Famous First Words: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
Theodor Geisel was adrift at sea in the summer of 1936, a passenger along with his wife, Helen, aboard a Swedish American luxury liner called the M.S. Kungsholm. They were on their way back from another trip to Europe, one of many such excursions that had become a regular part of the calendar through nine years of marriage. The Geisels were seasoned travelers by then; having no children and no other pressing familial obligations to keep them close to home in New York City, they had both the means and the practical autonomy to indulge their curiosities, and had been to some thirty countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. This time, though, there was an inescapable sense of dread hanging heavily over the entire journey.
News about the systematic consolidation of power by the Nazi Party in Germany and the disturbing repercussions of Adolf Hitler’s ambitions on the continent had been reaching American shores in progressively more ominous dispatches over the previous years. Though it had failed to dissuade the vacationing Geisels, they were able to think of little else as they went through the motions on their holiday sojourn, and as they boarded the Kungsholm for the passage back, the atmosphere on the ship westward maintained the deeply somber tone that it had carried out of New York Harbor a few weeks before. With war surely imminent, Geisel found it difficult to concentrate on his work, which had been one of the main reasons for the trip in the first place, as he often counted on these getaways to stimulate a rush of creative energy. He found it even more difficult when the ship ran into a storm in the North Atlantic.
As gale-force winds battered the Kungsholm, inspiring Helen to retreat into their cabin, Geisel made his way with great effort through each of the bars on board and set about formulating a new business strategy for his return home. His career had been officially launched nine years earlier in The Saturday Evening Post, with a cartoon that depicted a couple of American tourists riding camels through the desert and remarking on their travels with a reference to Lawrence of Arabia. He had signed it “Seuss”—his mother’s given surname—a practice that he had adopted during his undergraduate years at Dartmouth so that he could continue writing for the college’s humor magazine after being dismissed for drinking gin (this was in the thick of Prohibition, after all) with some friends on campus. He continued to use the pseudonym after college, ostensibly so that he could save the name of Geisel for a novel, and added the title of “Dr.” soon after his Saturday Evening Post debut—to compensate, he said, for leaving the University of Oxford without a PhD. He had compiled a solid portfolio for himself as a cartoonist, illustrator, and humorist up to that point, producing advertising artwork, bits of verse, comic strips, and other contracted work on a regular basis. But his ambition had never allowed him to settle in, and now he was looking to start something new.
Having gradually ascended to a bar in the upper deck of the unsympathetically oscillating Kungsholm, diligently recovering his equilibrium with one more vodka on the rocks, he scrawled out the beginnings of a story. Over the next eight days, he began to affix an informal rhythm to a somewhat garbled plot, matched up to the pounding cadence of the ship’s engines that had taken up firm residence in his mind over the course of the trip. He standardized the rhythm to that of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and soon started coming up with lines like: And that is a story that no one can beat, and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street. For several days after arriving in New York, Geisel still couldn’t shake the rhythm, and Helen encouraged him to try and construct a complete narrative around it. So he worked on it with her for six months, agonizing over every word, burning through drafts, sketching out wilder and wilder illustrations to reflect the enterprising imagination of his protagonist (Marco), and talking through each completed page until he was finally assured that it was ready to be taken around to publishers in Manhattan. He then set about finding a home for the book, provisionally titled “A Story That No One Can Beat.” And no one wanted it.
Geisel encountered dead ends wherever he went, repeatedly informed that his style was too far removed from the rest of the children’s literature on the market. The prevailing belief at the time was that there was no commercial viability in narrative verse, or in fantasy overall; many simply thought that they couldn’t gamble on an acquisition that failed to deliver a clear lesson in its pages (causing an exasperated Geisel to appeal to Helen one day in his studio, “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?”). In all, he went into more than two dozen offices and walked out with a rejection from every one of them—twenty-seven, actually, which has become one of the most famous numbers in publishing lore, because it was exactly enough to convince Geisel that he should give up the whole damn exercise and return to the work that he knew he could sell. After being turned down for that twenty-seventh time, he headed home for a ceremonial burning of his hopeless manuscript (yes, literally), and was walking down Madison Avenue when he met up with Mike McClintock, an old schoolmate from Dartmouth.
McClintock asked Geisel where he was going, and Geisel bluntly explained his plans—an admission that thoroughly amused McClintock, who had, only three hours before, been appointed as the new juvenile editor at Vanguard Press. The two men were standing in front of the building where McClintock now worked. “Come on up and let’s look at it,” he said.
Marco España is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon.