Sunday, March 7, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

The birthday anniversary of Springfield, MA native Theodor Seuss Geisel -- better known as Dr. Seuss -- was this past week, on March 2. The importance of Dr. Seuss (1904-1991; left) needs little explanation from me: his early career work drawing advertisements for companies, animated training cartoons for the military, and political cartoons for newspapers and magazines during World War II gave way to some of the most influential children’s books of the twentieth century. Though his first children’s illustrations appeared in the (relatively unsuccessful) collection of children’s sayings titled Boners, his first book that he both wrote and illustrated was And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). But his break-out success was undoubtedly The Cat in the Hat (1957), a book proposed by his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, as part of a challenge to create a children’s primer that used a set list of 225 key early-reader vocabulary words.

Over the course of his prolific career, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated 44 children’s books which sold over 200 million copies in more than 15 languages. His books were adapted into eleven television specials, a Broadway musical, and a feature film, netting him two Academy awards, two Emmys, a Peabody, and the Pulitzer.

This week’s book is an early printing of Dr. Seuss’s fifth children’s book, Horton Hatches the Egg, published by Random House (New York) and Random House of Canada (Toronto) 1940; though not a true first, this is apparently a late printing of the first edition (which appeared in 1940). Judging from descriptions of the boards on the first book club edition, I’m fairly certain that this is not from that printing; it may be a specifically Canadian edition (accounting for the Toronto information on the title page imprint), but in the copyright information of the true first the Canadian distributor is listed as Macmillan. As for the muted binding (see below), which seems so incongruous on a children’s book, it may suggest a budget reprint. Some dealers do describe the rather dull binding of this copy, but many of the first editions of Horton Hatches the Egg are also described in rather colorful bindings, with art on the cover. has a thorough page dedicated to identifying and valuing first edition Dr. Seuss books (a pricey published guide is also available for the truly-dedicated Seuss collector); according to their information, true firsts of this book include the phrase “First Printing” in the copyright information (along with the printer’s name: Duenewald Printing Corporation) and “are extremely difficult to find.” With its dust-jacket and in very good or excellent condition, a true first of Horton Hatches the Egg is valued at between $4,400 and $7,400. My copy is being sold by online dealers for between $12 and $30 -- about 0.2% of the value of an ideal copy.

Dealers online list the book as octavo format, but it may be more accurately described as octavo in sixes (six leaves to a gathering); the pages are unnumbered but it runs to a total of 64 pages. The initial blank flyleaf is conjugate with the front pastedown; the second leaf is tipped-in and bears an abstract of the story on the recto (blank verso); this is followed by the title page. The ninth leaf is also tipped-in, pasted to the first leaf of the second gathering (leaf #10). The final two leaves are blank -- the first is the final leaf of the last gathering and the second is the final flyleaf, conjugate with the rear pastedown.

The pages measure 20.5cm x 25.5cm and are of a slightly acidic stock; this has caused some of the lithographed colors (black, red, and blue only) on some illustrations to leach across onto the facing pages in places. Unfortunately, the dust-jacket is missing; the book is bound in brown buckram cloth with black impressed titling on the front. The corners are only very slightly bumped; generally, it is in very good condition for such an old and popular children’s book. The only marking is a pencilled owner’s inscription (“Bart”) in a juvenile cursive hand on the front pastedown. Whoever young Bart was, he clearly took good care of his books.

In the lower inside corner of the pastedown there is a shiny green and silver store sticker for the Santa Fe Book and Stationery Company of Santa Fe, NM, listing the store’s phone number as “58”. This store was an offshoot of what had been Healy’s Stationery Store; in the early 1920s, the Healys allowed Roberta Robey to set up what was Santa Fe’s first bookstore in the corner of their stationery business -- when she opened her own place (Villagra Bookshop) in 1927, the Healys moved their business to the corner of Don Gaspar and San Francisco streets and expanded the operation to include books (“having been taught by Miss Robey,” according to Santa Fe memoirist and book-seller Spud Johnson, “that books, amazingly enough, were actually merchandise that at least a few people were willing to buy”). According to local historians Marta Weigle and Kyle Fiore in their Santa Fe and Taos: The Writer’s Era, 1916-1941, both Robey and the Healys prospered, though by the 1930s hers was the more successful venture. I can’t find any information about when the Santa Fe Book and Stationery Company closed, but they were evidently still in business in the 1940s, when Dr. Seuss’s book appeared.

The plot of Horton Hatches the Egg is likely well known by my readers and, if not, it is relatively easy to find synopses and passages online. It is possible to unearth a number of latent political messages in the story -- commentary, for example, on the gross absurdities of capitalism, the inequities of stereotyping judgments, the perils of anti-environmentalism, and the nature of evolution. Since the abstract at the front of my copy is somewhat bibliographically peculiar, and since it offers a neat contemporary summary of the story, I will quote it here:

When kindhearted Horton, the elephant, agreed to sit on Mayzie’s nest to keep her egg warm while she had a bit of vacation, he didn’t know what he was in for. And when an elephant sits up in a tree on a bird’s nest, why, that is news.

“Look!” they all shouted.

“Can such a thing be?

An elephant sitting on top of a tree...”

Poor Horton! He was an elephant of honor, and he had promised to stay. There he sat through winter storms. It gets pretty funny and pretty exciting when Horton gets to Palm Beach (the tree, nest, and all). When the egg hatches, that is a surprise you’ll not get over.

I’m not sure who wrote this awkwardly-worded abstract or for what purpose (it seems a bit like an advertisement), but my suspicion is that it is related to a book club promotion of some kind. If anyone out there has any more information about these kinds of abstracts at the start of children’s books from the period, I would be grateful for further information.

In 1942, “Merrie Melodies” -- a Warner Brothers animation series -- produced a roughly ten-minute animated version of Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton was so popular with readers that he returned in Horton Hears a Who (1954), which was made into a popular 2008 feature film with the voices of a range of comic talent, including Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogan, and Amy Poehler. Though Horton did not reappear in Dr. Seuss’s works after 1954, the Whos featured in his popular Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957). Horton does appear, however, as the central character in the 2000 Broadway musical Seussical. The afterlife of Horton makes him -- following the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch -- probably one of the most widely recognized characters to come from the fertile creative imagination of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

1 comment:

  1. Roberta Robey sold the stationary and book store "Villagra" in the 60's. I remember going there as a young child with my grandmother. Roberta Robey was her aunt. Loved the place and it's one of my favorite memories.