Dr. Seuss lived much of his life in California and New York, but never really left Springfield, Mass., where he was born on March 2, 1904.
The timeless children’s books of Theodor Seuss Geisel originated from his boyhood in the western Massachusetts city. Themes and images from his 46 imaginative children’s books can be traced to Springfield: Mulberry Street, the McElligot family, his father's Rube Goldberg inventions, the haunted house next door, colorful Victorian homes, the wild animals in the Springfield Zoo he could hear at night. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the town of Whoville is based on Easthampton, Mass., just north of Springfield, and the Grinch’s mountain is based on Mount Tom nearby.
Something happened to him in Springfield, too, that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Geisel’s family belonged to Springfield’s prosperous German community in Springfield, which became the object of suspicion when World War I broke out. German frankfurters became hot dogs and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.
Young Ted Geisel belonged to Boy Scout Troop 13, which undertook a war bond drive. He walked from house to house selling war bonds. His grandfather, a well-to-do brewer, bought $1,000 worth of bonds from his grandson. That made Ted one of the top-selling Scouts in Springfield.
Ted and nine other Scouts were to receive an award from former President Theodore Roosevelt in May 1918. They lined up on the state of Springfield’s Municipal Auditorium awaiting their award. Ted was last.
Roosevelt handed each boy an award – and then he got to Ted. Someone had made a mistake and given the former president only nine awards. It was an embarrassing situation, and Roosevelt made it worse. “What’s this boy doing here?” he said loudly. Ted, mortified, was hustled off the stage.
From then on, fear of appearing before an audience became a phobia with Ted Geisel. His biographer Thomas Fensch suggests he moved to a lonely mountaintop in La Jolla, Calif., to avoid crowds and the possibility of a neighbor asking “What’s he doing here?”
(One also wonders if the incident didn't inspire his comment, "A person's a person, no matter how small.")
Dr. Seuss would succeed as a commercial illustrator and as a children’s book author. In 1954, Life magazine published a study on childhood illiteracy, concluding that children weren’t learning to read because their books were so boring. A publisher at Houghton Mifflin compiled a list of 348 words it was important for children to recognize. He cut it down to 250 and challenged Geisel to write a book using just those words – a book children couldn’t put down. Dr. Seuss rose to the challenge and wrote The Cat in the Hat. It is still, of course, in print.
Dr. Seuss died on Sept. 24, 1991. His birthday has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day.
With thanks to The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss: The Life and Work of Theodor Geisel by Thomas Fensch. This story was updated in 2017.