Theodor Seuss Geisel may have never become Dr. Seuss had it not been for a remarkably serendipitous encounter on the streets of New York. A dejected Geisel was slumping down Madison Avenue, clutching the manuscript for his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which had been rejected by 27 publishers. He had resolved to burn the manuscript. But then he ran into his old college friend Mike McClintock, who, as luck would have it, had just been appointed a children’s editor at Vanguard Press. McClintock brought Geisel into his office and Vanguard ultimately bought the book, launching the career of one of the world’s most enduring children’s authors.
Now, as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, three of Geisel’s letters to McClintock are heading to auction, along with two pages of illustrations. The letters date to 1957, the same year that Geisel published The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Geisel’s excitement for his burgeoning career is palpable. But he hadn’t forgotten how McClintock gave him a chance when no other publisher would.
“[Y]ou picked me off Madison Ave. with a manuscript that I was about to burn in my incinerator, because nobody would buy it,” Geisel writes on personalized Dr. Seuss stationery, according to Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions, which will sell the collection on January 31, for a starting price of $3,500. “And you not only told me how to put Mulberry Street together properly … but after you’d sweated this out with me, giving me the best and only good information I have ever had on the construction of a book for this mysterious market, you even took the stuff on the road and sold it.”
By the late 1950s, the dynamics of their relationship had shifted. The Cat in the Hat was selling 1,000 copies a day, and nearly 50,000 copies of the Grinch had been printed in two and a half months, according to Geisel’s letter. So this time around, it was the author’s turn to encourage his friend, who was working on his own children’s book, A Fly Went By.
“You’ve hit something there that has more terrific chances of becoming a classic than anything I’ve seen in a hell of a long time,” Geisel wrote to McClintock. “The basic concept of fear, and running away from things, has something to say. The reader grasps it instantaneously, and then it builds, builds builds.”
The auction lot also includes a draft cover illustration that Geisel drew for A Fly Went By, which shows the buzzing insect zipping past a child’s face.
Geisel’s letters to his friend reveal the author’s keen interest in capitalizing on the success of his books—though, he notes, “I refuse to louse it up, and lose all my PTA, Librarian and Teacher support by one stinking comic book, toy or sweat shirt or game.” But Geisel knew he had hit upon something special. He had embarked on an “autographing tour” that took him “from San Francisco to Mexico,” and had seen how widely his books were being read.
“I think we’re idiots if we don’t think non-educationally, and start off on an opportunistic line...with a Cat-in-the-Hat Doll, Toy, put-together plastic, rag, fuzzy or whatever,” he wrote to McClintock. “But fast! I'm riding a wave right now that may never again roll so high.”