Theodor Seuss Geisel

If you are under 55, and enjoy reading this magazine, the chances are that you owe thanks to Theodor Seuss Geisel. Dr Seuss, as he is better known, was the pseudonym of an American eccentric whose life is like something written by the older, sadder F Scott Fitzgerald. He not only helped millions of children to enjoy reading, but arguably planted the seeds of a kinder, wiser, more tolerant and creative culture.

Working as a political satirist and magazine editor, ad agency artist, Oscar-winning film director and producer, Seuss refined a creativity that had roots in childhood trauma. As the son of German immigrants in Springfield, Massachusetts, he experienced both the loss of his father's status as a brewer under Prohibition and anti-German persecution at school. Seuss employed the usual artist's defence mechanisms: satire, humour, irreverence and mock-heroics. Like many bilingual children, he learned to experiment with words, and his talent at drawing fantastical creatures gradually made him popular with his peers.

At Dartmouth College, he majored in English and edited and drew cartoons for the college magazine. When drinking got him into trouble with the dean, he began publishing his drawings secretly, using his mother's maiden name, Seuss. The "Dr" part of his pseudonym came from an abortive year as a postgraduate at Lincoln College , Oxford , where he met his future wife, Helen. They married in 1927 and set up home in New York . Helen managed Seuss's career as he become increasingly successful as a cartoonist and parodist.

Like many in his world, he had ambitions to write the Great American Novel in two volumes, joking that "when it wouldn't sell, I condensed it into one volume. When that wouldn't sell, I boiled it down into one short story . . . Finally, I sold it as a two-line gag. Now I can't even remember the gag." Materially, his life was successful beyond his wildest dreams, enabling him to hobnob with the wealthy and tease the public with owlish advertisements for expeditions to non-existent places. Yet his insecurity, and possibly his childlessness, drove him to create his first picture book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937).

This, as Donald E Pease's biography makes clear, is essentially a celebration of the art of lying - otherwise known as the imagination. Marco is instructed by his father to "Stop telling such outlandish tales/Stop turning minnows into whales" while reporting what he's seen on his way to and from school. Marco comes up with a story in which ever more exotic animals and people parade down the main street of Springfield . The rhythmic anapaests, modelled on those of "The Night Before Christmas", are, like the drawings, unfailingly funny.

Beatrix Potter greeted Seuss's debut as "the cleverest book I have met with for many years". The "swing and merriment of the pictures, and the natural truthful simplicity of the untruthfulness" that she approved of were precisely what had given the author trouble. Then, as now, publishers complained that the book either ignored or flouted the defining conventions of children's books. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street saw the light of day only thanks to a former Dartmouth classmate-turned-publisher. Seuss eventually sold more than 200 million books worldwide.

Like all masters of this form of literature, Seuss understood that the best stories for children address their needs, not their morals. "They want fun. They want play. They want nonsense," he said. He saw children as "thwarted people". And even though many American children are so far from being thwarted as to constitute, in the immortal phrase of P G Wodehouse, "a vote for Herod", Seuss's turning away from the aggressive political satire of his work as a wartime propagandist was also a turning away from the inhibitions and constraints imposed on him by his own father. Unfortunately, his wife had since stepped into this role.

His first big success, The Cat in the Hat, was also the first to be written without her editorial input. From then on, the Cat was indeed out of the bag. As "the activity of reading personified", the Cat teaches bored children how language works, but his irrepressible energy seems also to be a metaphor for his creator's libido. Helen, sick with cancer, committed suicide in 1967; Seuss fell in love with a cardiologist's wife.

Many of Seuss's best books are about the madness of taking up intractable positions: he satirised adult prejudice in Green Eggs and Ham and the cold war in The Butter Battle Book, dramatised environmental destructiveness in The Lorax, and summarised the whole of life's journey in his valedictory book, Oh, the Places You'll Go!. His zoo of oddballs, misfits and marvels persuaded the conventional to try, or see, something differently in order to achieve happiness. It seems he took his own advice.

Pease's biography is a model of concision and tact. It links the life to the work, and although it omits any photographs of Seuss's family, it reproduces his elegant line drawings - not only from lesser-known books, but also from his days at college, from advertisements and from wartime cartoons - to illuminating effect. As well as impressing new readers with a sense of the joy of language and wild imagination, Seuss sowed the seeds of political and cultural change. In the end, his "big books" of no more than a few hundred words reached more readers than any Great American Novel. There's a moral in there, somewhere.

Theodor Seuss Geisel
Donald E Pease
Oxford University Press, 192pp, £12.99

Amanda Craig's latest novel is "Hearts and Minds" (Abacus, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next