Brand-New Dr. Seuss and the Luck That Launched a Legend
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Oh, the places you’ll go! … If you let yourself be led by a master storyteller.
By Melanie Ruiz and Sean Braswell
Video by Melanie Ruiz.
Before he sold 600 million books about talking cats, green eggs and Grinches, including the posthumous What Pet Should I Get? that debuts today, Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was a modestly successful cartoonist, drawing advertisements during the Great Depression for companies like Standard Oil and Narragansett Brewing Company. Then, like a character in one of his own whimsical tales, Seuss saw his fortunes inexplicably bolstered by a couple of serendipitous events — on a boat and on a street — that would launch the author’s legendary career. Or so the story goes.
“I was on a long, stormy crossing of the Atlantic, and it was too rough to go out on deck,” Seuss later recalled of an ocean voyage to Europe he took with his wife, Helen, in 1936. “Everybody in the ship just sat in the bar for a week, listening to the engines turn over: da-da-ta-ta, da-da-ta-ta. … To keep from going nuts, I began reciting silly words to the rhythm of the engines. … Six months later, I found I had a book on my hands.”
A whopping 27 publishers had rejected the unconventional tale and Seuss had resolved to burn it.
That book, the first of more than 60 he would write for children, was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Born from the ship’s rhythms and set on a real street in Seuss’ hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, the book is about an imaginative boy named Marco who dreams up an elaborate story to tell his father about the zany people and things he encounters while walking home from school on Mulberry Street.
And rather fittingly, as Philip Nel details in Dr. Seuss: American Icon, the story of Mulberry Street’s publication is quite colorful as well — one that turns on Seuss’ own rather bizarre street encounter. And to think it happened on Madison Avenue too. It was there that the 33-year-old Seuss was strolling down the sidewalk, he says, carrying the manuscript for A Story That No One Can Beat (as Mulberry Street was originally known). A whopping 27 publishers had rejected the unconventional tale, and Seuss, a prolific creator and eccentric who collected funny hats from all over the world, had resolved to burn it. Then the aspiring author bumped into Mike McClintock, an old Dartmouth classmate who, as fate would have it, had just been appointed the children’s book editor at Vanguard Press. Seuss pitched his story, and the two took the manuscript up to McClintock’s office, where they met with James Henle, Vanguard’s president. The publisher bought the book, the story’s protagonist was renamed after McClintock’s son Marco, and Mulberry Street was greeted with enthusiasm by critics (and lackluster sales, earning just $3,500 in initial royalties). “They say it’s for children,” a prescient Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker, “but better get a copy for yourself.”
Naturally, the success was all very happenstance to hear Seuss tell it. “That’s one of the reasons I believe in luck,” he later observed of his chance encounter. “If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry-cleaning business today!”
Such a scenario seems unlikely given Seuss’ talents, but perhaps he just couldn’t help himself when it came to telling stories, including a tale of his own success. Over the years, Seuss told various versions of both the boat and Madison Avenue stories, with the number of publishers passing on Mulberry Street oscillating from 20 to 29. “Seuss’ penchant for self-invention reminds us,” says Nel, “that the storyteller is a kind of kind of con artist, persuading you to believe in his or her creations.”
And perhaps Seuss, like Marco, just felt the need to stretch and dramatize the truth, to tell a story that no one can beat. Life must be more than a mere wagon-and-driver going down Mulberry Street, after all; there has to be some happenstance and intrigue. “A child analyzes fantasy,” Seuss remarked in lectures he delivered at the University of Utah in 1949. “They know you’re kidding them. But there’s got to be logic in the way you kid them.”
The same can be said of adults, particularly when it comes to the stories behind our favorite writers and heroes. Real life is seldom the parade of meaningful opportunities and coincidences we imagine while marching down the street, but who isn’t delighted to be kidded into believing that it is?