The fascinating story of how Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, created The Cat in the Hat
The following is an excerpt from Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, by Brian Jay Jones, a definitive biography of the iconic children’s author known as Dr. Seuss. This selection reveals how Geisel came to write The Cat in the Hat, from his agony over word selection to the refining of his “cat” character to the blockbuster it became. It also provides a window into his relationship with his wife, Helen, and more. Becoming Dr. Seuss publishes May 7 and is available for pre-order.
Geisel had been staring at Spaulding’s word list for the better part of a year, still looking for something to jump-start his imagination. But the words still weren’t coming. Some afternoons, when Helen came into his studio to check on him, she would find Ted lying on the couch, moaning or even thrashing about, as if he were trying to physically force an idea into his head.
Sitting for interviews in early 1956, Ted often casually hinted that he was at work on three “supplementary textbooks, for the first, second, and third grades.” Most of that was untrue; he was barely at work on one. Spaulding would likely have been heartened at the way Ted passionately explained the objective of his textbooks, which was “to make their first experience in reading pleasurable, not difficult.” Unfortunately the noble motivation wasn’t making the writing any easier. “It took me a year of my getting mad as blazes and throwing the thing across the room,” he said later. Stuck, he decided to make another quick pass through the list.
“I finally gave it one more chance,” recalled Geisel, “and said, ‘If I find two words that rhyme and make sense to me, that’s the title.’” But even that approach didn’t quite work out as he hoped; a tall ball wasn’t all that encouraging as the subject for a children’s story, and other words that seemed promising for characters, such as daddy, didn’t rhyme with anything else on the list. “I was forbidden to use any words beyond [the list],” Geisel said in exasperation. “I almost threw the job up.”
He went back and read the list one more time, slowly and more deliberately—and then suddenly, there it was: his story in two rhyming one-syllable words.
“And like a genius,” Geisel modestly explained later, “I said, ‘That’s the name.’”
The Cat in the Hat it would be—so Geisel next went to work trying to figure out what the cat would look like and how he would act. Cats had been appearing in Dr. Seuss cartoons as far back as Jacko, though they were usually smaller, more realistic-looking cats, often black, who reacted to events with wide eyes and amused smiles. To turn a cat into a main character, however, Geisel needed one that could walk around on two legs, had hands that could pick things up, and a more expressive face. As Ted doodled and wrote, his cat would be shaped and inspired in part by two other cartoon cats he knew well, and which he had admired since childhood.
The first was the title character from George Herriman’s influential comic strip Krazy Kat, which ran in newspapers across the country from 1913 until Herriman’s death in 1944. Geisel loved the look and feel of the strip—he had praised Herriman’s strip for its “beautifully insane sanities”—and Geisel’s cat would channel Krazy’s physical appearance, all the way down to a red bow tie. Personality-wise, however, Krazy was passive and unsophisticated; for Geisel’s cat, he’d look to a more aggressive cartoon feline for inspiration: Felix the Cat, the animated creation of cartoonists Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. At one point, Felix had been the most famous animated cartoon character in the world—until pushed aside by Mickey Mouse—and Geisel had even used the pseudonym Felix in the pages of Jacko in May 1924. Felix was self-assured and adventurous—though at times awkward or inept—and Geisel’s cat would walk and act with a similar swagger and confidence.
As Geisel continued to refine and develop the character over the next few months, the cat began to take on a strong and distinctive personality of his own—so much so that Ted would later feel the need to define, and defend, his cat’s highly independent persona. “He is NOT a smart ass,” Geisel wrote. “He is NOT loud. He NEVER yells. He NEVER shows off in a bragging manner. He is glib, suave, well-educated.”
More than anything, Geisel’s cat was a charming and enigmatic force of nature. As Geisel’s young narrator (unnamed in the book, though he would later be given the name Conrad) and his sister, Sally, sit inside on a rainy day with nothing to do, the Cat in the Hat suddenly enters their house—he doesn’t knock or wait to be invited inside; his presence is marked only by a loud BUMP!—and announces matter-of-factly that he’s arrived to provide “lots of good fun that is funny!” But the children’s pet fish, standing in for the rule of law as well as parents everywhere, stridently advises the cat to leave, since the children are home alone. “My version of Cotton Mather,” Geisel lamented.
“I remember thinking I might be able to dash off The Cat in the Hat in two or three weeks,” Geisel said later. “Actually, it took over a year.” Now that he had a main character, finding things for that character to do within the confines of the word list was like putting his cat in a straitjacket. “You try telling a pretty complicated story using less than two hundred and fifty words!” he said with a laugh, then cautioned, “No, don’t, unless you’re willing to write and rewrite.”
And rewrite he did, over and over, with the full support, aid, and encouragement of editor Saxe Commins at Random House. “He was the kind of editor I loved,” Geisel said warmly. “He would never tell you anything that you did wrong. He’d make you think, and you’d come around to your own conclusion. He’d spend an hour talking about three or four lines. He made me defend myself, telling me that what I’d said on page 7 should have been on page 3. We had almost abstract discussions of the logical order of a story.” Commins, who had edited William Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis, took The Cat in the Hat as seriously as he did, say, Faulkner’s A Fable, which would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1955. And Commins validated Geisel’s firm belief that writing for children was as hard, if not harder, than writing for adults. “He helped me realize that a paragraph in a children’s book is equal to a chapter in an adult book,” said Geisel. “He convinced me that I had as much responsibility to take as much time and work as hard as [writers for adults] did.”
As Geisel slowly wrote and rewrote The Cat in the Hat throughout much of 1956, he figured out a few tricks to help him work around the limitations of his word list. At times, he would repeat words or phrases, which could not only make rhymes a bit easier, but also gave his verses a distinct and regular rhythm that helped young readers learn words through look-say repetition:
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
“Kids don’t know the words,” Geisel explained later. “But we catch them with the rhythm.”
At another point in the narrative, Geisel places the cat on top of a ball where he balances various objects—books, cake, a rake, milk in a dish, a cup, a toy ship—which permitted Geisel to cleverly use as many of the words on his list as he could over the span of four pages. “If you drop charm, all you have is a dictionary,” he cautioned, but there was little chance of Geisel’s cat being charmless. Catchy rhymes aside, The Cat in the Hat features some of Geisel’s finest art; there’s not a squiggle or line wasted, backgrounds are minimal, and anything mentioned in the text is reflected in the accompanying art—consistent with the “look-say” pedagogy—all the way down to a small toy man standing on the stern of a toy ship balanced on the cat’s fingertip. The time Geisel put into drawing and redrawing each page clearly shows.
The cat himself is drawn boldly and confidently—Geisel knew he had created a memorable character—with strong blacks and a minimal use of color, apart from the splash of red on his tie and the stripes on his hat. And he’s constantly in motion, carrying the reader from page to page—the book literally becomes a page-turner—with arms and legs bending like rubber hoses, and feet rarely touching the ground; Geisel seemed to always catch him in mid-leap, eyebrows arched, mouth in a wide smile. Even his hat is expressive, bending to reflect the cat’s mood or helpfully propping up a cake or a cup. “Ted’s animals are the sort you’d like to take home to meet the family,” said Helen.
As the book reaches its climax, Geisel has the Cat bring in two of his associates, the rambunctious Thing One and Thing Two—each with a shock of blue hair—who seem id incarnate, flying kites in the house and messily carrying on until even Geisel’s child narrator wearies of the antics. As the children’s mother comes walking up the sidewalk toward the front door, the kids capture Thing One and Thing Two with a net—and the cat, sensing the fun is over, despondently packs up his wares and leaves . . . until Ted, having fooled the reader with a fake-out ending, suddenly brings the cat back, sitting smartly behind the wheel of a vehicle with mechanical arms that quickly clean up the entire mess. “I always pick up all my playthings,” the cat says matter-of-factly, then scoots away—for good, this time—with a coy tip of his hat. “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the cat cleans everything up at the end,” Geisel said later, sounding only a little disappointed.
Geisel ends the book on a cliffhanger as the children’s mother walks into the house—only her leg is visible as she steps inside the door—and asks about their day. Ted leaves the question hanging in the air for his readers to decide:
Should we tell her about it?
Now, what SHOULD we do?
Well . . .
What would YOU do?
If your mother asked YOU?
As Geisel bundled up his manuscript to send off to Commins, he knew he had something new and very different in his hands. This was a reading primer that not only had pedagogy—he had dutifully, if painfully, adhered closely to the word list, using fewer than 240 different words—but also personality and punch. With its likable and somewhat subversive main character, galloping verse, and deliberate sense of humor, The Cat in the Hat was everything that [Fun With] Dick and Jane was not. “I think a youngster likes to read about someone who is bad for a change—then he realizes that he’s not the only one who gets into trouble, messes up the house when mother is away,” Geisel said in 1960. “The other thing that’s new in the Cat is humor. Kids respond to a little humor, to a crazy situation instead of that solemn old stuff, ‘See my dog, Spot. Run, Spot, run.’”
Proud as he was of it, he was also likely relieved to be done with it. “The Cat in the Hat was not my favorite at all,” Geisel said later. “It was a reading exercise. And it’s painful to write when you can’t use any adjectives and few nouns.” But Bennett Cerf was delighted with it. Cerf would always maintain that while Random House was home to many brilliant and talented authors, there was only one true genius among them: Theodor Geisel.
With The Cat in the Hat off his desk, Ted could return to his other Dr. Seuss book—now called How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—whose pages he had pinned up on the corkboard lining several walls of his studio. As he paced the studio, he would slide his hands into his back pockets, palms inward, and lean slightly forward as he slowly walked along the walls, squinting at the pages. At times he might lean in and make a slight adjustment to a drawing; other times he would unpin the entire page and move it to a different spot—or he might crumple it up and throw it away. “All the walls would just be plastered with rough tissue sketchings,” remembered Peggy Owens. “Sketches of what the story would be, what the layout would be, with the ideas for texts [and] crossed-out words as he refined over and over again, finding the right cadence and words to use in these stories.”
For the most part, writing the Grinch’s story had been relatively easy—this was a regular Dr. Seuss book, not a primer, so Geisel wasn’t hamstrung by a word list—and he had written much of the book in four quick months. But as he was nearing the climax of the story—the Grinch had finally successfully stolen all the trappings of Christmas from the Whos—Geisel was suddenly unsure how to end it. “The message of the book was that we are merchandising Christmas too much. But I found I could take it into very sloppy morality at the end,” Geisel recalled. “I tried Old Testamenty things, New Testamenty things. It was appalling how gooey I was getting.”
As always, Helen was a steady head and guiding influence, as well as one of the few people who could challenge Ted’s artistic instincts—especially if she thought they were wrong. One afternoon, Ted rushed excitedly out of his studio and into the living room, glasses still pushed up on his forehead, and shoved a handful of pages he’d been revising into Helen’s hands. “How do you like this?” he asked her.
Helen scanned the pages, then scowled and shook her head. “No, this isn’t it,” she told him flatly, and turned the pages toward him to point out one particularly problematic sketch. “You’ve got the Papa Who too big,” she told him. “Now he looks like a bug.”
Flummoxed, Ted went on the defensive. “Well, they are bugs,” he insisted.
But Helen wouldn’t hear of it. “They are not bugs,” she told him sternly. “The Whos are just small people.” Ted retreated to his studio to try again.
“I took a month on that last page,” Ted said later. “I’m really on the Grinch’s side. The Grinch is against the commercialization of Christmas, although he’s sort of a mean old so-and-so . . . I just couldn’t resolve it because I was cheering for this guy.” He still worried about ending the book on a preachy note, until eventually, “I finally decided to cut the moral out and just put a quick ending on it,” he explained later. “I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the ‘roast beast.’” After struggling with what he estimated were “thousands” of overtly religious endings, Ted had gone instead for breaking bread together in the name of universal brotherhood—“without making any statement whatever,” he insisted.
As Ted was wrapping up work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Helen suffered a minor stroke. Doctors kept her at the Scripps clinic for three days, during which time she lost movement in her right side and suffered from slurred speech. The symptoms would clear relatively quickly and Helen would return home to the Tower to recover. Even as he worked to finish Grinch, Ted did his best to tend to Helen as well, but was concerned to find her still “foggy, with lapses of memory . . . and very depressed.” The Geisels had planned to take a vacation to Hawaii when Grinch was completed, and Ted now saw the trip as a much-needed opportunity to boost Helen’s spirits. He was determined to get her there as quickly as possible.
Even still, it took several more weeks for Ted to finish his book, which he dedicated to Peggy’s infant son, Theodor “Teddy” Owens, named for his great-uncle. Ted mailed How The Grinch Stole Christmas! to Louise Bonino, along with a note reading, “Hope you like it. I’m sorta happy about the drawings.” There would be no public reading at the Random House offices with this one; instead, he and Helen left for Hawaii for what had become an essential vacation for both of them.
• • • •
Dr. Seuss had a blockbuster on his hands.
The April 19, 1957, press release from Random House hailed The Cat in the Hat as “the biggest event in children’s reading for centuries”—and even for Bennett Cerf, who could be inclined to hyperbole in the name of a good story, this was no overstatement. On its release in March 1957, The Cat in the Hat was nothing short of a phenomenon. “Hooray for Dr. Seuss!” exclaimed the Chicago Tribune as the book blew out of department stores, where clerks could barely keep it in stock. “It became successful almost overnight due to outraged parents who were upset that their kids weren’t learning how to read,” said Geisel. By some accounts, The Cat in the Hat was selling more than a thousand copies per day, on its way to selling 250,000 copies by Christmas of 1957, and more than a million copies within three years.
William Spaulding and Houghton Mifflin, however, enjoyed very little of its success. Permitted by Cerf’s agreement to sell only the textbook version to schools, Spaulding—who had seen the potential of a popular primer—watched schools respond to The Cat in the Hat with a shrug. “There were a lot of Dick and Jane devotees, and my book was considered too fresh and irreverent,” said Geisel. “The textbook found no acceptance whatsoever in the school system. Just a few hundred were sold here and there. When you try to get rid of Dick and Jane, you’re in the middle of a revolution.”
Parents, however, were more than happy to join Dr. Seuss as fellow revolutionaries. Even if parents didn’t necessarily understand the pedagogy, it was easy to see the difference between the staid Dick and Jane and the rambunctious Cat in the Hat: kids wanted to read about the antics of the cat, just as Geisel had hoped. “[First graders] still want to laugh at something that’s ridiculous,” insisted Ted, and critics were inclined to agree. “Having only a first-grade mind, I can recommend this as irresistible,” wrote an enthusiastic reviewer in the Los Angeles Times. John Hersey, whose article in Life had rallied Ted into action, thought Dr. Seuss had answered the call perfectly; The Cat in the Hat, he said, was a “gift to the art of reading,” and proclaimed it “a harum-scarum masterpiece.” Similarly, Rudolf Flesch, who had piled onto Hersey’s criticism of Dick and Jane in Why Johnny Can’t Read, thought Dr. Seuss had performed nothing short of a miracle. “What exactly is it that makes this stuff [Seuss’s work] immortal?” Flesch asked admiringly. “There is something about it. A swing to the language, a deep understanding of the playful mind of a child, an undefinable [sic] something that makes Dr. Seuss a genius, pure and simple.”
Many critics, too, understood the importance of what Geisel had accomplished by writing an engaging primer. “[Dr. Seuss has] done it again, only differently this time,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “[The Cat in the Hat is] a book to rejoice seven- and eight-year-olds and make them look with distinct disfavor on the drab adventures of standard primer characters.” And for those who appreciated the pedagogy involved, Geisel was praised for working so diligently to keep Dr. Seuss’s vocabulary contained to the accepted word list. “Mr. Geisel put on his literary strait jacket [sic] with a purpose,” wrote The New York Times approvingly. “It’s a ‘reader,’ a school book, evidence of an attempt to pep up the pallid stuff too many first graders have been getting during lesson time.”
Using less than 250 unique words, Dr. Seuss had harpooned the Dick and Jane juggernaut that had dominated reading in elementary school classrooms since 1934. Ellen Goodman, writing in the Detroit Free Press, would later call The Cat in the Hat a “little volume of absurdity that worked like a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot.” That was fine by Geisel. “It’s the book I’m proudest of,” he later said of The Cat in The Hat, “because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers . . . I think I proved to a number of million kids that reading is not a disagreeable task. And without talking about teaching, I think I have helped kids laugh in schools as well as at home. That’s about enough, isn’t it?”
From BECOMING DR. SEUSS: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, by Brian Jay Jones, published on May 7, 2019, by Dutton, and imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © May, 7, 2019, by Brian Jay Jones.