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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Rewind: “Our greatest work may be found in our escape”

Carmen Martinez explores the dawdles and doodles of Dr Seuss' Oxford days

In 1925, Theodor Seuss Geisel—more commonly known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss—started a postgraduate degree in English literature at Lincoln College, but he never completed it. His lecture notes on Shakespeare quickly became scribblings of strange beasts, as he found life at Oxford stifling. Seuss himself later imagined his tutor thinking he was “the only man he’d ever seen who never ever should have come to Oxford”. This tutor advised him to leave Oxford, to broaden what he knew about the world, to travel Europe with schoolboy guides to meet the world in real life.

The scenes in the colourful pages of his storybooks can seem an escape from real life, and indeed it was cartoons that offered Seuss an escape from the course at Oxford which he felt he was gaining nothing from. His time at our university is summed up well on Lincoln’s website: “While finding a course in the punctuation of Shakespeare dull, he began to draw pictures and doodles during his lectures.”

When Seuss took a couple of example cartoons he had drawn to illustrate ‘Paradise Lost’ to a certain famous Broad Street bookshop, cheekily hoping he might be commissioned to do many more, he was turned away, having been told: “This isn’t quite the Blackwell type of humour.” Forty years later his books were the main event in the shopfront window.

In looking back over Dr. Seuss’s works, I see what these doodles eventually amounted to. I am drawn into the mundane quibbles of furry, odd but also strangely majestic creatures with names like ‘Sneetches’ and ‘Zax’. The characters find themselves in trouble against a backdrop of improbably colourful trees and hills, but tend to work out their differences, in dialogue with the rhythm and rhyme that made their author so important to helping children learn to read.

However, the tales of Dr. Seuss’s wacky beasts don’t lack a didactic angle, and criticism of the sources of hate in our world. In ‘The Zax’, a North-Going Zax and a South-Going Zax meet in the middle of a desert and in refusing to budge come to resemble a political deadlock:

“Never budge. That’s my rule. Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east! / I’ll stay here not budging! I can and I will / If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!”

While the books’ settings are a zany escape from real life, there is value to be gained from mocking this kind of behaviour. Dr. Seuss artfully fused his skill for creating doodles with stances on morality. He helped children around the world to love reading and it started with drawings which seemed a product of distraction and not the ‘right thing’ to be doing in his time at Oxford.

Perhaps our greatest ‘work’, like that of Dr. Seuss, can be found in the marginal scribbles of our essay notes. Our greatest work or product, found in our ‘escape’.

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