Dr. Seuss Raises Some Questions

Today is Dr. Seuss’s birthday.

Of course I read Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) as a child. My mother liked to shop at thrift stores, and one day she came home with a pile of Children’s Digest magazines. It’s hard to imagine it now, but Seuss (who hadn’t yet achieved superstar status) allowed Children’s Digest to publish condensed versions of To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and some of his other books.

I grew up and became a teacher, and one of my gigs was teaching second grade for half a school year when the regular teacher was ill. It was an opportunity to discover some of the marvelous children’s literature that had arrived on the scene while I was busy with college, Shakespeare, and the Beatles.

Dr. Seuss, I learned, had found a way to burst through the strait jacket of limited vocabulary lists for beginning readers. Even my struggling second-grade readers (the “Bluebird” group, I think they were) could read and relish The Cat in the Hat.

I haven’t heard about a movement to canonize Dr. Seuss (his real name, incidentally, was Theodor Seuss Geisel) – but I’ll gladly sign on if someone wants to take up the cause.

But I’m going to swerve off course and talk about some issues that popped up this morning when I read an article about Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Here’s a Seuss quotation that set me thinking:

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

I like to imagine that Dr. Seuss and another favorite writer of mine, post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, are off in a corner of heaven somewhere having a marvelous talk about the power of imagination.

But I’m going to focus on grammar. (Did you know that Friday is National Grammar Day? Are you excited?) Take a look at this sentence:

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.

It’s actually two sentences. When a group of words starts with a person, place, or thing, you can count on it – it’s a sentence. (It falls into the “thing” category.) So the sentence (and the one that follows) needs a period. (A semicolon would also work nicely.)

I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.

Regular readers of this blog know that I use a red typeface when a sentence is wrong and blue for the correct version. So how come I didn’t use red for “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells”?

It’s because I tremble at saying that Dr. Seuss made…gasp…a mistake. If those commas were good enough for him, who am I to argue?

But how do we know he really wrote those sentences that way? On the first page of The Cat in the Hat, Seuss punctuated a similar sentence correctly:

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.

The obvious next step for me was to check the original source for today’s quotation. I wandered around Google Books this morning and found that Seuss quotation dozens of times – but not one of the books I checked gave a source.

Remember back in high school when you learned how to do citations – and how tedious it was? There’s a reason for that drudgery. Mention the word “sources” to any scholar, and you’ll hear a long tale of woe about the quotations that got away – or were captured only after an arduous pursuit that rivaled the search for Dr. Livingstone.

One more thing: Readers with an eye for grammatical correctness are wondering if I’m going to mention the fragment in the Seuss quotation:

Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

I just did.

Have fun celebrating Dr. Seuss’s life and work today! (And if you’re wondering about that extra “s” after the apostrophe in “Seuss’s,” yes – it’s legal, though not required. You’re allowed to add that “s” when a name ends in s, like mine: Jean Reynolds’s wonderful blog.) (Just kidding.)

Dr. Seuss

                  Dr. Seuss

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