Theodor Geisel Became Self-Actualized By Dr. Seuss: Imagination Key


The relevance of the study is to understand the importance of imagination in the role of opening the door to self-actualization (SA) in the life of Theodor Geisel. A code was created from Maslow’s work to be used as an instrument and applied to the life, works and reception of Theodor Geisel to see if he was indeed self actualized as defined by humanist psychology. In his life, Theodor was a subversive, creative, smasher of conventional boundaries individual who kept and cherished the mind of a child; he was a man who spoke on behalf of children celebrating the intellect of a free child. Through his books, Theodor changed the way children learned to read, the way educators and parents thought about their children and most importantly, gave children equality, respect and a place to escape. Theodor was a visionary with avant-garde techniques, reaching the consciousness of mankind as well as touching on social, environmental and political issues of the day and of the future. With these achievements, one would ask, what drove Theodor Geisel to this level? For he went beyond self-actualization to the highest level in the hierarchy of needs - transcendence: “refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Maslow The Farther Reaches 269). The research points to his imagination; this then is the focal point of this paper.

Keywords: Imaginationself-actualizationMaslowTheodor GeiselDr Seuss


This paper follows up on a previous work that brought two well-known men together to a road of discovery, Theodor Seuss Geisel, author, and Abraham Maslow, psychologist. Dr. Seuss is known as the father of children’s literature in America; his books continue to be best-sellers. Maslow’s work is still current in the field of education and psychology; his theory of hierarchy of needs and self-actualization have stood the test of time and remain part of research and conversations to date. Maslow’s definition of self-actualization: “…the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow, 1970, p. 7-8). The tools he set out to measure this development of a person are written about in his book, Motivation and Personality, 1954. In this research a code was created from Maslow’s work and used as an instrument (see Table 1 ) to measure Theodor Geisel in three specific areas to see if he was indeed self-actualized: 1.) The life of Theodor Geisel: the influences, events, people he was close to and other interesting and helpful facts which give a clearer picture of who this person was and how he became SA. 2.) The books by Dr. Seuss: 47 specific books written and illustrated by him were each given a synopsis of the story followed by a personal interpretation on how the book pertains to SA. 3.) The reception from his audience, mainly the Press: newspaper articles beginning in 1929 to the present observing what the audience thought of Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss and if by their comments and observations he was SA. Also, to answer Maslow’s question of: “how tall can people grow, what can a human being become?” (Maslow, 1971, p. 42).

The conclusion was that yes, Theodor Geisel did become SA. His way of living through his life reveals the most powerful tool - that of his unleashed imagination. His childlike mind, ability to look at situations from the wrong end of the telescope, unrelenting push against becoming an obsolete child, and strength to follow his own star with humor – all came from his imagination within. This then is the place where this paper is focused, for Maslow stated that to have a good society, we need to look to those people who are considered healthy humans, or self-actualized because they can see further, can lead mankind in the right direction (Maslow, 1971, p. 8-10). Theodor Geisel left dinosaur prints; he was a visionary on cultural and societal issues; he did this through his imagination – Dr. Seuss.

Table 1 -
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Table 2 -
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Problem Statement

Looking at the life of Theodor Geisel and Maslow’s theory, the relevance of this study is focusing on the role of imagination in self-actualization - the key that unlocks the door and allows a person to experience self-actualization and its four main characteristics: honesty, awareness, freedom and trust.

Research Questions

The questions that arise from looking at Theodor Geisel’s life, a man who was indeed self-actualized, a man who was a visionary, who reached Maslow’s level of transcendence are:

Why is imagination the key to open the door to SA?

What are the factors that stimulate imagination? What does imagination do?

Where is this key of imagination in each person?

How is imagination shaped?

What are the possibilities with imagination?

Purpose of the Study

The main purpose of this study is to help educators, psychologists, parents, and individual’s understand how self-actualization is gained access with the key of imagination. Understanding the relationship of the imagination and self-expression, which encourages self-actualization and the characteristics that follow in a self-actualized person: honesty, awareness, freedom and trust.

Research Methods

In a previous research paper, a code was created from the study of Abraham Maslow's theory of self-actualization and applied to the life, works and reception of Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss, revealing a self-actualized individual. From this research on Geisel's life further research on self-actualization and links to imagination are developed. The key word imagination was highlighted in the first research paper and the findings revealed in this paper.


Why is imagination the key to open the door to SA?

A. Unique - As there is a unique key for each door, each person is unique, their imagination, who one wants to be, their true inner self is unique: Theodor found a door to enter through - Dr. Seuss; it was his means to express himself fully and freely. His imagination and inner voice were given liberty to play; to act on one’s imagination. He was known as a shy timid man, but under there was a wildly beating heart that needed to share something, contribute to society, speak to the concerns of the day and the future and by way of Dr. Seuss, he created zany illustrations and humorous writings, delivering best-selling children’s books; he had a purpose, a mission to accomplish that was in him from birth. It was his unique inner self.

Theodor was an individual who was creative, subversive, used his voice, yet at the same time was shy and timid. He saw life through the wrong end of the telescope, adored humor and pranks, never backed down from a challenge but rose to the occasion and super-exceeded – went above and beyond, had a sense of the absurd in serious situations, had an unleashed imagination and a tendency to exaggerate. He was a man of conviction and one who believed in childhood and fantasy (Prutzman, 2019, p. 61).

“Because his drawing and imagination are so outlandish the weird menagerie of potbellied, strangely name creatures … has put Geisel in a class by himself as the creator of children’s books and a wacky world” (“Local Boy Made Good”). He listened and followed the voice within leaving dinosaur prints behind (Prutzman, 2019, p. 508). Dr. Seuss allowed Theodor Geisel to self-actualize.

B. Natural - Theodor was bizarre and he embraced it. Keeping the mind of a child, questioning, pushing the imagination, laughing at silly things, keeping childlike humor:

“Childhood is the one time in an average person’s life when he can laugh just for the straight fun of laughing — that’s the main reason I write for kids. As one grows older his humor gets all tied up and stifled by social, economic, and political rules that we learn from our elders, and before long our laughter gets all mixed up with sneers and leers. Kids react spontaneously to something ludicrous, so I have more freedom writing for them.” (Jennings, 2016; Prutzman, 2019, p. 367)

Factors that stimulate imagination:

A. Environment – Theodor Geisel was born into an environment where ingenuity and invention were on the minds of the people; there was a spirit of creativity and imagination within his family and within the city of Springfield, MA (Prutzman, 2019, p. 64). A world of happy nonsense was in the mind of Theodor Geisel; it began as his mother told he and Marnie bedtime rhymes, as his father took him to the zoo to explore and become acquainted with animals and with these, his imagination began to grow, coming out later in his books, cartoons and movies to capture the imagination of young children, just as his once had been captured (Prutzman, 2019, p. 402).

B. Encouragement - His mother encouraged both her children’s imagination. “I was always drawing with pencils, pens, crayons, or anything,” he said. “And nearly always it was animals, goofy-looking ones. My mother over-indulged me and seemed to be saying, ‘Everything you do is great, just go ahead and do it’” (Sullivan, 1991, p. 22; Prutzman, 2019, p. 68). In Seuss’s book: My Book about Me, By Me, Myself, 1969, the last activity in the book, the reader is asked to write a story; two blank lined pages are left for the imagination to play (Prutzman, 2019, p. 337). Imagination needs to be encouraged, can be taught – left blank for one’s self to write.

C. Challenges – Difficult or unusual situations made Geisel think outside the box to find solutions, think different, look at life through the wrong end of the telescope. While at Dartmouth College, Theodor was given disciplinary action for drinking liquor with his friends in his dorm room during the prohibition; Theodor was removed as the editor of The Jack-O-Lantern. Needing to publish the paper, he continued to write, which did not cause a problem, as the writings were not signed. “Articles and jokes presented no problem, since they normally appeared anonymously; thus, anything the deposed editor might do in that area could be completely invisible as to its source” (Lathem, 2004, p. 10). But the cartoons posed a problem as they were always signed. Theodor with a great imagination found a solution: he signed his cartoons with various and curious names (Prutzman, 2019, p. 77). Imagination found a solution. Theodor in using his imagination; he choice to be courageous rather than afraid. Here he found and created Dr. Seuss in a difficult situation. C-2 Creativeness: inventive, original. D-2 Autonomy: dependent for own potentialities, lightened resources. Where there was a problem, Theodor applied imagination and found solutions. Imagination, thinking beyond reality to possibilities: it is in his imagination where he found solitude and his mission in life.

D. Props/Play - In Theodor’s life, hats and an alter ego were used: props let a person play, putting aside the cloak of what is expected and let the child within come out and play. Theodor had a closet of hats. Often Helen hosted private parties at their house with close friends. It was at these parties where Theodor was relaxed and enjoyed playing pranks with his guests. Hats were often a common piece of attire which added amusement, fun, play and imagination (Prutzman, 2019, p. 129).

E. Freedom - In Dr. Seuss’s first book: And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, blue and white are the colors used for the introductory and ending pages, like the colors of the sky where imaginations fly free (Prutzman, 2019, p. 226).

What does imagination do?

A. Protects - Theodor’s imagination through Dr. Seuss was praised and given acclamation.

“Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, has captured the imagination of millions of children with his

fanciful spoofs: Gerald McBoing-Boing, the Drum-Tummied Snumm, and other creatures from a

world of happy nonsense… Yet for the past thirty years, under the protective alias of Dr. Seuss,

Ted Geisel has been an apostle of joyous nonsense. He has fathered a whole modern mythology

of bizarre creatures…” (Cahn, 1957; Prutzman, 2019, p. 141).

Through Dr. Seuss, Theodor was protected; the world accepted and embraced what his imagination created.

B. Creates hunger - Theodor’s vocation, what he was made for: to help children enjoy reading and discovering through books and in his philosophy, to be individuals hungry for adventure, laughter, imagination and respect for mankind and the environment (Prutzman, 2019, p. 144).

C. Opens the mind - A release to experience the greatness of reading, exploring the possibilities of fantasy, to open one’s mind up to great imagination and endless possibilities; Theodor gave this to his readers (Prutzman, 2019, p. 174).

D. Helps make sense of real world - Theodor’s relationship with Dr. Seuss allowed him to create worlds to enter first for himself; in these places he could reflect, find reason, understand and make sense of the real world to deal with it his way, to go back and forth from self and world, dealing with the inner and outer and in this become self-actualized. At the same time he created worlds for children to enter, helping them to also make sense of the world through a child’s mind and imagination: … he always brought his audience back to the real world; in this creating transient experiences to share, bringing joy and laughter (Prutzman, 2019, p. 507).

What does imagination do?

A. Human spirit: the heart – Bubbling within, like a natural spring - imagination is within the heart of man. King Solomon, known for his wisdom, compared the heart to a flowing spring: “Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flows the springs of life.” (The Bible, Proverbs 4:23). It can be squelched by the seriousness of life or the spirit within can be stronger to let imagination go and play. Boredom was not an option for Theodor, not with the imagination bubbling within. In a 1974 interview, he recalled the path he had started down, going to Oxford, but made a change of plans: “I was headed toward a career of professional boredom (teaching) after Dartmouth and Oxford” (Fensch, 1997, p. 58). His change of plans also affected a book he was planning to write; he took the serious out and let his talent and imagination flow free:

His “serious” novel, however, was fated for failure, because the whimsical, longsuppressed spirit of Seuss was too apt to enjoy the spectacle of so much seriousness, all in one self-absorbed spot… Nonetheless, the plans of Ted Geisel were trampled by the talents of Dr. Seuss, and once he returned from Europe and decided he wanted to share his inverted, impossible, incredible vision of the world, there was no stopping him (Lipsius, 2013, pp. 200-202, Prutzman, 2019, p. 86).

Both well intended plans, paths that seemed the correct way, were squelched by the bubbling spirit within Theodor.

How is imagination shaped?

A. Learned - Imagination comes from within as does talent; like a river, imagination needs to flow, this can be a learned behavior, learning to let imagination and talent run free; Theodor, through a process of choices one after another, dared to be honest when in doubt, to be courageous rather than afraid, used his intelligence, knowing what he was not good at and what he was good at, found out who he was, where he was going and what his mission was: this allowed creativity and talent to bring forth great fruit (Prutzman, 2019, p. 213).

B. Practiced – In Dr. Seuss’s first book: And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937), Marco begins to use his imagination and elaborate on what he will tell his father (Prutzman, 2019, p. 227). A tall, handsome, grayhaired, gray-bearded man, his immensely popular books are published in a variety of languages in the Orient as well as the western world. They are landmarks in children’s literature, full of fanciful creatures and joyous, sometimes nonsensical rhymes with a very serious purpose: teaching children to read and learn and use their imagination (Prutzman, 2019, p. 439).

C. Pushed – In the same book as mentioned above, And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, Theodor (1937) writes that the mind can stay in normal or imagination can be applied and take one further, even to Bliss Street: Will Marco stay on Mulberry Street or allow his imagination to take him to Bliss Street? Taking the chance where on Bliss Street the imagination can “race at top speed”, Marco decides to push his imagination further: singles become multiples, a pair of zebras with an elephant at the lead, an entire brass band, the escort of police, the Mayor and the Aldermen are watching what has now become a parade with the repeated line: “And that is a story/ that NO ONE can beat/ When I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street!” (Seuss, 1937; Prutzman, 2019, p. 228). Mulberry Street is a street in Springfield, MA where Theodor grew up; yet he did not remain there; Theodor, like Marco in the story, created Bliss Street, an imaginary street where he powerfully changed his reality and those of countless children and adults.

D. Played with - Theodor was asked to write a primer using 225 words from a list of 348 words that sixyear-olds should already be familiar with; Theodor was asked to take the list home and “play with it” (Morgan & Morgan, 1996; N. Dr. Seuss 155, Prutzman, 2019, p. 138). In playing he could be honest with his inner self, free to respond to images and ideas, aware and open to unseen details, and trusting to create something wonderful.

E. Focused - Once in a while there is an echo of something like anguish in Geisel’s accounts of the

workings of his own imagination – some constant, furious homage to the 1902 rifle target, its bullseye perforated by his father’s exacting shots, that Geisel keeps mounted on the wall, “To remind me of perfection,” he says (Cynthia Gorney, Prutzman, 2019, p. 446). The image of his father’s discipline and perfection kept him on target.

F. Unleashed – Free from parental control or societal constructs. “The anxiety in Seuss’s books always arises from the flouting of authority, parental or societal. It is central to the Seuss formula that the action of all his books with children as protagonists takes place either (1) in the absence of grownups, or (2) in the imagination” (Lanes, 1971, p. 81; Prutzman, 2019, p. 174). In 1952, Theodor wrote in The New York Times:

“Your imagination, they told you, was getting a little bit out of hand. Your young unfettered mind, they told you, was taking you on too many wild flights of fancy. It was time your imagination got its feet down on the ground. It was time your version of humor was given a practical, realistic base. They began to teach you their versions of humor. And the process of destroying your spontaneous laughter was under way…” (Seuss, 1952).

Possibilities with imagination:

A. Creates reality – He created characters from his imagination creating an entirely real world for himself; these characters, worlds and words became known as Seussian (Prutzman, 2019, p. 131).

B. Gives purpose - Everyone has garbage: experiences, thoughts, bad or negative experiences - just need some creative imagination to clean it up to make it useful; the backyard of junk gets cleaned up and becomes something wonderful, something colorful, something everyone enjoys – purpose! It takes vision and a daring spirit as had Young Morris, who then gave it to Mr. Sneelock in the Greatest Show On Earth! (Prutzman, 2019, p. 279).

C. Gives delight & nutrition - Warren T. Greenleaf writes: “Theodor’s books are full of Snap! Crackle! and Pop! They are fun, unlike his contemporaries, yet at the same time they, as is the creator, are serious in that children are learning to read, happily…The explosive morning racket could also be linked to the imagination of these readers – exploding with delight” (Fensch, 1997, pp. 91-97, Prutzman, 2019, p. 448).

D. Provides alternative views , courses of action - Rita Roth for The New Advocate ... “His stories are emancipatory in the sense that they provide alternative views of the ways things are and the way they might be, as well as alternative courses of action to bring about change. Issues of empowerment and control are played out through the use of imagination and common sense in ways that expand and enrich lives” (Fensch, 1997, pp. 141-142; Prutzman, 2019, p. 470).

E. Transforms - Allison Lurie writes: And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street… The Cat in the Hat… In these tales the children whose imagination transforms the world are abashed or secretive when confronted with possible adult disapproval. More often, however, Seuss lets fancy run free without

equivocation or apology (Fensch, 1997, pp. 155-163; Prutzman, 2019, p. 472, 473).

F. Catch the imagination of a nation - On March 2, book lovers celebrated the man who gave us

possibly the silliest of these quotes, some of the most joyful nonsense ever to catch the imagination of a nation: “I do not like green eggs and ham!” (Prutzman, 2019, p. 505). This quote is from one of Dr. Seuss’s (1960) most popular books: Green Eggs and Ham. Theodor was encouraging his audience to try the unknown, as he himself did in creating his own world of characters (Prutzman, 2019, p. 303).


Jonathon Cott (1983) in his book, The Good Dr. Seuss, states that imagination and play are the cornerstones in the world of Dr. Seuss (34): Theodor was honest with his imagination and let it play; he was aware of his environment and how elements in his environment played on his imagination; he took the freedom to create with imagination and put play into his work; and he trusted his imagination and found his life mission in playing with the images in his mind and putting them onto paper.

William Blake wrote: “The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself” (Erdman, 2008, p. 132). Human existence today is looking for answers for a better society. Theodor through Dr. Seuss made use of his imagination and touched the world with it: directing in a way of hope, of change, for the better of mankind. With his imagination, Theodor was honest with himself: his talents, likes, dislikes, social issues, and relationships. He was aware his entire life of his surroundings: the issues, people, details, and ethics. He lived with freedom, doing his own thing: constantly creating and responding to life and the voice within. Lastly, trust was developed throughout his life in difficult times, making him think different, guiding him to his purpose, following his own rhythm and embracing his unique self.

Albert Einstein (2009) is often quoted: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution” (Einstein, 2009, p. 49). Each person has a unique purpose; through self-actualization, the calling has a greater need, that of helping society, giving back, to make this world a better place for the individual(s) and society as a whole (Prutzman, 2019, p. 514, 515). Imagination is key for self-actualization to begin and continue; it is essential for all mankind to find his or her own key within. The last message of Theodor Geisel was written on a yellow copy paper:

Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell

myself, “You can do better than this.”

The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be: “We can… and

we’ve got to… do better than this.”

And then he crossed out three words, the kids of (Morgan & Morgan, 1996, p. 287, Prutzman, 2019, p. 219).

If imagination is the key to self-actualization, and imagination is in the heart of mankind, one may conclude that for the betterment of society, each individual need pay attention to the state of their heart; to guard it wisely - to imagine good, not evil.


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07 November 2019

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Psychology, educational psychology, counseling psychology

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Friesen-Prutzman, C. (2019). Theodor Geisel Became Self-Actualized By Dr. Seuss: Imagination Key. In P. Besedová, N. Heinrichová, & J. Ondráková (Eds.), ICEEPSY 2019: Education and Educational Psychology, vol 72. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 153-163). Future Academy.