Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Fish Out of Water
by Helen Palmer



When I was a kid, I always liked reading the “About the Author” blurb at the end of a book – probably the budding quizzer in me wanted every piece of available information. One of my favourite childhood books was A Fish Out of Water and my version had no such blurb – or if it did it was on a long-lost dust-jacket. So I’ve written one myself:
Helen Palmer was born in New York in 1898. For 40 years she was married to Dr Seuss. They had no children – Helen was unable to. In later years she suffered from cancer and partial paralysis. For the last few years of Helen’s life, Dr Seuss was having an affair with the woman who would later become his second wife. In 1967 an ill, depressed and heartbroken Helen committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates.
Maybe there was a reason there was no such blurb.

We’ll get to A Fish Out of Water shortly, but first a little more on Helen Palmer. In 1927, Helen married Theodore Geisel, known to friends as Ted, and later known to the world as Dr Seuss. Ted Geisel wanted to become a teacher but Helen, six years his senior, encouraged him to make a career from his artwork. She was his editor, advisor, business manager and inspiration. She co-founded the “Beginner Books” imprint - you’d recognise the Cat in the Hat logo – in 1957.

And yet, a decade later Helen was dead. Within a year of her suicide Dr Seuss remarried. His second wife, Audrey, is still alive and in her mid-90s continues to serve as president of Dr Seuss Enterprises. There seems little doubt that the younger Audrey provided a renewed inspiration for Dr Seuss, who was 64 when he married for the second time. His niece Peggy described Helen’s death as “her last and greatest gift to him”. Her suicide note speaks for itself:
"Dear Ted, What has happened to us? I don't know. I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, 'failure, failure, failure...' I love you so much ... I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you ... My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed ... Sometimes think of the fun we had all thru the years ..."
She might have heard “failure, failure, failure” from every side, but few people have given the world more joy than Helen Palmer. She gave the world Dr Seuss. But for her prodding, he might never have gone beyond the cartoons he drew as a college student. And Helen Palmer’s name also lives on as an author herself.

But even there she remains in her husband’s giant shadow, for A Fish Out of Water in fact originated as a short story by Dr Seuss, titled Gustav the Goldfish. It was originally published in a magazine in 1950, with the trademark Seuss rhymes and illustrations. You can see a comparison here. A decade later, he gave Helen permission to revise the story to make it a suitable “Beginner Book”, which required a more basic vocabulary.

In hindsight, the absurd premise is pure Seuss. A boy buys a pet goldfish and, against the advice of the pet-store owner, overfeeds it. The fish quickly outgrows every vessel in which the boy tries to house it, until even the local swimming pool is becoming too small to hold it. At this point the pet-store owner, Mr Carp, dives with a mysterious toolbox and magically returns the fish to its original size.

The illustrations by P. D. Eastman – a protégé of Dr Seuss – bring a charming realism to the preposterous story. Eastman’s drawings are much truer to life than the zany art of Dr Seuss, and something about the realistic looking figures – the baffled policeman and the concerned fireman – make it easy for a child to put themselves in the position of the little boy, to think maybe this really could happen!

I had never heard of Gustav the Goldfish until researching this blog, and I don’t know if I’d have preferred the Seussian version as a kid or A Fish Out of Water. They each appeal in different ways. All I can say with certainty is that I loved A Fish Out of Water and that Helen Palmer, despite her tragic end, was no failure.

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