained himself by sketching onnapkins and secretly making fun of anyone he found pretentious. "Idon't think the people who should have been offended ever caughton," says Judith Morgan. "It went right by them."
Seuss's final book, Oh, the Places You'll Go, was an anomaly: It was written forgrown-ups. "His elation when he finally hit the New York Times adult best-seller list was enormous," NeilMorgan recalls. "He'd say, 'You see, I didn't write just for kids.'He always felt he sat at the kiddy table."
And yet, as the Seuss centennial unfolds, you realize the kiddytable is not a bad place to be. It's true that, inevitably, Dr.Seuss readers grow up and put aside his inventive anarchy for whatthey take to be more useful, grown-up things: Ionic columns orquadratic equations, perhaps. But just as inevitably, the gooddoctor's time will come around again.
A month or so ago, my 7-year-old son read Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose all by himself for the firsttime. I listened as Thidwick strolled the shores of LakeWinna-Bango, as he was beset by an impossible menagerie of animalsroosting in his magnificent antlers, and as, in the end, hetriumphed over his importunate guests.
"Good book," my son said. He didn't close the cover. "Let's readit again."
INFO: Dr. Seuss Between the Covers (May 24-Sep 26, 2004; University ofCalifornia, San Diego's Geisel Library, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla,CA; 858/534-2533)