Monday, October 10, 2011

Dr. Seuss Week

I read in the paper that this is Dr. Seuss week, which bought me back to 1st grade and learning to read. By the 2nd grade I had already breezed through everything that he had written at the time. His books represented the perfect reward for having mastered the Dick and Jane series, which were the standard for teaching reading at the time. With a more complex story, and colorful characters, such as "The Cat in the Hat", Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Geisel, was able to make reading fun for the countless students whose lives he touched.

Theodore Geisel was born in 1904. His earliest literary efforts were at Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1925. It was while at Dartmouth that he began to sign some of his work on the school's newspaper as "Seuss". This was a result of his having been caught drinking gin, and as a punishment he was not allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities for 6 months. After graduation, Geisel went on to become an illustrator, and writer, for such publications as "Judge", "Life", "Vanity Fair", and "Liberty", all of which were the top magazines of the time. In 1937, while on a return voyage from Europe, he wrote 'Mulberry Street", and an American icon was born.

When I got older and began to look at things like copyright dates, etc., I was surprised to find that some of his books had been written in the 1930's. I just thought my Mom was cool for knowing which of the latest books I would enjoy, never realizing that she had already read some of them when she was a child. And she used those books to teach me the value of having an imagination, while at the same time not letting that imagination roam so far as to obliterate reality. "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" is a good example of both Dr. Seuss's writing, coupled with my mother's wisdom.

As a kid I liked to make up stories. I still do. I undoubtedly inherited this trait from my mother's Uncle Irving, my venerated Uncle "I", who could take any ordinary event and spin it into something worthy of Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago." That's quite a feat! If I were going to the Chinese Laundry, for instance, I would come home with tall tales of all the things I had seen on the way to and from the store. Notice that I say "things I had seen" in reference to the stories I would tell about them. The stories were based on something real, yet, as most children do, I felt the need to embellish them in some fashion. It was never an attempt at self aggrandization, but rather a child's way of enlarging my small world, and making it more than it was. Dr. Seuss made it possible for me to do this by showing me the difference between reality and my own imagination.

This was never more true than in my favorite Dr. Seuss book, "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street". This book could have been my autobiography as a child. If I were on the way to school and a fire truck raced past, by the time I got home it was a three alarm fire that I had witnessed. If a man was arguing with another man over a parking space, I had seen a life and death struggle worthy of anything on "Animal Kingdom". In short, I was a very imaginative child. My parents called it "telling lies."

In the "Mulberry Street" book, Dr. Seuss outdoes any of his later works, with the imaginative Marco taking his customary walk to and from school, during which he encounters a simple horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. During his walk, the horse easily becomes a Zebra, and then the wagon becomes a chariot drawn by a reindeer. The chariot, naturally becomes a sled, and the reindeer becomes an elephant, complete with a Rajah riding it. By the time Marco is finished with his embellishments, the simple horse and cart have become a major procession, involving the Mayor,an airplane, motorcycles, a full marching band and an old man in a trailer house. Chinese people, and magicians, round out his fantasy. But when he gets home his dreams are laid waste when he is asked, by his father, what he has seen on the way home. In that instant, all of the colorful embellishments pass away, and Marco is left with the reality of the simple horse and cart that he has really seen.

I still have the 1937 first edition of "Mulberry Street", which belonged to my mother. And I still pull it off the shelf periodically, if only to remind myself of the dividing line between truth and fiction. But it also helps me to keep alive the bit of "Marco" that exists in all of us.

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