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'Bump,' 'thump,' the Cat's back

January 28, 2007

Fifty years ago this spring, Theodor (Ted) Geisel -- better known to his readers as Dr. Seuss -- published his 10th book for children, "The Cat in the Hat." Priced at $2 (later reduced to $1.95), it was an instant success: Within a year, Random House had sold more than 200,000 copies, and by the end of 1960, it had sold nearly a million copies. Three years after it was published, the book had been translated into French, Chinese, Swedish and Braille. Since then, it's been issued in a dozen more languages. Seuss died at his home in La Jolla in 1991. This month, Random House is bringing out "The Annotated Cat," with page-by-page notes by Philip Nel, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University. Below are two of Seuss' original sketches for pages in the book, as well as portions of Nel's annotation for those pages.

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According to a Gallup poll from January 1956, 54 percent of Americans had pets in their households. Of that group, 67 percent had at least one dog, 41 percent at least one cat, 22 percent at least one bird, and only 7 percent any fish.

At the time he wrote "The Cat in the Hat," Seuss did not have a cat. He and Helen did have cats at one point, probably early in their marriage. In his 1960 New Yorker profile, E.J. Kahn Jr., writes [that] "at the moment, the Geisels, who once kept 25 or 30 cats, have only one pet -- an aging, wheezy Irish setter."

Dogs seem to have been Ted Geisel's preferred pet. When he was a little boy, his mother gave him a stuffed dog, which he named Theophrastus. As his biographers report, Geisel kept his stuffed Theophrastus "close to him throughout his life, often within sight from his drawing board."

... But cats are a recurring theme in Seuss' work. As Charles D. Cohen notes in his "The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing but the Seuss" (2004), "throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a cat appeared in the background of Dr. Seuss illustrations the way that Hitchcock appeared in his films -- not in every one but often enough to be noticed."

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In his workshops at the University of Utah in July 1949, Seuss spoke of children's humor. In his notes, under the heading "HUMOR. What's funny to a child," he has written the following list:

Sounds

Surprise

Grotesque, Incongruous

Falling down (the mighty falling)

Absurdity

Horseplay

The citation he provides -- "Arbuthnot 42" -- indicates that these ideas come from page 42 of "Children and Books" (1947) by May Hill Arbuthnot. Although he would later criticize her Dick and Jane books, he seems to agree with some of her ideas about humor in children's literature. In a chapter on Mother Goose, she identifies all of the above as features of a child's sense of humor. ... This scene contains many of the humorous elements listed: surprise, falling down, absurdity and sound. Sounds are a key part of Seuss's humor. In "Scrambled Eggs Super!" (1953), Peter T. Hooper rides "on the top/of a Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka Schnopp." The title character of "Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?" (1970) repeats the word "GRUM" to imitate "a hippopotamus/chewing gum." Here, the Cat has entered with a "BUMP!" and now comes down with a "bump." The Things' kites will go "Bump! Thump! Thump! Bump! (page 40). The boy's net will come down with a "PLOP" (page 52). Seuss was sufficiently interested in getting the right sound that he revised until he liked what he heard: the "bump" on this page began as "PLUMP!"; both "Bump!" Thump! Thump! Bump!" and "PLOP" began differently, too.

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