Sixty years ago this week, on August 12, 1960, #DrSeuss published what would become his best-selling book of all time. Written as the result of a $50 bet between Seuss and his publisher Bennett Cerf, it has since sold more than 8 million copies.
The book? GREEN EGGS AND HAM. /1
To truly appreciate its brilliance, we need some background. Let’s check in with this May 1954 issue of LIFE magazine, with an article by Nobel Prize winning novelist John Hersey titled, “Why Do Students Bog Down on the First ‘R’?” /2
In his article, Hersey (seen below) lamented that children weren’t learning to read because the Dick & Jane reading primers were so terrible, with boring text and bland drawings. At the very least, he suggested, couldn’t they get Dr. Seuss to illustrate the turgid text? /3
Dr. Seuss would never illustrate Dick & Jane; instead, he was challenged by an editor at Houghton Mifflin, who had read Hersey’s article, to “write me a story first graders can’t put down!”
Challenge accepted. But there was a catch. /4
Dick & Jane is an actual reading primer, which uses an educator-approved vocabulary list of about 350 words. For his book, then, Dr. Seuss would have to play by those rules, using only those words, no more, no less.
Seuss promised he’d take the list home and “play with it.” /5
It was, he said, an “impossible and ridiculous task…I was forbidden to use any words beyond the list. I almost threw the job up.” A year later, he decided to find two words that rhymed and make that his main character.
Tall ball were a bust.
Cat and hat, however, weren’t. /6
More than a year later, in 1957, Dr. Seuss published THE CAT IN THE HAT, his first real blockbuster. For CAT, Seuss had used 236 unique words from the educator-approved word list (total word count, with repeated words, is about 1,600). /7
Critically, it’s a book with a pedagogy that teachers approved of, parents loved, and kids wanted to read. In 1957, that was a game changer. Based on its success, Random House created a new imprint aimed at these readers called Beginner Books, w/Dr. Seuss as its editor. /8
Among the first books Seuss wrote for Beginner Books was ONE FISH TWO FISH RED FISH BLUE FISH, completed in 1959. This was an experiment for Seuss, as he was deliberately using shorter words, and placing the accompanying drawings as close to the words as he possibly could. /9
It would be the prototype for a new line of books he was calling “Beginner Beginner Books,” aimed at very early readers with limited vocabularies. Soon, there would be a new imprint—“Bright & Early Books”–that relied on an approved vocabulary list of only 182 simple words. /10
In 1959, publisher Bennett Cerf (below) approached Dr. Seuss to lay down a playful and very specific challenge. The new Bright & Early imprint used a list of 182 words. Could Dr. Seuss write a book using only 50 of them?
Cerf bet Seuss $50 he couldn’t.
Challenge accepted. /11
#DrSeuss, who had agonized over the restrictions imposed by the word list even as he wrote CAT IN THE HAT, rose to the challenge.
And it’s probably not a coincidence that the resulting book was all about convincing someone to do something they didn’t really want to do. /12
GREEN EGGS AND HAM would be its own kind of misery, requiring Seuss to create complicated charts, checklists, and multiple word counts as he struggled to keep track of the words he was using. He also imposed on himself a requirement to stick with one-syllable words.* /13
* For those keeping count, the one exception to the ‘one syllable rule” would be the word “anywhere,” which was composed of two short words that early readers would know. /13A
Rhyming, too, could be tough with a 50 word restriction “The agony is terrific at times, and the attribution is horrible,” he said. “If you’re doing it in quatrains and get to the end of four lines and can’t make it work, then it’s like unraveling a sock.” /14
Dr. Seuss delivered GREEN EGGS AND HAM to Cerf in 1960. He was glad to be done with it, and somewhat nervous about how it would be received. /15
We all know how it turned out. “The good doctor has scored another triumph,” exclaimed the New York Times, while one reviewer wrote presciently of GREEN EGGS AND HAM: “A vocabulary of only fifty words, but they will long be remembered.” /16
For the rest of his life, Dr. Seuss would find himself at book signings and dinners in his honor where he would be served plates filled with green eggs and ham. “Deplorable stuff,” he said later, “The worst was on a yacht in six-foot seas.” /17
Generations of readers would look for hidden meanings and metaphors in its text—but for Dr. Seuss, it was only ever about one thing: “Cerf bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t write a book using only 50 words,” he said later. “I did it to show I could.”
Oh, and Seuss also said later that Bennett Cerf never paid him his fifty dollars.
Regardless, Happy 60th Birthday to GREEN EGGS AND HAM.
Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am (and Dr. Seuss!)
CODA: I suppose at this point I should add…this story and more can be found in my 2019 biography BECOMING DR. SEUSS: THEODOR GEISEL AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN IMAGINATION, now available in paperback from your favorite booksellers. And I thank you.
SUBCODA: About that “more than 8 million copies” figure: yeah, it’s probably low. Publishers can be persnickety about releasing sales numbers on the record. “At least 8M” is a confirmed figure (per PW)…as of 2000. Hence, “more than 8M.” It’s accurate, if completely imperfect.