THE ‘DR. SEUSS-EUM’: A visit to the cat in La Jolla’s hat — UCSD library is home to special Dr. Seuss collection

You will not see them in a house,
You will not see them at Karl Strauss,
You will not see them in the dark,
You will not see them at Scripps Park.

Where you can see dozens of original Dr. Seuss drawings, from the world’s largest collection of them, is only at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. With the Dec. 19, 2018 passing of Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, much of the physical Seuss legacy shifts from an empty house on Mt. Soledad to the Geisel Library’s Mandeville Special Collections and Archives section.

The Light received a tour of what exactly the public can see on site, and what normally stays locked away.

“It’s an incredible honor for us to have this here and I think Audrey was very pleased,” said Lynda Claassen, director of special collections and archives. “She always joked about how Dr. Seuss was next to Dr. Salk.”

Claassen began working at the library in 1983, when it was still called the Central Library. (Following a 1993 renovation, it was renamed the University Library Building, and got re-renamed following a $20 million endowment from Audrey in 1995.)

Between two and four dozen original drawings from the Seuss collection are displayed for public viewing outside the special collections office year round.
Between two and four dozen original drawings from the Seuss collection are displayed for public viewing outside the special collections office year round. COREY LEVITAN

The entire collection consists of what Claassen estimates to be 18,000-20,000 original sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books, photos, tapes, videos and other memorabilia dating from Geisel’s 1919 high-school days through his 1991 death. Kept in temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, it has a value in the tens of millions or beyond.

“Interestingly, when the collection came here, it was a relatively low millions valuation, but there was no market for Dr. Seuss drawings at that point,” Claassen said.

Beastie Boids

At any time during library hours, members of the public are invited to view between two and four dozen items from the collection in a permanent rotating exhibit called “Boids & Beasties” (Dr. Seuss’ own term for the fantastical creatures he created such as the Lorax, the Zax and the Cat in the Hat).

“This is a unique research collection that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, and it’s coming from a children’s author who has impacted generations of readers,” said Erik Mitchell, who has served as the Audrey Geisel University Librarian for eight months.

Wrapping around the outside of the special collections office on the library’s ground floor, between three and six glass-enclosed display cases house exhibits changed out every summer and late February — the latter to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ March 2 birthday.

Dr. Seuss' original text for
Dr. Seuss' original text for "Green Eggs and Ham" varied slightly from the published version. COREY LEVITAN

“This is what he would call ‘the bone pile’ — working out the rhyme structure,” Claassen said of the notes displayed underneath an early sketch for 1960’s “Green Eggs and Ham” in the current exhibit.

Indeed, you can practically see Dr. Seuss’ mind changing in the pencil strokes he makes between the lines typed on his Smith-Corona portable. In this work-in-progress, the book begins not with the line “I Am Sam” but with “Sam” twice, then “Sam I Am.”

“He did a lot of different versions for most of the books,” Claassen said. “He would start with rough sketches, then often move on to more finished black line drawings, and then would send things off to the printer and get mechanicals back and annotate those about what percentage of each color to use in each area.”

La Jolla enjoyer

Dr. Seuss wanted his material housed here, Claassen explained. He had originally donated some of it to UCLA. However, that was before UCSD began construction in the mid-‘60s five miles from the Encelia Drive house that he and his first wife, Helen, had built for themselves in 1948. (Seuss married Audrey after Helen committed suicide in 1967.)

According to Claassen, Dr. Seuss wrote to the then-president of the UC system, asking for that material to be relocated and supplemented with treasures from his own archives.

“But, if you’re at all familiar with the University of California, it didn’t happen overnight,” Claassen said. (That’s quite an understatement, since Dr. Seuss’ 1991 death actually preceded the relocation.)

“Audrey took it on as her mission to have everything in one place, which took about a year,” Claassen said.

Dr. Seuss widow Audrey Geisel appears at the Geisel Library's 1995 dedication.
Dr. Seuss widow Audrey Geisel appears at the Geisel Library's 1995 dedication. COURTESY

In the ensuing years, Claassen worked closely with Audrey, who lived until age 97, describing her as “lively, feisty, independent, strong-minded and delightful.” Others have described her as a fierce protector of her husband’s intellectual property.

“That is true,” Claassen said. “She didn’t like to have things politicized. There are so many quotes from the Seuss books that you can use for so many different purposes, and she didn’t like any of that.”

Collection inspection

Just for readers of the Light, Claassen has filled a conference table in the special collections office with about a dozen other items pulled from the stacks.

“We accommodate a lot of visiting scholars and people who are writing biographies,” Claassen said. “They have to have a real research interest to request that the drawings be pulled out, because they are very, very fragile.”

Before its 2015 publication by Random House, the early Seuss book
Before its 2015 publication by Random House, the early Seuss book "What Pet Should I Get?" could only be viewed in the special collection. COREY LEVITAN

The rare items included a sketch from one of Dr. Seuss’ first books, “What Pet Should I Get?” in which a brother and sister visit a pet store to pick a companion animal. Until 2015, the book remained unpublished because it apparently didn’t meet Seuss’ standards. (But Audrey thought differently, as did Random House.)

One of the collection’s 400 Seuss political cartoons, published in “PM” magazine in 1942, shows a man, donning a shirt that reads “You & Me,” being hanged by “The Issue-Duckers Club of Congress” using a rope made of “Inflation Prices.”

This Seuss political cartoon was drawn in 1942.
This Seuss political cartoon was drawn in 1942. COREY LEVITAN

“For me,” Claassen said, “if you look at them, so many of the cartoons he did in in the 1940s, you could publish them today and they would be appropriate.”

Well, not all of them. Among the political cartoons from the collection the Light was not shown were Seuss’ depictions of Japanese people, whom he drew in the ’40s as buck-toothed and squinty-eyed. These are considered by many to be a blotch on the Seuss legacy — as are some ads he drew before that depicting black people as savages dressed in grass skirts.

Seuss reportedly regretted and tried to atone for the offensive art fairly early in his career. In 1953, for example, he tackled racism in “The Sneetches,” about a group of yellow bird-like creatures born either with or without green stars on their bellies. (The ones with the stars discriminated against the ones without.)

That same year, he toured the aftermath of the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima, an experience that informed “Horton Hears a Who!” an allegory of the U.S. occupation of Japan dedicated to “my great friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.”

Claassen said she believes historical figures should be judged in the context of their times.

“Now, people object to them and the stereotypes he used,” Claassen said, “but everything exists in some context or another.”

Lynda Claasen and Erik Mitchell are the proud guardians of the Dr. Seuss collection.
Lynda Claasen and Erik Mitchell are the proud guardians of the Dr. Seuss collection. COREY LEVITAN

Crammed I Am

The collection is so extensive, the only original drawings lacking are those for Seuss’ first book, 1937’s “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and for 1971’s “The Lorax.”

The former can be found at the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University.

“Those originals he had given to someone and, a couple of generations later, that person’s children or grandchildren sold them,” Claassen explained.

The location of the original drawings for “The Lorax” makes for a more interesting story. They can be found at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

“Lyndon Johnson wrote Dr. Seuss a letter saying how much he admired the book — I think because he was so interested in environmental issues,” Claassen said. “And so Dr. Seuss sent him the drawings and we only have a drawing for the cover.”

Audrey and Ted
Audrey and Ted "Dr. Seuss" Geisel pose at their Mt. Soledad home with their dog, Sam. COURTESY GEISEL LIBRARY

There may be even more Seuss material coming UCSD’s way, depending on where Audrey decided to bequeath the material remaining in her house.

“The few times I was able to visit Audrey, the house was still full of things,” Mitchell said.

IF YOU GO: The Geisel Library, 9500 Gilman Drive, is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. (858) 534-3336.