Seuss, Dr. 1904-1991
(Born Theodor Seuss Geisel; has also written under the pseudonyms Theo. LeSieg and Rosetta Stone) American illustrator and author of picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Seuss's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volumes 1, 9, and 53.
The Cat in the Hat, Horton the elephant, the Grinch who stole Christmas—among the most beloved characters in all of children's literature—are only a few of the creations of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to generations of children as Dr. Seuss. Seuss's books have sold more than one hundred million copies and have been translated into almost every language on the globe. Not only is Seuss considered a children's literature icon, but many of his quirky characters are accepted as part of contemporary folklore. The guiding force behind Seuss's work is his innate understanding of children and genuine respect for their individuality and imagination. Seuss began most of his books with simple ideas and then built them into fabulous concepts through repetition, suspense, and surprise. He combined words and pictures to fashion a series of complex situations that border on the lunatic but retain an integral logic. His language is distinguished by invented words that, as nonsensical as they sound, fit perfectly with his stories and pictures. At a time when Dick-and-Jane primers were teaching children how to read, Seuss's use of absurd pictures and inventive rhymes represented a new type of children's literature—pleasure reading for beginning and reluctant readers. The now classic The Cat in the Hat (1957) was the first work of this new, visionary style.
Born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Seuss grew up reading and drawing but never intended to make illustration a career. He began nurturing his talent at an early age as he tagged along with his father, a superintendent of public parks, to the zoo six blocks away from their home. Every morning as his father practiced target shooting in a nearby park, Seuss would sneak off to sketch the zoo animals. Later, his high-school art teacher told Seuss that he would never learn to draw properly. Despite this dismal prediction, Seuss's first published drawings appeared in the pages of Dartmouth College's humor magazine, Jack-o'-Lantern, of which he was the editor. After graduating from Dartmouth, Seuss moved on to Oxford University, where he planned to pursue a doctorate in English literature. However, both his professional and personal lives changed dramatically when he met fellow student Helen Palmer. She encouraged him to pursue a career in cartoon illustration, and the two were married in 1927. They returned to the United States, and soon Seuss was selling drawings and prose pieces to magazines such as Vanity Fair, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post.Seuss got his first big break when one of his cartoons caught the attention of Standard Oil Company. He signed a contract to create grotesque, enormous insects to illustrate Standard Oil's famous slogan, "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" Those characters and others appeared on billboards nationwide and made a name for Seuss as an illustrator. The idea for his first picture book came from a rather mundane experience, but one which would characterize the writing style for which he is known and loved. While crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner, Seuss became caught up in the monotonous pulse of the ship's engine. He began to put words to the rhythm, added illustrations, and the result was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Twenty-seven publishers rejected the manuscript. Finally, in 1937, an editor agreed to take a chance with Mulberry Street, and Dr. Seuss the children's author was born.
By the time the Second World War interrupted his work, Seuss had published several well-received children's books, including The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), The King's Stilts (1939), and the ever-popular Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). After the war, Seuss settled in La Jolla, California, and in quick succession released McElligot's Pool (1947), Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose (1948), Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and Horton Hears a Who! (1954). Then, in 1957, Seuss wrote the book that would revolutionize the world of books for beginning readers. In May 1954 Life magazine excerpted the report of a panel analyzing the teaching of reading in a Connecticut school system. One of the panelists, journalist John Hersey, implied that children's reading could not develop sufficiently because they were being given dull texts on which to practice. A publisher, learning of the challenge, contacted Seuss. Seuss accepted the challenge, and produced The Cat in the Hat, using only 220 words from a list of 400 that his publisher had sent him. Decades later, in a Parents magazine article, Hersey credited The Cat in the Hat for forever changing the way in which children learned to read. The success of The Cat in the Hat led Seuss and his wife to found Beginner Books, a division of Random House dealing exclusively in books for beginning readers. Beginner Books published seventeen more of Seuss's limited-vocabulary books, including the immensely popular Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which contained only fifty words, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960). Over twenty other books followed, including several with sometimes controversial, strong moral viewpoints, such as The Lorax (1971) and The Butter Battle Book (1984). After the death of his wife and business partner, Helen, Seuss married Audrey Stone Diamond in 1968. By his eightieth birthday, Seuss was considered the dean of humorous children's writers. Translations of his books are selling all over the world, he has received numerous awards and accolades, and some of his best-loved stories have been made into award-winning television shows. His alma mater, Dartmouth College, legitimized his "Dr." title in 1955 with the awarding of an honorary doctorate degree. On September 24, 1991, the world of children's literature said goodbye to a hero, when at the age of eighty-seven, Seuss died in his sleep at his California home.
Seuss's first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, embodies the rollicking, nonsensical rhyme and fantastic illustrative creations that are the author's trademarks. Set in Seuss's native Springfield, Massachusetts, the book tells the story of Marco, who has been chided by his father for neglecting the ordinary routines of life. On his way home from school one day, Marco decides to have a story to tell when he gets home, and soon his imagination transforms a simple horse-drawn wagon into a fabulous parade of exotic beasts and vehicles. Seuss's illustrations portray the workings of Marco's imagination, as a horse turns into a zebra and a wagon transforms into a chariot. Seuss continued to give imagination free reign with Horton Hatches the Egg, in which Horton the elephant is tricked into sitting in a nest and guarding the eggs of a vacationing mother bird. Like Horton, many of Seuss's characters find themselves in unique situations, such as being presented with a meal of green eggs and ham, or with unusual features, such as the cat who wears a hat or the outlandish "flustards," "joats," and "tufted mazurka" in If I Ran the Zoo. The Cat in the Hat opens in an ordinary world as two children sit staring out the window on a rainy day. Their mother is gone, and they have nothing to do. The Cat in the Hat—a talking cat in a striped hat—enters, unsummoned, and proposes to entertain them. Over the admonitions of the children's pet goldfish, the Cat takes over, and his games make a horrible mess. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back! (1958) is another limited vocabulary book based on the antics of the infamous Cat. This time the children try to prevent the Cat's mischief but are powerless to stop him. He leaves a pink ring on the bathtub that resists destruction. He calls on little cats under his hat, one for each letter of the alphabet, to try various ways to clean away the pink spots. The last uses Voom ("Now, don't ask me what Voom is / I never will know") which does the job and sets things right again.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) has become a contemporary Christmas classic, with the Grinch acting as a modern replacement for Charles Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch hates Christmas and sets out to ruin it for the Whos down in Whoville. He thinks he can steal Christmas by stealing material things: the Whos's presents, decorations, and holiday meals. When the Whos still celebrate Christmas, despite losing their possessions, the Grinch learns a lesson about the intangible meaning of Christmas—however, Seuss avoids any mention of the holiday's religious connotations. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958) is a collection which presents tales of creatures who constantly attempt to outdo each other. In the title story Yertle disrupts his happy pond-kingdom when he decides to be king of a greater territory. Since he is king of all he sees, he becomes greater the higher he goes. Unfortunately Yertle must raise himself by climbing on the backs of other turtles, who then suffer pain, hunger, and loss of freedom. A burp from the bottom turtle eventually corrects the situation and brings everything back to normal.
Some of Seuss's later works explore slightly more sophisticated themes. You're Only Old Once! (1986) addresses the elderly, whom Seuss dubs "obsolete children." The book pokes good-natured fun at the medical profession with a tongue-in-cheek look at one of the rituals of aging, the medical checkup. Oh, the Places You'll Go! (1990), which chronicles its young protagonist's journey down the road of life, has ageless lessons for "upstarts of all ages," whether nursery-school or college graduates: "You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself / any direction you choose …" However, Seuss gives the story a moral by tempering its optimism with a healthy dose of reality, as well: "Alone will be something / you'll be quite a lot. / And when you're alone, there's a very good chance / you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants." Indeed, many of Seuss's works make serious statements while entertaining their readers. The Lorax offers commentary on modern ecology, and The Butter Battle Book is a parable about nuclear arms escalation. The title character of The Lorax rails against a creature called the Once-ler who exploits natural resources and pollutes the air and the water so he can go on "biggering" his factory. The business practices of the Once-ler, who puts all his relatives to work, have elements of adult humor, but the message of the book is simplified and clear—the Once-ler has taken his gain and left a mess, and the responsibility for rejuvenating the environment has been passed to the young. The Butter Battle Book chronicles the war between the Yooks, who eat their bread butter-side down, and the neighboring Zooks, who eat theirs butter-side up. The book's thinly disguised parodies of human military activity, including the "Snick-Berry Switch" and "Boys in the Back Room," make its commentary on the futility of the arms race extremely clear to readers.
A testament to his timeless influence, several new books were published after Seuss's death based on drawings and verses found among his papers. One of these, Daisy-Head Mayzie (1994), is the story of a young girl who one day mysteriously sprouts a daisy from her head, prompting a flurry of confused activity from the adults around her. My Many Colored Days (1996) utilizes a series of expressionistic color paintings from Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher to tell the story of a child who transforms into different animals whose colors correspond with his moods. Jack Prelutsky completed an unfinished manuscript of Seuss's to produce Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! (1998), a picture book about Diffendoofer School, an unusual place where children are taught how to think by bizarre, atypical teachers.
Scholars and critics alike have consistently praised Seuss for investing his works with positive values that neither preach nor condescend to his audiences. Reviewers have noted that many of Seuss's books contain veiled moral statements that balance the zaniness of his characters and situations. While critics have lauded Seuss as an outstanding nonsense poet and storyteller, he has also been regarded as a natural moralist whose works offer children a positive and enthusiastic view of life. Concerned thematically with creativity, tenacity, loyalty, and self-confidence, Seuss has also treated political and social issues in his works such as racial and religious prejudice, conservation, and the nuclear arms race to mixed critical response. The release of The Butter Battle Book sparked controversy, with its critics bemoaning the story's violence and the absence of Seuss's usual lighthearted approach. Some observers have also viewed Seuss's involvement with beginning readers as limiting his creativity, while others have disapproved of his unconventional English and unschooled art. The preponderance of reviewers, however, have continued to regard Seuss as an imaginative genius whose oeuvre has captured readers for generations.
Seuss won an Academy Award in 1946 for his short-subject World War II film Hitler Lives, another in 1947 for Design for Death, and a third in 1951 for Gerald McBoing-Boing. He received a Randolph Caldecott Honor Award in 1948 for McElligot's Pool, in 1950 for Bartholomew and the Oobleck, and in 1951 for If I Ran the Zoo. He won a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958 for Horton Hatches the Egg and in 1961 for And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The animated cartoons How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears a Who received a Peabody Award in 1971. The Lorax won a Critics' Award from the International Animated Cartoon Festival and a Silver Medal from the International Film and Television Festival of New York, both in 1972. Seuss received a Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Award in 1974 for special contribution to children's literature and was named "Outstanding California Author" by the California Association of Teachers of English in 1976. He also received an Emmy Award in 1977 for the cartoon Halloween Is Grinch Night and a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the Association for Library Services for Children, American Library Association, in 1980. The week of March 2-7 was proclaimed "Dr. Seuss Week" by State Governers in 1981. Seuss won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his "special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents." The Butter Battle Book received a PEN Los Angeles Center Award for children's literature in 1985. Seuss was honored with a special program by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1989. In 1993 Random House established the Dr. Seuss Picture Book Award, a biannual award given in Seuss's honor to a children's book author/illustrator.
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (picture book) 1937
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (picture book) 1938
The King's Stilts (picture book) 1939
The Seven Lady Godivas (picture book) 1939
Horton Hatches the Egg (picture book) 1940
McElligot's Pool (picture book) 1947
Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose (picture book) 1948
Bartholomew and the Oobleck (picture book) 1949
If I Ran the Zoo (picture book) 1950
Scrambled Eggs Super! (picture book) 1953
Horton Hears a Who! (picture book) 1954
On beyond Zebra (picture book) 1955
If I Ran the Circus (picture book) 1956
The Cat in the Hat (picture book) 1957
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (picture book) 1957
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back! (picture book) 1958
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (picture book) 1958
Happy Birthday to You! (picture book) 1959
Green Eggs and Ham (picture book) 1960
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (picture book) 1960
The Sneetches and Other Stories (picture book) 1961
Ten Apples Up on Top! [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1961
Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book (picture book) 1962
Dr. Seuss' ABC (alphabet book) 1963
Hop on Pop (picture book) 1963
Fox in Socks (picture book) 1965
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (picture book) 1965
I Wish That I Had Duck Feet [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by B. Tokey] (picture book) 1965
Come Over to My House [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Richard Erdoes] (picture book) 1966
The Foot Book (picture book) 1968
I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today and Other Stories (picture book) 1969
My Book about Me, By Me, Myself. I Wrote It! I Drew It! [illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1969
Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? (picture book) 1970
The Lorax (picture book) 1971
In a People House [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1972
Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? (picture book) 1972
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (picture book) 1973
The Many Mice of Mr. Brice [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1973
The Shape of Me and Other Stuff (picture book) 1973
Great Day for Up! [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (picture book) 1974
There's a Wocket in My Pocket! (picture book) 1974
Wacky Wednesday [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by George Booth] (picture book) 1974
Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo! [as Rosetta Stone; illustrations by Michael Frith] (picture book) 1975
Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (picture book) 1975
Would You Rather Be a Bullfrog? [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1975
The Cat's Quizzer (picture book) 1976
Hooper Humperdink … ? Not Him! [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Charles E. Martin] (picture book) 1976
Please Try to Remember the First of Octember! [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Arthur Cumings] (picture book) 1977
I Can Read with My Eyes Shut (picture book) 1978
Oh Say Can You Say? (picture book) 1979
Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Michael J. Smollin] (picture book) 1980
The Tooth Book [as Theo. LeSieg; illustrations by Roy McKie] (picture book) 1981
Hunches in Bunches (picture book) 1982
The Butter Battle Book (picture book) 1984
You're Only Old Once! (picture book) 1986
I Am Not Going to Get Up Today [illustrations by James Stevenson] (picture book) 1987
Oh, the Places You'll Go! (picture book) 1990
* Daisy-Head Mayzie (picture book) 1994
* My Many Colored Days [illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher] (picture book) 1996
* Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! [with Jack Prelutsky; illustrations by Lane Smith] (picture book) 1998
*These three works were all published posthumously.
George R. Bodmer (essay date fall 1989)
SOURCE: Bodmer, George R. "The Post-Modern Alphabet: Extending the Limits of the Contemporary Alphabet Book, from Seuss to Gorey." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 3 (fall 1989): 115-7.
[In the following essay, Bodmer examines postmodern elements in contemporary alphabet primers, focusing on the works of Seuss and Edward Gorey.]
The alphabet book, a genre which has been important to children's literature from the beginning, is a narrowly defined form which is, nevertheless, flexible enough to have engendered imaginative and almost numberless examples. A recent catalogue from a rare book dealer offered 240 different volumes for sale, including traditional, humorous, and foreign versions (Caravan). Didactic almost by definition, the alphabet book has evolved in our time into a statement of the lack of faith in didacticism.
From its overtly didactic beginning, the alphabet book has always reflected the time and culture from which it springs. Thus the New England Primer, the influential school text of the late seventeenth century, shows its obvious Puritan origin:
A In Adam's Fall
We Sinned all.
B (Bible) Thy Life to Mend
This Book Attend.
In our own time, specifically since the explosion of picture books in America, dating from the 1950s, we have been flooded with many conventional alphabet books as well as a great number of anti-alphabet books, those which exploit the expectations of the genre and reflect the expanding of children's literature into other forms, formats, and markets. These anti-alphabet books also reflect the anti-didactic mood of our time.
Any number of straightforward contemporary alphabets, however, reflect the state of the American picture book. For instance, Mary Azarian's A Farmer's Alphabet (1981), with its masterful woodcuts, and Margaret Musgrove's Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1977), with striking colored paintings, display the evolution of the picture book into a piece of fine art. Some critics, Jacqueline Rose among them, see this as the reduction of the children's book into an object of value to attract the adult buyer, having lost sight of its original audience. Daniel Menaker, in a review of recent alphabet books, writes, "the appearance of such books will appeal to adults in the same kind of way that pet food packaging is designed to appeal to humans" (39). In addition, both of these large format books reflect social concerns of the time as well as of the artists who produced them. Azarian, a student of print-maker and book designer Leonard Baskin, uses a so-called old-fashioned technique (woodcut) to extol the virtues of rural New England life. Musgrove's alphabet, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, shows twenty-six African tribes portrayed with dignity and pride; her book won the Caldecott Medal for 1977.
There also exist those alphabets which follow the traditional format, but which offer the ironic and cynical message that this model of dutiful learning ignores the reality of unruly children. One of these is Maurice Sendak's Alligators All Around, part of the 1962 boxed collection of four small books, The Nutshell Library. Like his popular Where the Wild Things Are, which appeared a year later, each of these books offers one of Sendak's rebellious, independent protagonists. Although Alligators All Around shows a child, mother, and father alligator in 26 alliterative scenes, they all act like children, not only "making macaroni" and "doing dishes," but also "getting giggles," "imitating Indians," and "forever fooling." They get along as a family but the reader sees the rascality of these characters who are "quite quarrelsome," "shockingly spoiled," and "very vain." On the "P" page Sendak introduces the only human character, Sal from The Sign on Rosie's Door, who is the victim of "pushing people." The book is funny, brightly colored, and written with an ear for the spoken word.
Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner's 1975 Thirteen is a remarkable series of thirteen double-page watercolor paintings in which a number of stories evolve, changing from page to page like a flip-movie in slow motion. Some of these picture-stories are optical illusions, some are mirror images, and one a preview in miniature of the next pages' double-spread. But all exploit the visual quality of their images, the flatness and the perception of pictures. The format of this book is hidden but it was obviously determined by one of its stories, "The Unwanted Alphabet," a collection of mismatched and broken objects combining two successive letters: "cracked dish," "eaten fruit," and "greasy handkerchief," or "quashed reply," "wrecked xylophone," and "yesterday's zucchini." The odd selection of discarded and unwanted items for a children's alphabet speaks of what John Barth calls a "literature of exhausted possibility," in which the alphabet has given up all it can.
The expression comes from Barth's 1967 article about the trend in contemporary literature which is often labeled Post-Modernism (29). Gerald Graff in Literature against Itself (1979) describes Post-Modernism as "the movement within contemporary literature and criticism that calls into question the traditional claims of literature and art to truth and human values" (32). Brian McHale describes post-modernist writing as dominated by ontological issues, as opposed to the epistemologically oriented concerns of high modernism (10). By this he suggests a growing lack of faith in that function which literature has traditionally been thought to perform, suggesting the ways we gain knowledge about life. The result has been great experimentation in narrative form, in the shattering of reader's expectations, in the breakdown of verisimilitude, and in constant undermining of the traditional reliance on plot and character in the fiction of Beckett, Borges, Nabokov, Barth, and others, specifically beginning in the generation following World War II. Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan argues that children's literature has been unduly slow to take up such experimentation found in other literature (142-3).
It is not clear that an avant-garde children's book would be successful, but obviously the writers of books for children were acted upon by the same historical and social forces that produced post-modernism in other writers. As one of the most rigid forms of children's literature, the alphabet book is ripe for innovation and exploration. The alphabet book looks like a teaching tool for children, but its entertainment value has always lain in the stretching of its borders. Modern writers undermine its capacity for teaching and the expectations of its assumed young audience; like much in contemporary literature it reflects our distrust of "safe" borders in art and life. Even our ability to learn and to teach is questioned.
Two of the most prolific of picture book artists, Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey, exploit this edge, seeming to say that the alphabet is too traditional and limited. Seuss is probably the premier artist of the American picture book, having produced more than forty since And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). The most significant motif in his work, in plot, in theme, and in illustration is the act of unfolding and expanding, in geometric progression. In some stories this is purely physical. Like the creation myths in which the earth is supported on the back of a turtle on the back of another turtle, the king in Yertle the Turtle (1958) supports himself on a Babel-like tower of his subjects. As Bartholomew Cubbins takes off his hat (The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, 1938), more and more are revealed, at a frantic Sorcerer's Apprentice rate. Likewise in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), each cat lifts his hat to reveal a still smaller cat in a hat underneath.
Sometimes this unfolding reveals a world that is usually overlooked, like the tiny civilization of Whos in the dust speck in Horton Hears a Who (1954), or the deep sea world imagined at the end of a fishing line in McElligot's Pool (1947). Finally it may be the geometric unfolding of a developing concept. The Lorax asks what are the natural consequences of a single event on the ecological balance, recalling the rhyme "For want of a nail, the horse was lost." The worm in "The Big Brag" looks so far in the distance that his gaze goes all the way around the world and he sees his two foolish companions bragging to one another.
All this progression of unfolding bespeaks a rebellion against the limits of imagination, or the limits the outside world would impose on imagination, which becomes important in Seuss's handling of the alphabet. He produced a lively but ordinary example of the alphabet book in Dr. Seuss's ABC (1963). The rhymes are clever and the names unlikely, but the book is conventional in form.
Big Q little q
What begins with Q?
Queen of Quincy
and her quacking quacker-oo
Somehow, for Seuss though, the traditional alphabet is not enough; there are not enough possibilities and its end unfolds into new letters and new worlds.
The Cat in the Hat always brings unbridled mischief to his unwilling hosts, a boy and girl, with disastrous consequences. In The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), the children are dutifully shovelling mountains of snow when the Cat lets himself in and begins eating cake in the bathtub. This leaves a pink cat stain around the tub, which is cleaned up with and transferred to a progression of inappropriate objects, like the mother's white dress, the father's $10 shoes, and the carpet. Finally the Cat in the Hat calls out from under his hat Little Cat A, who calls out Little Cat B, and so on, to help with the cleaning. The tell-tale spot grows in intensity until it covers the surrounding snow and is worse than ever. Having worked down to Little Cat Z with no success, the final weapon is called for, the mysterious "Voom," beyond Z, which arrives in a hallucinatory burst and does its work unseen. It's as though a sound barrier has been passed which can never be replaced. Clearly it is a convention its author is not sorry to see fall.
Seuss's greatest anti-alphabet is, of course, On beyond Zebra (1955) in which the narrator explores a whole new set of letters, needed to spell the creatures he sees in his imagination.
In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if
I stopped with the Z. I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!
With the help of Yuzz and Humpf and Thnad, he can spell Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz and Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfer and Thnadner, appealing fanciful animals that exist only in the fictive world of this book. But even the new letters are not enough and the book ends in another hallucinatory burst, with the most elaborate letter of all, inviting the reader to start off yet another progression: "what do YOU think we should call this one, anyhow?" (54). This letter will give rise to another animal with the sound in its name, which will give rise to another letter, and so on. To return to McHale's distinction about ontology vs. epistemology, we easily see that with On beyond Zebra, Seuss is calling into question the nature of an arbitrary alphabet. The narrator's invented letters are equally valid, since they perform the tasks of letters and serve a function in discourse.
Seuss is best when he is working under limitations, like the alphabet; his Cat in the Hat series began the Beginner Books, those with a vocabulary limited to a 300 basic word list. However, in Seuss's more recent socially aware fables, The Lorax (1971) and The Butter Battle Book (1984), in which he warns against ecological mismanagement and the nuclear arms race, it is clear that he decries rigid patterns, like those in Gulliver's Travels, which force thinking in old patterns and resist new solutions. If the world is to be saved, these books are saying, it is only through leaps of the imagination. His current picture book, You're Only Old Once! (1986), looks like his previous ones, but it is about aging and written expressly for adults. Although Seuss's books still bear the appearance of children's books, it is obvious that he is also addressing his adult audience, as well as breaking down our expectations about the easy categorizations of books.
Edward Gorey is as prolific as Dr. Seuss, but he made the decision earlier in his career to switch to a purely adult audience. Gorey's vision is a modern comic Gothic one, full of tongue-twister names and neurotically minimalist plots. A typical Gorey character, drawn in dark, gloomy pen and ink, is a long-nosed, onion-headed recluse, given to eccentricity. Edwardian dress, and long fur coats. He inhabits a Gothic mansion and is often seen staring in the distance, in search of some nagging task or fact he has forgotten.
Gorey has also of course illustrated books which are clearly for a younger audience, such as John Ciardi's You Read to Me, I'll Read to You (1962), Edward Lear's The Dong with the Luminous Nose (1969), and Why We Have Day and Night (1970) with Peter F. Neumeyer. Particularly successful are several sets of books about creative but misunderstood little boys, Donald and the … (1969) and Donald Has a Difficulty (1971) with Peter F. Neumeyer, and Florence P. Heide's Treehorn's Treasure (1981) and The Shrinking of Treehorn (1971), the last of which won several honors for children's books.
His macabre approach and gloomy pictures, however, make it clear that while Gorey is using the appearance of children's books he is actually satirizing the genre. For instance, The Hapless Child (1961) begins like a Victorian story of a lost but resolute girl. The small wan Charlotte Sophia, a Little Dorrit, lives with rich and loving parents. When her father disappears in Africa, her mother declines and dies; Charlotte Sophia runs away from an oppressive boarding school, is kidnapped, sold to a drunk and forced to work in a damp, ill-lit basement. When at last her father returns and searches for her, the nearly blind girl is struck and killed by his car: "She was so changed, he did not recognize her" (30). This explosion of expectations, taking off visually on Dickens, Jane Eyre, and "The Little Match-Girl," is comical, with somber drawings and terrible details. Charlotte Sophia is brutalized by her classmates, who pull her doll apart, and by her captor, who frequently gets delirium tremens. It is of course an exaggerated and extreme case, making fun of happy endings.
Likewise Gorey has made a specialty of the alphabet, producing what are definitely anti-alphabets, including The Utter Zoo (1967), The Chinese Obelisks (1972), and The Glorious Nosebleed (1974). The ironic and gruesome vision presented in these books is clearly for an adult audience, which presumably doesn't need to learn the alphabet. The tiny pictures in The Eclectic Abecedarium (1962) sound cautionary as well as irrelevant.
(I) Be loath to drink
(J) Don't try to cram
The dog with Jam.
The next to last entry is a self-referential complaint about the form itself.
The letter X
Was made to vex.
Here he has taken from the alphabet its power and function as the raw material of writing, and reduced it to an artificial and troublesome pattern for alphabet book makers. He has likewise stressed the intertextuality of this book, linking its subject not to letters but to the fictional world of alphabet books.
His most notorious alphabet, however, is The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) which recounts the various methods of demise of twenty-six children, in rhymed order:
A is for AMY who fell down the stairs
B is for BASIL assaulted by bears
C is for CLARA who wasted away
D is for DESMOND thrown out of a sleigh
When Gorey's children are victims, they are drawn tiny against large stairs and rooms, dwarfed by menacing adults and creatures. The source of the humor here is the Victorian settings, the antiquated names (Titus, Yorick, Neville), and the absurd deaths (wasting away, dying of ennui). Yet this is no book for children. Rather, it is a revenge against those who would take an alphabet book seriously, a sarcastic rebellion against a view of childhood that is sunny, idyllic, and instructive.
In the world of post-modernist literature, letters have often stood for an artificial mechanism for producing fiction, as in John Barth's LETTERS and Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa (discussed in McHale 159). In those works discussed in this paper, the evidence of post-modernist techniques does not indicate that Seuss, Gorey, and others are merely trying to reach an adult audience, since adults have always been readers and buyers of children's books. Rather, the alphabet book for all readers shares in our changing sense of fiction and our fictional place in our world. As a picture book, the illustrated alphabet in our times has reflected the ambivalence of those who write children's books. The definition of this genre and its audience is blurring, a limitation, like the 26 letters, to be played with, strained, and stretched.
Azarian, Mary. A Farmer's Alphabet. Boston: David R. Godine, 1981.
Barth, John. "The Literature of Exhaustion." Atlantic 220 (August 1967): 29-36.
Caravan Books. An Alphabet Book Collection. Stillwater, Oklahoma: Caravan Books, 1985.
Charlip, Remy and Jerry Joyner. Thirteen. New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1975.
Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. New York: Random House, 1958.
——. Dr. Seuss's ABC. New York: Random House, 1963.
——. On beyond Zebra. New York: Random House, 1955.
Gorey, Edward. The Hapless Child. New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1961.
——. The Eclectic Abecedarium. New York: Admama, 1962.
——. The Gashlycrumb Tinies. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962.
Graff, Gerald. Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Menaker, Daniel. "Lletters for Yyoungsters." New York Times Review of Books, Nov. 9, 1986. 39.
Musgrove, Margaret. Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. New York: Dial, 1977. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Norton, Donna E. Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children's Literature. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing, 1983.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: MacMillan, 1984.
Sendak, Maurice. Alligators All Around. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Whalley, Joyce Irene. Cobwebs to Catch Flies: Illustrated Books for the Nursery and Schoolroom, 1700-1900. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1975.
Diane Roback and Shannon Maughan (essay date 25 October 1991)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Shannon Maughan. "Dr. Seuss Remembered." Publishers Weekly 238, no. 47 (25 October 1991): 32-3.
[In the following essay, Roback and Maughan present a series of memorial testimonials on the occasion of Seuss's death on September 24, 1991.]
The world of children's books lost an incomparable talent on September 24, when Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, passed away in his sleep at his home in La Jolla, Calif., at the age of 87. We asked a few of the people who knew him and worked with him to share some of their memories.
Gerald Harrison, president, Random House Merchandise Division
Trying to remember Ted in just a few words is like trying to cram a giant into a small bottle. This was a man who created a whole new world, a whole new way of viewing children's books and in doing so he left a legacy of delight for all children, for all time.
Ted was not only a brilliant master of word and rhyme, and an original and eccentric artist, but down deep, I think he was basically an educator. He helped teach kids that reading was a joy and not a chore; for children and adults he exposed the follies of war, of fascism, of wasting our natural resources. For those of us who worked with him, he taught us to strive for excellence in all the books we published.
We all miss Ted terribly, but we, and all the world, are a better lot because he gave us so much of his energy and his extraordinary talent.
Janet Schulman, publisher and division v-p, Random House Books for Young Readers
I had the great privilege of being Ted's editor for the last 11 years and I can unequivocally say that he was the perfect author. He didn't require editing. He didn't need or want ego building. And he didn't believe that authors should be paid for their work until the book had actually sold, so he never accepted an advance against royalties. In short, he was old-fashioned in all the best and most endearing ways.
He was an intensely private person but he did like to come to New York to personally deliver a new book. He wouldn't let me read it or even tell me what it was about until he presented the whole perfect word-and-picture package. All he would tell me about The Butter Battle Book was that it was about some people who ate their bread butter-side-up, and some others who ate their bread butter-side-down. I had no idea that it was a book about nuclear disarmament until he brought it all finished to New York. I say "all finished," but actually, because of the method in which Ted's books are produced, there was still quite a bit of art decision-making to be done. Along with the manuscript, Ted delivered black line drawings. Then he and our executive art director, Cathy Goldsmith, would laboriously select the precise ink percentages needed to obtain the color that Ted wanted for every tree, umbrella, balloon, house, the whole works. No one but Ted made books that way nowadays.
For years, whenever anyone would ask me, "What are you doing to find a new Dr. Seuss?" I just laughed. There will never be another Dr. Seuss. We're going to miss our friend as a person, but he will live on for us at Random House and for future generations of readers through his wonderful books.
Cathy Goldsmith, executive art director, Random House Books for Young Readers
For more than 10 years, I had the honor—and the pleasure—of working with Ted. I say "working with" because I've never known what label to give to the work that I did for Ted. It certainly wasn't "art direction," because Ted did not need any. Once a project left Ted's board, it was my job to see that it came together the way that Ted wanted—that the color was right, the type position correct, the printing sharp and clear.
Whatever the label, working with Ted was a lot like reading one of his books. You had to be prepared for almost anything. Ted did things with words and characters that no one else could. Just about the time that you thought you had it all figured out, boom—he'd turn it all upside down and inside out and make it even better than before. And, as if that weren't enough, there were those colors, those wonderful, unique Seuss colors.
This sense of the unexpected extended into his personal relationships as well. In June 1989, I had just returned from California where I had been working with Ted on Oh, the Places You'll Go! While there, I was quite taken with a dwarf lime tree growing in the garden outside the house. A few days later, a package arrived, looking for all the world like a black-velvet jeweler's box. That's exactly what it was, but there wasn't any jewelry inside. There was one perfect little lime. The note said that as recognition for all my help, I'd been voted a one-third share in the Meyer Lime Tree. (Ted and the Cat in the Hat held the other two shares.) That one lovely lime was my share of that year's crop. At the time, I thought it a very special gift. It doesn't begin to compare, however, to the many wondrous books that Ted gave to all of us during his lifetime.
Robert Bernstein, advisor and editor-at-large at John Wiley; formerly president, chairman and CEO of Random House
Ted was above all a dear, loyal, and lovable friend. His books, both words and drawings, were so completely original that I believe as time goes on he will be recognized as a creative genius. Despite his enormous success he was modest, somewhat shy, and completely without greed.
My favorite times were when I would go to La Jolla as each book neared completion and he would wait for my opinion, actually nervous about what he had produced. A completed book was mounted on cork boards on three walls of his studio. When I expressed my complete delight, which was so easy to do, he would still challenge me to be sure I wasn't just being kind.
Once he was ready to throw out a book, The Sneetches, because a friend thought it had a note of prejudice. His relief when I told him this was nonsense was overwhelming. I always found it hard to believe that this amazing man had self-doubt even for a moment.
While always humorous, Ted was serious too, and concerned about the United States. He had invented, among other things, a law firm and constantly referred to it in short letters he would send me every month or so. The last one arrived July 12 and read as follows:
I would not wish to be quoted on this and I have absolutely nothing whatever against Grimalken, Drouberhannus, Knalbner and Fepp, but as the Supreme Court moves further and further to the right, I am placing more and more of my litigation into the hands of Abernathy, Arbuthnot, Proudfoot and Cadwallader.
Theodor S. Geisel
Some people are hard to replace in one's life. Ted is impossible.
Christopher Cerf, writer, producer and composer
Among all his amazing talents, Ted Geisel was a consummate practical joker. My father, who became his publisher back in the '40s, used to delight me with the story of how Ted got even with a name-dropping acquaintance who constantly annoyed everyone by bragging about his connections in the world of avant-garde art. Ted greeted the offender one day with a piece of exciting, if contrived, good news: "I just had dinner with Seppäla, the great Finnish surrealist, and he's dying to meet you! I assume you know his work?" "Of course I do," Geisel's acquaintance replied impatiently—exactly the response Ted had counted on.
A meeting was hastily arranged at Seppäla's studio, and, as Ted escorted him there, he provided one small missing bit of information: "As you know, poor Seppäla is suffering from an extremely rare—and extremely contagious—disease. But you'll be fine as long as you don't let him touch you. To make sure this doesn't happen, Seppäla's painted a line down the middle of his studio. As long as you both stay on your own side of the line, there'll be no problem."
If the name-dropper was worried about this as he entered Seppäla's digs, he had little time to reflect on his fears: the "surrealist," actually a confederate of Ted's who had painted his face in what my dad described as "a range of colors wondrous to behold," rushed across the line, and—with a cry of "My discoverer! My benefactor!"—embraced the hapless name-dropper in a vise-like hug. "It was a lesson that made a better man of him," Ted reported to my father with a self-effacing shrug.
Stan and Jan Berenstain
When our son, Leo, was four, he came home from day care with a request for a terrific book they had at school—it was called McElligot's Pool and could we buy it for him. We could and did, and were thus introduced to the uniquely wonderful words and the wonderfully unique illustrations of Dr. Seuss.
By dint of our submission of a manuscript to Beginner Books, a company that followed upon the extraordinary success of The Cat in the Hat and of which Ted was president and editor-in-chief, we were introduced to the great man himself. And great man he was: warm, charming and genially welcoming to a couple of neophyte children's authors, but also trenchant, dedicated and uncompromising about the serious business of being meaningfully funny for children. Over the next 13 years Ted was editor of 19 of our books. It is more than 30 years since we first met Ted in the eagle's aerie office at the top of the old Villard mansion that served at Random House's headquarters, but hardly a day passes that one or the other of us doesn't draw upon his wit, wisdom and joie de vivre.
Elizabeth B. Moje and Woan-Ru Shyu (essay date May 1992)
SOURCE: Moje, Elizabeth B., and Woan-Ru Shyu. "Oh, the Places You've Taken Us: RT's Tribute to Dr. Seuss." Reading Teacher 45, no. 9 (May 1992): 670-6.
[In the following essay, Moje and Shyu offer a retrospective on Seuss's life, career, and body of work.]
And when things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.
OH! THE PLACES YOU'LL GO!
You'll be on your way up!
You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
(From Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Copyright © 1990 by Theodor S. Geisel and Audrey S. Geisel, Trustees under Trust Agreement dated August 27, 1984. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. and HarperCollins Publishers.)
The above excerpt, taken from the most recent Dr. Seuss book, Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990), is representative of the spirit and optimism Theodor Seuss Geisel offered to children of all ages for the last half century. When Geisel died on September 24, 1991, in his California home at the age of 87, he left many sad hearts, but he also left a rich legacy of "great sights and high heights." And what he also left us was the encouragement to explore life's journey with the same enthusiasm he had. Thus, we write this tribute to Dr. Seuss to acknowledge and celebrate his contributions to children's literature and to the lives of both adults and children around the world.
Beware of the Cat!
Dr. Seuss is a household name, but just who was the man behind the name? Dr. Seuss was a legendary author who lived in a converted lighthouse with a sign that read "Beware of the Cat." And, he was the creator of such well loved characters as Bartholomew Cubbins, the Lorax, Sam-I-Am, and the Cat in the Hat. More than 200 million copies of his 47 books have been purchased by parents, grandparents, and children in Japan, Israel, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Italy, Brazil, and the countries of the British Commonwealth over the last 54 years.
However, the famous author was not always known as Dr. Seuss. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904, he was known by his given name Theodor Geisel until he became involved in a minor infraction of school rules while attending Dartmouth College. After being dismissed from his post as editor-in-chief of the college humor magazine Jack-o-Lantern as a result of his shenanigans, he started using his middle name, Seuss, in order to continue writing for the magazine. When he dropped out of Oxford University in 1927, where he was studying English literature, he added "Dr." to his middle name because he did not want to disappoint his father. Even though he assumed various nicknames during the 1920s—such as Theo Seuss 2nd and Dr. Theophrastus Seuss—the name Dr. Seuss brought Theodor Geisel the most fame. A string of honorary doctorates, the first one from his alma mater, Dartmouth College, and the most recent from Princeton University, added academic credentials to the already world-famous doctor's reputation.
While attending Oxford, his attention was diverted by classmate Helen Palmer, who urged Geisel to pursue an art career. Her advice motivated him to leave the university and travel through Europe in 1926-27. During his travels, Geisel produced drawings representative of what he called his "Roman and Florentine Period." His travels completed, he returned to the United States in 1927, where his exotic animals doing the cocktail-party circuit were an uncommon subject for cartoons. A genius at creating a page crowded with images and spiced with a telling line of dialogue, he insightfully recorded the mores of society in popular humor magazines. He also expressed a political sensibility in his work from his earliest Dartmouth drawings of the 1920s to his explicit political cartoons of the early 1940s (Brezzo, 1986).
When his work was spotted by a Standard Oil advertising executive, Seuss was contracted to develop an ad campaign for the oil company. He also created other advertising campaigns for Schaefer Bock Beer, Ford Motor Company, Atlas Products, New Departure Bearings, NBC Radio, and Holly Sugar.
In 1927, Seuss married the former Oxford classmate, Helen Palmer, who had encouraged his art career. Palmer would remain his wife and business partner until her death 40 years later.
Seuss stumbled on the idea of writing children's books when he illustrated Boners (1931), a collection of schoolboy cartoons. He illustrated this publication in an attempt to circumvent his advertising contract which prohibited him from most commercial publishing ventures. Seuss did not want to be limited to illustrating, however, and in 1937 wrote, for his own amusement, his first full-length book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. In the atmosphere of 1930s children's books, Mulberry Street became an instant hit once Seuss managed to convince publishers to accept it. "The Seuss style was born fully developed: looping, free-style drawings; clanging, infectious rhymes; and a relentless logic" (Kanfer, 1991, p. 71).
With the publication of The Cat in the Hat (1957), Random House (publisher of all the Dr. Seuss books since 1939) created a special division, Beginner Books, with Seuss as president. Best seller followed best seller; prize followed award. For example, Seuss was awarded an Oscar for the animated cartoon "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1951), an Emmy for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas television special (1982), and a Pulitzer citation in 1984 for his overall contributions to the field of children's literature. His book Green Eggs and Ham (1960) was so successful that children actually mailed Seuss green eggs and ham as tokens of affection! In 1968 Seuss launched another learn-to-read concept with the creation of The Foot Book, and pioneered a new Random House division for preschool and kindergarten readers: Bright & Early Books.
Seuss created some of his most language-conscious works during the 1970s, including There's a Wocket in My Pocket (1974), I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! (1978), and Oh Say Can You Say? (1979). These books helped establish the idea that children could experiment with language by reading humorous and appealing stories.
In 1984 the words of Dr. Seuss made headlines when The Butter Battle Book set a world's record by appearing for 6 months on The New York Times adult best-seller list. New York governor Mario Cuomo urged everyone to read this "magnificent little volume" for a clearer understanding of the issues surrounding nuclear war. And Seuss's final work, Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990) approached life the way Geisel did, as a journey in which one could "move mountains."
"He Writes to Amuse Himself"
How did Dr. Seuss start writing? Why did he draw such wild pictures? And how did he think up those crazy places and names? In other words, as one 8-year-old fan wrote, "Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals.…Who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?" (Freeman, 1969, p. 12).
What was his answer? Seuss described his illustrations in this way: "My animals look the way they do because I can't draw" (Bunzel, 1959, p. 107). Seuss also claimed that he could think up and draw such unusual places with such crazy animals because he had been to most of those places before. The animals' names were no problem to spell, he said, because he kept a special dictionary with each animal listed in it for quick reference (Bunzel, 1959).
As for his stories, Seuss's first wife and business partner, Helen, explained, "Ted doesn't sit down and write for children. He writes to amuse himself. Luckily what amuses him also amuses them" (Bunzel, 1959, p. 113). Such amusement was usually inspired by conversations, overheard phrases, or as an accompaniment to some of his doodling. Sometimes rhythms would pop into his head, as the title of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street did. Seuss described the book as being written for "no lofty reason whatsoever."
In the fall of 1936, while aboard the S.S. Kungsholm on a long rainy crossing of the Atlantic, I amused myself by putting words to the rhythm of the ship's engine. The words turned out to be And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.
(Hopkins, 1969, p. 255-256)
While Mulberry Street grew out of the rhythm of a ship's engines, Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949) was inspired by something Seuss overheard a fellow G.I. say as they passed on a muddy street in France during World War II.
"Rain! Always rain comes down!" one soldier was muttering as he passed me. "Why can't something new, something different, come down?" …
I stood there in the wet with an exciting idea running around and around in my head. Maybe something new could come down!
(Commire, 1982, p. 113)
The Cat in the Hat, perhaps the most famous Dr. Seuss book, was, in contrast, the result of a concerted effort to write a particular kind of book. In the mid-1950s author John Hersey wrote an article in Life magazine condemning the Dick-and-Jane type of writing found in elementary school readers. Hersey challenged Dr. Seuss to use his skill to create books with controlled vocabulary which could still appeal to children. Seuss took up the challenge. He received a contract and a public school word list from a publishing company, and he started to write.
Writing children's books is hard work, a lot harder than most people realize, and that includes most writers of children's books. And it never gets any easier. I remember thinking that I might be able to dash off The Cat in the Hat in two or three weeks. Actually, it took over a year. You try telling a pretty complicated story using less than two hundred and fifty words! No, don't, unless you're willing to write and rewrite.
(Commire, 1982, p. 114)
Writing such a book was apparently so difficult that Seuss almost gave up. The popular story behind the writing of this book says that in frustration Seuss was looking through discarded sketches when he happened to spot one of a cat. Seuss took another look at the word list and two words which rhymed jumped out at him: cat and hat. At that moment, the infamous cat in the stovepipe hat was born (Freeman, 1969, p. 13).
The number-one selling Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham, was written as a result of a bet with his publisher at Random House, the late Bennett Cerf (Clifford, 1991). Cerf bet Seuss that he could not write a book using only 50 words. Not only did Seuss manage to write such a book, but he wrote a best seller! According to Jane Clifford of the San Diego Tribune (1991), Seuss once said that Green Eggs and Ham was the only book he had written that still made him laugh.
Although Dr. Seuss described his work as being written for children, the meanings and purposes behind his books have long been a source of speculation. Critics often asserted that Seuss set out to write didactic moral lessons. According to children's literature critic E. J. Kahn, "In his books might never makes right, the meek inherit the earth, and pride frequently goeth before a fall, usually a pratfall" (cited in Clifford, 1991, p. C1).
Seuss, however, scoffed at the notion that he wrote to convey a moral message. The author claimed that he never wrote with a moral message in mind, but he did admit that morals developed naturally from the plots of his stories (Lingemann, 1976). Said Seuss in an interview, "Kids … can see a moral coming a mile off and they gag at it. But there's an inherent moral in any story" (Bunzel, 1959, p. 113).
One popular Seuss book often cited for its allegedly moral purpose is Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). According to Seuss, however, the book was written as a result of his doodlings of an elephant on a piece of transparent paper. The paper had been shifted about on his desktop when Seuss noticed it lying atop a sketch of a tree. "I stopped, dumbfounded. I said to myself, 'That's a hell of a situation. An elephant in a tree! What's he doing there?'" (Kahn, 1960, cited in Commire, 1982, p. 111). Almost a month later, Seuss found himself in the midst of creating a story about an elephant playing surrogate for a duck.
Dr. Seuss was adamant about writing to have fun, which usually helped him produce books that children could have fun with, too. "My books don't insult their [children's] intelligence. Maybe it's because I'm on their level. When I dropped out of Oxford, I decided to be a child, so it's not some condescending adult writing" (Parenting, 1987, in Clifford, 1991, p. C2).
Apparently, Seuss drew a fine line between moralizing and examining issues. While Seuss denied sending moral messages, he never denied writing about issues. "It's impossible to write anything without making a statement in some way" (Freeman, 1969, p. 13). For example, Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as a reaction against the fascism of World War II, The Lorax (1971) in response to environmental concerns, and The Butter Battle Book (1984) to reflect on nuclear proliferation. The Lorax (which Seuss listed as his favorite) stirred up such negative feelings in the lumber industry in the northwestern United States that some schools considered banning its inclusion on school reading lists. Seuss argued that while the book was political, "propaganda with a plot," he also stated that it was a result of his frustration with the waste of natural resources in the world in general, not a direct attack against specific industries in the USA (Lamb, 1991).
Regardless of the meanings critics extended to Seuss books, his personal reason for writing was clear: Seuss wanted to write so children could have fun reading. "I'm trying to capture an audience. Most every child learning to read has problems, and I am just saying to them that reading is fun" (New York Times, 1968, cited in Commire, 1982, p. 116).
"You Make 'Em, I'll Amuse 'Em"
Whenever Seuss was asked about why he had remained childless throughout his lifetime, he consistently responded, "You make 'em, and I'll amuse 'em" (Freeman, 1969, p. 13). And amuse them, he did. Whatever critics may say about the messages Dr. Seuss's books convey, none can deny the immense popularity the legendary author enjoyed throughout his lifetime. All of the 47 Dr. Seuss books he wrote and illustrated during his 54-year career are still in print. In addition, Geisel published several other books under the pseudonym "Theo LeSieg," ("LeSieg" is "Geisel" spelled backward).
Young fans were frequent, albeit uninvited, visitors at the Seuss home in La Jolla, California, and letters of admiration poured in by the thousands (Clifford, 1991). One 9-year-old once wrote Seuss that "This was the funniest book I ever read in nine years," while another declared, "Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail!" (Freeman, 1969, p. 12).
The secret to the enduring popularity of Seuss books lies in the fact that Seuss wrote with a "sense of anarchy," claims Peter Neumeyer, children's literature professor at San Diego State University (Lamb, 1991). But children's literature critic Lorrene Love Ort offered a different explanation in 1955 when she asserted that Seuss provided children with a sense of "secure suspense" in his wild explorations of the imagination (Ort, 1955). Maurice Sendak, author of such children's favorites as Where the Wild Things Are, saw Seuss as a "mischief-maker and revolutionary" who was "on the side of the kids" (Emerson, 1991). Sendak called Seuss "the big papa," saying that the inspiration for his own books was drawn from the early work of Dr. Seuss (Lamb, 1991). Charlotte Zolotow, author and publisher of children's books, said of Seuss, "He went straight to the most elemental feeling that people had, and the characteristics of certain personalities, and he caught it with a sense of mischief and fun and compassion and understanding" (Emerson, 1991, p. E8). In his essay "Psychological Aspects of Nonsense Literature for Children," Leo Schneiderman credits Seuss with providing children an opportunity to experiment with independence, imagination, and problem-solving (Schneiderman, 1989).
Such sentiments are heard not only from fellow writers and children's literature critics, but from children, parents, and teachers who have spent time with Dr. Seuss over the last half-century. In fact, we asked several RT readers to reminisce about Dr. Seuss so we could share these thoughts. The first respondent, Jackie Conaway, a grandmother who often buys Dr. Seuss books to augment her grandchildren's collections, related this anecdote:
When my children were young, we spent several vacations at cabins in Wisconsin fishing with my in-laws. We, of course, always took along a large bag of books for the trip and for any rainy days we might encounter. My father-in-law was a very loving, caring man who would do anything for his grandchildren. He was not a skilled "read-aloud" reader, but he always obliged the children when they requested a story. They usually chose a book by Dr. Seuss. They would race for a spot right next to Grandpa, and once they were settled, he would read along gamely in his monotone, "Fox, Socks, Box, Knox, Knox in box. Fox in socks. Knox on Fox in socks in box.…Sue sews socks of fox in socks now." He hesitated at times, grinning at the potpourri of language. The children's eyes were glued to the pages—they knew every word—it did not matter that Grandpa was reading in a monotone. What mattered to them was that Grandpa was sharing himself with them. What a winning combination—Grandpa and Dr. Seuss!
"He Never Even Really Grew Up"
Theodor Seuss Geisel worked diligently at his craft of entertaining children and adults with fun stories that often carried important messages, intended or not. Writing was a struggle for him because he had such a high regard for children. "Children have as much right to quality as their elders," Seuss stated in one interview (Bunzel, 1959, p. 113). Perhaps Seuss realized the importance of amusing, exciting, exuberant literature for children because he was still a child at heart. According to Judith Morton, friend and biographer of the late author, "Ted never grew old. He never even really grew up. Each of our visits … was a joyful, mischievous revelation with his wonderfully skewed view of the world which was also his defense against its pomposity and foolishness" (Lamb, 1991, p. A8). Morton's statement leaves us with an optimistic feeling. Although Dr. Seuss is gone from our world, he has not, like the fickle cat he created, simply disappeared with a tip of his hat. Dr. Seuss has left us a treasury of literature by which we can visit and journey with him for generations to come.
Oh, the places you've taken us! Thanks, Dr. Seuss.
Brezzo, S. L. (1986). Dr. Seuss from THEN to NOW. New York: Random House.
Bunzel, P. (1959). "Wacky World of Dr. Seuss." Life, 46, pp. 107-108, 110, 113.
Clifford, J. (1991, September 25). "A Farewell to Dr. Seuss." San Diego Tribune, pp. C1-2.
Commire, A. (Ed.). (1982). Something about the Author. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, pp. 107-116.
Emerson, B. (1991, September 25). "So Long, Dr. Seuss." Atlanta Journal, pp. E1, 8-12.
Freeman, D. (1969). "Who Thunk You Up, Dr. Seuss?" San Jose Mercury News, pp. 12-13.
Hopkins, L. B. (1969). Books are by People. Citation Press.
Kanfer, S. (1991, October 7). "The Doctor Beloved by All." Time, p. 71.
Lamb, J. R. (1991, September 25). "Dr. Seuss Dies." San Diego Tribune, pp. A1, 8.
Lingemann, R. R. (1976, November). "Dr. Seuss, Theo Le-Sieg.…" The New York Times Book Review, pp. 24, 48.
Orr, L. L. (1955). "Theodor Seuss Geisel—The Children's Dr. Seuss." Elementary English, 32, 135-142.
Schneiderman, L. (1989). "Psychological Aspects of Nonsense Literature for Children." In C. C. Anderson & M. F. Apseloff (Eds.), Nonsense Literature for Children: Aesop to Seuss (pp. 94-109). Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications.
Paul G. Arakelian (essay date spring 1993)
SOURCE: Arakelian, Paul G. "Minnows into Whales: Integration across Scales in the Early Styles of Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 18, no. 1 (spring 1993): 18-22.
[In the following essay, Arakelian analyzes the relationship between the pictures and text in Seuss's early books, noting that his works "reflect the principle of self-similarity across scales."]
The early works of Dr. Seuss have a lyrical simplicity emanating as much from the verses or pictures considered independently as from the connection between the two. Yet the integration of word and image in his books establishes overriding metaphors which subliminally control the overall meaning and extend it beyond the separate meaning the verses or pictures might have. As W. J. T. Mitchell has shown in regard to Blake's illuminated works, words and images cannot be separated, and the work must be considered as a whole. Mitchell's holistic view contrasts with an alternative view, exemplified in children's literary studies by the work of Perry Nodelman, that focuses on the ways one medium complements or contradicts the other. Blake's art and Mitchell's criticism avoid the metaphor of the "sister arts" and substitute instead a mathematical metaphor: "for Blake, poetry and painting were to be multiplied by one another to give a product larger than the sum of the parts" (Mitchell 31). The question then is not what is the relationship between picture and verse—does one complement or contradict the other—but how are the two integrated into one unique work of art?
In Nodelman's recent book, Words about Pictures, the issue of complementation, contradiction, or integration is addressed. Nodelman asserts that in children's books the operative mode is a contradictory one:
Given the differing qualities of words and pictures, the relationships between them in picture books tend to be adversarial: rape rather than marriage. They come together best and most interestingly not when writers and illustrators attempt to have them mirror and duplicate each other but when writers and illustrators use the different qualities of their different arts to communicate different information.
My own interest is neither in complementation nor in contradiction but in integration—the melding of word and picture to create a single message. This fusion would most probably occur, if it occurs at all, in the work of artists like Blake, who both write and illustrate their work, so that the art originates in one personality. Nodelman ignores this distinction, lumping Maurice Sendak, Mercer Mayer, Chris Van Allsburg, and other multimedia artists together with collaborators. This oversight is important because Nodelman claims: "Illustrators are subsidiary artists, their work a parasite on work that already exists" (79). He sees art as the relationship between inherently diverse parts, reflecting the sociological/psychological underpinnings of his criticism. He is like the anthropologist who sees how differently cultures create conventions of conversational space, body language, speech acts, and so on. He is interested in a reader's response to these differences, even though he shifts his definition of "reader" from young children (in Chapter 1), to the "ideal" viewer (in Chapter 2), to the scholarly "we" in the remainder of the book. In contrast, I tend more to the biological sciences, noticing how, despite cultural differences, human beings are similar in their behavior. And I pursue the tradition, long held among biological/mentalist linguists (Noam Chomsky, M. A. K. Halliday, Ray Jackendoff, George Lakoff, Elizabeth Traugott, and others), to use myself, the viewer, as informant, not "we" or others.
By "integration" I mean what Mitchell has called "composite art." It is neither the art of illustration nor of verse; it is a multimedia art. This integration is different from the eighteenth-century version of ut pictura poesis. As Mitchell argues, that version,
sought to overcome the separation of time and space, body and soul, by making poetry and painting more similar, adding them together as complementary representations, or reducing them to their common denominator, nature. Blake's strategy, I would suggest, was to transform the dualism into a dialectic, to create unity out of contrariety rather than similitude or complementarity. Blake wanted to combine spatial and temporal form in his illuminated books not to produce a fuller imitation of the total objective world, but to dramatize the interaction of the apparent dualities in our experience of the world and to embody the striving of those dualities for unification.
This combination does not pre-empt the possibility that the words and pictures could be complementary or contradictory (iconic, ironic, or deconstructive). Rather, the notion of integration seeks to find the stylistic patterns which inform the work as a whole. In other words, it assumes that single-author multimedia works of art have some sort of pattern, a pattern, perhaps, of contrasts which reinforces or creates a particular theme. None of this is new: linguists have been investigating underlying stylistic patterns for thirty years (Timothy Austin, Ronald Carter, Donald Freeman, Geoffrey Leech, Walter Nash, Owen Thomas, Traugott). I even went so far as to claim in an essay fifteen years ago that a "good" poem had to have patterns which in some way reinforced theme. Therefore, the answer to the question "how are words and pictures integrated into a unique work of art?" must involve a description (in the linguistic sense of that word) of the text's patterns.
To describe integration, then, I have borrowed the notions of scale or levels from contemporary linguistics and self-similarity from fractal geometry (extending Mitchell's mathematical metaphor) to analyze each successive level of verse—graphology, metaphor, diction—and the corresponding visual levels—layout, composition, color—both of which should depend on recurring stylistic techniques to reinforce the themes of these books. In other words, the description, interpretation, and evaluation of multimedia works of art must depend upon an analysis of complementary levels in all aspects of the text to discover the informing pattern which creates the whole. This notion of "level" originates in the idea of hierarchy which is fundamental to contemporary linguistics. On the other hand, Nodelman's view of language in Words about Pictures is flawed in this important respect. He sees language in terms of words, their visual associations and linear development: "We have to approach words bottom-up—one at a time, in the sequence in which they are given us" (202). Contemporary linguistics, however, teaches us that meaning does not reside in words, human-beings do not have mental pictures of words, and linear sequence is only one aspect of meaning-making.
Besides linguistics, I will depend on fractal geometry as a theoretical base. In a recent essay, "Chaos Theory, Control Theory, and Literary Theory or: A Story of Three Butterflies," Patrick Brady discusses the connection of recent mathematical models to the arts and humanities. He concludes that these models provide a method for talking about various literary patterns:
Chaos theory, then, like structuralism, is a mode of formalism, dealing less with content than with formal arrangement; as a result, it lends itself naturally to investigation in a variety of different disciplines, as structuralism did. Like structuralism, it holds out the prospect of renewing and radicalizing a whole spectrum of fields of research.
I have found, in particular, the notions of scale and self-similarity to hold the most potential. To illustrate the use of scale in fractal geometry, James Gleick, in his popular book Chaos, reviews Benoit Mandelbrot's mental experiment concerning the coastline of Great Britain in which Mandelbrot demonstrates that as we move from one scale to the next—from satellite to airplane to human to microscope and so on—the length of the coastline would increase without limit as we refine our measurements to include each curve of inlet, rock, crystal, molecule, and atom (Mandelbrot 25-33). If it is, therefore, unproductive to discuss a coastline's length, Mandelbrot noticed that "the degree of irregularity remains constant over different scales" (Gleick 98). To describe and predict these patterns of irregularity, Mandelbrot and other mathematicians have proposed complex equations which H. O. Peitgen and P. H. Richter use in The Beauty of Fractals to produce stunning "maps" of color and pattern. In this world of geometry then, the picture is the equation: an icon. As Peitgen and Richter say in their preface "fractal objects are self-similar, i.e. they do not change their appearance significantly when viewed under a microscope of arbitrary magnifying power" (vi).
As Peitgen and Richter point out, however, true similarity in the "real" world is limited: "Physical objects are seldom self-similar over more than four orders of magnitude. In biology, a new principle of self-organization takes over usually after about 2 orders of magnitude.… Every law has its range of validity which must be sounded out" (18). If similarity can extend naturally over several levels in the real world, it would be reasonable to assume that in multimedia art produced by a single author some similarity would exist artificially as we shift our field either from one level to another or from one medium to another. As we move from morphology to syntax or from motif to movement or from color to composition and to successive levels and sublevels, we may discover the whole to be "self-similar" in the same sense. As N. Katherine Hayles says in her study of literature and science, Chaos Bound: "It is important to understand that chaos theory does not renounce globalization. Rather, chaos theory achieves globalization in a different way, by correlating movements from one level to another" (211).
To see whether picture books written by a single author show evidence of integration across different scales or levels, I have analyzed two picture books written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and McElligot's Pool. The levels I have chosen to study—graphology, metaphor, and diction—are arbitrary, limited here only by space. Each critic may choose different levels to analyze—sentence structure, phonetic patterns, and so on—or may relate the levels of the verse with different levels of the picture. These choices are not objective; they reflect the talents and skills of the critic. The term "level" here does not imply importance or obscurity; rather, it grows out of the Anglo-American linguistic practice of regarding language in terms of hierarchical relationships: discourse, sentence, clause, phrase, word, and so on. Linguists assume that each level narrows the field of study so that clauses, for instance, are composed of phrases which, in turn, are composed of words. In literary studies, this convention has been widely used by British linguists, most notably Halliday and Leech, and compiled into an introductory text by Michael Cummings and Robert Simmons. Since art critics have not developed a corresponding scheme of hierarchical relationships in the visual arts, my narrowing of levels from layout to composition to color is tentative.
Both of Seuss's books focus on a specific place, contrast two views of life—the mundane (represented by an adult) and the creative (represented by a child)—and begin and end in the same way. The theme of both books concerns the central question "what is art?" Their plots and styles propose two very similar answers: creativity in McElligot's Pool depends on comparison while in Mulberry Street it depends on substitution and addition. My thesis, then, is that the levels of the books are self-similar, each reflecting an aesthetic based on accretion: the listing of comparisons or substitutions within clear boundaries distinguishes art from experience.
These boundaries are established by repeated phrases and pictures. Mulberry Street begins and ends with Marco's father entreating him to recount what he actually sees. In the beginning, Dad "looks at me and sternly says" while at the end "He frowned at me sternly from there in his seat." The authority figure demands the truth: "Stop telling such outlandish tales"; therefore, the story begins with a "horse and a wagon on Mulberry Street" and ends with a "plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street." The boy has left home and returned, unable to tell his father the story he has created. Similarly, the pictures reinforce this dichotomy. The first page is a single spread with a black line drawing of Marco walking off to school in the lower right corner. The next spread isolates the verse on the left page and a color picture of the horse and wagon (and a driver) on the right page. The book ends with a mirror of the beginning: a spread with a black line drawing of Marco running up the steps to his house amid some verse on the left page and isolated verse on the right page. Then a final single page with verse on top and an exact copy of the initial color picture of the horse, wagon, and driver.
In the same way, McElligot's Pool begins at a particular place, the pool, where an adult is challenging a child's behavior:
'Young man,' laughed the farmer,
'You're sort of a fool!
You'll never catch fish
In McElligot's Pool!'
The page is filled with a black ink wash picture depicting the farmer, Marco with fishing pole in hand, the small pond, and a meadow with house in the distance. This same picture on a single page ends the book. However, the farmer in the last picture is listening with obvious amazement to Marco's rejoinder:
And that's why I think
That I'm not such a fool
When I sit here and fish
In McElligot's Pool!
The repetition of phrases, words, and rhymes and the refashioning of other phrases link the verse and picture of the beginning to the end. But even though the end reflects the beginning, it is not a mirror image. Rather, it is a contrasting image: the boy is speaking; he negates the farmer's assertion; he affirms the value of the activity in which he is involved. Similarly, Mulberry Street 's opening and close encompass a series of colored spreads which enliven Marco's imagination. The spreads begin simply and crescendo to a welter of visual activity just before Marco dashes through his gate to tell what he has "seen." The starkness of the final repeated lines, the fact that nothing changes in the end, creates the value of the boy's creativity without his assertion of it.
The plot of Mulberry Street is simple enough. Despite his father's admonition to report what he sees, Marco walks along Mulberry Street creating a fantastic parade of characters and vehicles which he finally abandons when he returns home. At the level of graphology and layout, the central portion of the book (the fantasy) has a developing horizontal composition, one which drives the reader from left to right. The picture size of these spreads crescendos from a small right-page wagon to several vehicles and animals filling 60% of the seventh spread. Then there is a reprise, a simple signpost leaning between the two pages, before the crescendo resumes from a picture size of 65% to 90% in the final spread. In the early spreads, where the picture is on the right side, the text is isolated on the left, developing the natural movement of text to picture to text in each succeeding spread and reinforcing the left to right movement. The content of the pictures also reinforces this movement since all the vehicles and characters are moving from left to right. This driving, growing layout corresponds to the continued addition of more and more detail to Marco's fantasy of the wondrous parade down Mulberry Street.
McElligot's Pool is a much longer book with twenty-five spreads between the opening and closing pages. The plot here concerns Marco's speculation on what may be the shape of the pool and its contents. The first five spreads deal with his view of the pool as an underground stream while the following spreads propose all sorts of imaginative creatures which may be swimming up that stream toward his bait. Unlike Mulberry Street, there is no driving, regular crescendo; rather, the layout of spreads in the central portion has great variety. If there is a movement, it is a flowing rather than a marching across the page. This "flow" is not only part of the watery content of each picture, but the integration of picture and verse.
Whereas Mulberry Street 's verses are relegated to neat places above and/or below the picture, the verses in McElligot's Pool are found as well among and within their illustrations and in the corners. Almost every imaginable combination of text and picture occurs in these spreads: a two-headed eel encircles the verse; a trickle of water links lines of verse and pictures of fish; a stair of words descends to the word sea as the picture across the spread descends to the sea in the right corner. This variety of spreads obviously reinforces the possibilities which Marco imagines, but, on the other hand, the changing layouts also force my eye (my attention) to move from page to page from spread to spread in a rising-falling, ever-undulating pattern. This ebb and flow which moves diagonally and vertically through the book—as well as horizontally—creates a pulsing rhythm quite different from the driving crescendo of Mulberry Street.
Just as the graphology and layout complement each other in the two books, so do the metaphor and composition. In Mulberry Street the composition provides the variety which the text denies. Each illustration extends the verse. In the very first color plate, for instance, we see not only a horse and wagon (as the verse describes) but a driver in suit, tie, and hat, a horse with a feeding bag, and a wagon with three flower pots in the rear and a sun umbrella above. In the next spread, when Marco substitutes a zebra for the horse, the illustration does not present us with a zebra as we know it but a yellow horse-like creature with black stripes along its back. In addition, the man in the wagon now has a whip. In this way, each picture adds information to the story. When the vehicle becomes a sled, the illustration also eliminates the man and substitutes two smiling children dressed in fur outfits. Even when Marco himself begins to add characters to his parade instead of changing them, the illustrations embellish each addition. When a mayor is introduced to raise his hat in a grandstand, the illustration adds five alderman waving flags, or, when an airplane dumps confetti, two men are balancing on it with baskets of confetti in their arms.
These pictorial embellishments complement the extended metaphor in the verse in which seeing is reality: if we see it, it exists. Marco's father challenges his son to "keep your eyelids up and see what you can see." And Marco is concerned with what he has "seen" or "noticed." The full title of the book is echoed in the central portion by the three repetitions of the clause "When I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street." Therefore, the characters believe that what they "see" is real, but what I see is more than what Marco says he sees, so that my seeing imbues Marco's story with a reality, a legitimacy which it would otherwise lack. In that extra-textual world, then, substitution and addition become the actual crux of experience instead of the mere reporting of observations.
A similar complementary relationship exists in McElligot's Pool ; however, the composition does not add information. Each picture faithfully illustrates, instead, Marco's descriptions of outrageous fish. Very little of content is added except where such general species as a "THING-A-MA-JIGGER" or a "fast-moving bloke" demand embellishment. But even in these cases the fish are always big-eyed, amorphous creatures. More typically, the Parachute Fish have parachutes attached to their backs, the Eskimo Fish have almond-shaped eyes and wear fur coats, and the Saw Fish has a long saw-shaped snout. The grouch fish looks grouchy, the old fish look old, and the Dog Fish has a dog's head, collar, and floppy ears. If there is no variety in content, the pictures do vary from black-and-white to color. In fact, the fluctuation is regular—one spread in ink wash is followed by a multicolored spread in watercolor wash. Whether the use of black-and-white was an economic necessity is irrelevant; a critic must assume that each decision is part of an overall aesthetic. At any rate, if economics were an issue, Seuss could have used all black-and-white illustrations or patterned them in some other way. The ongoing fluctuation parallels the ongoing contrasts developed in the content of the text and illustrations: thin fish are followed by fat fish; dog fish by catfish; hot fish by cold fish; fast fish by faster fish; big fish by bigger fish. If Marco's substitutions and additions in Mulberry Street represent his creativity, his comparisons and contrasts do the same in McElligot's Pool.
These comparisons extend into the metaphors of the text as well. Initially, the farmer regards the pool as a container, and this controlling metaphor encourages him to describe the pool's dimensions as "small," its character as a "place," and the possible objects in it as a boot, a can, or a bottle—all containers of one kind or another themselves. This metaphor of pool-as-container, this comparison, contrasts with Marco's controlling view of the pool as a conduit. For the boy, the pool is an underground river which goes along, flows, and connects to the sea. The shift from container to conduit allows the boy to create all the possible creatures which might be swimming up from the far-off sea. Marco also uses metaphors in his descriptions of the creatures, personifying fish as acrobats, skiers, or roughnecks. He compares fish to cows or old men and uses similes to compare them to roosters or boats. Thus, both pictures and phrases create the subliminal notion that the reconciliation of opposites is at the heart of art.
At the final level of words and colors, each book once again depends on techniques which create content. The controlling metaphor of pool-as-conduit in McElligot's Pool, which encourages Marco to speculate on fish varieties, also contributes at the level of diction to a dependence on modal auxiliaries. Seuss modifies 47.5% of the verb phrases with may/might, will/would, or can/could. In contrast, only 21.4% of the verb phrases in Mulberry Street are modified by the modals will/would, can/could, or should. In addition, may/might comprise 75% of the modals in McElligot's Pool but never occur in the other book. What "may" or "might" appear is central to Marco's credibility because the absence of fish does not mean that they do not exist. They may or may not appear, but their appearance is a matter of choice. The text goes so far as to emphasize may and might by isolating them several times through ellipsis: "I might and I may and that's really no joke." In Mulberry Street, on the other hand, Marco's speculations lack this credibility and remain fantasy: what "can" or "could" happen, depending on intent, or what "will" or "would" happen in the future does not appreciably change the probability of it actually occurring. In fact, it is important for Marco's parade to remain fantasy so that the question of what is or is not real or valuable can be clearly foregrounded.
The colors of McElligot's Pool complement the diction in that the use of a wash, whether ink or colored, creates with its subtle variations in shading and blending a substantial volume, texture, and shape for each creature. No matter how fantastic the fish, the wash endows it with a three-dimensional quality. For example, at one point eight different species grace a multicolored spread. In each instance, the variations, blending, and mixing of colors make the imagined, real. The sail fish's dorsal fin, billowing upright out of its head to catch the wind, has a yellow ribbing which washes into blue-green and whose webbing runs from bright red into pink and back to yellow. The rooster fish's puffed-up red belly blends into blues and purple then ripples beneath the water into bands of green, blue, and yellow-green. The ink washes are just as believable: the humongous THING-A-MA-JIGGER is painted against a flat black sky, foregrounding its bulk which is described with several shades of grey wash, emphasizing both its stretched-out length and its rounded, bulbous mass.
Mulberry Street, on the other hand, does not rely on "real" or literal illustrations. There are, instead, only five colors (along with black and page-white): the primaries—red, blue, yellow—and two mixes—green and purple. Besides this restricted palate (regardless, again, of the economic or technical reasons for its limits), the colors themselves are flat with no variation or shading, and this flat coloration does little to turn Marco's fantasy into reality. In addition, the flat, restricted colors are used unrealistically to depict animals: the horse and zebra are yellow, the reindeer is red, and the elephant, blue. In the two ink drawings of Marco going off to school in the beginning and returning home at the end, there is some ink shading to indicate that one leg is behind another or to distinguish clothing, but not to create volume.
In such a one-dimensional world, movement never goes into or comes out of the background: all the creatures and vehicles move across the page—reinforced by the horizontal hatching and emphasized even on the cover by clouds with horizontal lines running off the right edge. This movement contrasts with the almost motionless image of the horse and wagon. The diction picks up the contrast by relegating words which denote or connote speed to the fantasy section and sedentary terms to the beginning and end. Marco leaves home and walks to school, and, when he returns, his father asks him to "draw up your stool" and from "there in his seat" his father judges him sternly. In the central fantasy the creatures and Marco speed up. The chariot rumbles down Mulberry Street, the reindeer is "fast and he's fleet," the elephant has "power and size," the brass band goes "so fast that it's hard to keep near it," the police "race at top speed" and "dash by the stand," and Marco swings around the corner, dashes through the gate, and runs up the steps: "And I felt simply GREAT! FOR I HAD A STORY THAT NO ONE COULD BEAT!" The "real" is slow, deliberate, judgmental, and stern.
Similarly, the diction in McElligot's Pool sets the central fantasy section apart. The predicate adjective patient occurs three times: once near the beginning (eighth spread), once near the middle (seventeenth spread), and once at the end. This spacing and repetition (as well as the connotations of steadiness and relaxation inherent in the word) highlight and reinforce the steady rhythm and pulsing of the text. The nominal adjectives, on the other hand, most often concern size. In fact, the adjective long predominates; long ears, whiskers, and eels flop, flow, and twist, complementing the conduit metaphors.
My argument in this essay has been that picture books written and illustrated by the same person reflect the principle of self-similarity across scales. At each level of analysis, both Mulberry Street and McElligot's Pool reinforce and, at times, create content with recurring stylistic patterns in picture and verse. Besides these different patterns, both books develop one overriding metaphor which transcends the individual metaphors of seeing in one book or conduits in the other. Seuss's composite art integrates the patterns of picture and verse into a single accretive metaphor whose compilation of a great reservoir of detail represents the creative potential which remains unrealized in the adult world. Seuss is using patterns of contrast, substitution, and addition at each level of his art to reveal a strategy for surviving the mundane, the adult, and the usual. In addition, the resolution of this accretive metaphor—how minnows and whales are related if they are contrasted, if one is substituted for the other, or if one is added to the other—forces all of us to consider Seuss's view of art, whether represented by Marco's stories of a parade of mammals down Mulberry Street or by fish to McElligot's Pool. For Seuss, the accumulation of detail in story, picture, or verse distinguishes fantasy from reality and art from exposition.
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Zoe Ingalls (essay date 28 July 1993)
SOURCE: Ingalls, Zoe. "The Cat in the Hat, The Butter Battle Book, and Other Soupcons of Seuss!" Chronicle of Higher Education 39, no. 47 (28 July 1993): B4-B5.
[In the following essay, Ingalls reflects on Seuss's life and writing career, incorporating several quotes from Seuss's widow, Audrey S. Geisel.]
Theodor Seuss Geisel was on a steamship crossing the Atlantic when inspiration struck.
The crossing was rough, and the engines were grinding laboriously. They began to have a rhythm, says his widow, Audrey S. Geisel—the kind that is difficult to ignore. "And he—he said he never did understand why—he began to say something that had nothing to do with the motors: 'And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.'"
"And he repeated it," she says. "And something just went off in his head. He was off and running."
In 1937 Mr. Geisel, better known to children and parents worldwide as Dr. Seuss, published his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, about the powerful imagination of a little boy. Forty-seven more books followed, including his last, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, published in 1990, a year before he died.
Now Mrs. Geisel has donated papers from her husband's estate to the library of the University of California at San Diego. The university held a reception recently to celebrate the opening of the collection to scholars—a reception premeditatedly Seussian.
There was prickleberry champagne in the punch bowl and gerbera daisies—could they have come from the Vipper of Vipp?—on the table. The actress Mercedes McCambridge read from Seuss's story "Gertrude McFuzz."
"There once was a girl-bird named Gertrude McFuzz / And she had the smallest plain tail ever was."
As usual, says Mrs. Geisel, everyone wanted to tell her what their favorite Seuss book is. "I don't know why that is," she says. "It's a kind of Rorschach test."
Mrs. Geisel made a speech: "Ted would be tickled to know his whimsical Cat in the Hat has moved up-town and is now in such rare and erudite company."
The library is tickled, too—though Lynda Classen phrases her delight in measured terms more suited to the head of special collections at a research library. "The collection offers splendid documentation of the creative process as well as the creative genius of Ted Geisel," she says.
Indeed, the collection comprises some 4,000 items, including cartoons, sketches, notebooks, books, tapes, posters, records, photographs, and memorabilia. At the heart of it all are drawings and manuscripts—from the first rough sketches and drafts to the finished drawings and final texts—for all but one of his books published between 1968 and 1991. The only exception is The Lorax (1971), his book about environmental issues, which he donated to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at Johnson's request.
Materials pertaining to Geisel's books published before 1968 are deposited in the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. Mrs. Geisel explains that her husband lived in Los Angeles for many years before relocating to San Diego.
San Diego's collection contains original materials for television specials based on the Dr. Seuss books, as well as other materials from projects for television, theater, and film that were never produced. Also included are materials from Geisel's early career as a magazine writer, cartoonist, and ad man. The richness of the collection reflects the broad spectrum of Geisel's creativity and the different avenues—all leading to amazing critical success—that his career followed.
Ted Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Mass. He attended Dartmouth College and, while there, wrote and edited copy and drew cartoons for Jack O'Lantern, the college literary magazine. After graduating in 1925, he studied English literature for a year at the University of Oxford.
One of the highlights of the Seuss collection—and the personal favorite of Ms. Claassen, the librarian—is a leather-bound notebook from Geisel's days at Oxford. The margins of notes on Sir Walter Raleigh, Tyndale, and Shakespeare are peppered with doodles of droll-looking dogs, geese, monkeys, and other creatures.
In the notebook was tucked an invitation from the Viscountess Astor, announcing that she is "At Home, Monday, March 15." The card is addressed to "Mr. T. S. Siesel." Geisel has scrawled across the top, "Misspelled. That's why I turned her down—the lout!"
After college, the young Geisel first turned to cartooning and magazine writing. Then in 1928 he began what became a 15-year career in advertising. One of his most successful campaigns was for Flit fly spray, and his slogan, "Quick, Henry! the Flit!" became a household phrase. He also created characters such as Karbo-Nockus and Oilio-Gobelus, part of the "Seuss Navy" used to sell Esso marine products.
During World War II, Geisel served in the Army Signal Corps, writing educational brochures for the troops—the library holds one that discusses malaria and warns GI's to watch out for "Annie" the mosquito. Geisel also made documentary films under the direction of Frank Capra. Geisel won two Oscars—in 1946 and 1947—for documentary short films that evolved from his wartime work. He won a third Oscar in 1951 for an animated cartoon, "Gerald McBoing-Boing."
Geisel's work has won prestigious awards in two other fields: literature (the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and three Caldecott Honor Awards) and television (two Peabody and two Emmy Awards).
Of the 47 books he published, The Cat in the Hat (1957) is probably Ted Geisel's most famous. The Cat in the Hat was his response to a revolutionary article by John Hersey in Life magazine, "Why Johnny Can't Read," which called for revamping the way schoolchildren learned to read. Geisel used a predetermined list of 223 words to create an engaging alternative to Dick and Jane. (Three years later, Geisel wrote Green Eggs and Ham, his all-time best seller, on a bet from his publisher, Bennett Cerf. Cerf challenged Geisel to write a book using only 50 different words.)
Geisel's last book, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, has become a perennial favorite as a graduation or retirement gift and, so far, has spent more than 130 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.
One of the trademarks of Dr. Seuss's work is its "improvised" quality, according to Roger Sale, professor of English at the University of Washington and author of a critical study of children's literature. It appears that "you could just dash him down to the library on a Saturday morning, and he'd do you a story," Mr. Sale says. "It certainly does not seem laborious, does not seem meditated."
In fact, as materials in the collection illustrate, that appearance of spontaneity was bought at a high cost. Neil Morgan, associate editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, who with his wife, Judith Morgan, is writing a biography of Geisel, says the collection reveals the "agonies" of his relentless self-editing. "In manuscripts for books with texts of only a few hundred words, the rewrites may have been 100 or 200 different versions of many of the lines," Mr. Morgan says.
In The Butter Battle Book (1984), a satire about the arms race, for example, an early draft of the opening lines reads, "When I was a young Yook and not very tall." The final version says, "On the last day of summer, ten hours before fall."
Geisel was just as painstaking with his artwork. "The art director at Random House [his publisher] will tell you she's never known anybody like him," says Mr. Morgan. "He would badger her in the nicest way possible to get precisely the right colors, tints, blocks, details."
The Seuss collection provides a window on Geisel's "mental process," says Ms. Claassen. "He was a perfectionist, and who else would know better than he how it was supposed to look or how it was supposed to read?"
"He left nothing to chance."
Tim Wolf (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Wolf, Tim. "Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue: Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 137-64.
[In the following essay, Wolf expounds on the recurring motifs of abandonment, imagination, and escape in Seuss's works, particularly in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and Green Eggs and Ham.]
Dr. Seuss's first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), features three elements—a rejected child, the exercise of childlike imagination, and a rejecting parent whose anger seems focused against the exercise of childlike imagination. The clever whimsical verse and exuberant illustration form a powerful tension with the potentially painful portrait of a child who wants to win the approval of a rejecting parent, and fails. In the end, Seuss attempts to solve the problem of rejection by having the child reject the parent in return. Apparently, this problem mattered deeply to Seuss, and the solution in Mulberry Street did not satisfy him, for his next work, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), reexplores the problem with a slightly different resolution; the child succeeds in appeasing the angry parent figure and is allowed to depart in peace. This may have seemed a somewhat better answer to Seuss than the counter-rejection he proposed in Mulberry Street, but in his next book, The King's Stilts (1939), he again picks up the theme and this time seems to arrive at a perfect resolution. The parent does not really dislike the child, but rather the parent is suffering from a deep personal unhappiness that makes the parent act angry. Because the child loves the parent, the child assumes the responsibility of healing that unhappiness by reconnecting the parent to the joys of the childlike imagination, and this rescue simultaneously frees the parent to express a previously hidden love for the child.
We might note two powerful aspects of this solution. First, I think that an internalization of responsibility for their parents' behavior, and the assumption of responsibility for rescuing their parents, is a potent psychological force in many children. Second, it makes sense that the very facet of children that seems to provoke parents' wrath—the childlike imagination—is the facet that parents themselves need to re-experience in order to regain happiness; in fact, it is because parents are cut off from, and longing for, a connection with their own imaginations that they resent children's access to the imagination.
Seuss manages to work out all of these possibilities in the relationships among Eric, Lord Droon, and King Birtram in The King's Stilts, and perhaps because he feels he has now truly expressed the complexity of the dilemma and discovered a satisfying resolution, he moves on to other themes. However, I suggest that Seuss returns to the motif 21 years later to write one of his best-selling books, Green Eggs and Ham (1960). Green Eggs and Ham repeats the perfect resolution to rejection that Seuss discovered in The King's Stilts, but does so within the limits of a 51-word vocabulary. This combination of potent theme and highly accessible format may account in part for the book's phenomenal appeal.
I say in part because it would be reductive to limit our understanding of the appeal of these texts to any one factor—even if the factor seems puissant, such as the theme of a rejected child internalizing responsibility for a parent's rescue. Furthermore, we need to guard against a reductive interpretation of this theme itself. For example, if such a theme does manifest itself in the texts, can we also find instances where the texts simultaneously suggest opposite currents? If so, could the tensions and ambiguities of these simultaneous opposites add to, rather than detract from, the texts' appeal? In addition, how do we define such terms as child and parent ? We might take a traditional psychoanalytic approach in which certain symbols represent classic familial conflicts—either androgynous or gender-specific. However, on another level we might attempt a gestalt approach, and because the basic premise of any gestalt analysis is that all aspects of a text (or dream) represent but different aspects of one whole person, we could then view the child and parent in each story as conflicting facets of one person; that is, we could see an "inner child" and an "inner parent" as two members of a constellation of personas within one psyche. But then, whose psyche would we be considering—a child with an inner parent, an adult with an inner child, the psyche of the author himself? Each answer would further multiply perspectives within an already crowded field of possibilities. Yet we can advance even further. For example, could we broaden the meaning of parent to see the verbal text as parent to the illustrated text? Could illustration thus carry associations of childlike imaginative freedom, and verbal textuality carry associations of adultlike authoritative delimitation?
Keeping in mind that the ideas in this paper illuminate the complexity of Seuss's appeal only in part, and could suggest wide-ranging, perhaps even contradictory, associations, let us take a closer look at Seuss's first three books, and then Green Eggs and Ham.
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
We need not look far to discover in Mulberry Street the three elements that form the nucleus of a recurrent theme in all four of these stories. The first page of Mulberry Street introduces a parent rejecting his child's imagination:
When I leave home to walk to school,
Dad always says to me,
"Marco, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see."
But when I tell him where I've been
And what I think I've seen,
He looks at me and sternly says,
"Your eyesight's much too keen.
Stop telling such outlandish tales.
Stop turning minnows into whales."
Now, what can I say
When I get home today?
Visually, this large passage of verse looms over a small boy in the lower right corner, almost pushing him off the page. The unbalanced composition correlates to the displacement a child feels under the weight of a parent's rejection. We might say that the parent wants to push the imagination out of Marco's head, just as the large block of text seems to want to push Marco off the paper. Thus, the reader might equate reading and adult oppression.
Several factors could reinforce this equation. First, Marco carries an uncomfortably large book under his arm, for he is going to school. Because few children enjoy going to school, and even fewer enjoy carrying heavy books, the combination further associates verbal text and adult oppression. Furthermore, while Marco tries to obey the adult-prescribed "keepingup-of-eyelids," and while he dutifully walks the adult-prescribed path to the adult-prescribed destination—in other words, while he marches to the rigid beat of adult dominance—he walks from left to right, the same direction in which the child reads the verbal text. Perhaps in a Hebrew translation, the tyrannized Marco should walk from right to left, for his walk may symbolize our sense of loss and oppression when we first realize that in order to read we must forgo the freedom of letting our eyes wander around the page, and must instead accept the discipline of forcing our eyes into an orderly march along straight lines.
Yet, at the same time, this page also equates reading with pleasure, power, and rebellion. For example, the verbal text reports, in delightfully witty anapestic tetrameter, that the parent wants Marco to "keep his eyelids up," but that the parent also tells Marco that his eyesight is "much too keen." This self-contradiction lets the child reader view the parent as both unfair and stupid, but the child gains this sense of power over the parent through reading—an activity that the page composition may associate with the parent's tyranny; that is, the child gains a sense of pleasure and power through reading, because it allows him or her to participate in a rebellion against reading. Possibly, learning to read, or the act of reading itself, promotes dozens of contradictory internal responses in each of us—power/helplessness, freedom/imprisonment, oral gratification/oral repression—and perhaps Seuss's ability to evoke these oppositions generates some of the dynamic tensions that make his works so potent.1
The ambiguous attitude toward the verbal text continues on the subsequent pages of Mulberry Street, in a pattern first noted by Perry Nodelman:
As the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail—but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books.… The result is a curious reversal, in which … [the] pictures strain toward the narrative qualities of text.
(255, emphasis added)
Indeed, on the last spread of the parade, Seuss has reversed the situation of the first page; now the illustration overwhelms two pages, almost pushing the four short verbal phrases off the bottom. This could represent the triumph of a free and joyful imagination over the rigid tyranny of verbal textuality—and over the parent's despotic authority. Yet, if we understand Nodelman right, Seuss achieves this coup in part by making the logic of pictorial development resemble the logic of verbal textuality; thus, Seuss may channel the joyful rebelliousness that the illustration inspires toward an acceptance of the logic of verbal textuality.2
When we turn the page, we find an illustration of Marco rushing up a flight of stairs to tell his parent about the wonderful parade, and these stairs may suggest other levels of interpretation. For example, could going "up the stairs" symbolize a return to the superego level—or the conscious level? If so, we could read this story as if it were about an adult, whose tyrannical superego, or his inner adult, attempts to control and reject the workings and imaginings of his id, or his inner child. Or, if we remember that Seuss faced much unkind rejection when he first wrote for children, we could interpret Marco as a symbol for Seuss himself—the hero who journeys into the "downstairs" of his unconscious for imaginative inspiration, and then tries to share his treasures with an unreceptive, even hostile, society. Seuss creates a text that allows these readings, and others, simultaneously, so that the next page reverberates with potential meanings. For as soon as Marco reaches his seated (enthroned?) parent, Marco decides not to share his imagination and joy with him:
There was so much to tell, I JUST COULDN'T BEGIN!
Dad looked at me sharply and pulled at his chin.
He frowned at me sternly from there in his seat,
"Was there nothing to look at … no people to greet?
Did nothing excite you or make your heart beat?"
"Nothing," I said, growing red as a beet,
"But a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street."
Even at its most ostensible level, this passage represents a profoundly disturbing moment. At the beginning of the story we met Marco as a child who wanted very much to win the acceptance of an unhappy parent. In the middle of the story, we discovered along with Marco that the secret of happiness resides in the free exercise of the childlike imagination, for Seuss writes that "Mulberry Street runs into Bliss." Now at the end of the story, we see Marco racing up the stairs with a huge smile on his face. The smile is both an expression of Marco's love for his parent, since he envisions that his story will give the unhappy parent the gift of bliss, and a reflection of Marco's need for his parent's love, since he anticipates that his story will win his parent's acceptance. Yet when we turn the page, we find that both these expectations come to "nothing."
Within Marco's fantasy, we find clues that Marco wishes both to share this happiness with his parent and to have his imagination accepted. For example, after the parade runs into Bliss Street, Marco introduces a number of authority figures who put seals of approval on the celebration—policemen, who escort it on motorcycles, and the mayor and his alderman, who wave flags from their review stand. However, Seuss introduces a more poignant symbol even earlier in the text. Just prior to having his parade "run into Bliss," Marco hitches a little trailer to the end of the procession:
A band that's so good should have someone to hear it,
But it's going so fast that it's hard to keep near it.
I'll put on a trailer! I know they won't mind
If a man sits and listens while hitched on behind.
The illustration for this text depicts a smiling man with a white fringed bald pate and long white beard sitting on a stool. If we remember that Marco's parade is a story that he intends to tell his father, we might see this smiling man who "sits and listens" as a wishful representation of the father that Marco hopes will listen to and approve of his story about the parade. Several elements support this association. For example, the illustration of the man resembles a prominent western archetype of the patriarch. Furthermore, when Marco later rushes to tell his real father the story about the parade, he finds him also sitting—but, unlike Marco's fantasy father, his real father is frowning.
The presence of a patriarchal archetype in the illustration compels us to consider what parts of the theme could be read as androgynous, and what parts should be read as gender specific. For example, although the text specifies a son and father, I believe that both Marco and his father could be read as either male or female. On the other hand, we would not want to overlook some of the meanings we might glean from a more gender-specific approach. For example, we might associate the son-and-father conflict with classic psychosexual complexes, or with societal gender teachings that may make a father frown on the imaginative daydreaming tendencies of a son, while he smiles on the same tendencies in a daughter.3 Or we might see the rejecting patriarch as a symbol of our phallocratic society itself and the low status it affords to the imagination.
Whether we interpret the smiling patriarch who follows the parade as an androgynous or a gender-specific fantasy of parental acceptance, the real parent whom Marco encounters at the end of the story "frowns at [him] sternly from there in his seat" and will not follow Marco's stories, either to approve of them, or to share in their joy. Marco's only recourse is to protect himself by hiding his imaginative world. His decision not to tell his parent about the wonders of Mulberry Street constitutes a form of counter-rejection, and thus Seuss seems to end Mulberry Street with the problem of the rejecting parent unresolved.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Seuss continues to explore the same theme—a rejecting parent whose anger seems focused against the exercise of childlike imagination—in his next book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Here, King Derwin assumes the role of the parent figure, and his rejection of the child figure, Bartholomew Cubbins, arises from the child's inability to remove his hat in the king's presence. I believe that this hat, and specifically the feather in this hat, might symbolize the imagination—for although the hat itself contains enough magic to constantly reappear on Bartholomew's head, the feather has enough magic not only to reappear, but to sprout, multiply, and grow ever more fanciful and splendid. Furthermore, if we think of the hat as thought, always present about the head, then the feather easily figures as the imagination, the aspect of thought that makes it beautiful and precious. Seuss writes that although the hat was plain, "Bartholomew liked it—especially because of the feather that always pointed straight up in the air."4 As in Mulberry Street, where the parent specifically targets Marco's imaginative stories for rejection, King Derwin specifically targets the feathered hat as his reason for rejecting Bartholomew.
In fact, the text could assume an autobiographical flavor if we remember that a feather quill is a writing implement, and that Seuss strives to express his imagination through writing. We could read Bartholomew as Seuss himself, a boylike man who cannot stop his mind from sprouting wonderful fantasies, no matter how much the ruling forces of society threaten and disapprove. Certainly, Bartholomew's self-reliant pride in his feather could assume a jaunty new light, but another aspect of the story simultaneously assumes a darker shade—Bartholomew's inferior position to the king. The story tells us that King Derwin lives at the top of a mountain, and that Bartholomew feels "mighty small" when he gazes up that hill from his house in the valley. This might translate into Seuss's sense of social inferiority to the "folks on the hill"—the ruling powers of society. If so, then the hundreds of hats that Bartholomew grows could represent Seuss's efforts to make it up the hill, or to impress the folks on the hill, by penning (feathering) imaginative children's stories, while the king's repeated rejections of the hats could represent the many hostile rejections Seuss endured. In this interpretation, it would hardly be coincidental that, immediately after he had finally sold Mulberry Street, Seuss should write a story about a boy who finally grows a hat good enough to sell to a king.
Several aspects of Seuss's youth may be relevant to such an autobiographical interpretation. For example, Ruth K. MacDonald reports that Seuss felt "shame at his German heritage during World War I," that he was nicknamed "the Kaiser" and ostracized (1). Such treatment might lead a person to view himself at the bottom of the hill in society. I think it may be more relevant to note that in Seuss's youth his family suffered a reversal of fortune: during Prohibition his father lost the brewery of which he had just become president. Although the father found another job as superintendent of city parks, the family may have sustained a decline in status, suffering from what Lawrence Stone terms "relative deprivation" (18). In other words, the family may have felt further down the hill, because they had once been further up the hill. Occasionally, children in these types of families will assume an inner burden to rescue the family and restore its lost status, and such a burden would fall especially hard upon an only child, as Seuss was. Certainly the family, or at least the father, was status conscious, for when Seuss told his father that he had applied for a fellowship to Oxford, the father reported to the local newspaper that Seuss had already won a fellowship to Oxford, and when Seuss did not in fact win the fellowship "the father felt forced to send him to Oxford anyway, in order to save face" (MacDonald 3). Seuss himself admired his father, and viewed him as a major influence in his life. He recalls that his father gave him the memento of a plaster cast of a dinosaur track and Seuss interprets it thus: "He was trying to tell me, in joke form, [that] a species can disappear and still leave a track in the sand" (MacDonald 2). Could the young Seuss have unconsciously perceived that it was up to him to leave a mark for the family? If Seuss sensed that his family felt "mighty small" when they looked up the hill, he might have sworn to find a way to plant the family flag on the top, and after failing at his academic ambitions, decided that his best hope in this contest was his genius for imagination, just as Bartholomew's best hope is the magical hat that grows out of his head. The last illustration in The 500 Hats depicts Bartholomew returning to his home in the valley with a sack of gold on his back—proof of his conquest of the folks on the hill, and a possible correlative to Seuss's earnings from Mulberry Street. The picture gets much of its power from the two tiny figures waving at him from the distant humble cottage—his father and his mother.
Nevertheless, Bartholomew's successful sale does not quite dispel some dark suggestions in this final illustration. For example, we might wonder if Seuss felt that the power structure of his society wanted to slay his imagination, and that he could survive only by imagining something so enticing that the power structure would commodify it. I find it disturbing that, whether he fails or succeeds, Bartholomew's relationship to the power structure dictates that he must eventually lose his beloved hat and feather (if he were to fail, he would wind up with no hat because he would have no head). Because the hatless Bartholomew carries the ungainly, almost burdensome, sack of money, we might wonder whether Seuss felt that he had somehow sold out when he sold Mulberry Street. Furthermore, we might conjecture that Seuss feared that he had lost some of his imaginative powers, or that he had forfeited ownership of them. Finally, since Bartholomew returns to his home in the valley, we might suspect that, even though he had been rewarded with money after selling Mulberry Street, Seuss in some ways still felt like a "mighty small" person who had not really made it up the hill. These autobiographical speculations present a disturbing picture, a picture of an artist who perceives of his imagination as something that can be killed, or bought, or sold at the whim of the rich and powerful.5
Returning from the possible autobiographical interpretation to more ostensible levels, we see that The 500 Hats goes a step further than Mulberry Street in solving the problem of the rejected child. In Mulberry Street the parent and child reach an impasse, but in The 500 Hats we see the parent and child walking arm in arm, looking upon one another with happy smiles. I think that most readers would agree that, although this illustration is somewhat gratifying, it fails to carry the emotional charge that a similar illustration would have carried in Mulberry Street. In Mulberry Street, because we have seen Marco laboring to think of ways to please his parent, and then have seen him happily running up the stairs brimming with stories to share, we deeply regret that the parent and child do not connect. But the relationship between Bartholomew and King Derwin seems more distant and accidental. We are glad that King Derwin smiles upon Bartholomew in the end primarily because we are relieved at Bartholomew's safety. We might have been as glad if the king merely had decided to leave the poor boy alone.
Nevertheless, we should neither overlook that both these stories project the pattern of an unhappy, grouchy parent figure rejecting the imaginative world of a child figure nor ignore the implications of the added reconciliation at the end of The 500 Hats. When King Derwin accepts the child's imaginative world, he gains joy, just as Marco had hoped his parent would. If we do not much care about King Derwin's joy, perhaps it is because Seuss is only just beginning to solve the problem of the rejected child, and thus has done so rather imperfectly. The rescue of the parent from unhappiness nevertheless represents a step forward in Seuss's exploration, a step he explores with more success the following year in The King's Stilts.
The King's Stilts
To make the rescue of the parent from unhappiness more meaningful in The King's Stilts, Seuss not only increases our sympathy for him but also connects his rescue to the survival of the kingdom. Seuss accomplishes the simpler of the two tasks by developing a plot line in which, because of his sadness, the king can no longer protect his kingdom from a salty flood. But how can Seuss increase our sympathy for a parent who angrily rejects his own child? He does so by splitting the parent into two figures—the bad Lord Droon and the good King Birtram—each representing a different side of the parent. We cannot fail to notice the similarity between this device and the stock figure of the wicked stepmother in fairy tales, for the daughter who suffers under the wicked stepmother in fairy tales can usually remember a second mother, her real mother, an ideal loving mother—but unfortunately a mother who is dead, and thus powerless. Freudian and Jungian folklorists have long suggested that this dichotomy not only permits the child reader to vent hostility against her mother with impunity but also offers the child reader a way of explaining the mother's unacceptable behavior, that the person is not really the child's mother (Bettleheim 66-73, Von Franz 207-214).
In The King's Stilts the good parent is not dead, but he loses his power to the bad parent, and thus the child must rescue the good parent from the bad parent. This scheme reveals a profound possibility about the psychology of coping with rejection. Perhaps rejected children want to reject their parents in return, as Mulberry Street encourages, and maybe they also want to appease the parents, as The 500 Hats suggests. However, perhaps they could also interpret parental rejection as a symptom of their beloved parents' unhappiness, and thus want to rescue their poor parents. Of course, children might employ wishful thinking in order to falsely believe that a loving parent is hidden and trapped within an angry rejecting parent, but children sometimes perspicuously apprehend a truth; that is, many parents do suffer daily depressions, discouragements, frustrations, tensions, or wearinesses that lead them to snap at their children, even though they love their children.6 In either case, Seuss's split parent in The King's Stilts allows us to see that rejected children not only must bear their parents' rejection, but might also assume a heartrending burden of responsibility for their parents' rejecting behavior.
In addition, the split parent in The King's Stilts yields well to a gestalt reading in which we see all the seemingly separate characters and events of the story as different facets of one psyche—the child becomes an inner child, the saltwater flood an inner flood, and so forth. In the beginning of the story, Seuss presents to the reader the ideal adult in King Birtram—an adult who has achieved a perfect balance between his adult and child natures: "When he worked, he really worked … but when he played, he really Played!" Significantly, the first view we have of the king may provide two hints of this ideal balance and unification. First, we see the king doing very adult-looking work—signing royal documents—but we see him doing so in the bathtub with a delicious pink ring (foreshadows of the mischievous Cat in the Hat!), while a wonderful fish spurts huge drops of water. Although the king signs official documents, everything around him looks playfully jolly. Second, we see the king in the presence of both a smiling child—Eric—and a frowning adult—Lord Droon—the figures who, on the gestalt level, could represent the two sides that the king balances.
At the same time, this illustration represents a near-ideal family dynamic, for the child figure is in close, loving, and happy contact with the good side of his parent, whereas the frowning side of the parent stands aside tamed and innocuous (yet somehow still a disturbingly threatening potential).
When we turn the page, we learn how much depends upon the well-being that the king maintains by balancing his child and adult natures, for we see that his land lies in a valley below the level of the seas that surround it, and that only the heavily intertwined roots of the Dike Trees growing all along the edge of the island forestall a devastating flood. Perhaps the salty sea symbolizes the tears and cares of the adult world, a world that threatens to flood and obliterate the happy kingdom (the kingdom of the self in a gestalt reading). The roots that hold back the flood, then, could represent the childlike imagination, for they weave a mysterious living web that reaches down into the fertile earth below the kingdom—a possible metaphor for a healthy connection with the unconscious. It is the joys of this connection, the bliss of the active imagination, that forestalls the woeful flood of adult cares and tears.
The king's most important task by far, we learn, is to protect these roots from the evil black Nizzard birds, who like to peck at the roots. The text associates these Nizzards with adult worries: "'A hard day' [the king would] say, 'full of nizzardly worries.'" In other words, the myriad worries of adulthood constantly threaten to cut us off from the roots of our childlike joy and pleasure, thus allowing the salt flood of tears. King Birtram, however, creates a unique response—an army of "Patrol Cats." How fitting that cats—those most independent-minded, unmastered creatures—should guard the roots of childlike imagination! How inappropriate would have been dogs, with all their worry and obsequiousness to serve their masters. To defend our childlike imagination and joy, Seuss seems to say, we must be like cats toward society, not like dogs. (This may also look forward to the anarchistic Cat in the Hat saving two children from a dull adult-ruled afternoon.)
Finally, the stilts give the king the ability to defend the roots, for they give him his very will to live: "This was the moment King Birtram lived for.… 'Quick, Eric!' he'd shout. 'Quick, Eric! The stilts!'" The roots and the stilts may be a double symbol for the same thing—the childlike imagination. The stilts, which we note that the child must fetch for the king, lift the king high above the mundane surface of the earth in flights of fancy, just as the roots burrow far below the mundane surface into the rich soils of the unconscious. Furthermore, when the stilts disappear, so do the tree roots, and just as the disappearance of the stilts leads to the king's tears, the disappearance of the tree roots leads to the kingdom's immersion under saltwater. Perhaps the only distinction we can make between these two symbols is that where the roots could represent the healthy state of the imagination, the stilts could represent the prescription for preserving that state—play, or the daily energetic use of the childlike imagination.
Thus, unlike Mulberry Street or The 500 Hats, which both begin with a parent's rejection of a child, and of a child's imagination, The King's Stilts begins with a parent-figure enjoying a friendly relationship with the child-figure and embracing the imagination. After we pass the beginning, however, we find The King's Stilts moving into parallel with Seuss's first two books, for we meet the rejecting side of the parent in Lord Droon. Seuss writes: "There was a man in Binn who didn't like fun. He didn't like games. He didn't like laughing. This man was a scowler. This man was Lord Droon." The illustration that accompanies this verbal text depicts Lord Droon scowling at the king's stilts, and so Seuss makes Droon fulfill half of his function—the rejection of the childlike imagination—but this bad side of the parent must reject the child as well. Thus, Seuss has Droon steal the stilts and give them to Eric with the command to bury them.
This plot device accomplishes several objectives. First, it identifies the child in the story as the keeper of the childlike imagination. After all, neither Birtram nor Droon know the location of the stilts. Second, Eric's knowledge of the stilts' location, a knowledge which is dangerous to Droon, gives Droon a reason to attack Eric himself, thus making Droon fulfill the second half of his function as the rejecting side of the parent. Third, Droon's theft of the stilts seems to fix an overserious adult facet of the persona as the culprit in grown-ups' lack of joy. Fourth, Eric's burial of the stilts could represent the psychological process of repression, in this case the repression of childlike qualities.
Most important, the device forces Eric to assume the burden of rescuing the good side of the parent. Because only Eric knows where the stilts are buried, only Eric can save the king from depression and thus the kingdom from the salt flood. The child reader here may find a strong correlative to his or her own burden to rescue a parent, as well as a powerful portrayal of the bad angry (side of the) parent that keeps the child from reaching the good loving (side of the) parent. Seuss presents this dilemma in a remarkable illustration. Eric runs up a flight of stairs to rescue the king, only to be intercepted at the top by a scowling Lord Droon. In Mulberry Street Marco also rushes up a flight of steps to reach a good parent, only to find a disapproving parent instead. However, in The King's Stilts we have a second, hidden, good parent—a possibility that this illustration exploits to great effect, for a sad, helpless-looking King Birtram seems to grow like a ghost out of the back of the very solid-looking Lord Droon, almost making the figure resemble a Janus. The king's back is turned to Eric, so although Eric can see the unhappy king, and can long to give that king the gift that will save him from unhappiness, the king cannot see Eric, and Lord Droon stands guard to insure that Eric will not reach the king. In the same way, when children face an angry, rejecting parent, they may see (or think they see) behind that anger a helpless, depressed parent whom they long to rescue by sharing the secret knowledge of childhood joy, but the child may also feel that the approach to the "true" parent is always blocked by the side of the parent that is forever angrily rejecting the child.
The next illustration, though not as remarkable, develops the theme further, for we see that Droon has locked Eric into a prison house under the false pretext that Eric is being quarantined for measles. This may represent the child reader's feeling that she has been locked up by her parent's mistaken opinion of her, an opinion, propagated by the bad side of the parent, that the child is somehow sick. Or, on the gestalt level, the imprisoned child could represent locked up or repressed childlike qualities within a person, qualities that the overserious inner parent mistakenly condemns as sick. Measles' association as a specifically childhood disease supports either interpretation.
The poor child, then, has been condemned as sick, locked into a prison, and separated from the good parent by a bad parent that stands eternal guard. How will the child rescue the parent? The answer is richly suggestive: Eric fools Lord Droon by disguising himself in adult clothes! On the familial level, a child feels that he must maintain a token facade of acceptable grown-up behavior if he wishes to get past, or appease, his parent's anger, and thus have an opportunity both to receive the parent's approval and to share the hidden secrets of childhood joy—the blissful imagination. Or, on the gestalt level, we could see an individual who feels that she can express her childlike qualities and drives only if she somehow disguises them as acceptable adult behaviors (we certainly see enough of this type of sublimation around us). Or, on an autobiographical level, could we not see here a symbol for Seuss himself—the hero who masquerades as a respectable adult, when within he is actually a child smuggling childhood imagination and joy to an over-Nizzarded world?
In any case, when Eric sneaks past Droon to return the stilts to the king, the king regains his will to live, rallies his patrol cats, and drives off the Nizzards from the Dike Tree roots, thus saving the kingdom from a flood. At the end of the story, the despotic adult-figure is locked up, and we see the king and Eric happily playing together on their stilts. The child has vanquished the bad (side of the) parent by returning the joys of the childlike imagination to the good (side of the) parent, and this rescue has freed the parent to once again express his or her blocked and hidden love for the child. The elements of love and rescue make this a more compelling solution to the dilemma of the rejected child than Seuss found in either Mulberry Street or The 500 Hats, and perhaps because he has discovered this satisfying resolution, Seuss abandons for a time the theme that he has pursued so single-mindedly; however, he returns to it again 21 years later to write one of his best-sellers—Green Eggs and Ham.
Green Eggs and Ham
Within the 51-word vocabulary of Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss reintroduces the most important aspects of his first three books—the grouchy rejecting parent and the happy accepting parent, the rejected child and the child's mission to rescue the parent, the healing power of the childlike imagination and the association of the imagination with childhood libidinal drives—perhaps even a subversion and simultaneous reinforcement of the reading process. As with the other three books, we will treat the text's illustrations as "illuminations"—to borrow a term from Maurice Sendak—to notice how they tell more than the verbal text and relate stories of their own.7
One aspect of Green Eggs and Ham that sets it apart from the other three stories is the androgyny of the child protagonist, Sam. Sam has no physical characteristics that mark him or her as either male or female, and Seuss never uses a gender-specific pronoun when referring to Sam. Thus, although I believe females could read beyond the specifically male characters in Seuss's first three books to make an androgynous identification with the overall parent-child relationship, the readers of Green Eggs and Ham are even more free to view Sam as male or female or both. I have not had to look far to be convinced that females often do view Sam as female. For example, one of novelist Pat Cadigan's female protagonists, Samantha, goes by the nickname of Sam-I-Am. Even closer to home, a Samantha in one of my children's literature classes went by the nickname Sam, and has a picture of Sam and the motto "Sam-I-Am" tattooed on her ankle (I use this example with kind permission). These examples not only bespeak Sam's androgynous nature but also suggest the almost cult-like devotion the book has inspired in several generations of readers.
I have more difficulty viewing the grouch as androgynous, even though Seuss never associates the grouch with a gender-specific pronoun. First, the grouch wears a tall top hat, which in our society usually carries masculine association. Second, the grouch sits in an easy chair reading a newspaper, which has almost become a stereotype in our society for the tired father who comes home from work and doesn't want to be disturbed—the famous "missing American father." (Unfortunately, part of this stereotype probably developed because the tired mother came home from work and then went into the kitchen to cook supper for everyone else!) Nevertheless, I will attempt grammatically to portray both the grouch's and Sam's androgyny by referring to them alternately as male and female.
Green Eggs and Ham begins with an illustration of a small smiling creature dashing around a corner while standing on the back of a smiling beast. (This illustration on page 3 and the last illustration, on page 62, are the only single-page illustrations. Every other illustration comprises a two-page spread.) In her right hand the small creature holds a hat, and in the left a sign proclaiming, "I am Sam." Beginning readers are at this moment teaching their eyes to move from left to right along the verbal text so that they can read these words, and Seuss reinforces the reading process by making the words themselves part of the sign dashing across the page from left to right. Furthermore, the child reading the words identifies with the small creature riding the beast, and because Sam's riding seems effortless and joyful, the reading seems effortless and joyful as well. Reading, just like the smiling friendly beast, will take the reader for a pleasure ride. However, the beast resembles a dog, a subservient creature that obeys authority with good cheer, and this begins to hint that the reinforcement of reading may not go entirely unchallenged by other opposing elements of the text.
For example, when we turn the page (4-5), we meet a bigger creature—the parent figure—sitting in an easy chair reading a newspaper. He looks tired and unhappy, and I suggest that children see adults this way more often than adults might like to think. Seuss makes the unhappy parent's newspaper seem dry and lifeless, and by thus associating reading with dull joyless activities and grouchy people (shades of Mulberry Street ), Seuss may encourage rebellion against the same reading process that he seemed to privilege on the previous page. In fact, if we look carefully, we can see that the grouch's dull, depressing newspaper is actually a beginning reader, an alphabet book with "A, B, C, D, E, F, G" written across the top. In addition, this illustration already hints of parental rejection, for the introduction of the unhappy parent seems to push Sam halfway off the page—an unusual but effective compositional decision. In some ways, this illustration could represent the temporary defeat of happiness, because the grouch frowns and we can no longer see the smiles of either Sam or the beast.
But the tide of battle changes with the turn of the page (6-7). Here Sam comes dashing back into the picture, but with several important transformations. First, he no longer rides a dog, but rather a large cat, an animal that Seuss always associates with anarchy and the imagination. Second, Sam no longer rides from left to right, but rather from right to left, thus introducing a note of rebellion against the reading process. Third, Sam's sign no longer reads, "I am Sam," but rather inverts the syntax to "Sam I am," reinforcing the subversion. Although these elements combine to challenge the gloomy mood of the previous illustration, we should also note that the friendly smile that Sam offers the startled parent injects an element of invitation into the challenge—"I am here to disrupt, and I invite you to join in the fun." The grouch seems temporarily unnerved, and the dull alphabet letters on his newspaper seem to have transformed themselves into the name Marco. Could the assertive Sam-I-Am represent the triumphant return of the previously timid and defeated Marco?
When we turn the page (8-9), we find that Sam has partially effected his subversion against reading, for as the result of his right-to-left passage across the page, the newspaper now lies scattered on the floor. Nevertheless, the parent here reclaims some of her lost authority. Her countenance glares, and her fist slams the easy chair, as she cries, "That Sam-I-Am! / That Sam-I-Am!/I do not like / that Sam-I-am!" At long last, Seuss no longer equivocates about the rejecting parent; we could not ask for a simpler, more direct statement of rejection. I suggest that many children have experienced almost identical situations. For example we can picture a young child named Sam jockeying for attention by running back and forth in front of a parent who is reading the newspaper, only to have the parent yell at her to go away. Even if the parent says something nonpersonal—"I've been working all day! Can't I have a moment's peace?"—I submit that Sam may hear "That Sam! That Sam! I do not like that Sam!"
At this point, then, I believe that children hold their breaths as they turn the page (10-11). The parent has come right out and said it—"I do not like Sam!" The statement hangs like a cloud. What will happen next? How will Sam cope with the rejection? What will he do? What will he say?
He says, "Do you like green eggs and ham?"
The key to my reading of this story lies in the gap created by this non sequitur response, for the gap forces the child reader to transfer the anxiety about whether the parent will learn to like Sam, to whether the parent will learn to like green eggs and ham. In other words, throughout the rest of the text, every time that Sam asks, "Would you eat them in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox," and so forth, the child hears herself ask, "Please like me, parent," and every time that the grouch responds, "I do not like them, Sam-I-Am," the child hears her parent respond, "I do not like you."
Because Seuss transfers the parent's rejection to the green eggs and ham, we should consider this strange dish carefully. For example, why are the eggs green? Perhaps their unrealistic color highlights their function as an imaginary food, and thus encourages us to see them as a representation of Sam's imaginative world. Furthermore, in order to persuade the parent to like the green eggs and ham, Sam takes him on an increasingly imaginative ride, and thus we come to associate the green eggs and ham with a celebration of the imagination.
In addition, we might also acknowledge the orality of eggs and ham. They promise a tangible pleasure to the mouth, a pleasure that Seuss on one level ties to the oral pleasure of reading the text, especially since the eggs and ham move from left to right. On the other hand, the entrance of the eggs and ham causes the parent's newspaper to blow away, thus intimating that Sam wishes the more tangible oral gratification of eating to replace the dry orality of reading.8 We have seen this tense ambiguity toward reading before in Seuss's texts, and it increases as Green Eggs and Ham progresses.9
However, the defeat of the parent's newspaper on page 9 may represent other things in addition to the oral gratification of eating; that is, it could represent the beginning of the child's rescue of the parent, especially through restoring to the parent the joys of the imagination. I have suggested already that children may be highly empathetic to the sadness that they sense (or think they sense) behind the irritable moods of their parents, and we have seen Seuss symbolize this in an angry Lord Droon facing Eric, while a sad King who needs Eric's help is hidden behind Droon. Similarly, in the four illustrations of the parent up to this point in Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss makes him look angry only in one, and depressed in the others. As the newspaper, and the dry unimaginative factual world that it symbolizes, seemed to make the parent unhappy, part of Sam's rescue is to get rid of the newspaper and to offer the parent a better alternative. Sam offers this alternative on a long hand that he reels out of a fishing rod. Not only is the child fishing for the parent's attention, she is reaching out to him, and the alternative that she offers mixes into a potent brew ingredients such as the gratification of libidinal drives, a rebellion against reading and other authoritarian processes, a celebration of the imagination, and an acceptance of the child.
I think we can see this complex of associations operating in several other parts of the text, such as the train. For example, as the child reader sees the train rushing powerfully along its track from left to right, he can associate the train with the reading process, linking elements as a sentence does. At first, this association seems to equate reading with the pleasures of the imagination—libidinal and otherwise. Yet, as the joy and anarchy of the ride increase, the left-to-right track becomes less straight and stable, finally ending in a midair terminus that tosses the train and its inhabitants into chaotic positions (44-50). Significantly, the parent will not eat the green eggs and ham until the train is off the track, and everyone is floating haphazardly in the water. This may link oral gratification and the celebration of the imagination to a chaotic state that rebels against the fixed track of verbal text, especially as Seuss puts the illustration in which the parent finally samples the green eggs and ham onto the only page in the book without verbal text.
However, the most significant aspect of Sam's journey with the parent involves the celebratory happiness of Sam's imaginative world, for we must remember that in Seuss the child seeks the parent's acceptance not only in order to fulfill the child's own need for love, but in order to rescue the parent from unhappiness, and that this rescue can only be effected by returning the parent to the joys of the childlike imagination. In Green Eggs and Ham the child's ride of the imagination leads to bliss, just as in Mulberry Street the child's parade of the imagination runs into Bliss Street—but this time the child does not fail to share that bliss with the parent. We can easily sense the blissful quality of Sam's imaginative world, for every denizen of that world wears an expression that Jonathan Cott calls "blissed out," or that Karla Kuskin describes as "a smile you might find on the Mona Lisa after her first martini" (Cott 9). The mouse smiles in a house. The fox smiles in a box. The goat smiles in a car. The people in the train smile even while the train is flipping upside down into the smokestack of a boat. In fact, the captain of the ruined boat bestows a friendly smile on the fox, even as he is thrown off his boat by the crash (47). In the illustration on pages 48 and 49, everyone is flying everywhere into the water, some upside down, but the only person not smiling serenely is the parent—who has still not eaten the green eggs and ham, and thus has not yet gained the secret bliss of Sam's anarchic childlike imagination.
Much is at stake, then, when the child reader turns to pages 54 and 55 to see the sad-looking parent reaching toward Sam and saying, "Sam! / If you will let me be, / I will try them. / You will see." I think many a child has heard similar weary responses when he has tried to get his parent to play with him: "All right, Sam. I will play with you if you will leave me alone afterwards." For the child who has been fishing for attention, this is the moment when the parent "bites." But will the parent in Green Eggs and Ham bite? The child reader turns the page (56-57) to see the characters all holding their breaths as the sad parent eyes a green egg on his fork. The pages contain no verbal text, but the child reader holds her breath along with Sam's friends, for she pictures her own parent putting aside his newspaper grudgingly to give her a few minutes of attention. If only her parent realized that she is trying to give something precious to him—a return to his lost bliss.
When we turn the page (58-59), we see that the parent has eaten the whole egg and is now smiling for the first time. In subsequent pictures, Seuss reduces the number of lines around the parent's mouth and eyes so that he looks increasingly younger and less weary. I suggest that every time the grump in Green Eggs and Ham eats the egg, somewhere a tired, grumpy parent puts down his or her newspaper to grudgingly give his or her son or daughter a few minutes of play time, and starts feeling genuine happiness and contentment for the first time that day. Every time the grump eats the egg, somewhere a child's heart feels gladness as she sees sadness, worry, weariness, and years fall away from the face of the parent she loves. Somewhere, if only in the child reader's imagination, a parent stops being angry with his child, and starts to like her instead. For as the child reads Green Eggs and Ham, she takes a blissful imaginative journey into a realm where her parents embrace her imagination, thus sharing her joy, and loving her in the realm where she truly thinks, feels, and lives.
We see, then, that every act of reading Green Eggs and Ham might relate to two or three levels of a celebration of the childlike imagination. First, the theme of the text itself celebrates the childlike imagination, not only by privileging it as the dominant dynamic within the text, but by positing it as the only force that could restore a parent's happiness and heal the depression that makes the parent seem to reject the child. Second, while children read this text about the imagination, they go on blissful imaginative journeys of their own in which they see themselves sharing the bliss of imagination with their parents, thus making their grouchy, depressed parents happy and receiving the love the depression was blocking. The bliss of imagination can make a parent love a child, even if only in the child reader's blissful imagination. This, of course, suggests the third possible level of blissful imagination that the text may encourage. Although it may be true that a parent's love is hidden or blocked by weariness or depression, it also may be true that the parent simply does not love his or her child; thus, the third level of blissful imagination that the text might encourage is not simply the imaginative act of releasing a parent's hidden or blocked love, but the wish-projection of hidden or blocked love where there is none. Either of the last two possibilities might explain the almost cultlike devotion Green Eggs and Ham has inspired.
As the book ends, Seuss has the parent repeat every particular of Sam's ride, and affirm that she would eat green eggs in all of the places Sam has taken her:
And I would eat them in a boat.
And I would eat them with a goat …
And I will eat them in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
They are so good, so good, you see!
So I will eat them in a box.
And I will eat them with a fox.
And I will eat them in a house.
And I will eat them with a mouse.
And I will eat them here and there.
Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!
In this way, Seuss makes sure that we understand that the parent has not only eaten the egg, but that she has joyfully accepted Sam's entire imaginative world.
Finally, on the last page, the platter is empty, the parent is serenely happy, and the child receives the gratitude of the rescued parent: "I do so like / green eggs and ham! / Thank you! / Thank you, / Sam-I-am!" (62). Seuss illustrates both characters with their eyes closed, to show not only serenity, but to make their happiness seem dreamlike, and parallel to the happiness that the child reader is experiencing as he daydreams about a resolution with his own parent through the vehicle of the text.
And, most important, although the verbal text of this last page states that the parent has learned to like green eggs and ham, the child reader knows that the parent has actually learned to like something far more wonderful. In the illustration, the parent's arm is now around Sam.
- Peter Neumeyer ascribes Seuss's potency to a "sense of anarchy" (Lamb A18), whereas Loreene Lovette Ort suggests that Seuss moves from order to anarchy and then back to order for the purpose of giving the child the pleasure of "secure suspense"; that is, the child may experience the thrilling anxieties of anarchy, while feeling secure that order will prevail in the end (135-37). I would add that the texts not only move sequentially from order to anarchy and back to order, but also that many parts of the texts incubate order and chaos, and other hierarchical oppositions, simultaneously.
- These simultaneous oppositions may be more prevalent in Seuss's work than has been generally realized. For example, Michael Steig takes exception to I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, a book illustrated by Barney Toby, and written by Seuss under the name Theo. LeSieg, a play upon Seuss's real name—Theodore Seuss Geisel. Steig claims that the ending, in which the boy throws the items of his wild daydreams into a garbage can, makes the book function as a cautionary tale against nonconformity, and even against the use of the imagination (140). Although Steig has done well to notice in a Seuss text something that many would never attribute to Seuss—a rejection of the imagination—we might also notice elements of the text that hold both subversion and privileging of the imagination in unresolved tension. For example, to name but one simple element, a garbage can carries negative connotations on only one side of its hierarchical ordering. On another, it could represent a place of treasures and fascinations, especially to children.
- For a time Seuss attempted to pursue the life of an academic at Oxford, an occupation that, in Seuss's own words, was filled with "astonishing irrelevance" and ran counter to the grain of his imaginative impulses, as is witnessed by the fact that his notebooks from this attempt are filled with doodles rather than notes. Relevant to a consideration of gender-specific attitudes toward the imagination is the fact that Seuss's father provided the impetus for this venture, whereas Seuss's mother expressed relief and encouragement when Seuss finally abandoned this attempt and dropped out to pursue his creative instincts. In Seuss's own words, she "said she was so happy that I would never be a stuffed shirt." It was partially the urgings of another female, Seuss's future wife, Helen Palmer, that gave Seuss the courage to "follow his natural inclinations away from academia" (MacDonald 9-10).
Some readers may wish to consider the theoretical psychosexual implications of a father-figure who is threatened by something on the son-figure that "always pointed straight up in the air." The bigger Bartholomew's hats get, the more abundantly the feathers seem to spurt out of the top, while King Derwin's angry response is to shoot "huge arrows" at the hat, a solution that, although realistically improbable, could be symbolically consistent with a phallic duel. Also consistent within such a theoretical framework is the father-figure's decision to solve the problem by cutting off Bartholomew's head, a suggestion of castration and Oedipal revenge. In fact, the very first picture of King Derwin not only shows him high up on a hill—the parent, or even the superego, position we remember from the stairs before the parent in Mulberry Street—but also depicts him standing below a huge ax, thus from the beginning associating him with either the threat of Oedipal revenge, or with the censoring power of the superego.
Those who subscribe to such a theoretical framework could thus read a classic Oedipal challenge into Bartholomew's unruly hat, or in a different interpretation might even consider the possibility of a homosexual presentation toward the father, with a longing for the father's acceptance and the fear of the father's angry rejection of the phallus.
On the other hand, a slight rereading of classic psychoanalytic theory could allow us to acknowledge the possibility of psychosexual imagery in the upright feather without forcing any of the above conclusions. For example, the feather could conceivably be seen as a symbol of the libido in a wider sense than sexuality, as a symbol of a person's life forces, the deepest sense of a person's identity. If we can justify associating the upright feather with both the beauty of the imagination and with the libido, we might see within this story a suggestion that the act of imagining is a part of our libido, that it is one of the several primal urges that fuel our will to live and constitute the deepest roots of our sense of self. Within this framework, we might reinterpret the possible suggestions of castration in the story as a correlative to the psychic mutilation that our phallocratic society effects upon its males when its narrow conception of masculinity drives them to cut off the imaginative impulses of their being.
- For a more optimistic reading of this last illustration see Mavis Reimer's interpretation of Bartholomew's trials as a journey of growth, and therefore the gold as a symbol of spiritual wealth: "The roads the child Bartholomew travels are paths of exploration rather than streets of possession.… And it seems to me that, in front of the silhouetted figures of his parents, there is the faint suggestion of a path meandering past the house and on into the fields beyond" (141). This reading reveals Seuss's extraordinary ability to suggest powerful oppositions within a seemingly simple framework.
- For any who doubt a child's ability to arrive at such a perspicuous apprehension, I recommend Gareth B. Matthews's Philosophy and the Young Child, especially the section on children's reasoning ability (23-36).
- Maurice Sendak is quoted as having said: "There are basically two types of illustration. First, there is the direct no-nonsense approach that puts the facts of the case into simple, down-to-earth images: Miss Muffet, her tuffet, curds, whey, spider and all. Then there is, for want of a better term, illumination. As with a poem set to song, in which every shade and nuance is given greater meaning by music, so pictures can interpret texts" (Lanes 109).
- Of course, the green eggs and ham are not the only edible-looking elements of the text. Part of Seuss's genius is that he appeals to children's orality throughout his books by giving many of his objects soft, rounded "gummable" textures. In addition, he may appeal to children's anality (witness the squishy tree tops) or even their sexuality (witness the trains and tunnels and smokestacks). In all of these cases, the appeal sets up a tension between a physical gratification that is preferable to reading, and the attainment of these pleasures on an imaginative level as part of the pleasures of reading.
- Readers who wish to pursue the possible gender-specific psychosexual implications suggested in note 4 on Bartholomew's feather might see the piece of ham with an egg on either side as a phallic symbol. Within such a theoretical framework, the hats of the son and father figure might be analyzed for suggestions of a phallic duel. For example, does the father's hat seem to wilt on page 6 when Sam presents his challenge? Does it tend to regain height when the father-figure regains authority on page 9? Could the odd compositional arrangement of page 5 that removes Sam's head from the page suggest castration? Conversely, could Sam's presentation of the green eggs and ham be interpreted as a homosexual invitation? If so, how might the father's posture on page 27 be interpreted? However, as I mentioned in note 4, it may be possible to view the eggs and ham as a sexual symbol (perhaps even as a suggestion of the uterus and ovaries) without having to accede to the possibilities of classic psychosexual complexes. A sexual symbol here might be seen as Seuss's way of associating the imagination with the child's libidinal drives, not only making us want the imagination to triumph, but causing us to associate the imagination with the will to live and with the deepest roots of personal identity. Perhaps in Seuss, the parent's acceptance of the child, of the child's sexuality, and of the child's imagination become indistinguishable.
Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Random House, 1977.
Cott, Jonathan. Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Lamb, J. R. "Dr. Seuss Dies." San Diego Tribune Sept. 25, 1991: A18.
Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980.
LeSieg, Theodore [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. I Wish That I Had Duck Feet. Illustrated by Barney Toby. New York: Random House, 1965.
MacDonald, Ruth K. Dr. Seuss. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Matthews, Gareth B. Philosophy and the Young Child. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U.P., 1980.
Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens: U. Georgia P., 1988.
Ort, Lorrene Love. "Theodor Seuss Geisel: The Children's Dr. Seuss." Elementary English 32 (1955): 135-42.
Reimer, Mavis. "Dr. Seuss' The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins: Of Hats and Kings." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Vol. 3, Picture Books. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1989. 132-41.
Dr. Seuss [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Eau Claire, Wisc.: E. M. Hale for Vanguard Press, 1938.
——. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. New York: Random House, 1937.
——. Green Eggs and Ham. New York: Random House, 1960.
——. Horton Hatches the Egg. New York: Random House, 1940.
——. The King's Stilts. New York: Random House, 1939.
——. McElligott's Pool. New York: Random House, 1947.
Steig, Michael. "Dr. Seuss's Attack on the Imagination: I Wish That I Had Duck Feet and the Cautionary Tale." Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association: University of Florida, March 1982. Children's Literature Association (U.S.). New Rochelle, NY: Iona College, 1983.
Stone, Lawrence. The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642. New York: Harper, 1972.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. "The Beautiful Wassilissa." Problems of the Feminine in Fairy Tales. New York: Spring Publications, 1972. 143-157. Rpt. in Cinderella Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: U. Wisconsin P., 1988. 200-218.
Philip Nel (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Nel, Philip. "Dada Knows Best: Growing up 'Surreal' with Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 150-84.
[In the following essay, Nel argues that Seuss's children's works display an affinity for the tenets of the twentieth-century avant-garde movement, Dadaism, and modern surrealism.]
Placing Dr. Seuss—the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel—in the company of Dadaists and Surrealists may seem a curious idea to some. Geisel (1904-1991) is best known as the author of roughly forty-seven children's books, but dada and surrealism are best known as part of a philosophical-artistic movement in twentieth-century art—the historical avant-garde. Although their images were later embraced by advertisers,1 most surrealists and dadaists maintained an oppositional role with respect to mass culture; indeed, most were sympathetic with socialists and communists. Seuss, on the other hand, was a very successful capitalist and very much a part of American mass culture. He became nationally known for his "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" advertising campaigns for Flit bug spray in the 1920s and 1930s, he founded the immediately profitable Beginner Books division of Random House in 1958, and by the time of his death "Dr. Seuss" was a multimillion-dollar industry. But although he profited from mass culture, Geisel did not endorse all of its attendant values. For example, The Lorax advocates environmental conservation, The Sneetches criticizes anti-Semitism, and the Butter Battle Book agitates against nuclear proliferation not because addressing these topics would sell more books but because Seuss wished to provoke his readers into rethinking the dominant beliefs of their society.
Highlighting the connection between Dr. Seuss and the twentieth-century avant-garde calls our attention to his role as a cultural critic. It is this essay's contention that Geisel's work draws on what Andreas Huyssen has called "the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avant-garde" (After the Great Divide 3), a movement initiated by the dadaists in the second decade of the twentieth century. The term historical avant-garde is, in Peter Bürger's words, an attempt to "re-integrate art into the life process" in order to engender in the audience a "critical cognition of reality" (50). Aware that "reality" is itself shaped by ideology, Seuss is a successful example of an artist who—in the tradition of the historical avant-garde—tried to shake his audience out of their habits of thought and cause them to rethink their assumptions.
We need to be reminded of this aspect of Seuss because recent "Seuss" works—books patterned on those of Seuss but written by others—have transformed him from a subversive force into a moralist who supports the status quo. Seuss's tales have always contained morals, but they have delivered these morals by raising questions and by provoking their readers. Recent books patterned on Seuss have done exactly the opposite. For example, take the first offspring of Nickelodeon's "Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss," a work called The Song of the Zubble-Wump (1996). Originally an episode of the show and now a book, this new story uses Seuss's characters and some ersatz Seussian rhymes to tell an overtly moralistic story unlike any the original Doctor ever wrote. In fact, Seuss's first published children's book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, rejected by twenty-seven publishers before Vanguard Press took it on in 1937, was rejected precisely because editors thought it lacked "moral or message" and contained nothing that would help in "transforming children into good citizens" (Geisel, quoted in Morgan and Morgan 81). The Song of the Zubble-Wump, however, seems intent on turning Seuss into William Bennett; as a result, morals and messages take center stage. The once-iconoclastic Cat in the Hat arrives to deliver a line about the gift of life, an overtly religious reference that Geisel would never have permitted.2 The Cat in the Hat rescues a Zubble-Wump egg from the Grinch and solemnly tells us, "That egg is a miracle." The Cat also delivers a lecture to the Grinch and to a little girl-muppet named Megan, who has broken the egg while trying to wrest it from the Grinch. This in turn prompts Megan—apparently to prove that she has learned her lesson—to offer us a speech about sharing that concludes with "amen." This scene is ridiculous: the Cat is an anarchist, not a moralist.3 His persona does become less rambunctious in the later books, but he is always more interested in challenging the rules than in laying down the law. Original Seuss books offer not "amens" but questions to provoke the reader.4
As a way of debunking this imaginatively stale, Book of Virtues version of Dr. Seuss, this essay revives the subversive Seuss in the following four ways. The first section looks at the stylistic similarities between Dr. Seuss's paintings and those of the twentieth-century avant-garde, arguing that Seuss shares their criticisms of the artistic establishment. Using a comparison between the work of the Belgian surrealist René Magritte and Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book, section two illustrates how Seuss uses ambiguity as a way of challenging his audience; that is, lack of resolution in Seuss's work interpellates readers into an active critical role and invites them to take up the more rebellious sentiments of the narrative. The third section locates Seuss in the tradition of English surrealists such as Herbert Read, who looked, as Seuss did, to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as literary antecedents. Drawing on nonsense literature's close association with the avant-garde, Seuss's work reveals the "rational" adult world as unsound and encourages his readers to do the same. The concluding section examines the effects of the recent merchandising frenzy (of which Zubble-Wump is a part) in light of postmodernity: some critics contend that capitalist culture has co-opted the avant-garde, but Seuss's work demonstrates the possibilities of ideology critique in a "postmodern" era.5 While the new Seuss book—which was written by Jim Henson Productions—exemplifies pastiche in a Jamesonian sense, a recent Seuss exhibit in New York used pastiche to critical ends and offered some hope for the survival of Seuss's avant-garde edge in the mass market.
"The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon": A Dadaist at Heart
One might say that the avant-garde moved in just down the street from Theodor Seuss Geisel: in late 1936, just before Seuss's first "children's book," To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published, the Museum of Modern Art launched Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, the first major American exhibition of surrealist art. It stayed at MoMA into 1937, after which it toured the country. For those who did not visit Fantastic Art during its national tour, the American media did its best to bring the experience to them. The exhibition prompted a New Yorker cover and cartoons in January 1937, mentions in The New York Times, several stories in Life magazine, and newsreels from both Paramount and Universal that were shown in theaters nationwide (Marquis 173). Although the popular press seized on the entertainment value of the works, many in the artistic community took the work seriously, and, as Martica Sawin and others have shown, MoMA's Fantastic Art show marked the beginning of surrealism as a widely felt influence in American art.6 In the later 1930s and early 1940s, New York would become a veritable beachhead for the European avant-garde when they fled from Hitler's armies to live in exile in America (Sawin ix-xv). Some returned after World War II, but some remained, and their presence made an impact—political and aesthetic—on American artists. As Meyer Schapiro, a neighbor and friend to many of the surrealists-in-exile, said, "It wasn't automatism that the Americans learned from the Surrealists, but how to be heroic" (Sawin ix). Although it may not be fair to argue that Dr. Seuss was influenced by the European avant-garde's heroism, it is not hard to imagine that, as a painter and cartoonist living in New York from 1928 through 1942, Seuss felt the influence of this new artistic presence. PM, the pro-labor New York newspaper in which Seuss published several hundred political cartoons during 1941 and 1942, ran several stories on the exiled avant-garde during this same period, including drawings by André Breton and other surrealists. And, as an artist whose lifelong interest in art produced not only original paintings but a television special on modern art,7 it seems likely that Seuss would have been interested in visiting such widely reviewed and discussed shows.
When Seuss's paintings were published in The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in 1995, many were struck by the echoes of cubism, surrealism, and dada in his work, influences that probably date to this period in his life. At the opening of an exhibition of his paintings in 1976, a television reporter asked Geisel, "Do you associate yourself with any of your characters?" He answered, "Yes, especially the devious ones" (Morgan and Morgan 232). It is appropriate that Dr. Seuss should speak of deviousness at an exhibition of his artwork, because his art draws on the avant-garde. Titles such as The Rather Odd Myopic Woman Riding Piggyback on One of Helen's Many Cats and The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon resemble titles of dadaist work, and some of these works are as disturbing as anything produced by the Dadaists and the Surrealists.8 In one untitled work that explores the effects of sadism on women,9 sadism seems to be complicit with industry and with men in military uniforms, but—like many surrealist works—the painting creates an analogy while stopping short of indicating precisely what the analogy means. That said, industry and the military seem likely targets. Indeed, the tendency of the creatures in this painting to metamorphose into other objects—often into machines—recalls Kurt Seligmann's Life Goes On (1942), as well as some of the Exquisite Corpse experiments by André Breton and his surrealist group. Or consider the oppressively angular, geometric shapes of Seuss's Minor Cat in a High-Yield Emerald Mine (undated). The images in this painting share a stylistic similarity with Oscar Domínguez's Nostalgia for Space (1939).
In addition to the stylistic and titular similarities of his work with theirs, Geisel, like the Surrealists, valued the unschooled artist and held "high art" in a certain contempt (as shown by his "Escarobus" hoax, described in the following paragraph). André Breton and others sought out those whose talents had not been "corrupted" by formal artistic training (self-taught artists such as Yves Tanguy), claiming that the absence of training helps liberate the artist from bourgeois assumptions. Although such a position clearly idealizes the "untutored" as a space free of ideological constraints, Breton nonetheless has a point. Inasmuch as adherence to artistic norms indicates an acceptance of the ideological assumptions behind those norms, the self-taught artist may be more open to new experiences. As Breton writes in Surrealism andPainting (1928), "experience itself has been assigned limits. It inhabits a cage increasingly difficult to coax it out of" (Nadeau 80n). Echoing Breton's idea that formal training inhibits artistic development, Geisel said:
If I'd gone to art school I'd never have been successful. In fact, I did attend one art class in high school. And at one point during the class I turned the painting I was working on upside down—I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but actually I was checking the balance: If something is wrong with the composition upside down, there's something wrong with it the other way. And the teacher said, "Theodor, real artists don't turn their paintings upside down." It's the only reason I went on—to prove that teacher wrong.
And at least in the case of Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), Geisel's openness to unusual experience proved him right. As he recalls, "a sketch of an elephant … happened to fall on top of a sketch of a tree." When he asked himself, "An elephant in a tree! What's he doing here?" (Hopkins 113), the story of Horton began.
In addition to a willingness to embrace accident, Geisel, like the dadaists, was openly skeptical of the artistic establishment. He no doubt would have been amused by Duchamp's urinal, submitted under the title of "Fountain" for the 1917 Independents Exhibition in New York, and the scandalized public's response to it. Geisel's provocations may not have been quite so public, but he did challenge accepted notions of high modernist art. For example, in apparent accord with the German dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck's claim that "art …, regarded from a serious point of view, is a large-scale swindle" (Motherwell 43), Geisel created a moderate-scale swindle as a way of proving exactly this point. Indeed, the story of Geisel's hoax is a classic example of his playfully antagonistic attitude toward the art establishment. In the mid-1950s, not long after moving to La Jolla, California, Edward Longstreth, a friend of Geisel's and a patron of the La Jolla Museum of Art, "launched into a condescending lecture about modern art one evening." Geisel rebelled by tricking his friend into buying some work of "the great Mexican modernist," Escarobus—a fictional painter whom Geisel invented on the spot. Geisel claimed to have five Escarobuses and let slip that he intended to sell them in order to get the money to Escarobus to help him pay his back taxes. Longstreth took the bait, and Geisel "stayed up most of the night creating the world's first Escarobus," which—as Judith and Neil Morgan describe it in their biography of Seuss—sounds like a parody of the sort of modernist work revered at the time: "[Geisel] peeled the wood off a soft pencil, scraped the lead lengthwise across art paper, dipped small hunks of bread in the vodka he was drinking, and dragged the soggy bread across the paper. Next he painted [Lady] Godivas on the smudges, bisecting and trisecting them so that it was impossible to tell that they were naked ladies" (142-43). Later that week, he sold the painting to Long-streth for five hundred dollars. Longstreth was so impressed that he offered to buy the rest.10 As Geisel said to New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn several years later, "That experience made me suspect that a lot of modern art is malarkey. If I can do it myself, it can't be any good" (Kahn 53).
Geisel's hoax worked on two levels: in one sense, it fooled the self-proclaimed expert on modern art. In a larger sense, his hoax showed that standards of aesthetic quality rest more on the critic's habits of perceiving than on anything inherent in the work; that is, by creating a painting that appeared to conform to conventions of great modern art, Geisel ridiculed the notion of a category of "great modern art." Congruent with the goals of the avant-garde, Geisel mocked the notion of taste on which high art depends. In his "Escarobus" challenge, he demonstrated a principle articulated by Marcel Duchamp in an interview conducted in 1956: "Repeat the same thing long enough and it becomes taste.… [G]ood or bad is of no importance because it is always good for some people and bad for others. Quality is not important, it is always taste" (Duchamp 134).
Calculated Ambiguity: How Seuss and Magritte Provoke the Audience
By the time of Geisel's prank in the mid-1950s, tastes had changed and the works of surrealism and dada had been canonized as high art. Although acceptance by mainstream culture may minimize the original works' subversiveness, such acceptance does not necessarily neutralize the subversive potential of the avant-garde techniques that these works introduced. In fact, long after the works of the original historical avant-garde became museum pieces, the goals of the surrealists and the dadaists continued to inspire generations of artists to create art that challenged the social and political mores of the day. For, in addition to the goal of challenging canons of taste, the historical avant-garde wished to challenge habits of thought, to make their audience rethink its assumptions about the world. One way to achieve this effect was to create an ambiguous image—"an image that resists any explication and that simultaneously resists indifference," as René Magritte has said of his paintings (Torczyner 126). Like Magritte, Geisel consciously harnessed the power of the ambiguous as a way of provoking his readers. As he once said of his compositional technique, he enjoyed approaching a book "with a situation or conflict and then [I] write myself into an impossible position so there is no [apparent] way of ending [the book]" (Morgan and Morgan 128-29).
As an illustration of the power of the ambiguous image, let us look at three works by Seuss and one by Magritte: a Seuss cartoon from 1941, a Seuss painting from 1968, Seuss's The Butter Battle Book (1984), and Magritte's The Art of Living (1967). In contrast to a similar image in Seuss's 1968 painting Fooling Nobody, the cartoon, "We Always Were Suckers for Ridiculous Hats" (April 1941), is not at all ambiguous. One of the first cartoons Seuss drew for the daily New York newspaper PM, this cartoon uses the image of the "Ostrich Bonnet" to argue that Charles Lindbergh's isolationist stance is akin to sticking one's head in the ground. To ignore the threat of Hitler is to behave like an ostrich, Seuss tells us. A parallel image cropped up twenty-seven years later in Seuss's watercolor Fooling Nobody, but now the target has changed from Lindbergh to nuclear weapons. The "atom" image that appears in each eye and the year of the painting—1968—suggest that nuclear arms are a likely subject. Unlike "Suckers for Ridiculous Hats," the Fooling Nobody image is ambiguous; instead of recognizing a person wearing a false head, the viewer is now unsure who is wearing whom. Both the "bonnet" head and the lower creature's head appear to be conscious. Unlike the cartoon, the painting does not present a mask that is simply hiding the face.
Fooling Nobody uses juxtaposition to pose a question that it leaves its audience to answer. As Magritte's paintings often do, Seuss's watercolor places images in tension but leaves that tension unresolved. In Magritte's The Art of Living (1967), for example, a spherical "head" floats like a balloon above what appears to be an empty suit of clothes. Is the "head" the "idea" of the "man" below it? Or—since the suit is empty—is the man a figment of the floating head's imagination? The Art of Living does not answer the questions it poses, and neither does Fooling Nobody. The latter employs this very sort of juxtaposition to address nuclear anxieties but encourages the anxieties to linger instead of resolving them. If the creature with the atom-shaped eyes is a projection of the lower one, then the atoms may represent the latter's nuclear anxieties; that is, the lower creature's apparent calm is—as the title suggests—fooling nobody. If, on the other hand, the lower is a projection of the "puppet" creature above, then the title is ironic, because the apparently calm demeanor of the smaller creature is fooling people. On the other hand, both beings are visible, and it's unclear who is the projection of whom or even if "projection" is the case. Fooling Nobody oscillates between these figures, posing but refusing to answer its provocative questions. The work forces an unresolved argument onto its audience, demanding a response that we, the viewers, must provide.
Seuss continued to use ambiguity as a way to address nuclear anxieties in The Butter Battle Book. As with Fooling Nobody, the book forces the task of resolution onto the audience. Like the battle between the Big-Endians (who open their eggs at the large end) and the Lilliputians (who open theirs at the small end) in Swift's Gulliver's Travels,The Butter Battle Book depicts an escalating arms race between Yooks, who butter their bread butter-side up, and Zooks, who butter their bread butter-side down. A Yook grandfather tells his grandson about the increasingly sophisticated weapons that Yooks and Zooks have devised to destroy each other. Their arms race culminates in the "Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo," a bomb that "can blow all of those Zooks clear to Sala-ma-goo." But when the Yook grandfather arrives at the wall, his longtime enemy Van Itch (a Zook) is there—holding the Zooks' version of the Big Boy Boomeroo. The two stand poised on the wall that divides their nations, each holding a kind of a nuclear bomb over his opponent's side of the wall, threatening to drop it. The unresolved ending mimics a surrealist work by refusing to provide an answer and, instead, forcing the reader to deal with the tension:
"Grandpa!" I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who's going to drop it?
Will you …?Orwill he …?"
"Be patient," said Grandpa. "We'll see.
We will see …"
And with that, the book ends.
But the tension continues for the reader—especially for the reader in 1984, the year of the book's publication. Although the years 1989 to 1991 saw the end of the Cold War, in the first half of the 1980s Cold War tensions rose and the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed very real. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was investing in nuclear weapons and in the famous Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars." In the previous year, nuclear war came into American living rooms via ABC-TV's broadcast of The Day After, a widely watched movie that depicted America after a nuclear attack. If Seuss's goal was to draw on these anxieties in order to provoke the public, The Butter Battle Book succeeded by inciting much public debate. The New York Times Book Review offered praise but also called the book "too close to contemporary international reality for comfort." The reviewer added, "we want to protest—you can't leave us hanging like this" (Lifton 37). A self-described "concerned Christian mother" in Texas began an effort to "ban the book and halt future editions." She wrote to Random House, asking, "How dare a well-respected publishing firm" publish "the most blatant form of brainwashing I have ever encountered?" (Morgan and Morgan 254).
"An Imagination with a Long Tail," or, "On beyond Common Sense": The Cat in the Hatand Other Subversives
Although the Times reviewer was correct in saving that The Butter Battle Book leaves the reader hanging, the concerned parent went too far in calling the book "brainwashing." The book's educational technique is precisely the opposite of brainwashing: instead of attempting to systematically indoctrinate its reader into a system of beliefs, Butter Battle delivers its anti-arms race message by questioning the logic of mutually assured destruction. Instead of preaching the virtues of peace, it uses absurdity to reveal a "commonsense" foreign policy as common but not sensible; instead of delivering clear-cut answers, it throws us back on our own imaginative resources to resolve the problem. Although not all of Seuss's works are as confrontational as The Butter Battle Book, many are, and they similarly confront their readers by leaving the ending open. For example, both Yertle the Turtle (1958) and The Lorax (1971) introduce an element of uncertainty at the end, encouraging the reader to take up the actively critical sentiments of each book.11 Those who assert otherwise seem to be trying to fit Seuss into the "happy ending" that many erroneously expect from children's literature.12 In Seuss's stories, the imagination has power, and the books often end without complete resolution in order to encourage readers to exercise that power.13 My thesis in this section is that many of Seuss's tales emphasize the imagination and deliberately resist narrative closure for two reasons—to interpellate the reader into an active role and to encourage readers to identify with the rebellious elements of the narrative, using their imaginations as a source of strength.
The avant-garde, like Seuss, relies on the irrational or absurd in order to reveal the so-called rational world as a construct. As André Breton and others wrote in 1925, "We make no claim to change the mores of mankind, but we intend to show the fragility of thought, and on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses" (Nadeau 240). In order to apply this idea to children's literature, think of Roland Barthes's analysis of toys in Mythologies (1957). If, as Barthes argues, toys "prefigure the world of adult functions" (53), preparing the child to accept the constructs of society (such as nuclear proliferation) as "natural" and "normal," then explicitly nonfunctional toys can help children to see the world as a construct, providing a basis from which to challenge it. As Geisel once argued, "If you don't get imagination as a child, you probably never will … because it gets knocked out of you by the time you grow up" ("Logical Insanity" 58). Nonsense literature can provide exactly this sort of toy—one that allows the child to imagine alternatives to all of the "things that the adult does not find unusual" (Barthes 53).
Seuss and the English surrealists were both drawn to the nonsensical because such literature can potentially reveal the "natural world" as ideologically determined. For example, noting that "the nonsense verse and tales of [Edward] Lear and Lewis Carroll" have been "described as mad or nonsensical" to encourage us not to take them seriously, the British sur-realist Herbert Read called for "a reconsideration of such literature" so that its subversive potential may be better appreciated (Read 55-56).14 Sixty years after his directive, Celia Catlett Anderson and Marilyn Fain Apseloff offered an analysis of nonsense tales with which Read would likely have been pleased. In Nonsense Literature for Children, they argue that nonsense literature has "the heretical mission of … teach[ing] the young that the world constructed by their elders is an artificial thing. Nonsense literature uses the spirit of playfulness to rearrange the familiar world. It thereby reveals that the rules we live by are not inevitable" (94). Geisel not only read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when he was young (Bandler 2) and considered himself to be writing in the tradition of nonsense literature,15 but, I would argue, he embraced the genre's "heretical mission," deploying nonsense to challenge the "sense" of the adult world. Calling himself "subversive as hell," Geisel explained, "I've always had a mistrust of adults" (Cott 28). In that same interview, he went on to indicate that his children's books offer a way of subversively expressing that mistrust. As he put it, "children's literature as I write it and as I see it is … satirizing the mores and habits of the world" (29).16
Seussian satirizing begins with language itself, offering a perfect occasion to critique power as well. Foucault has argued that children learn the structures of language and power simultaneously; so, while learning to speak, a child absorbs the basic knowledge of how society works. What better place to challenge knowledge-power than with a child's earliest experience with the printed word—the alphabet? Lear's many nonsense alphabets introduce this idea into children's literature, and Seuss's On beyond Zebra! goes beyond mocking spelling (as Lear does) to challenging the alphabet itself. The narrator invents letters beyond Z, allowing both narrator and reader to discover creatures not visible to those who restrict themselves to the conventional English alphabet. In the story, increased awareness of the world depends on expanding the alphabet, suggesting that experience is confined by the structures of language. The narrator's remark, "In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z," recalls Breton's comment in Surrealism and Painting (1928) that "experience itself has been assigned limits" (Nadeau 80n). The narrator reveals these limits as artificially prescribed, pointing to "things beyond Z that most people don't know" and encouraging the reader to explore too. The book concludes with an unnamed letter and asks, "what do you think we should call this one, anyhow?" This open-ended question prompts the book's readers to challenge the limits imposed on experience and to imagine for themselves.
Perhaps the most famous of Seuss's open endings occurs in The Cat in the Hat (1957). Like Magritte's Human Condition paintings, The Cat in the Hat questions the relation between "real" and "imaginary" and by refusing to answer this question inter-pellates the reader into an active critical role. Magritte's Human Condition 1 (1933) challenges the viewer to rethink the relation between experience and representations of experience. Seuss similarly challenges the reader; at the conclusion of The Cat in the Hat, the narrator asks, "What would you do / If your mother asked you?". Should the children describe an actual experience that their mother will think they imagined, or an imagined experience that she will accept as actual? In other words, should they lie or tell the truth? Like Magritte, Seuss withholds any answer in order to provoke his audience into solving the puzzle themselves.
A brief comparison with Crockett Johnson's A Picture for Harold's Room (1960) shows how open-ended Seuss truly is. Johnson goes as far as Seuss in challenging the boundary between imaginary and real worlds; unlike The Cat or Magritte's The Human Condition, however, A Picture for Harold's Room maintains a clear boundary between the two by using a frame to separate the imaginary from the real. In the story, Harold draws an unframed picture and enters it. While he stays at the horizon of his picture, he is a giant in his world; but in the process of drawing train tracks towards the front of the picture, an inattention to perspective renders him a midget—smaller than a mouse or a bird. In order to resolve his problem, he simply declares, "This is only a picture!," crosses out his picture, and announces, "I am not big or little. I am my usual size" (54-56). At the end of the story Harold draws a framed picture on the wall of his room, resolving the tension between the real and the imaginary worlds by providing a stable boundary between them. There is no such frame in The Cat in the Hat : both the Cat and the children's mother enter and exit through the same door and are part of the same "real" world. Seuss's conclusion leaves the questions of the narrative still open for discussion after the reader closes the book. Seuss poses a genuine dilemma for a young reader, pitting the desire to be honest against the desire not to get in trouble.
Furthermore, the question at the end of the book reinforces the Cat's questioning of the existing order, which begins the moment he enters the story. As Geisel told interviewer Jonathan Cott, "The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it's ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It's revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It doesn't go quite as far as Lenin" (Cott 28). The Cat doesn't go as far as Lenin, but it did go far enough to alarm some parents and has been credited with killing the "Dick and Jane" readers. Although children would no doubt agree with Anna Quindlen that "the murder of Dick and Jane … was a mercy killing of the highest order" (19), their elders did not. As Geisel's biographers note, the fact that the Cat's "boisterous rampage in the absence of adults went unpunished … alarm[ed] some of the school establishment who felt safer with Dick and Jane and considered the Cat a 'trickster hero'" (Morgan and Morgan 171). Perhaps sharing this sentiment, schools initially resisted buying The Cat in the Hat. 17 Although the book may not be revolutionary in a Leninist sense, its anarchistic spirit is nonetheless close to dada. Like the dadaists before him, the Cat is a rebel whose political philosophy, such as it is, seems to be based primarily on rejecting the current order.
Evidence that Dr. Seuss endorsed the Cat's rebellious spirit can be found in the author's identification with the Cat. Not only did he make the Cat the symbol for his Beginner Books series and use the Cat as a narrator in later works such as The Cat in the Hat Songbook (1967) and The Cat's Quizzer (1976), but, just prior to writing the sequel to The Cat in 1958, Geisel drew a picture of himself as the Cat in the Hat to accompany an article in The Saturday Evening Post of July 6, 1957. The caption read "Self-portrait, by Dr. Seuss." The imaginative conflation of Cat and author emphasizes Dr. Seuss's kinship with his alter ego, and suggests that the Cat shares some of his creator's values.
Although nonsense books such as On beyond Zebra! do reveal experience as a construct and The Cat in the Hat does challenge domestic order, it is important to note that nonsense works are not ideologyproof. The surrealists tended to idealize nonsense, the unconscious, and all things irrational as neutral spaces from which to reveal and skewer social norms; however, such an idea seems a bit naïve, for these spaces are neither magically beyond ideology nor entirely defined by it. That is, although it would seem reductive to say that the irrational merely replicates ideological structures, nonsensical thinking is not ideologically immune either. If we leave behind the idea of an ideology-free space and instead think of nonsense and the illogical as providing the reader with the cognitive tools with which to build a critique of ideology, then nonsense literature becomes critically viable. For example, as Fox in Socks (1965) shows how the meanings of words shift according to their context, so a child could come to understand that the world's accepted truths may only be true in certain contexts. For example, the fox's stacks of bricks, chicks, blocks, and boxes have one effect when stacked on the ground and another (more painful) effect when stacked on top of the character Knox. A benign stack on one page becomes a potentially harmful stack on the next. Also, by placing common items in uncommon places, the book provides an opportunity to ask what words such as common and uncommon mean. Magritte once said of his paintings, "If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of 'common sense,' he realizes something obvious. I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense" (Gablik 14). Seuss's works open the door for children to ask questions of their world and explore the ways in which it often does defy common sense.
Given Seuss's challenges to common sense, the critic George Bodmer's claim that books such as these merely "reflect the anti-didactic mood of our time" and question "our ability to learn and to teach" (115) falls a bit short of the mark. The books do teach and are didactic, but, instead of delivering a lecture to their readers, Seuss's works teach by encouraging subversive thoughts and behaviors. In her book Dr. Seuss, Ruth MacDonald claims, "Though Dr. Spock's permissive parenting has frequently been credited with spurring the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, Dr. Seuss might equally be given credit, since he demonstrates a kind of permissiveness with language" (MacDonald 169). MacDonald's connection between Seuss and the revolts of the 1960s offers us an opportunity to explore the ways in which Seuss's nonsense work both challenges and is implicated in the ideologies it critiques. As a case in point, consider The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958).
Starring the anarchic Cat in the Hat and featuring twenty-six increasingly smaller cats lettered A through Z, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back offers another variation on the nonsense alphabet theme. A closer look, however, suggests that the work may be an antecedent to The Butter Battle Book or the painting Fooling Nobody because the "Voom" coming from beneath the smallest cat's hat resembles atomic energy. Like the dual threats of radiation and Communist infiltration (prevalent during the 1950s, when the book was composed), a growing pink stain is pervasive and real but lingers just beyond the control of the narrator. In this sense, the stain suggests a "red menace" growing out of control, threatening the American values of home and family represented by the two children (Sally and the narrator). Living in La Jolla, California, a mere one hundred miles south of Hollywood, and having worked in film himself, Geisel would no doubt have been familiar with the "Hollywood Ten," alleged Communists in the film industry whom the House Committee on Un-American Activities sent to federal prison in 1947. Other incidents contributing to the climate of hysteria and fear of alleged subversives in the 1950s were, of course, the witch hunts (1950-54) led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Congressman Richard Nixon and the widely publicized Hiss-Chambers case (1948-50), in which Time magazine's Whittaker Chambers accused the State Department's Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy. So, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back 's representation of the spreading red stain across the landscape certainly echoes the fears of the times. When, at book's end, the Voom arrives like an atomic bomb to clean away the threat of subversion, Seuss seems to be representing but not critiquing anti-Communist paranoia.
Although the pink stain and the Voom clearly locate the book in the context of the anti-Soviet mood of America in the '50s, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back does not endorse such paranoia. True to the radical nature he has shown in The Cat in the Hat. the Cat deliberately inverts the dominant logic of the day in order to challenge it. Instead of containing the symbolic "red menace," he deliberately, even merrily, spreads it everywhere. Like a dadaist, the Cat uses paradox and chance to shake Sally and the narrator out of their habitual perception of the world. What Suzi Gablik has said of Magritte's paintings applies to the Cat: he makes "a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world" by means of the "conceptual paradox" (112). As Magritte balances a glass of water on top of an umbrella in Hegel's Holiday (1954), the Cat balances a fishbowl full of water (and fish) in The Cat in the Hat (1957). In The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the Cat again employs this sort of paradoxical logic, eating cake in the bathtub and "cleaning" up the pink ink by spreading it around. (Indeed, he seems to "clean" by becoming an abstract expressionist: the Cat paints with a dress, with shoes—and little cat C spreads pink paint with a fan.) The Cat's paradoxical response to the children's growing fear of the spreading pink ink conveys an implicit criticism of anti-Communist paranoia. Their increasing anxiety prompts the Cat to keep spreading the ink and, in another paradox, spreading the ink actually leads to cleaning it up. The Cat's alphabet of increasingly smaller cats finally leads him to the Voom (under little cat Z's hat) that will clean the pink ink away.
Though the Voom has "the power of the atomic bomb" (MacDonald 129) in the swiftness with which it erases the "reds," it differs from the bomb in one very significant aspect: the characteristic of annihilation has been withdrawn from it. Whereas the Voom's historical referent is clearly an atom bomb, Seuss's depiction partakes of Magritte's "modification," in which "a property normally associated with an object is withdrawn"—as in Magritte's The Battle of the Argonne (1959), in which gravity is removed from a rock, allowing it to float (Gablik 129). The power of atomic destruction has been removed from the Voom: although it at first appears to have destroyed pink ink, cats and all, the Voom has in fact merely relocated them under the Cat's hat. As the Cat explains to the bewildered children immediately after the Voom has "clean[ed] up the snow" (and everything else), "That Voom blew my little cats / Back in my hat" (59, 61). He adds, gesturing to his hat, "if you ever / Have spots, now and then, I will be very happy / To come here again" (61), indicating that Voom, little cats, and all are now back under his hat and suggesting that their containment is very temporary. In response to both the Voom and the Cat's promise to return, the children's faces express a mixture of grateful surprise and worried disbelief, reinforcing the sense that peace has returned only for the moment. As he does in many of his works, Seuss ends the book without completely resolving it, requiring the audience to take an active role in providing resolution.18
The atomic subtext of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back shows that Seuss's nonsense functions in a manner similar to the historical avant-garde's use of nonsense and the irrational: the devices render the work both complicit with and critical of the world in which it is written. If children learn the structures of power as they acquire language, then deconstructing language can have a liberating effect—a potential challenge to the structures of power that language bears. Seuss's works license the imagination as a realm in which one can at least imagine another world—if not actually realize that world.19 Mary Lystad has said of The Cat in the Hat, "The message is clear—if the world is bleak, change it, create a new world!" (201). And as Bodmer says of The Butter Battle Book, "If the world is to be saved, …it is only through leaps of imagination" (116). By providing the imaginative impetus to change the world, Dr. Seuss encourages children to subvert dominant modes of socialization. In this sense, Seuss's books go beyond the conventional definition of nonsense literature, which uses absurdity to reveal reality as a construct but less frequently indicts society at large. Whether Seuss's works have this effect on children is beyond the scope of this inquiry, but it is clear that children are drawn to the power of imagination that Seuss's books grant them. As a child once wrote in a letter to Seuss, "Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail" (Cott 18).
Modernism, Postmodernism, and Consumerism: How Will the Lorax Survive?
At this point, the astute critic may ask: Since imagination is, as we have seen, always already implicated in the societal structures against which it may rebel, how can imaginative power ever provide an effective critique of the pervasive, even insidious, effects of late capitalist culture? After all, this reasonably skeptical person might continue, even when the historical avant-garde attempted to expose the paradoxical logic of the material world, it ultimately found itself becoming co-opted, marketed as exotic entertainment to that same world. If, instead of offending or provoking, surrealism and dada were transformed into amusement, then what hope does Dr. Seuss's work have of succeeding where the historical avant-garde failed? In order to develop an answer to these questions, let us turn to La Jolla, California, in 1971, where we find Fredric Jameson writing Marxism and Form and Theodor Seuss Geisel writing The Lorax. In the former work, Jameson argues that "the development of postindustrial monopoly capitalism has brought with it an increasing occultation of the class structure through techniques of mystification practiced by the media." He continues, "as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work on the world that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience" (xvii-xviii). In its way, The Lorax addresses similar concerns: it criticizes an ideology of consumption that praises material production while ignoring its material effects. To put this in the terms of the book's narrative, the Once-ler may be a material success, but his Thneed business destroys the Truffula trees and sends the wildlife into exile, leaving behind a barren, gray urban landscape. The Lorax also shows the media's complicity in mystifying the effects of capitalism: the Once-ler's "You need a Thneed" advertising campaign successfully convinces the buying public that these worthless pieces of knitted Truffula tufts are actually valuable, while at the same time it diverts attention from the damage done to the environment.
But where Seuss offers a moment of hope at the book's end (the last Truffula seed, thrown for us to catch, to start again), Jameson despairs. When addressing the role of the avant-garde in offering a critique of capital, Jameson argues that when surrealism was effective it worked because it interacted with a nonindustrial nature, and such a nature no longer exists. In fact, "it is the very memory of nature itself which seems to face obliteration" now (106). But while Jameson is saying that "the objects of Surrealism are gone without a trace" (104) and, anyway, "the idea of Surrealism is a more liberating experience than the actual texts" (101), Seuss's Lorax challenges Jameson's claim. Its critique of capitalism relies less on an idealized nature (though at least the memory of nature exists here) than on its open-ended narrative structure and the surreal disembodiment of the Once-ler himself. And, as a kind of surrealist critique of capital, I think the Lorax works.
That said, Jameson may yet have the last word. The recent mass commercialization of Seuss threatens to dull his critical edge, to transform "Dr. Seuss" into another Walt Disney, one of many blithe affirmations of consumer culture that dominate America's cultural landscape. In Postmodernism (1991), Jameson again argues that postindustrial capitalism will neutralize attempts to offer resistance. He offers the postmodernism of his title as proof: as flat, blank parody, it merely reflects the society from which it comes. In contrast to Jameson's bleak view, critics such as Linda Hutcheon, David Harvey, and Andreas Huyssen maintain the possibility of an oppositional post-modern—a postmodern that can offer a critique. And, at least in the versions of Harvey and Huyssen, the avant-garde has a role to play here. It is the radical politics of the avant-garde, suppressed in definitions of high modernism, to which postmodernists return in order to counteract the effects of affirmative culture.
Geisel is an appropriate figure to place in this debate. Not only does his life (1904-1991) span the years of the modern and the postmodern, but he always had a foot in each camp. That is, he was a modernist in both "high modern" and "avant-garde" terms and a postmodernist inasmuch as his work follows the legacy of the avant-garde. Much of this essay has investigated Geisel's investment in avant-garde techniques, but now let us turn for a moment to the idea of Geisel as a "high modernist" author. Geisel originally began publishing cartoons under his mother's maiden name—Seuss—because he was saving his surname—Geisel—for the "Great American Novel" he would someday write. Evidence suggests that this novel would have been high modernist in form Ruth MacDonald's description of it as "an unpublished manuscript of a virtually undecipherable, stream-of-consciousness novel written in his mid-twenties" (3) suggests the complexity of a work by Faulkner or Joyce. Add to the case for Seuss-as-high-modernist that his attention to form is legendary. For example, the revising and rewriting of The Cat in the Hat took him about a year. Geisel credited his editor, Saxe Commins—who also edited Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Eugene O'Neill—with stressing the importance of form (Steinberg 87; Morgan and Morgan 138). Perhaps as a testament to Geisel's success at mastering formal qualities for which high modernism has been praised, the modernist critic Hugh Kenner wrote a tribute in Seussian verse ("Ode to Dr. Seuss," 1991).
To return to the question posed by Seuss's location in the history of modernity and postmodernity: Will the ongoing marketing bonanza diminish the avant-garde energies in Dr. Seuss's work? If the new Dr. Seuss books based on the Nickelodeon television show are any indication, the answer has to be yes. The Song of the Zubble-Wump (1996), for example, has tamed the wily Cat in the Hat, turning him into a moralizing preacher; instead of the provocative questions we have come to expect from Dr. Seuss, the book offers amens. In this respect, The Song of the Zubble-Wump recalls Jameson's comments on pastiche: "it is a neutral practice of … mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse" (Postmodernism 17). Although pastiche can be affirmative or critical, Zubble-Wump is pastiche in the former, more Jamesonian, sense. The book brings in Horton to help save the Zubble-Wump egg, the Grinch to play the role of the villain, and the Cat in the Hat to be the book's moral center. Whatever adversarial roles these characters played in the books written by Geisel, their edges have been dulled for Zubble-Wump. The edginess that marks Seuss's style is missing, as is the malleability of the moral universe of Seuss's books.
By malleability I mean that these books suggest a certain instability in the moral world: instead of good and evil or black and white, Seuss's characters are more complex, inhabiting a world of better and worse, perhaps—but a world that has many shades of gray. For example, the Once-ler changes his mind about industry's effects on the environment, but only after his industry has already destroyed it. On one hand, he changes too late; on the other, he does change, which suggests possibilities for other changes in the future. In The Song of the Zubble-Wump, however, moral instability has been banished. Here, the Grinch—who, oddly, resembles a cross between Sesame Street's Grover and Oscar the Grouch—is the villain: "That Grinch is all broken, that Grinch is all bent. / His heart's full of hurt and his soul is cement," Megan's grandfather tells her. On the contrary, as Geisel has said of the Grinch, he "is the Hero of Christmas. Sure … he starts out as a villain, but it's not how you start out that counts. It's what you are at the finish" (Morgan and Morgan 276). Like Dickens's Scrooge, the point of Seuss's Grinch is that he has within him the capacity to change. Zubble-Wump denies the possibility of any ambiguity in the Grinch's character. The Grinch thwarts the plans of the good guys, and at the story's end the narrative promises us that the evil Grinch will be back once again: "But you all know the Grinch / He'll be back / before long." Ambiguity animates Seuss's work and enables his reader to see the inconsistencies and contradictions of the world. Zubble-Wump, however, merely reflects a staid, bourgeois status quo.
Whereas this new book moralizes instead of provoking, "Seuss!"—a recent exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan—used pastiche to provoke the imagination.20 Unlike the Zubble-Wump travesty, the "Seuss!" exhibit was not part of a corporate tie-in to Seuss Enterprises; rather, the curators of the museum (which has produced many literature-based exhibitions for children) had long wanted to present an exhibition on Dr. Seuss. The museum's executive director, Andrew Ackerman, explained, "We would always ask ourselves, 'If we had a choice to do any books at all, what would they be?' It always came down to Dr. Seuss" (Graeber C1). In contrast to the first publication from the Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss series, "Seuss!" provoked thought instead of pronouncing morals, opened children's minds instead of lecturing to them. Using characters and situations from a variety of Seuss's works, the exhibit encouraged active engagement on the part of its visitors. As the critic Brian Sutton-Smith has said of Seuss's books, this exhibit encouraged "flexibility and possibility" because "flexibility of thinking … [is] what mental development is about these days" (Cott 14).
In one part of the exhibit, there were cylinders "decorated with Seussian creatures holding a letter," followed by "a word root like 'up' or 'all' or 'at.'" When children spun the cylinders, they formed new words (Graeber C26). Using chance to create new words or sentences was a favorite game of the surrealists. In this game—known as "The Exquisite Corpse"—each person would add words (starting with an article and an adjective, then a noun, and so on) to make random sentences such as "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine" (Brotchie 25). The cylinders in the "Seuss!" exhibit may have had the liberating effect that surrealists found in nonsense: by showing children how language works, "random" sentences gave them the power to experiment. Another portion of the exhibit reproduced some of Seuss's drafts in order to show children the art of revision. Ackerman explains, "Children often get frustrated if they can't do something perfectly, so it's a big relief to know that even the best artists used drafts." The same space included a place for visitors to "do some creative experimentation, devising new characters by combining pieces in the shape of Seussian animals' heads and bodies" (Graeber 26). Again, the exhibit used Seuss's work as Seuss would have wished—to empower children to use language and their imaginations.
Power over language and imagination may not enable a child to challenge all of the world's faulty logic, but it does provide a starting point. In providing this starting point, "Seuss!" achieved what Geisel wanted children's museums to accomplish. As dada and fluxus artists wanted to break down the boundary between art and audience, so Geisel wished to break down the boundary between exhibit and visitor. As E. J. Kahn tells us, in 1955 Geisel "wrote and acted in an 'Omnibus' television show devoted to an imaginary Seuss Museum. It differed from the general run of museums in that children going through it were not forbidden to touch the displays; on the contrary, the exhibits were all marked 'Do Touch.'" Seuss explained, "I want a museum that will have a real, operable printing press alongside a shelf of books, and blocks of wood and chisels alongside woodcuts, so that children can watch and work at the same time" (Kahn 80). With Geisel's help, by 1967, one wing of La Jolla's Museum of Art had been devoted to an interactive museum, the philosophy of which seems to have been "Do Touch." As a Newsweek article reported, "grade-school kids excitedly picked through piles of Barbie-doll heads, eyeballs, limbs, and torsos for parts to build an abstract model of a city. Elsewhere, they lugged $2,100 movie cameras about to film the summertime activity at the museum" ("Logical Insanity" 58). "Seuss!" and Seuss's own museum ideas develop a kind of avant-garde for kids.
At this point, it is too early to say which version of Seuss will predominate—the one with avant-garde leanings, as exemplified by the "Seuss!" exhibit, or the affirmative pastiche, as represented by The Song of the Zubble-Wump. Let us hope for the former version, because exhibits such as "Seuss!" and books such as The Cat in the Hat can give children some of the cognitive tools necessary for questioning the world in which they live. Although Dr. Seuss's books are didactic, they teach not by delivering a lecture to their readers but by encouraging subversive thoughts and behaviors. If children learn the structures of power as they acquire language, then deconstructing language can have a liberating effect by offering a potential challenge to the structures of power that language bears. Seuss's works license the imagination as a realm in which one can at least imagine another world, if not actually realize that world. By providing the impetus to change the world, Dr. Seuss encouraged children to subvert dominant modes of socialization. And it is this skeptical, imaginative version of Dr. Seuss—and not the William Bennett-style "Moralist in a Hat"—that present and future generations of children will need to meet.
- Witness, e.g., Microsoft's recent "Where do you want to go today?" commercial; among the images that drift by during the thirty-second advertisement is René Magritte's bowler-hatted man. The image recurs in Magritte's work, but the best-known example is, perhaps, The Man in the Bowler Hat (1964), in which a dove flies in front of the face of a man in a bowler hat. The figure also appears in The Musings of the Solitary Walker (1926-27), In the Land of Night (1928), The Song of the Violet (1951), Siren Song (1952), Golconda (1953), The Poet Rewarded (1956), The Ready-Made Bouquet (1957), The Month of the Grape Harvest (1959), The Good Faith (1962), The Son of Man (1964), The Open Door (1965), Decalcomania (1966), and many others—including photographs of Magritte himself (he often wore a bowler hat). The Microsoft commercial was not the first time Magritte was appropriated by commercial culture. Corporate use of Magritte's images goes back at least to 1951, when designer William Golden appropriated Magritte's The False Mirror (1928) for the CBS "eye" logo: although now merely a silhouette of its original version, at that time the CBS logo featured blue sky and clouds behind the pupil of an eye—exactly as in Magritte's painting. Indeed, in December 1963, Magritte wrote his lawyer and friend Harry Torczyner that he was considering legal action against CBS: "Columbia Broadcasting has registered the image as a 'trademark,' and I think it was inspired by 'Le Faux Miroir.' I have already collected all the documentation on the presence of 'Le Faux Miroir' in the United States since 1936, whereas the trademark only dates from 1952! 'Le Faux Miroir' was reproduced in the 1936 catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art (1936 Exhibition of Dada and Fantastic Art) and on view to the New York public at that time (logically, the logo's designer, who died in 1959, must have seen it!)" (Magritte and Torczyner 93).
- For example, when writing How the Grinch Stole Christmas! he worked hard to avoid "sound[ing] like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism" (quoted in Morgan and Morgan 159). Tish Rabe and David Stephen Cohen (who wrote the script of Zubble-Wump), however, seem less concerned.
- As Tim Wolf suggests in "Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue: Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss," Seuss consistently associated cats with the imaginative and the anarchic. Wolf notes the appropriateness of having "Patrol Cats" (as opposed to dogs) as guardians of "the roots of childlike imagination" in The King's Stilts (1939): "To defend our childlike imagination and joy, Seuss seems to say, we must be like cats toward society, not dogs. (This may also look forward to the anarchistic Cat in the Hat saving two children from a dull adult-ruled afternoon.)" (149).
- Unfortunately, Zubble-Wump seems to be the beginning of a trend in Seuss marketing. Seussisms: Wise and Witty Prescriptions for Living from the Good Doctor (1997) transforms Seuss from a figure who encourages the questioning of authority into a moralist who affirms the status quo. The small book takes Seussian verses out of context and transforms them into homilies for living. For example, whereas Oh, the Places You'll Go! addresses both hope and despair, Seuss-isms includes only the more hopeful verses.
- Although Geisel once said, "I'd rather go into the Guinness Book of World Records as the writer who refused the most money per word," after his death the hypercommercialization of Dr. Seuss began. Seuss's characters now appear on boxer shorts, t-shirts, and hats by Esprit; Universal City in Orlando is building a twenty-five-acre Seuss theme park in Orlando, Florida: and Steven Spielberg is developing a Cat in the Hat movie (Smith B1). During his life, Geisel restricted the marketing of his work to books and a few television specials. In their biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan write of several occasions on which Geisel resisted attempts to market his work. Once Robert L. Bernstein, then sales manager at Random House, suggested many "promotional ideas, including 'Cat's pajamas' in all sizes, but Ted resisted. He was wary of anything—product franchising, most of all—that might cheapen the Dr. Seuss image" (161). Another time Geisel "set up a sculpting studio next to the pool house in La Jolla and created the Cat, Horton and four 'Seuss multi-beasts'—one named Roscoe—to be marketed as self-assembly polyethylene kits for the March toy show in 1959. But no one else's version of a Dr. Seuss creature satisfied Ted." and so the creatures were never made (164).
- Sawin's Surrealism in Exile (1995) traces the influence of the exiled avant-garde on American artists and posits the period (1937-45) as a crucial hinge between the European dada and surrealism of the first half of the century and the artistic movements that followed, such as abstract expressionism and pop art.
- The Morgans report, "Ted had written a script about modern art for a half-hour Ford Foundation television workshop in the Excursion series, and it was broadcast live over NBC on Sunday afternoon, January 31 . Burgess Meredith was the host, and [Hans] Conreid was cast opposite Ted as an art connoisseur" (145-46).
- As Jon Agee notes in his review of The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in the Los Angeles Times (3 December 1995), "A couple of strange, hallucinogenic landscapes recall the paintings of Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy—except that in each case, somewhere in the scene, there's a cat. Surrealism, even Cubism, is apparent, as in the fractured perspective of a city where a feline detective pursues its quarry. The titles of the paintings ('The Rather Odd Myopic Woman Riding Piggyback on One of Helen's Many Cats') are comparable to those of the Dadaists."
- A sensitivity to gender has never been one of the surrealists' strong points (see especially Helena Lewis's The Politics of Surrealism 71-76). Although Geisel has been rightly criticized for his books' treatment of women—as in Alison Lurie's essay "The Cabinet of Dr. Seuss" (1990)—he never quite approaches the levels of misogyny in, say, some of Salvador Dalí's work. That said, the topic of Seuss and gender should not be ignored. To give a sense of the debate, here is the evidence, both critical of and in defense of Seuss. Lurie points out "the almost total lack of female protagonists" and adds that "when little girls appear they play silent, secondary roles" (51). She also cites the vain female characters Gertrude McFuzz in the story of that name (from Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, 1958) and the bird Mayzie in Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). Finally, Lurie notes that, in "The Glunk That Got Thunk" (a story included in I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today!, 1969), a little girl thinks up a dangerous Glunk, which her brother must then unthink. Lurie's conclusion, however—"Moral: Women have weak minds; they must not be ambitious even in imagination" (52)—seems a bit strong, based on just one story. For example, in the posthumously published Daisy-Head Mayzie (1994), a little girl named Mayzie McGrew grows a flower on her head. If we take the flower as a metaphorical imagination, the problem is then not the fact that she has ideas but rather that Finagle the Agent exploits them for commercial gain. Also, I think it would be fair to argue that many of Seuss's young protagonists are more "everychild" figures than specifically gendered as male or female children. Geisel's response to Lurie was to note that most of his characters are animals, "and if she can identify their sex, I'll remember her in my will" (Morgan and Morgan 286).
- According to the Morgans, Geisel would have sold them but his wife Helen prevented him (143).
- In Yertle, a small turtle named Mack topples Yertle, a dictator who, Seuss says, "is Adolf Hitler" (Sadler 249). Mack undoes the hierarchical power structure that enables Yertle to dominate the other turtles, but the book does not conclude with the finality of "they all lived happily ever after." Instead, the book concludes, "And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. / And turtles, of course … all the turtles are free. / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be" (my emphasis). When asked, "Why 'maybe' and not 'surely'?" Geisel responded, "I qualified that … in order to avoid sounding too didactic or like a preacher on a platform. And I wanted other persons, to say 'surely' in their minds instead of my having to say it" (Cott 28). In other words, the maybe introduces an element of doubt that compels the reader to respond in the affirmative. The Lorax (1971), which tackles the problem of corporate exploitation of the environment, effects a similar response with the word unless. Told in the flash-back format of The Butter Battle Book, The Lorax uses the character of the Once-ler to dramatize the negative effects that industry has had on the ecosystem. The Lorax concludes with a sense of urgency directed toward the reader: repentant exindustrialist Once-ler tosses the last Truffula Seed to the narrator (identified only as "you" in the text). The book concludes with the seed in transit, about to land in "your" hands. As the Once-ler realizes. "UNLESS some like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better."
- Another critic claims that, at the end of each Seuss book, "[t]here is an abrupt return to simple diction, and a simple, realistic illustration implicitly declares that Seuss's protagonist was only fantasizing" (Lurie 50). But in Seuss's stories, there is no such thing as "only fantasizing"; on the contrary, his books consistently depict the imagination as a powerful force.
- A series of Seuss's stories involve a young protagonist: telling an increasingly outrageous story and conclude by framing the narrative. His first, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) follows this pattern, as does McElligot's Pool (1947), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and If I Ran the Circus (1956). But even here the narrative frame often (though not always) leaves either an element of doubt or simply a weak sense of closure. For instance, in Mulberry Street, the momentum that Marco's tale has developed over the preceding forty pages is not effectively checked by the sudden decision not to tell his father about it. The cumulative effect of Marco's imaginative enterprise outweighs his two-line disclaimer that he saw only "a plain horse and wagon" on Mulberry Street. Similarly, by the conclusion of If I Ran the Circus, Morris McGurk's idea for a circus has begun to startle Mr. Sneelock, the owner of the store behind which the proposed circus would take place. When we first see Sneelock, he remains calm, smoking his pipe—and because he enters Morris's imagination as calm he remains that way throughout the tale. But during Morris's imagined circus, Sneelock's role becomes more and more dangerous: being lassoed by a Wily Walloo, having a crab apple shot off his head by a blindfolded bowman, skiing on Roller-Skate-Skis through Stickle-Bush trees, standing in the mouth of a Spotted Atrocious, wrestling a Grizzly-Ghastly, and diving into a goldfish bowl. At the end of the tale, when we reenter the world outside Morris's story, Sneelock's eyes are suddenly wide open, suggesting that the imagined feats of "brave Sneelock" have rattled him a bit.
- In the same essay, first published as the introduction to Surrealism (1936, including essays by André Breton and Paul Eulard) and later in Read's The Philosophy of Modern Art (1953), Read argues, "From our point of view, Lear is a better poet than Tennyson; Lewis Carroll has affinities with Shakespeare" (56). As Paul C. Ray's The Surrealist Movement in England (1971) suggests, the English surrealists looked to Carroll (1832-98) and Lear (1812-88) as literary ancestors because their techniques seemed allied with the surrealist goal of "discredit[ing] conventional reality" (28). In fact, even though the French surrealists considered Lautréamont to be their primary literary influence, they too were interested in the work of Carroll and Lear: Louis Aragon translated Carroll's Hunting of the Snark into French, and Breton saw in Carroll's work a project that intersected with his own (Ray 60).
- At a writers' conference at Salt Lake City in July 1949, Geisel told the assembled students that he placed his work in the company of nonsense literature: "In the realm of nonsense, there are Mother Goose, (Edward) Lear, Lewis (Carroll), P. L. Travers and Dr. Seuss" (Morgan and Morgan 123-24). Others have noted Seuss's link to the nonsensical, too. The writer and critic Jonathan Cott has suggested Lear as a possible antecedent for Seuss's "fantastical-looking animals and composite beasts" (11), and, perhaps sensing Carroll's influence, the author of an article on Seuss's political cartoons called the piece "Malice in Wonderland" (Newsweek 9 Feb. 1942: 58-89).
- Children's literature as children write and see it shares this characteristic with Seuss's work. As Iona and Peter Opie's collection of traditional rhymes shows, children often use nonsense as a way of criticizing the adult world. The Opies' I Saw Esau, published in 1947 and reprinted in 1992 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, contains many apparently nonsensical (and often rhymed) challenges to authority.
- The book was sold in bookstores through Random House and to schools through Houghton Mifflin. The Morgans report that the "Random House trade edition quickly outran Houghton Mifflin's school edition, averaging sales at the start of about twelve thousand copies a month and rising rapidly." They speculate that the Random House edition may have sold more because "spurred by playground word-of-mouth, children nagged their parents to buy it" (156).
- The ambiguous note on which The Cat in the Hat Comes Back ends mirrors Geisel's conflicted relation with the idea of atomic power. On one hand, his interest inspired him to use atomic energy in an early film script. While working for the army's film division at what they called "Fort Fox" in January 1945, he was assigned "to write a film spurring postwar troops to help avoid a third world war." Inspired by a brief story in The New York Times that claimed that if the energy from a glass of water could be harnessed, "it could blow up half the world," Geisel "drafted a film treatment that warned of the potential threat of devastating explosions." Afraid that his film script would expose the Manhattan Project (of which Geisel knew nothing), a colonel in Washington ordered him to burn his source—and the film was never made (Morgan and Morgan 115). On the other hand, Geisel was very sympathetic toward the Japanese and troubled by the destruction wrought by the American atomic bombs. His film for American troops in defeated Japan was deemed too sympathetic toward the Japanese people, so RKO pictures edited it to fit the official U.S. position. As MacDonald points out, "Dr. Seuss clearly found the Japanese admirable and America's relations with them worthy of preservation in spite of public pressure in the United States to the contrary" (75). Seuss's trip to Japan in 1953 inspired Horton Hears a Who! (1954) and its message that "a person's a person no matter how small" (Morgan and Morgan 144-45). The book, which Seuss dedicated to his "Great Friend," Kyoto professor Mitsugi Nakamura, defends the rights of Whos against the threat of total annihilation of their world.
- For an opposing view, see Michael Steig's Freudian reading of I Wish That I Had Duck Feet in his essay "Dr. Seuss's Attack on Imagination." He calls it "a form of (possibly unintended) propaganda for conformity" (140). Although Steig admits that the message of conformity is "possibly unintended," it seems important to consider Duck Feet in the context of not only the rest of Seuss's work but of children's literature as a whole. Duck Feet (one of many Geisel works written under a pseudonym other than "Dr. Seuss") engages children's imagination at least as much as other books for young readers and does not fit the category of propaganda.
- The exhibit opened on February 14, 1997, and closed on February 28, 1999.
Agee, Jon. "The 500 Cats of Theodor Geisel." Review of The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. Los Angeles Times Book Review 3 December 1995: 22.
Alexandrian, Sarane. Surrealist Art. 1969. Trans. Gordon Clough. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970.
Anderson, Celia Catlett, and Marilyn Fain Apseloff. Nonsense Literature for Children: Aesop to Seuss. Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional, 1989.
Bandler, Michael J. "Portrait of a Man Reading: Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Interviewed by Michael J. Bandler." Washington Post Book World 7 May 1972: 2.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Bodmer, George R. "The Post-Modern Alphabet: Extending the Limits of the Contemporary Alphabet Book, from Seuss to Gorey." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 3 (fall 1989): 115-17.
Brotchie, Alastaire, comp. and ed., and Mel Gooding, ed. A Book of Surrealist Games. Boston and London: Shambhala Redstone, 1995.
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. 1974. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Cahn, Robert. "The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss." The Saturday Evening Post 6 July 1957: 17-19, 42, 46.
Cott, Jonathan. Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature. New York: Random House, 1983.
Duchamp, Marcel. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. Various translators. New York: Da Capo, 1989. (Reprint of Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Oxford University Press, 1973.)
Gablik, Suzi. Magritte. 1970. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Graeber, Laurel. "From Green Eggs to Ham, Hands On." New York Times 14 February 1997: C1, C26.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Pauses: Autobiographical Reflections of 101 Creators of Children's Books. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
——. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Johnson, Crockett. A Picture for Harold's Room. 1960. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
Kahn, E. J., Jr. "Children's Friend." The New Yorker 17 December 1960: 47-93.
Kenner, Hugh. "Ode to Dr. Seuss." Art and Antiques 8 (December 1991): 104.
Lear, Edward. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. 1947. Collected and introduced by Holbrook Jackson. New York: Dover, 1951.
Lewis, Helena. The Politics of Surrealism. New York: Paragon, 1988.
Lifton, Betty Jean. "The Butter Battle Book." New York Times Book Review 26 February 1984: 37.
"The Logical Insanity of Dr. Seuss." Time 11 August 1967: 58-59.
Lurie, Alison. "The Cabinet of Dr. Seuss." The New York Review of Books 20 December 1990: 50-52.
Lystad, Mary. From Dr. Mather to Dr. Seuss: 200 Years of American Books for Children. Boston: Schenkman, 1980.
MacDonald, Ruth K. Dr. Seuss. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Magritte, René, and Harry Torczyner. Letters between Friends. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Abrams, 1994.
Marquis, Alice G. Hopes and Ashes: The Birth of Modern Times, 1929-1939. New York: Free, 1986.
Morgan, Judith, and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995.
Motherwell, Robert, ed. Dada Painters and Poets. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951.
Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Howard. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1989.
"The One and Only Dr. Seuss and His Wonderful Autographing Tour." Publishers Weekly 8 December 1958: 12-15.
Quindlen, Anna. "The One Who Had Fun." New York Times 28 September 1991: 19.
Rabe, Tish. The Song of the Zubble-Wump. Illus. Tom Brannon. New York: Random House-Jim Henson Productions, 1996.
Ray, Paul C. The Surrealist Movement in England. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1971.
Read, Herbert. "Introduction." In Surrealism. Ed. Herbert Read. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1936. Pp. 19-91.
Sadler, Glenn Edward. "Afterword: A Conversation with Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss." In Teaching Children's Literature: Issues, Pedagogy, Resources. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. New York: MLA, 1992. Pp. 241-50. [Interview took place in 1982.]
Sawin, Martica. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.
Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. 1937. Random House, 1991.
——. The Butter Battle Book. New York: Random House, 1984.
——. The Cat in the Hat. 1957. New York: Random House, 1985.
——. The Cat in the Hat Songbook. Piano score and guitar chords by Eugene Poddany. New York: Random House, 1967.
——. The Cat's Quizzer. New York: Random House, 1976.
——. Daisy-Head Mayzie. New York: Random House, 1994.
——. Horton Hatches the Egg. New York: Random House, 1940.
——. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! New York: Random House, 1957.
——. If I Ran the Circus. 1956. New York: Random House, 1984.
——. If I Ran the Zoo. 1950. New York: Random House, 1977.
——. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
——. Oh, the Places You'll Go! New York: Random House, 1990.
——. On beyond Zebra! 1955. New York: Random House, 1983.
——. The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. New York: Random House, 1995.
——. The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough: Early Cartoons and Articles by Dr. Seuss. Ed. Richard Marschall. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
——. "We Always Were Suckers for Ridiculous Hats …" PM 29 April 1941: 20.
——. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 1958. New York: Random House, 1986.
Smith, Dinitia. "A Purist's Creatures Go Commercial." New York Times national ed., 13 February 1997: B1, B12.
Steig, Michael. "Dr. Seuss's Attack on Imagination: I Wish That I Had Duck Feet and the Cautionary Tale." Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association. Boston: Northeastern University, 1983. Pp. 137-41.
Steinberg, Sybil S. "What Makes a Funny Children's Book?" Publishers Weekly 27 February 1978: 87-90.
Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Abrams, 1977.
Wittner, Lawrence S. Cold War America: From Hiroshima to Watergate. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Wolf, Tim. "Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue: Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 137-64.
Shira Wolosky (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Wolosky, Shira. "Democracy in America: By Dr. Seuss." Southwest Review 85, no. 2 (spring 2000): 167-83.
[In the following essay, Wolosky analyzes how Seuss's works function as a pedagogical tool to help teach children about "American poetics" and "classic American liberal individualism."]
Not one of them
Is like another.
Don't ask us why.
Go ask your mother.
One Fish, Two Fish
Many Americans are anxiously concerned about the nation's values and the challenge of passing them on to future generations. Let them take comfort. There is at least one powerful resource through which young children become young Americans. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel 1904-1991) produced an extensive body of material after bringing out And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937 (having suffered the book's rejection by, reportedly, 43 publishers). This is a canon millions of Americans may be said to have mastered: and it may be worth thinking through just what we are reading to our children. What Dr. Seuss's more than forty books in effect provide is not only a mode of American poetics, but also a civic instruction closely associated with it.
Dr. Seuss thus initiates young Americans into their cultural heritage. But he no less registers tensions lurking within it. In a most surprising way, Seuss's work expresses not only classic American liberal individualism, but also a number of its diverse and potentially contradictory strands. Call them (variously) liberty and equality; or self-interest and the common good; or possessive individualism and civic virtue. Dr. Seuss on the one hand exuberantly endorses the individual in all his productions. On the other, Seuss becomes increasingly alarmed at individualism as a potentially devouring and anomic force. What, his books ultimately ask, will prevent all the individual pursuits from disintegrating into contrary and contending self-interests, where community is not built out of individual energies but destroyed by them?
Dr. Seuss's work begins in a basic pedagogical project, such as the back-covers of the books advertise: that even small children have the right to read without being bored to death. Here he has distinguished antecedents in Noah Webster and other founding figures in the early republic, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, who defined educational commitments as inseparable from the development of American democracy. Webster, inventor of the Spelling Bee as American ritual, produced the Blue-Back Speller, Grammar, and of course Webster's Dictionary, all of which sold copies in the multiple thousands. In these works, Webster not only promoted literacy as an important prerequisite to responsible participation in democratic life. He also provided a body of common American lore and exemplary tales (to be invented if necessary) to instruct in democratic values. This educational push was to include even little girls. While voters remained male, they required mothers able to prepare them for the exercise of republican duties—a so-called Republican Motherhood.
Dr. Seuss advances these Websterian tasks. He wants to democratize reading. Most importantly, he wants to invent lessons in liberal-democratic culture, which would display and urge the central importance of the individual. This begins with Dr. Seuss's most outstanding and pervasive feature: the creation of endless, uniquely individualized forms. The largest body of Dr. Seuss's works are dedicated to such creative proliferation. Book after book extols, and enumerates, more and more and more of some category of possibility: letters that go On beyond Zebra ; complex recipe concoctions, as in Scrambled Eggs Super! ; new sights, as in Mulberry Street ; open choices, as in Would You Rather Be a Bullfrog? ; new creatures, as in One Fish, Two Fish, McElligot's Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, Happy Birthday to You through many other interpolated sections of books; new feats, as in If I Ran the Circus ; new experiences, as in Green Eggs and Ham.
Words themselves wildly proliferate in Dr. Seuss, whether as the central feature of a work, as in Fox in Socks, or as an enduring bass, booming through whatever other inventions a book may pursue. Dr. Seuss is a master-craftsman within his chosen area of expertise. He commands an extensive rhetorical arsenal, including puns, hyperbole and deflation, neologisms, chiasms (reversals of word order: "I meant what I said and I said what I meant"), polyptotons (repetitions of word-cores: "no former performer's performed this performance"), as well as allegory, parable, fable, and quest romance. Allegory is particularly central in Oh, the Places You'll Go!, where inner feelings and states become outward landscapes. One notes that after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1925, Geisel spent two years at Oxford studying toward a doctorate in literature.
Seuss's books of proliferation are the ones that threaten to grow tedious to parents who read them out loud night after night. Indeed, his work generally raises questions about the relationship between tedium and the cult of the imagination. For the good of creative variety derives from and expresses an even more fundamental commitment—to the individual imagination as the power that produces it. All that glory of invention is in fact a consequence and demonstration of the driven I of the imagination, as product and projection of the creative self.
In terms of literary tradition, Dr. Seuss is one of the central inheritors of an Emersonian-Whitmanian poetics. Seuss's proliferations of ever more and different beings pay homage to what Emerson calls (in "Circles") "the sea of beautiful forms." His focus on the endlessly creative self presumes Emerson's vision of life as a "self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Additive sequences of invention in Seuss likewise recall Whitman's catalogue technique. His writing, like theirs, intends to celebrate (Whitman's word. "Song of Myself" opens: "I celebrate myself and sing myself") Selfhood in all its potential, all its energies and productions. Emerson, in "Self-Reliance," describes the place of the self as holy: "Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within." Whitman writes in "Song of Myself": "I exist as I am, that is enough" (20). Dr. Seuss writes in Happy Birthday To You! :
Today is your birthday! Today you are you! So we'll go to the top of the toppest blue space … Come on! Open your mouth and sound off at the sky! Shout loud at the top of your voice, "I AM I!"
Like God naming Himself to Moses in Exodus, this self declares its selfhood to be unique, precious, essentially divine. No extravaganza of gift and ceremony can exceed the incalculable value of selfhood.
Selfhood serves as an aesthetic principle. But, as Dr. Seuss shows, the poetic has moral, social and ultimately political corollaries. Even the glory of imagination is in some sense a reflected one. For it in turn presumes, and represents, individual integrity, sanctity, and responsibility. A work such as McElligot's Pool makes this connection. This book features Marco fishing in a pool which, he is told, contains nothing but junk. Despite this sober sense, Marco views the circumscribed and pathetic pond as a pool of potential. Through his imaginative drive, he converts the limited into the unlimited. He launches an imaginary procession of multiple fish-forms, which he keeps heroically marching across incredible distances and difficulties right to his waiting fish hook and worm. What this phantasmagoric bigger and better fish-story represents, however, is ultimately Marco himself: his own perseverance, commitment, and strong selfhood, pledged in the book's refrain: "If I wait long enough; if I'm patient and cool, Who knows what I'll catch in McElligot's Pool!"
Dr. Seuss's heroic individual, faithful and true, lives in the world of his imagination. But this turns out not to be a merely private world. Dr. Seuss also has a vision of society, one made up of just such heroic individuals. Certain principles then follow. Since every individual has irreducible value, all are fundamentally equal in a broad egalitarian vision. Society is itself an association of such individuals, and must be pledged to uphold and respect the individual integrity of those who comprise it. But, conversely, every individual is responsible to and for this community, is called upon to participate in this common society and contribute to it. Dr. Seuss's work places him in the liberal tradition described by Alexis De Toqueville in his Democracy in America, and elaborated by such historians as Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn. America's social form is alien to feudal histories, and is opposed to fixed hierarchies of deference as well as obligation. Pledged to the protection of individual rights against incursions by a state power into the authority of the people themselves, America also relies on the people as the constituting basis of self-government.
Dr. Seuss's social vision is most fully developed in the Horton books. The final end of Horton Hatches the Egg is the birth of a new and unique creature out of Horton's long labor:
And the people came shouting, "What's all this about …?
They looked! And they stared with their eyes popping out!
Then they cheered and they cheered and the CHEERED more and more.
They'd never seen anything like it before!
"My goodness! My gracious!" they shouted, "MY WORD!
It's something brand new! It's an elephant-bird!"
Dr. Seuss here utterly rejects, indeed never so much as considers any notion that such a strange, unforeseen form of life might be monstrous, or difficult to integrate back into the jungle to which Horton and his unique offspring (the gendering of this story is striking) are happily restored. The invention of the new suffices. It is an intrinsic value. But the celebration of unique invention in Horton Hatches the Egg is itself the outcome, and reward, of Horton's own personal characteristics. The crowd at the circus, witnessing the production of an amazing new creature, shouts enthusiastically:
"And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!
For Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat.
He meant what he said And he said what he meant …"
And they sent him home Happy, One hundred per cent!
Horton Hatches the Egg is a parable of devotion. It dramatizes the importance of keeping your word, of perseverance, of faithfulness; and particularly of these virtues as situated within and performed by the responsible individual, who is true to his own word and his own vision. The individual is the seat of responsibility, the moral center; and must be, not least, true to himself.
This conjunction of values is even more evident in Horton Hears a Who, represented through a mirroring between the matching characters of Horton and the Whos (as there is also a mirroring, negatively, in Horton Hatches the Egg : the morally responsible Horton is cast in opposition to the irresponsible Mother Bird Lazy Mayzie, who breaks her word and abandons her egg). Here the implications for society clearly emerge. In this work, Horton, the faithful elephant-individual, finds himself in the awkward position of having to protect an invisible and almost inaudible whole world of unique creatures. An extremely unpleasant mother-figure (just why mothers are such objects of ambivalence in Dr. Seuss is a question we must eventually ask), the taunting Kangaroo with child in pouch, insists on proof that this world of creatures exists. Horton must convince her. He finally accomplishes this, by calling on every least citizen of the Who world to participate in this urgent public business. Only when the leastmost least of the Whos is called to participate, to add his tiniest voice to the community's total effort: only then can the Whos' world be rescued. Here Dr. Seuss exercises his allegorical talent, creating a concrete figure out of a general pronoun to represent Everywho, in the tradition of the morality play Everyman. Horton, beaten, mauled, and threatened with imprisonment, calls out to the Mayor of the Whos:
Don't give up! I believe in you all!
A person's a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!…
They don't hear a thing! Are you sure all your boys …
Are [all] doing your best? Are they ALL making noise?
Are you sure every Who down in Who-ville is working?
Quick! Look through your town! Is there anyone shirking?
No less than his puritan-elephant forebears, Horton calls the Whos to a town meeting, each and every least one. And indeed, when the smallest Who of all is at last enlisted, his additional tiny cry accomplishes the feat of redemption. The inaudible world is heard; its existence is attested, and hence assured:
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. "Do you see what I mean?
They've proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of ALL!"
With this intervention, the Whos are rescued at last. But so is Horton. Horton the elephant is large, but he is also small in the sense of being one individual only. As an individual, he is also called on to attest his vision with steadfast courage. He too is a Who, a unique creature. His integrity requires that he assert this uniqueness, his individual perception that the Whos do exist. Their survival depends on him; but his also depends on them. He is vindicated, saved from ostracism, imprisonment, even the madness of solitary testimony, by this smallest Who individual who raised his voice, taking personal responsibility.
It is of paramount importance that both Horton and the smallest Who act not only each for himself, but also for the common good. Every individual is uniquely responsible. Without the personal and individual acceptance of responsibility, the very survival of the world is threatened. Dr. Seuss's is thus a vision not only of individuals, but of community. It rests upon a faith that the exercise of individuality will build and strengthen social life. It will not initiate a dispersion into irreconcilable diversities but rather will serve as a common ground for respecting differences and making possible their expression and appreciation. As a social vision, it pledges itself to a community of unique, participating individuals, without which the individuals themselves, with their world, will perish.
And yet something goes bump. Running through this world of liberal values are fault lines that threaten to undermine and destabilize it. Dr. Seuss extols the individual. He does not, however, wish this to mean the abandonment of community. He, rather, wishes to found the community in the integrity and sanctity of the individuals who together make it up. He would like to see these dual impulses as mutually supporting rather than contradictory. Nevertheless, there are dangers. The self-reliant individual may turn out to be uncomfortably close to the selfish one ("Are they my poor?" Emerson asks in "Self-Reliance"). Dr. Seuss, like Emerson and most notably like Whitman, wishes the pursuit of invention to remain individually creative and expressive. Also like Emerson and Whitman, he is anxious. Endless invention may come uncomfortably close to mechanical reproduction. It may involve exploitation that consumes the common world, rather than producing new ones. It may collapse into commercialism, with individual pursuit and conformity difficult to distinguish from one another.
The Cat in the Hat books already show signs of these anxious strains. Structured according to the principle of creative invention, they offer not only the pedagogical benefit of introducing numbers and letters of the alphabet, but the more important lesson endorsing imaginative play. Extensions of experience through imaginative invention may seem to threaten the discipline, order, and industry of the home—cleanliness in The Cat in the Hat and household duty in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In the end this conflict is shown to be merely apparent. Mother will return to a house that is tidy and a walk that is shoveled clear of snow. The strange is not hostile to the familiar. Daily, domestic life will not suffer, and indeed will benefit, from the joys that imaginative production can bring. The Cat shows that the disciplined household (like the school in On beyond Zebra ), far from being assaulted by free imaginative play, can be the scene and stage for launching its salutary inventions. The destabilizing and even threatening force of the Cat in the Hat is thus neutralized in a reaffirmation of bourgeois life. Dr. Seuss's extravagances are careful to stop short of posing a revolutionary threat to society, and insist they can be absorbed into its basic frameworks. It is no accident that the Cat sports a stovepipe hat and bowtie based in Uncle Sam cartoons, where they in fact originated in earlier Geisel drawings and ads (can Sam-I-Am, I-Am-Sam, be another Uncle Sam?).
Horton Hears a Who verges further into problematic areas hinted at in the Cat books, of tensions between individualist energies and social interests. Horton the elephant is eccentric. His odd behavior of speaking to invisible people in an invisible world is noticed by his compeers: the Kangaroo Mother and the threatening jungle monkeys, the Wickersham Brothers. These (mothers repeatedly) represent a villain in the Dr. Seuss moral world: conformity. Like Emerson before him, Dr. Seuss wishes to teach lessons of Self-Reliance. This, however, requires a certain degree of resistance to the surrounding society, what Emerson calls aversion:
Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood [sic] of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.
Horton must stand up against the others out of his independent judgment and in the name of his own conscience. He must combat conformity, a force that crushes individuality. But this is to picture society as a threat to the individual, rather than as a context for and beneficiary of individual enterprise. This is one source of Seuss's ambivalence toward mothers (there may of course be other, psychoanalytic contexts for it). They represent a socializing force, a limit imposed on the individual's impulses and energies, confining him (Seuss's heroes are almost exclusively male) and ultimately threatening to subdue him into conformity. Like many another male American writer, Seuss imagines women as constraints to be evaded, as Huck Finn tries to do when he heads for the territories to escape "sivilization" in the figure of Aunt Sally. And yet, when Mayzie the Lazy Bird abandons motherhood she is even more unforgivable, for this truly threatens betrayal and abandonment of others in the name of pure self-interest.
Dr. Seuss attempts to counter the threat of unqualified self-interest by distinguishing glorification of self from domination over others. In Dr. Seuss (as in Whitman) there is a strong egalitarian impulse (Whitman continues in the first lines of "Song of Myself": "And every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"). This, in both writers, takes shape through a pronounced anti-authoritarian strain. There is a body of Seuss work which is expressly republican. Kings fare badly in Dr. Seuss: in The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins, Bartholomew and the Ooblek and perhaps most vividly in Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins is dedicated to the complete ridiculing of the idea of doffing hats in deference to the King, something Bartholomew finds literally impossible to do (each time he takes his cap off, another one just pops right up, in a sequence of greater and greater magnificence). As Whitman wrote of the American people in the Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855: "The President tak[es] off his hat to them not they to him." The opening topography of the text makes the point graphically. Bartholomew Cubbins lives in a hut down at the very bottom of the hill whose ascending space marks the increasing status of its inhabitants. At the topmost top is the palace of the King, who likes to look "down over the houses of all his subjects … It was a mighty view and it made King Derwin feel mighty important." At the bottommost bottom, Bartholomew Cubbins saw this view, as Dr. Seuss puts it, "backward. It was a mighty view, but it made Bartholomew Cubbins feel mighty small."
This story's resolution may introduce other difficulties. Bartholomew is finally rescued from beheading by money. His hats become so magnificent that the King decides to buy one, removing Bartholomew's headpiece rather than his head, and paying handsomely for it. Money is a great equalizer, it would seem. Yet the hierarchical mountain was one of wealth no less than of social position. Bartholomew and the Ooblek begins to probe in this complex direction. The megalomania of the King endangers the survival of the entire realm. The King wishes to command the very elements of nature. In an act of primordial ingratitude and lack of appreciation for the created world, King Derwin of Didd commands "something NEW" to "come down from my sky." The result is disaster. In this case, the new is not benign, but threatens everything that already exists. And it is Bartholomew the lowly who finally forces the King to confront his transgression. The King must humble himself, not only in acknowledging his fault, but in recognizing the immorality of absolute power.
This question of illegitimate power, as implied by the search for the new, points forward to later misgivings by Seuss about the very fabric of his own ideology. Hierarchical power he always denounces. Yertle the Turtle makes the point most vividly, both in its animal fable and in its explicit assertions. Yertle's illegitimate bid for power is challenged by Mac, the common turtle on whose back (as on the backs of the whole common turtle-people) King Yertle has tried to climb up to an ever more commanding throne from which he would claim possession of the whole heaven and the whole earth. At this point, Seuss's ideological intentions come directly to the surface in what amounts to a Declaration of Rights. Mac tells the King:
Your Majesty, please … I don't like to complain,
But down here below we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
Finally, the whole tower of turtles collapses and King Yertle is dethroned when Mac burps. The text then concludes:
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
But the lesson does not require kings. Among the Other Stories in the Yertle the Turtle volume is "The Great Brag," where the desire of the Rabbit and the Bear each to claim to be better than the other is exposed by an old worm who sees best of all, and what he sees are:
The two biggest fools that have ever been seen.
And the fools that I saw were none other than you,
Who seem to have nothing else better to do
Than sit here and argue who's better than who!
The point is that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Rather than conflicting with individual identity, Dr. Seuss would insist that egalitarianism is consistent with the sacred worth of each individual. And yet, at some point the pursuit of individual happiness may become a mode of self-assertion in conflict with others; while self-assertion may generate pursuits that are finally destructive of others, of the world, and ultimately of the self itself. The self has the right to stand up for itself and defend itself against others. This remains a basic commitment. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose makes a strong case here. The altruistic Thidwick is willing to offer his antlers to house other creatures. But they soon become intrusive, threatening his autonomy. Then altruism becomes self-destructive and Thidwick has the right to evict them (by shedding his horns and leaving his tenants for hunters to stuff as decorations for the Harvard Club). The book thus poses self defensively against self. One person's assertion may be another person's coercion.
Self may be opposed against self. But self may also succumb to self, not through hostile imposition, but rather subversive conformity. De Toqueville observed in Democracy in America: "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." This "tyranny of the majority," as De Toqueville calls it, disturbs Dr. Seuss. We are all individual; we all wish to strive to assert this individuality; but instead of producing unique expressions, we instead obsessively compare and copy. This results not in original creations, but slavish imitation, commercialism, and endless consumption.
Dr. Seuss offers a series of sobering works on this predicament. His concern with commercialism surfaces in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (produced, however, in time for the 1957 Christmas season). The Grinch's plot to confiscate all the food and presents, in the guise of an inverse Santy Claus, fails. Despite the lack of paraphernalia, the Whos of Whoville still joyously greet the Christmas morn, challenging the Grinch to wonder whether Christmas "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more."
Commercialism has been a matter of American bad conscience since the Puritan landing, alongside the no less foundational pursuit of wealth. Already worrisome to such founders as John Adams, by the time of Emerson and Thoreau, commercialism had become a cause of positive alarm. "Property," Emerson concludes in his essay on the subject, "is the want of self-reliance." "The economical use of things" is the opposite of their poetic use; and the principle of good can barely penetrate "into every chink and hole that selfishness has left open" ("Circles"). Thoreau questions whether what his neighbors make through their obsessive industry can truly be called a living. Yet how exactly to reconcile these impulses of the American self pursuing the American dream remains unclear.
The pressures of conformity take shape in Dr. Seuss in the usual manner: fashion and humiliation, with interesting gestures toward cosmetic surgery. In Dr. Seuss's story of "Gertrude McFuzz" Gertrude is mortified that Lolla-Lee-Lou bird has more tail feathers than she does. She begs her Uncle-doctor for remedy, and through him gains access to a berry that will grow her more feathers too. In an orgy of acquisitional competitiveness, she wildly consumes them, growing so many feathers she can neither fly nor run nor walk. Assertion becomes competition becomes consumption becomes self-destruction.
The cosmetic note returns in The Sneetches. The rivalry between Sneetches is such that one group, the Star-Bellies, ostracizes and condescends to the other group, the Plain-Bellies. While it is tempting to read this story as concerning foolish nationalisms, it is significant that the difference between the two groups is absurdly negligible: except for the star the two groups are identical, belonging to the same fundamental kind within a given society. The story is then about egalitarian value, and about group pressures as they deny this value through what Freud called "narcissism with respect to minor differences" and what advertisers call "product differentiation." These result in destructive mutual competition and arbitrary social division. But then Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives. He is essentially a cosmetic surgeon:
I've heard of your troubles. I've heard you're unhappy.
But I can fix that. I'm the Fix-it-Up Chappie.
I've come here to help you. I have what you need.
And my prices are low. And I work at great speed.
And my work is one hundred percent guaranteed!
Each group begins to whirl through a cosmetic machine that alternatively installs and removes stars on bellies, at higher and higher fees. This activity is totally frenetic, and continues until the monies run out. At this point the exploitative Monkey drives away.
The Sneetches manages on the last page to pull out a happy ending. The Sneetches, utterly confused as to their identities after so much manipulation, discover that "Sneetches are Sneetches" regardless of stars on bellies. But the lesson of human dignity and value seems contrived and imposed, failing truly to address or counter the forces of commercialism and competition unleashed in the story. Dr. Seuss seems here to be working hope against hope; and this starts to show thin in some of his later works. I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today offers a series of tales that chasten self-assertion. The title story, featuring a shrunken Cat-in-the-Hat figure, exposes empty brag. "King Louie Katz" admonishes monarchical privilege (the whole country becomes "more demo-catic"). As to the final story, it is The Cat in the Hat turned nightmare. "The Glunk that got Thunk" is an imaginary figure who intrudes into the home in ways that are monstrous and threatening (especially financially). Having been thought up, it needs to be "unthunk," to be exorcized.
The next book, The Lorax, is a work of ecological disaster. It recounts the cutting down of Truffula Trees and the manufacture from their soft tuft-leaves of a product called a Thneed, under the advertising slogan "That-All-People-Need!" This starves the bearlike creatures who lived on the tree's fruit, smogs up the air so the birds fly away, and poisons the pond, destroying the Humming-fish who lived there. The Lorax, as the ghost of trees-past, tries to protest. He is issued another Declaration of Rights, delivered this time by the entrepreneur:
I yelled at the Lorax, "Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, 'Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!'
Well, I have my rights, sir, and I'm telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And for your information, you Lorax, I'm figgering
on biggering and Biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING
turning MORE Truffula Trees into Thneeds
which everyone, Everyone, EVERYONE needs!"
Necessity may be the mother of invention; but invention becomes here the mother of necessity. Seuss has grown alarmed at his own Principle of the More. Freedom at this point seems self-defeating, a mode of its own undoing rather than a ground of creative individuality. In the process, the world is under the shadow of apocalyptic consumption.
The Butter Battle Book, one of Seuss's last works, focuses this ominous vision. Again two groups, arbitrarily distinguishable (according to how they butter their bread), conduct an escalating competition of mutual threat and weaponry until, on the last page, the two sides stand poised with identical bombs either of which could destroy everybody. The very energies of invention that Dr. Seuss extols may also, as he shows, unleash forces that can threaten to become disruptive and destructive. This work ends in irresolution. There they stand, the indistinguishable enemies, threatening each other and the world with immolation.
Is this the promised end? In these works, the free, autonomous self has somehow become deformed by the commercial pressure and threatened by the competitive striving which were supposed to realize his free self-expression and potential. As De Toqueville remarks, "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the American pursues his own welfare … [This] fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation." Dr. Seuss remains a committed exponent of classic American liberalism. He is pledged to believe that liberal individualism can absorb its own potential ruptures. He wants to affirm free individual vision, even eccentricity, and certainly individual conscience. But he wants these to remain within certain bounds that will not explode social norms. He wants to confirm liberal individualism and community both. In this vision, the common good would not ultimately be threatened by self-assertion and production. The new would be a value for enrichment, rather than either challenging or exploiting the basic fabric of society.
Dr. Seuss's work uncannily reflects on arguments between libertarian and communitarian versions of American liberalism, as these weigh claims of individual rights and personal freedom on the one hand, and obligations to public life and a common good on the other. Dr. Seuss's own position seems, again, close to Whitman's. Whitman writes in Democratic Vistas:
I say the mission of government, henceforth, in civilized lands, is not repression alone, and not authority alone [nor] the rule of the best men, the born heroes and captains of the race … but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.
Whitman's is not a pure vision of individual autonomy, but rather a liberal vision of individual integrity as the basis for communal commitment; and so is Dr. Seuss's. If individualism poses certain problems, it also, for Dr. Seuss, finally remains the only viable resource against the very dangers it may generate.
In the end, Seuss's qualms about the disruptive forces within the individualist creed turn back to the individual for remedy. The conclusion of The Lorax is pivotal. The Lorax, driven from the world by men, left behind
in this mess
a small pile of rocks, with the one word …
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess.
Guessing the meaning of the word is the main point. Responsibility returns to the individual, to the reader, as it does in Whitman and in many Seuss works. The individual is the solution to the riddle. "Unless" each one takes up his (and her) responsibility, the world we inhabit will indeed perish. The individual remains the moral center. His willingness to be accountable, to answer to others and for himself in mutual respect, is the offered antidote against the self as devouring, as aggressive, as reductive.
But this is not merely an autonomous self, self-reliant as self-made. The Seussian individual, while remaining prior, is not merely self-sufficient, nor alone, nor is selfhood its own self-enclosed purpose. And the self is not unlimited. Even the talent for invention, however glorious, is always also hemmed in by the deflations of Seuss's humor. Dr. Seuss's is finally a cultivated self, situated, committed, requiring education to respect for others as others would respect the self.
The educational project that fully launched Dr. Seuss's writing career thus remains a fundamental commitment and frame. (He wrote The Cat in the Hat out of alarm at a 1954 report in Life concerning illiteracy in children, even as he cut his ideological teeth doing Oscar-winning war documentaries called Hitler Lives and Design for Death.) The socialization that may first seem to impose itself on the individual instead is a foremost resource for his (and her) creation. The parent, the mother, who seemed to threaten free individual growth instead fosters and teaches it, including the dangers of its destructive and truly self-contradictory potential—and not least when reading Dr. Seuss books to children. Dr. Seuss's work questions whether stark oppositions between individual and community even make sense in a liberal society. He wishes to offer them as mutual resources, guarding against the hostile excesses of either, while awakening each reader to his and her individuality and individual responsibility.
And yet: the engine of production, the assertion of the self, the compulsion of the More grind voraciously on, without being finally contained. Individual energy is unleashed; and the status of the individual remains formally equal and protected. But the forms of imagination, so seductive and joyful, prove also to be consuming, competitive, and, in some late works, violent. Without ever renouncing his commitment to the individual as America's founding stone, Dr. Seuss's work finally instructs in the limits of each one's consuming drive, as a threat to their coming together in positive and mutual community.
Philip Nel (essay date June 2001)
SOURCE: Nel, Philip. "'Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz …': How World War II Created Dr. Seuss." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisclipinary Study of Literature 34, no. 2 (June 2001): 65-85.
[In the following essay, Nel discusses how Seuss's experiences during World War II—particularly his work as a political cartoonist—influenced his later children's works.]
Long before Theodor Seuss Geisel became the Dr. Seuss famous for The Cat in the Hat and over forty other children's books, he was a successful advertising artist and—for just under two years—a political cartoonist. In 1940, Dr. Seuss was best known for his "Quick Henry, the Flit!" advertising campaign (for Flit bug spray) and was just starting to build a reputation as an author of children's books. At the time, he had published only four: To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (both in 1937), The King's Stilts (1939), and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). His next, McElligot's Pool, did not appear until 1947, because his concerns about the rapidly expanding world war had begun to simmer. Convinced that the United States would be drawn into the wars in Europe and the Pacific, he feared that American isolationism left the country vulnerable. In late January 1941, he expressed his frustration by sending a sketch of Mussolini's chief propagandist, Virginio Gayda, to the independent New York newspaper PM, where both the cartoon and his letter were printed on 30 January. Less than three months later, Seuss began his twenty-one-month career as a political cartoonist, publishing nearly 400 cartoons in PM between April 1941 and January 1943.
According to a Gallup Poll from April 1941, 80 percent of Americans opposed going to war with Germany, but 73 percent were in favour of the United States Navy escorting aid to Britain and, if attacked by the Germans, returning their fire. Probably referring to this 80 percent, Seuss's cartoon of 29 May 1941 depicts Hamilton Fish, representative from New York, talking on the telephone with Adolf Hitler. Fish says, "Now, Adolf, Just Forget What Franklin Said. 80 Per Cent of Us Here Want to Let You Have Your Fling." Strongly disagreeing with Fish and the 80 percent, Seuss was not only in favour of aiding Britain, but he also saw that war with Nazi Germany would be inevitable. As Seuss wrote in his never-published Non-Autobiography, "We were going to have no choice in the matter" (Morgan and Morgan 103). He added, "N. B. To the younger generation: I'm not talking about Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. I'm talking about a war that had to be fought. If my philosophy irritates yours, please write me in care of Justin Hoogfliet, the boy who stuck his finger in the dike, Foedersvlied, Holland 09037" (311). A cartoon from June 1941 expresses his views quite directly, and in verse: a bird representing Uncle Sam relaxes in an easy chair, while bombs explode all around him. The rollicking anapests in the caption lack the sparkle of the poetry in his children's books, but this cartoon does introduce the primary effect that World War II had on Dr. Seuss's post-war works. During the war, and especially during his stint as a cartoonist for the left-leaning daily paper PM, Seuss not only grew more interested in social issues but also wanted to make his readers care about these issues, too. Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War—which omits this cartoon—does an excellent job of situating Seuss's cartoons historically, but it might do more in situating them in the context of Seuss's children's books. Because Minear is a professor of history, he should not be faulted for his emphasis. However, scholars of children's literature and culture would do well to consider how the war shaped the artist who became Dr. Seuss. His career as cartoon propagandist made Seuss more willing to confront his readers, even at the risk of offending them. Furthermore, Seuss's work in the fight against Fascism both galvanized his commitment to various social issues and motivated him to write books that encourage readers to challenge certain structures of power.
PM often reprinted its credo, "PM is against people who push other people around," a message that resonated with Dr. Seuss. As he has said, "PM was against people who pushed other people around. I liked that" (qtd. in Morgan and Morgan 101). Taking no advertising for its first few years and billing itself as the "one newspaper that can and dares to tell the truth," PM did not pause to spare anyone's feelings, and neither did Seuss. Following Charles Lindbergh's first openly anti-Semitic speech, delivered in September 1941 in Des Moines, PM's headline called him "Jew-Baiter Lindbergh" and implied that he was colluding with the Nazi (see Hollenbeck). Seuss drew Lindbergh, shovel in hand, standing atop a "Nazi Anti-Semite Stink Wagon," busily "spreading the Lovely Goebbels Stuff." In November 1942, when Southern senators filibustered to preserve poll taxes, PM accused them of being childish and undemocratic, in an article headlined, "Who Is the No. 1 Lollipop of the U.S. Senate?" and encouraging its readers to mail lollipops to the filibusterers ("Suckers"). Seuss contributed "Buck Bilbo Rides Again," a cartoon showing Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo riding a galumphing beast named Filibuster. In his unpublished Non-Autobiography, Seuss speaks of PM's staff as "a bunch of honest but slightly cockeyed crusaders," and, if his description seems to mix admiration with irony, it's because he was one of those crusaders (Morgan and Morgan 103). The paper's idealism appealed to him, but, often self-deprecating when speaking of his own work, Seuss would not say so directly. As he remarked when looking back on his PM cartoons later in life, "I was intemperate, un-humorous in my attacks,… and I'd do it again" (311). Intemperate but actually quite humorous, Seuss's work at PM develops the confrontational style later used to great effect in his children's books—especially in the overtly political ones.
While there is a political component to the satirical illustrations, cartoons, stories, and even children's books that Seuss wrote in the 1930s, none were quite as blunt or acerbic as his PM cartoons. One difference was a lack of time to revise. When creating children's books, Dr. Seuss was a consummate perfectionist, revising and revising again. But writing, on average, four to five cartoons every week for PM left little time to polish his work. In his Non-Autobiography, he speaks of these cartoons as "rather shoddy" art, but likes "their honesty and their frantic fervor" (Morgan and Morgan 103). While the art is hardly "shoddy," the "short-order business" (Seuss's words) of drawing political cartoons inspired work more raw and provocative than anything he had published before (103), manifesting a desire to grab readers by the lapels, something he does not seem to have considered before then. Seuss set about disillusioning his countrymen, drawing Isolationists as ostriches, the America First organization as the Siamese twin of the Nazi Party, and one Isolationist senator as a horse's ass. In April 1942, four months after the United States entered the war, Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota was still arguing that Americans should stay out of it. Nye's letter endorsing Gerald L. K. Smith's pro-Fascist The Cross and the Flag appeared in that magazine's edition of 23 April (see Jeansonne). In their excellent Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, biographers Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan describe a breakfast-time conversation between Seuss and his wife, just after they had heard one of Nye's pro-isolation speeches on the radio:
"That horse's ass!" Ted blurted.
"Ted, don't use language like that!" Helen said.
"But he is a horse's ass! I'll draw a picture of him as a horse's ass and put it in PM!"
"You can't," she said. "It's a vulgar idea."
(Morgan and Morgan 101, emph. Seuss's)
He did draw the cartoon, and despite publisher Ralph Ingersoll's warning that it would get the newspaper in "a million-dollar lawsuit" (102), PM printed it on 26 April. Seuss received a letter from the Senator, not threatening to sue but politely requesting the original cartoon. Laughing as he read the letter aloud to his wife, Seuss asked if she thought that they should send the cartoon to Senator Nye. As Seuss remembers it, "Helen, who never used any bad language, said, 'No, he's a horse's ass!'" (102).
If Dr. Seuss calling a senator a "horse's ass" surprises fans of his children's books, it shouldn't. The blunt, agitational style of many of these cartoons—"What have you done today to help save your country from them?" asks one from March 1942—enters his children's books, too. Many of his books end by posing a question. On the last two pages of The Cat in the Hat, the narrator asks, "What would you do / If your mother asked you?" Should the children describe an actual experience that their mother will think they imagined, or an imagined experience that she will accept as actual? If you were a child who had just spent the day with a six-foot-tall cat, would you tell your mother? Pitting the desire to be honest against the desire not to get in trouble is a genuine dilemma for a child (and, one hopes, for some adults). Most of Seuss's books do not end with such a direct question, but they often conclude by inviting the reader to contemplate further the book's message. His cartoons do the same, addressing you directly, asking you to intervene.
When Seuss tries to cross the boundary between the page and his reader, he often does so by putting the matter in his reader's hands. This proclivity for confrontation aligns Seuss's work with that of the historical avant-garde (Nel 150-51 and passim); however, it seems significant that Seuss's deliberately contentious style emerges first in his work against the totalitarian governments of Germany and Japan in the 1940s. In one of the PM cartoons, he draws Hitler and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo of Japan standing on either side of a larger-than-life "World Atlas," both pushing to slam the book shut. Caught with his head inside the atlas is a figure labelled "you". The cartoon, entitled, "Awkward Predicament … For you to Solve," clearly states Seuss's goals not only in these cartoons but also in later works like The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book : he wants to force the reader to get involved. What the "Awkward Predicament" cartoon does with its "world atlas" The Butter Battle Book achieves in its tale of an escalating arms race between Yooks, who butter their bread butter side up, and Zooks, who butter theirs butter side down. A Yook grandfather tells his grandson about a cold war that, near the book's conclusion, culminates in the "Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo," a "bomb" that "can blow all of those Zooks clear to Sala-ma-goo." However, when the grandfather arrives at the wall dividing these two countries, his longtime enemy (a Zook) is there, also holding a version of the "Big Boy Boomeroo." After everyone else has entered fallout shelters, the two stand poised on the wall, each holding the Seussian nuclear bomb over his opponent's side of the wall, threatening to drop it. The book's last words are:
"Grandpa!" I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who's going to drop it?
Will you …? Or will he …?"
"Be patient," said Grandpa.
"We'll see. We will see …"
In the words of the PM cartoon, an awkward predicament … for you to solve.
The Butter Battle Book offers the most striking example of Seuss's ability to drop a problem in the reader's lap, but it is not the only work to do so. The Lorax and Yertle the Turtle each achieve a similar result with the words unless and maybe. In the concluding couplet of Yertle, we learn that "turtles, of course … all the turtles are free / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be." When asked "why 'maybe' and not 'surely'?" Seuss responded, "I wanted other persons to say 'surely' in their minds instead of my having to say it" (Cott 28). In a more subtle manner than The Butter Battle Book, Yertle the Turtle solicits the reader's involvement by ending on a "maybe" that (Seuss hoped) would prompt a "surely." The Lorax strives for a similar response with "unless," the last word left by the Lorax, the creature "who speaks for the trees," birds, and other wildlife. This story, too, finishes by placing responsibility in the hands of the reader. The repentant ex-industrialist Once-ler tosses the last Truffula seed to the narrator (identified only as "you"), and the last image is of the seed in transit, about to land in "your" hands. As the Once-ler says, "Unless some one like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better." Instead of asking you to help save the country from Fascism, Seuss asks you to save the environment from pollution. The message has changed, but the method of delivery has not.
The blunt political fables of The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book develop from Seuss's experience writing cartoons for PM, a task that sharpened his ideological commitment. As he told his biographers, "I had no great causes or interest in social issues until Hitler" (Morgan and Morgan 98). It's true: the works he wrote after the war are quite different from those written prior to it. What we might call Seuss's "message books" are a distinctly post-war phenomenon, beginning in 1949 with the publication of Bartholomew and the Oobleck. We have met Bartholomew before the war, in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. This earlier book focusses on one boy, unjustly sentenced to death for a failure to remove his hat: Bartholomew's plight is real (it is not his fault that new hats keep appearing on his head), but the king's actions primarily affect Bartholomew alone. By contrast, in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, King Birtram's misrule affects the entire kingdom. The king's wish for unusual weather creates an ecological catastrophe, prefiguring that more deftly dramatized fable of environmental destruction, The Lorax. Green, gluey goop covers animals, people, farm equipment, and everything in sight. In this post-war work, dictatorial blundering affects not just Bartholomew but also the entire nation.
The careful reader might argue that the influence of world events enters Seuss's work prior to the United States' involvement in the war; however, such influences are but echoes when compared to Oobleck and later "message" books. For example, Mary Galbraith contends that To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937 and conceived of during Seuss's return from a European trip coincident with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, registers fears about the Nazis' ambitions. Though Seuss did not actually attend these Olympic games, Mulberry Street 's parade recalls the "parade of nations" presented in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia: in Mulberry Street, the "mayor's small moustache and raised arm evoke Hitler, while the brass band and international cast of characters evoke the parade of nations at the opening of the games" (128). Galbraith's most compelling point may be the idea that Mulberry Street 's "simple horse and wagon—which evokes the peaceful Germans of Geisel's home town [Springfield, Massachusetts] and thus the everyday, non-threatening behavior of Germany—will transform itself gradually into a military monolith […] marching down the main street as an airplane drops confetti" (128). Yet, if Mulberry Street does bear the marks of Hitler's military aspirations, they remain quite coded: there is little reason to suspect that a contemporary reader would glean anxieties about the Nazis from reading this book. Furthermore, Marco's failure to tell his father what he saw does not appear to have any negative consequences for himself or others. By contrast, Jo-Jo, the smallest of the Whos in Horton Hears a Who!, needs to speak out in order to save all Whos from imminent destruction.
A better candidate for a pre-war book manifesting signs of European dangers is The King's Stilts, in which King Birtram, depressed by the theft of his stilts, abandons his kingdom to the Nizzards, who eat at the Dike Trees protecting his island nation. The King's Stilts is the sole pre-war Seuss work in which a king's behaviour affects his entire country. Written on the eve of World War II, the book might register Seuss's anxieties about the growing global crisis. As a leader who has grown lazy about the potential dangers to his country, King Birtram could represent Isolationists' influence in both the United States and Great Britain, and The King's Stilts may dramatize the dangers of appeasement. However, one main feature marks The King's Stilts as a pre-war work. In contrast to the un-elected leaders in Seuss's post-war work, this king is not a childish despot. Seuss often depicted Hitler as a tyrannical baby, as in the series entitled "Mein Early Kampf," where Hitler appears as an infant "giv[ing] the hotfoot to" a stork delivering him (20 January 1942), "reject[ing] milk from Holstein cows as Non-Aryan" (21 January 1942), and taking a bite out of a bust of Bismarck (29 January 1942). This view of Hitler very much informed the kind of rulers in later books like Yertle the Turtle and Bartholomew and the Oobleck. However, King Birtram, like the pre-war King Derwin of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, is less a dictatorial menace and more a misguided human being. After Lord Droon steals the stilts and blames the robbery on "the townsfolk," the king grows "sadder and sadder," neglecting his Patrol Cats and his kingdom. The real villain of the story is not the king—who is basically a benevolent, if fallible, monarch—but Lord Droon, who dislikes laughing ("spoils the shape of the face," he says) and thinks bounding about on stilts is insufficiently kingly. Likewise, in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the villain is Grand Duke Wilfred, a capricious child of Bartholomew's age. Though the king is at first quite angry that Bartholomew's head keeps producing more hats, his general mood throughout the book is puzzlement. It is Wilfred who suggests that the King chop off Bartholomew's head, something the king clearly does not want to do. "A dreadful thought," says the king while "biting his lip"; emphasizing King Derwin's misgivings, Seuss accompanies these words with the first picture in which Derwin does not look either angry or haughty. No longer the commanding figure of earlier illustrations, the king sits on his throne, his eyes wide open, eyebrows raised, as he bends over to listen to his nephew (who does look haughty). The kings of The 500 Hats and The King's Stilts offer a marked contrast to the king in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, who, though ostensibly the same character as The 500 Hats ' King, is much more like the tantrum-throwing Hitler than these earlier kings. Influenced by their author's portrayal of Hitler, post-war Seuss books tend to portray un-elected leaders as irrational tyrants.
Emphasizing the higher degree of danger in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, Seuss's art grows more dynamic and energetic. Though the haste with which Seuss drew his PM cartoons may be the immediate reason behind this stylistic shift (all of Seuss's post-war books evince a more boisterous, more expressive use of line), the effect is to underscore this later Derwin's status as a more harmful leader and Bartholomew's mission as much more serious than it was in The 500 Hats. There, he had to prove his own innocence; here, he has both to save an entire kingdom from environmental catastrophe and to convince a tyrant to change his mind. Accentuating the earlier book's relative lack of danger, each of the stops on Bartholomew's journey in The 500 Hats occurs at a leisurely pace: the Yeoman of the Bowmen fails to remove his hat, the magicians fail to charm away his hat, and the executioner cannot chop off Bartholomew's head because he "can't execute anyone with his hat on." The drawings accompanying each of these scenes convey stasis more than movement: the Yeoman stands still, his bow drawn; the musicians stand in a circle, singing; the executioner flicks hats off Bartholomew's head before shaking the boy's hand. Appropriately, the art compliments the relatively unhurried narrative; after all, a hat that will not come off does not represent a grave danger. By contrast, in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, Bartholomew dashes from royal bell ringer to royal trumpeter to captain of the guards, all with an increasing sense of urgency. As oobleck rains down, he races to warn the people and to stop this toxic, green substance before everyone is "hopelessly caught in the goo." Seuss emphasizes Bartholomew's haste in bristly lines that show the boy always in motion, running up stairs, running to open a door, running to warn people. The deliberately rougher style of these pictures recalls the vitality of his PM cartoons and heightens the crisis of Bartholomew and the Oobleck.
Amplifying the danger in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, the more turbulent lines of Seuss's cartoons contribute to the sense that this king is more erratic, infantile, and dictatorial than he was in The 500 Hats. Unlike the prior version of Derwin, Seuss depicts this one striding around the castle, beating his chest, closely resembling a child throwing a tantrum. Though the King Derwin of The 500 Hats does display a temper, his emotional state is more a grumpy indignity than a childish impatience. When Bartholomew stands at the threshold of The 500 Hats ' Throne Room, the king stares down at him, eyebrows furrowed, as the sharp features of his face congeal into a scowl. However, even when covered in oobleck, the later King Derwin waves his arms while the narrator compares him to an infant: "There he sat … Old King Derwin, proud and mighty ruler of the Kingdom of Didd, trembling, shaking, helpless as a baby." His eyes squinting, dripping juicy tears above his oval-shaped mouth, the king appears too immature to handle the responsibility of governing. It is with a sense of relief that we see Bartholomew, unable to "hold his tongue [any] longer," rebuking the king and telling him to apologize; when King Derwin does, the oobleck "simply, quietly melt[s] away." The success of Bartholomew's quest and the perils that Didd faces emphasize the need to stand up to an unjust leader, especially one who poses a danger to the lives and welfare of his citizens.
The King Derwin of Bartholomew and the Oobleck is an early version of Yertle the Turtle, whose career Seuss has said "was modeled on the rise of Hitler" (Cott 28-29). Yertle, tyrannical king of the turtles, literally builds his throne on the backs of his subjects, because the higher he sits, the more territory he rules. As Derwin wishes to "rule the sky" and exults "That beautiful oobleck! […] It's mine! All mine!" so Yertle proclaims himself "king of the air!" and "the ruler of all that [he sees]!" Just as these rulers' attempts to control the sky results in their undoing, Seuss frequently depicts Hitler as overextending himself, seen most vividly in a cartoon first printed in January 1942: Hitler stands in a doctor's office, where icicles labelled "Russia" hang from his head and his trousers have been singed off, revealing a thigh labelled "Libya." Coupling the slapstick humour of a bare-assed Hitler with stereotyped Hollywood-German syntax ("Doktor! I got frozen up here"), Seuss's drawing transforms the German ruler's ambitions into broad farce. But the comedy has a serious point. At left, a skull looks impassively on, a reminder of the deaths wrought by Hitler's armies and, perhaps, suggesting that this "disease" of a war on many fronts may bring about the Nazi leader's demise. One can see the wartime cartoons recurring in the behaviours of dictators from Bartholomew and the Oobleck to Yertle the Turtle : their grandiose designs lead to their regime's collapse.
Seuss's interest in the deleterious effects of such governments also stems from his war work. The PM cartoon of 7 October 1942 argues that Hitler maintains his empire by starving his people; in it, an emaciated father explains to his hungry son, "Food? We Germans don't eat food! We Germans eat countries!" Likewise, Mack, spokesturtle for those at the bottom of Yertle's pile, complains, "I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, / But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights. / We turtles can't stand it. Our shells will all crack! / Besides, we need food. We are starving!" Like Yertle the Turtle, Bartholomew and the Oobleck displays the suffering inflicted by a cruel ruler. Indeed, if we see oobleck as a physical manifestation of an ideological condition, this book may go even further than Yertle the Turtle in its depiction of the effects of living under a tyrant; not only is the King a megalomaniac, but also his ambitions mire his country in chaos and pain, a view that perfectly coincides with Seuss's view of Hitler.
Bartholomew's king is not the only character to undergo a post-war transformation. In the pre-war Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton nurtures a single egg, carefully protecting it from harm. However, in Horton Hears a Who!, Horton must protect an entire civilization from annihilation. If he cannot save the speck-sized planet from its sneering adversaries, an entire planet full of Whos will be destroyed. Significantly, Seuss wrote the book directly after his return from Japan; he visited that nation in 1953 to see how the American occupation had changed the ideas of young people, learning that they were less interested in militarism and more interested in the West, as reported in "Japan's Young Dreams," a Life magazine article about his trip. Seuss dedicated Horton Hears a Who! —a book that the Des Moines Register called "a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights" (Morgan and Morgan 151)—to "My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura," a Kyoto University professor he met on his tour of Japan. While the Whos could represent children or any minority populations, given that the book was written upon Seuss's return from Japan and—according to his biographers—influenced by his visits to Japanese schools (Morgan and Morgan 144), it is reasonable to assume that Seuss was thinking of the Japanese people when he created these Whos. While the Whos in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! do not appear to be specifically connected with the Japanese, the fact that Horton's Whos are threatened by total annihilation suggests a parallel with the atomic bomb, two of which the United States dropped on Japan in August 1945. Minear rightly points out this parallel in his book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, noting, "If Who-ville is Japan, Horton must stand for the United States" (263).
However, Minear may press this parallel a bit too much when he begins to equate Horton with the United States and to accuse Seuss of a wishful rewriting of history. Noting that even before the use of atomic bombs, the United States' bombing of Japan was "unprecedented in its thoroughness and in the devastation it caused" (263-64), Minear finds Horton's rescue of Who-ville a "willful amnesia" on the part of Seuss. Horton may be praised by Whos for saving their "houses, [their] ceilings and floors / […] [their] churches and grocery stores," but the United States firebombed much of Japan, destroying over half its sixty largest cities, Minear explains (264). Yet, if we consider Horton Hears a Who! not as a literal rewriting of American actions against Japan during World War II but instead within the context of Seuss's children's books and racist cartoons caricaturing the Japanese, we might arrive at a different conclusion. Taken in light of his burgeoning awareness of world affairs, the book's refrain, "A person's a person, no matter how small," might be seen as a post-war parable favouring the protection of all people, not only the Japanese. True, "no matter how small" could be seen as an ethnic slight or as patronizing, but, in the story, size functions as an arbitrary mark of difference for which the Whos are mistreated and thus can be seen as analogous to race, creed, sex, or nationality. So, if we look at Seuss's political development as an artist, we could see the book not as "willful amnesia" but as an allegory advocating equal treatment of all people.
Even if one were to equate the Whos with the Japanese, then Horton Hears a Who! is especially significant in light of Seuss's tendency to stereotype the Japanese in his PM cartoons. He often represented the German people sympathetically (though not their leaders), spoke out against the Poll Tax, and criticized anti-Semitism at home and abroad. But the Japanese did not receive a similar treatment. Whether it was inadvertent or intentional on Seuss's part, a cartoon from February 1942 provides justification for Japanese internment camps. In it, a line of Japanese men stretches all along the west coast (from Washington to California). They are lining up to pick up packages of "TNT" from another Japanese man, working at a kiosk labelled "Honorable 5th Column." On the roof of the building sits a Japanese man with a telescope, "Waiting for the Signal From Home," according to the caption. Then dividing his time between an apartment in New York and a summer home in La Jolla, California, Seuss clearly absorbed some of the west coast's anti-Japanese hysteria.
While the racism of these anti-Japanese drawings is striking in contrast to his cartoons that are critical of both anti-Semitism and unjust treatment of black Americans, Seuss's caricatures of the Japanese are no more derogatory than those of his contemporary cartoonists. For example, consider two cartoons from late June 1941, one by Seuss and the other by David Low, the New Zealand-born cartoonist who drew for London's Evening Standard. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, some people wondered whether Japan would begin attacking the Russians as well; although Japan (like Germany) had signed a neutrality pact with the Soviets, a similar agreement had not prevented Japan from attacking China and, furthermore, Japan was allied with Germany. In Seuss's cartoon of 30 June, a male figure wearing a "Jap" hat has unbuttoned his shirt and is looking at two tattoos on his chest: "Nazi Pact" (with a Swastika insignia) and "Russ[ia] Pact" (with the Hammer and Sickle). He thinks, "Gosh, I wonder how easy this Tattoo Stuff comes off …!" The man's slanty eyes, glasses, and pointy mustache clearly uphold Western caricatures of the Japanese. But David Low's response to the same event goes even further in its pursuit of cultural stereotypes: hanging by his tail from a palm tree is a monkey with slanty eyes, glasses, and wide grin. On his behind is the word "Jap," and in his hand a sharp knife. The tree is in the middle of the Pacific; to his left and right are men with their backs to the monkey: a man identified as "U.S.S.R." (left) and two men labelled "U.S.A." and "Brit" (right). The "Jap" monkey is counting, "Eeny, meeny, miney mo …," as he decides which one to stab in the back first. In depicting this particular event, Low's cartoon appears more xenophobic than Seuss's; by portraying the Japanese person as a monkey, Low suggests that the "Jap" is not even human. Though other of Seuss's PM cartoons exhibit greater degrees of anti-Japanese racism, Seuss uses animals much less frequently than Low and only once portrays the Japanese as a monkey. While Low's more common use of the Japanese-as-monkey trope does not excuse Seuss, it does place his xenophobia in context. As Minear judiciously observes, "Depicting the Japanese as monkeys or apes was a common practice of American and British political cartoons of the war era" (118).
However, Seuss's later work, both during and after the war, manifests greater sympathy toward people of Japanese origin, as Seuss's initial racism gives way to a deeper understanding. Near the end of the war, Seuss scripted a military training film, Your Job in Japan, which General MacArthur considered too sympathetic toward the Japanese people and prevented from being shown. In 1947, Seuss and his wife, Helen, co-wrote a film that "portrayed the Japanese people as victims of seven centuries of class dictatorship" (Morgan and Morgan 119). In 1948, this film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. As in these films, in Horton Hears a Who!, one might see Seuss's treatment of the Japanese growing more sympathetic and, perhaps, an implicit criticism of the United States' use of the atomic bomb on Japan. Horton's determination to protect the Whos' small island nation from certain and total destruction suggests that, after his visit to Japan, Seuss may have sensed the possibility that race played a role in the United States' decision to use the bomb.
If read as parable in defence of the Japanese, then Horton's paternalistic statement "I've got to protect them. I'm bigger than they" (emph. Seuss's) smacks of American imperialism; and the oft-repeated slogan "A person's a person, no matter how small" may sound condescending. But, if we see the Whos as a metaphor for not only the Japanese but all minority groups, then size, too, is a metaphor. After all, the Whos' smallness is not important; the fact that Whos are people is very important. That Jo-Jo, the smallest Who of all, shouts the "Yopp!" that saves his country suggests that even those who seem insignificant in the larger social order are significant and even powerful. Inasmuch as Whos may be analogous to minority populations, Horton Hears a Who! indicates that Seuss's understanding of racism and xenophobia had progressed considerably during the decade since his PM cartoons. Suggesting that his burgeoning cultural sensitivity eventually included people of Chinese origin, Seuss later revised And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. As he explained, "I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a Chinaman. That's the way things were fifty years ago. In later editions I refer to him as a Chinese man. I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail and now he looks like an Irishman" (Morgan and Morgan 276). Where he once perceived Asians in terms of cultural stereotypes, Seuss ultimately appears to be including them among those groups who deserve protection from race-based bigotry.
In many senses, Horton Hears a Who! looks ahead to The Sneetches, which Seuss has said "was inspired by [his] opposition to anti-Semitism" (Cott 29-30), a political stance that was first expressed in his PM cartoons. On the front page of the PM of 22 September 1941 sits an American bird, wings and feet locked in stocks, a sign hanging from his beak; "I am part Jewish," it says. Leaning against the stocks, a placard states, "Publik Notice: This Bird is Possessed of an Evil Demon!" and signed by "Sheriffs" Lindbergh and Nye. Directing the viewer to oppose the anti-Semitic jailers, the drawing creates sympathy for the imprisoned, "Part Jewish," and—given his star-spangled hat—clearly American bird. In contrast, the misspelling of public, the phrase evil demon, and the stocks themselves make the "sheriffs" look both uneducated and cruel, if not positively mediaeval. Visually, the persecuted bird of this cartoon looks ahead to the Plain-Belly Sneetches who, twenty years after this criticism of American anti-Semitism, are treated as second-class citizens by Star-Belly Sneetches; by the end of the book, both groups learn that "Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches." Indeed, in his article "Horton Hears a Heil," Art Spiegelman suggests that "those stars on thar bellies" are "Stars of David" (63). Although Seuss's inspiration for The Sneetches was opposition to anti-Semitism, the book also works as an anti-racism fable, another concern introduced in the PM cartoons. Several cartoons attack discrimination: many question "Jim Crow" labour practices; one criticizes Eugene Talmadge, the white-supremacist governor of Georgia; another shows a line of people waiting to be inoculated by a "mental insecticide" that gets rid of the "racial prejudice bug."
Fighting prejudices is one of the legacies that Seuss's cartoons and children's books attempt to leave in the post-war world. A later version of the "mental insecticide" cartoon shows Uncle Sam working a bellows labelled "'Psychological Disarmament' of Axis Youth." The bellows goes in one ear of a German child, blowing bugs (presumably versions of the "prejudice bug" depicted in the earlier cartoon) out the other ear; meanwhile, a Japanese child awaits the same treatment. Appropriately, Seuss entitled the cartoon "We'll Have to Clean a Lot of Stuff Out Before We Put Peace Thoughts In." As his wartime caricatures of the Japanese indicate, this remark applies equally well to Seuss himself, signalling the transformation his own attitudes eventually underwent. Examining the effect of Seuss's World War II cartoons on his later career reveals not only the way he changed but also the extent to which he hoped his work would shape a better world.
Apart from producing occasional posters for causes like opposing billboards in La Jolla, Seuss never returned to political cartooning after 1943. He began designing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board in July 1942, and his last political cartoon appeared in PM on 6 January 1943. On 7 January in New York, the thirty-nine-year-old Dr. Seuss enlisted as Theodor Seuss Geisel and became a captain in the Army's Information and Education Division. He worked in California under Major Frank Capra at what was known as Fort Fox, making documentary films in support of the Allied war effort. Captain Geisel's one venture into the war itself happened in 1944 when he visited Europe to premiere one of his educational films before military personnel. He bumped into Ralph Ingersoll, former editor of PM and then a lieutenant colonel in army intelligence, who offered to show Seuss some fighting in "a quiet sector." Ingersoll was wrong about the intensity of the fighting, and Seuss ended up behind enemy lines for three days during the Battle of the Bulge. "Nobody came along and put up a sign saying 'This is the Battle of the Bulge,'" Seuss later remembered. "How was I supposed to know?" (Kahn 68). Fortunately, he was later rescued by British troops and went on to become one of the twentieth century's most influential authors of books for children.
These PM cartoons may not have the polish of Dr. Seuss's books, but they do show us the degree to which World War II influenced not only his later work but also all of us who grew up reading that work. He produced books that encouraged us to ask questions instead of accepting answers, and he taught us that even smallish Whos and little turtles can speak out and make a difference. Look at the cartoon from 1 October 1941, and you can see Seuss already thinking about how books for children shape their beliefs. In it, a mother named America First reads a fable called "Adolf the Wolf" to her two children: "And the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones, … but those were "foreign children" and it really didn't matter," she tells them. As in many of his PM cartoons, a cat bears witness to the event, its wide-eyed expression suggesting that we, too, should keep our eyes open. The cat and two children appear a bit surprised to hear that Adolf the Wolf's murder of these "foreign children" doesn't matter, simply because the children happen to be "foreign." Like this cartoon, Seuss's children's stories state that it did matter and it does matter. For older readers raised on these stories and younger readers encountering them for the first time, Seuss offers preparation for the often dangerous world beyond his books, where flawed individuals need to remain mindful of the rights of others and strive to make choices that cause the least harm and the most good.
Cott, Jonathan. Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature. New York: Random House, 1983.
Galbraith, Mary. "Agony in the Kindergarten: Indelible German Images in American Picture Books." Text, Culture and National Identity in Children's Literature: International Seminar on Children's Literature, Pure and Applied. University College Worcester, England, June 14th-19th, 1999. Ed. Jean Webb. Helsinki: Edita, 2000. 124-43.
Hollenbeck, Don. "Lindbergh's Dirtiest Speech: Attack on Jews." PM 12 September 1941: 14.
"Japan's Young Dreams." Life 29 March 1954: 89-95.
Jeansonne, Glen. Gerald L. K. Smith: Minister of Hate. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
"Jew-Baiter Lindbergh Puts America Firsters on Spot." PM 14 September 1941: 7.
Kahn, E. J., Jr. "Children's Friend." The New Yorker 17 December 1960: 47-93.
Low, David. "East or West?" Years of Wrath. A Cartoon History: 1931-1945. With a chronology and text by Quincy Howe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.
"Malice in Wonderland." Newsweek 9 February 1942: 58-59.
Margolick, David. "PM's Impossible Dream." Vanity Fair January 1999: 116-32.
Minear, Richard. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. Intro. Art Spiegelman. New York: New Press, 1999.
Morgan, Judith, and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995.
Nel, Philip. "Dada Knows Best: Growing Up 'Surreal' with Dr. Seuss." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 150-84.
Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. "… and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones … But those were Foreign Children and it really didn't matter." Cartoon. PM 1 October 1941: 12. Rpt. Minear: 45.
——. "Awkward Predicament … For You to Solve." Cartoon. PM 16 March 1942: 21.
——. Bartholomew and the Oobleck. 1949. New York: Random House, 1977.
——. "Buck Bilbo Rides Again." Cartoon. PM 16 November 1942: 13. Rpt. Minear: 72.
——. The Butter Battle Book. New York: Random House, 1984.
——. The Cat in the Hat. 1957. New York: Random House, 1985.
——. "Democracy's Turnstile." Cartoon. PM 12 October 1942: 21. Rpt. Minear: 71.
——. "'Doktor! I got frozen up here, and sunburned down here … all at the very same time!'" Cartoon. PM 2 January 1942: 22. Rpt. "Malice in Wonderland," Newsweek 9 February 1942: 58.
——. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. New York: Vanguard, 1937.
——. "'Food? We Germans don't eat food! We Germans eat countries!'" Cartoon. PM 7 October 1942: 21. Rpt. Minear: 95.
——. "'God made me a rabble-rouser!'" Cartoon. PM 26 April 1942: 19.
——. "'Gosh, I wonder how easy this Tattoo Stuff comes off …!'" Cartoon. PM 30 June 1941: 21.
——. Horton Hears a Who! 1954. New York: Random House, 1982.
——. Horton Hatches the Egg. Random House, 1940.
——. "I am part Jewish." Cartoon. PM 22 September 1941: 1. Rpt. Minear: 62.
——. "The Isolationist." PM 16 July 1941: 20.
——. The King's Stilts. 1939. New York: Random House, 1967.
——. "'Listen, maestro … if you want to get real harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!'" Cartoon. PM 29 June 1942: 22. Rpt. Minear: 59.
——. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
——. "'Master! What do I do when they won't come across?'" Cartoon. PM 5 December 1941: 20. Rpt. Minear: 143.
——. "Mein Early Kampf: I give the hotfoot to the stork that brings me." PM 20 January 1942: 22. Rpt. Minear: 87.
——. "Mein Early Kampf: I reject milk from Holstein cows as non-Aryan." Cartoon. PM 21 January 1942: 22.
——. "Mein Early Kampf: I cut my first tooth on a bust of Bismark." Cartoon. PM 29 January 1942: 21.
——. "'Now, Adolf, just forget what Franklin said. 80 per cent of us here want to let you have your fling.'" Cartoon. PM 29 May 1941: 7.
——. "Said a bird in the midst of a Blitz …" Cartoon. PM 23 June 1941: 9. Rpt. New Yorker 12 July 1999: 63.
——. "'Since when did we swap our ego for an ostrich?'" Cartoon. PM 28 April 1941: 22. Rpt. Minear: 29.
——. "Spreading the Lovely Goebbels Stuff." Cartoon. PM 18 September 1941: 10. Rpt. Minear: 43.
——. To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. 1937. New York: Random House, 1989.
——. The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough: Early Writings and Cartoons. Ed. Richard Marschall. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
——. "Virginio Gayda Says." Cartoon. PM 30 January 1941: 2. Includes letter to the editor. Rpt. Minear: 11.
——. "Waiting for the Signal From Home …" Cartoon. PM 13 February 1942: 21. Rpt. Minear: 65.
——. "We'll Have to Clean a Lot of Stuff Out before We Put Peace Thoughts In!" Cartoon. PM 30 December 1942: 18. Rpt. Minear: 64.
——. "What have you done today to help save your country from them?" Cartoon. PM 5 March 1942: 21.
——. "What this country needs is a good mental insecticide." Cartoon. PM 10 June 1942: 22.
——. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 1958. New York: Random House, 1986.
——. "'You can keep your American eagle. I got a bird all my own!'" Cartoon. PM 19 August 1942: 22. Rpt. Minear: 61.
Spiegelman, Art. "Horton Hears a Heil." New Yorker 12 July 1999: 62-63.
"Suckers for the Senators." PM 20 November 1942: 2.
"Who Is the No. 1 Lollipop of the U.S. Senate?" PM 20 November 1942: 3.
THE LORAX (1971)
Lisa Lebduska (essay date winter 1994-1995)
SOURCE: Lebduska, Lisa. "Rethinking Human Need: Seuss's The Lorax." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 19, no. 4 (winter 1994-1995): 170-6.
[In the following essay, Lebduska notes the complex themes of environmentalism in The Lorax and examines the book's exploration of individual and communal need.]
In a 1992 New York Times Book Review article, Janet Maslin railed against what she termed the "scare factor" in children's environmental literature. Citing examples from recent books, Maslin complained that "today's didactic children's literature" neither entertains nor soothes its young audience. Particularly troubling to Maslin was an excerpt from Where Does Our Garbage Go? that reads, "Of the 5,499 landfills operating today, 4,265 of them will close in just 18 years. What will we do then?" Writing rhetorically, Maslin asked, "Is it helpful to present this as a problem for children?" (19). A more revealing question might be, who is protected by evading this problem? Is it children's sensibilities we are trying to shield, or is it something deeper, more fundamental—an overriding and at times unconscious protection of the dominant consumer ethos?
Historically, violence, profanity, sexuality, and the portrayal of authority have constituted the borders of the unthinkable in children's literature. These borders, like the contemporary electronic fences used to control animals, remain invisible until violated. In the late nineteenth century, for example, angry editorials, book banning, and the publication of approved book lists by various "denominational and professional groups" were used to counter the effects of dime novels and questionable children's magazines (Kelly 96). Nearly 100 years later, in 1989, the "unthinkable" expanded to include a Dr. Seuss title as parents in Laytonville, California, angered by The Lorax 's "antilogging" message, protested its inclusion on the second-grade reading list.1 Although the school board ultimately voted to retain the book, the controversy revealed the tensions underlying middle-class environmentalism and the resulting complexities for children's environmental education. By placing The Lorax within the context of a growing consumer culture, I plan to show the inevitable conflict between a consumer ethos and a land ethic and to note the ways in which The Lorax attempts to bring this conflict into the range of ideas.
Although The Lorax did not sell as well as many of his other books, Seuss maintained that it was his "personal favorite" (MacDonald 148). "The Lorax, " he once explained, "came out of my being angry. The ecology books I'd read were dull.… In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might" (qtd. in Cott 30). A cautionary tale about the "Once-ler," a greedy pioneer who discovers how to manufacture "thneeds" from the tufts of native truffula trees and devastates an entire Edenic community in the process, The Lorax is Seuss's "most thinly veiled … allegory" (MacDonald 148). Ironically, as Ruth MacDonald points out, it "was made into a television special for the CBS network, which necessitated some toning down of the criticism of big business in the book, in order not to offend the program's commercial sponsors" (148).2 Nature's spokesman—and, consequently, the Once-ler's environmentalist foe—is the Lorax, a mustachioed two-legged creature who speaks for the land's flora and fauna: truffula trees, bar-ba-loots, humming fish, and swomee swans. In condemning the Once-ler and speaking for the trees, Seuss's Lorax offers a biocentric defense in which nonhuman nature has as much right to existence as humanity. This challenge to the Once-ler's anthropocentrism informs the book's typically playful anapestic tetrameter with a "land ethic" that may be the source of greatest concern to adult readers.
For Aldo Leopold, a true land ethic entails an extension of moral rights to all living beings. Actions should be judged not for their ability to yield individual profit or pleasure but rather in terms of their effects on the entire community: "[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (qtd. in Cheney 125). The Onceler's thneed manufacture and his consumers' thneed buying destroy their fictional biotic community, and the Lorax's confrontational "rudeness," as MacDonald observes, "indicates the stridency that Dr. Seuss permits the reader to use in opposing polluters" (153). Strident adult environmentalists, however, may find themselves facing opposition that is far more elusive than the Once-ler and his greed: as the Laytonville censorship debate indicates, environmentalism has widespread social implications, and often an issue's "villains" may be even less apparent than the features on the Once-ler's hidden face.
Writing for Library Journal in 1971, Gail Abbott Furnas enthused, "The big, colorful pictures in Dr. Seuss's typically lively, cartoonish style, and the fun images, word plays and rhymes make this an amusing, if unsubtle exposition of the ecology crisis" (3895). But in 1989, after her eight-year-old son Sammy declared, "We can't cut down trees, Mom, because it's just like if someone came here and took away my house. That's just what's happening to the little animals" (qtd. in McNulty 4), Judith Bailey and her husband, a logging-equipment wholesaler in the Laytonville area, found the book neither amusing nor helpful, and protested its inclusion on the list. "Why are we making seven-year-olds feel bad?" Judith Bailey asked. "Are we doing our kids a favor at seven years old telling them there's pollution out there? What it says is make sure that another tree is never cut. That's the moral of the book, and my kid got that moral. That's a sad picture for a book to paint in a community where the main industry is timber" (qtd. in McNulty 4). One could argue that the controversy reflects an economic and cultural system that depends on pitting people against nature, and that children's environmental literature has served as an influential, if unwitting, accomplice in sustaining this culture/nature division. While the Baileys' concerns and their reading of the book have merit, The Lorax 's criticism of materialism and pollution need not be interpreted as insisting on a choice between economic and environmental health, though extending its logic would lead to a reexamination of American lifestyles. But before examining the book as a starting point for biocentric education, I would like to provide a brief overview of anthropocentrism's role in children's culture.
Nonhuman nature has always played a significant role in children's literature, particularly as a device for conveying social and political goals. Western literature, for example, often constructs the idealized social self through the use of animals, a practice that dates at least as far back as Aesop's Fables. Coincident with the emergence of the mid-eighteenth-century children's book trade, the genre began to emphasize a Lockean self, a tabula rasa inherently neither sinful nor blessed but empty—a formless being entirely susceptible to its environment and therefore to be sheltered from antisocial behaviors (Pickering 8-9). In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) Locke notes, "For the Custom of Tormenting and Killing of Beasts, will, by Degrees, harden their Minds even towards Men; and they who delight in the Suffering and Destruction of inferior Creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate, or benign to those of their own kind" (qtd. in Pickering 12). For the eighteenth century in particular, Samuel Pickering argues, kindness to animals was important mainly because it served as an indicator of humanity. The genre, in other words, retained and reinforced the anthropocentrism of its culture despite appearing to do the contrary.
Some critics, such as Bruce Ronda, suggest that contemporary children's literature offers an antidote to adult anthropocentrism. Ronda, who identifies the three major issues in American children's literature as family, self, and place, proposes that children's literature offers oppositional discourse through a kind of land ethic. Although much of children's literature reinforces dominant discourses, Ronda argues its treatment of place is much more "celebratory" than the adult "antiplace" impulse in which nature becomes an Other to be conquered or abandoned. With the exception of the nineteenth century's dime westerns, "an intense commitment to place runs like a leitmotif through a century and more of children's writing" (Ronda 37). Ronda conjectures that "it is in exploration of children's sense of place and in the employment of a counter discourse that writers best express the vulnerability and powerlessness that young people share with other marginalized communities" (37). Yet while many of Ronda's examples might be more pro-place than much of adult literature, they do not necessarily prove the case for children's literature as a whole.
Children's literature has long been a socializing force, and the relationship between treatment of land and formulations of self plays a role in that socialization. Drawing on Edith Cobb's The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Jim Cheney points to the "necessity of landscape for the coherent construction of self" (127). "The interior space of the self," he explains, "is really an internalized landscape or, better, one term of a constructed narrative of self-in-place" (127). Self cannot therefore be divorced from place. If landscape is needed for the imagining of self, it stands to reason that when children's literature reinforces dominant constructions of self (as Ronda admits it usually does), it must also reproduce dominant conceptualizations of land. And much of children's literature, like much of adult literature, constructs a coherent self by means of an anthropocentric landscape.
While revisionist American history has begun rewriting frontier adventure through women, slave, and Native peoples' experiences, the "othering" of Nature, perhaps best documented by Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature and Ecological Revolutions, still persists in children's nature literature. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, literary animals today often talk or wear clothes, even when, like Ranger Rick and his friends, they espouse environmental causes; those that do not are usually understood only by native or aboriginal peoples (as in Julie of the Wolves) who are themselves Other and not as "human" as the work's white characters. This othering of nature may also take the form of emphasizing the sublime by trying to increase children's awe of nature, a practice advocated by Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder: "If a child is to keep alive his sense of wonder … he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in" (qtd. in Sinclair 219). Following Carson's advice, Patti K. Sinclair's E for Environment: An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books with Environmental Themes includes a chapter on books that "elicit an emotional response from their readers. They do not tell children to save the earth or to be kind to animals, but they foster a positive attitude towards the natural world, they work their own magic" (1). While children certainly need to appreciate and enjoy nature, the danger here lies in the risk of divorcing children from nature by turning it into spectacle. Our culture is, of course, filled with dozens of "natural" spectacles—wildlife films, nature preserves, and parks that, as Alexander Wilson demonstrates, organize our experience of nature to accommodate our economic system. As one of his many examples Wilson offers Disney's award-winning nature films, explaining,
The animal stories they trafficked in were among other things transparent allegories of progress, paeans to the official cult of exploration, industrial development, and an ever rising standard of living. Those blooming flowers in "living colour"—a signature of Disney's film work—legitimized our metaphors about economic growth. The flowers were typically shown only to the point of "perfection." Rarely did we see them … [as] part of some other economy, a larger collective cycle of life and death of which we humans are also a part.
In evaluating children's environmental literature, critics might consider borrowing Patricia Greiner's definition of "true ecofiction," which she derives from Gabriel Navarre's "Toward a Definition of Environmental Fiction": "True ecofiction … demonstrates the interrelatedness of people, activities, systems of thought, indeed of every part of life" (10).3 This emphasis on a literature that espouses connections between humans and their environment is shared by Millicent Lenz, who, in searching for young adult heroic archetypes in a nuclear age, concludes that the environmental hero (whom she renames "biophile") will be "a person endowed with holistic vision and reverence for the totality of life on Earth … [who can] go beyond personal limitations and point the way to a future where the Earth might be free of nuclear arms and the biosphere free of pollutants—a condition some believe to be the closest we can come to a contemporary vision of paradise" (xiv).
Engaging humanity's effects on place and its nonhuman inhabitants forces us to question what we mean by environmentalism as well as what role we want our children to play in that environmentalism. We seem to be surer of our answers to questions about life and death, for example, than we are to questions about our role in other creatures' deaths. Does raising and eating beef preserve the biotic community, or does it do "otherwise"? Should Charlotte (a carnivore herself) have saved all the farm animals instead of just Wilbur? Quite possibly, while adult society might agree to recognize some sort of an earthly life cycle or even some sort of general kindness to specific animals, the collective "we" cannot agree on issues that might ask our children to question patterns of consumption because we cannot agree on them ourselves.
More damaging than the view of nature as anthropocentric is the vision of nature as an inexhaustible source of material to be consumed. American children are quickly socialized into their roles as consumers, a practice coincident with consumerism's rise in the late nineteenth century. T. J. Jackson Lears and Richard Wightmann Fox have traced the development of the consumer ethic in American culture, noting that by the 1950s the "American way of life" had been "equated with the American 'standard of living'" (ix). Citing Richard Nixon's 1959 Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev, in which the future president offered the "44 million families in America [who] own 56 million cars, 50 million television sets, 143 million radio sets" as proof of American superiority, Fox and Lears aver that for too many Americans the power to buy has replaced true political autonomy. This drive both to produce and to consume pervades life at all levels. Fox and Lears (among others) argue that the economy depended on the association of personal growth with material expansion; consequently, attempts to limit resource exploitation were and are presented as threats to personal growth. A recent Policy Review article, for example, criticizes current environmental campaigns directed at children, chiding, "It is important to remember that human activity has always involved the production of waste, and that efforts to reduce, or even eliminate, waste must ultimately come at the expense of much human activity" (Adler 20). This pretense of power through material acquisition has extended itself to children, who, in 1990, were targeted with $500 million worth of marketing (Durning 30). From the moment they begin wearing Disney character diapers, children are socialized to be good consumers. As Jeanne Murray Walker notes, "In a society of competing messages, materialism seems to be the one clear, unifying value" (110).
Louis Althusser's theory of Ideological State Apparatuses states in part that ruling classes maintain their power through ideology that "transforms … individuals into subjects … by interpellation or hailing" (174). Thus children respond to capitalism's "hail" by taking up consumer positions that have already been created for them. They are baseball card collectors, or "into pink," or Barney's biggest fans. But as Fox and Lears point out, "cultural hegemony" "is not maintained mechanically or conspiratorially. A dominant culture is not a static 'superstructure' but a continual process" (5). In other words, sometimes there is no Once-ler who conspires to make thneed-dependent consumers. Additionally, the market "hails" affluent subjects with the same vigor with which it pursues the working class.4 Consumerism cuts across class boundaries, and, as Ellen Seiter observes, is not merely something that someone else does but rather an unavoidable fact of American existence:
It is a middle-class delusion—though one often propagated by child experts—that children can be shielded from consumption, that proper parenting will nip children's interest in toys and television in the bud. Rather, I believe that we need to accept that contemporary parenthood is always already embedded in consumerism, although the scale, the size of the market, and the prestige associated with the goods vary greatly from class to class.
Although critics such as Marie Winn and Neil Postman, who are inclined toward the "idealization of the pretelevision child" (West 97), may not recognize literature's role in socializing child consumers, the publishing industry has a long history of doing just that. Children's literature, as Roger Sale observes, is "the only literary category that defines an audience rather than a subject or an author" (78). Because children constitute this audience, the genre most directly engages the reproduction of cultural beliefs including the relationship to the nonhuman environment. "[A] group's children's literature," R. Gordon Kelly explains, "constitutes a series of reaffirmations … of … that body of knowledge … regarded as essential to the continued existence of the group, for not only must children be convinced of the validity of the truths being presented to them 'but so must their teachers'" (xvii).
Arguably, children's literature's mass promotion of the consumer ethic began in the eighteenth century with John Newbery. Pickering explains: "Newbery directly courted the growing middle classes, and his books often seemed apologias for middle-class commercial activity. Linking commerce to the sweet benefits of education, the expression 'Trade and Plumb-Cake forever' almost became the motto of his children's books" (13-14). Although contemporary environmental literature and culture might appear to counter such consumer indoctrination, at times it is quite complicit with it. Children's environmental culture, for instance, frequently promotes checkbook activism such as bake sales, car washes, and other fund-raising events to save whales or rain forests. Environmental extravaganzas organize nature into spectacle and divorce it from daily lived experience. Nature becomes a vacation, environmentalism a momentary event or a product whose purchase Saves the Planet. One especially insidious example of such greenwashing appears on the back cover of the environmental magazine Buzzworm. An ad for "Small World Pizza Power Packs," the "first frozen pizza for kids who love pizza and want to save the planet," declares, "Pizza Power Means Planet Power!" The San Francisco Zoo's popular Conservation Meter further epitomizes eco-spending: for a quarter, donors can activate a mechanical hummingbird; proceeds go to the Costa Rican La Amistad National Park. Nine-year-old Lily Lubin captured the environmental zeitgeist when she exclaimed, "It's really neat. It feels like every time I put a quarter in, I'm saving an animal's life" (qtd. in "Meter-Made Crusade" 59). Environmentalism consists of choosing the right brand or finding sufficient pocket change, while buying itself remains unscrutinized. Likewise, books that present simple solutions such as recycling or tree-planting do little to alter the consumer ethic that is the greatest ideological threat to our environment.
The competition between environmental and consumer ethics has also surfaced in American school systems. Critics on the left have pointed to industry's growing influence in the classroom. As Richard Stenger has observed, "the level of corporate involvement" in children's environmental education increases annually (27). He quotes Green Marketing Alert editor Carl Frankel, who attributes industry's increasing involvement to businesses "being painted as environmental villains.… In the arsenal of corporate responses to this public relations dilemma, one strategy is becoming increasingly prominent: educational programs for children" (28). Other critics have complained about education's oversimplification of complex ecological issues. Jonathan Adler, for example, criticizes programs that promote the myth that "recycling is always good" because "bleaching … recycled paper causes more water pollution than bleaching paper from virgin pulp" and because if the market for "virgin wood materials" decreases, fewer forests will be planted or maintained (18-19). Additionally, he complains that energy education directed simply at reducing use is misguided. The goal instead should be "using less to accomplish more. Otherwise, reducing energy use would require sacrificing personal mobility, autonomy, and living standards" (22).
While Adler's points could be argued from a number of positions (non-polluting paper bleaching is currently used successfully in publications such as Sierra; forests might be sustained for a number of other reasons), my interest here is in the consumer ethic that his critique unquestioningly promotes. According to Adler, "Environmental education can be a valuable addition to school curricula, but only if it is conducted in a careful, thoughtful, and non-ideological manner. After all, schools are for education, not political indoctrination" (26). Adler here is naturalizing his own ideology, implying that education is a value-free, non-ideological process, while at the same time employing a negative and Marxist understanding of ideology as solely a negative, obfuscating force. But ideology, as Terry Eagleton has ably illustrated, has a wide range of sometimes competing definitions, though it might arguably be defined as a means of maintaining dominance (Eagleton 5). If a system like capitalism depends on creating consumers—a process that inevitably exploits resources—then it stands to reason that its ideological "apparatuses" (to borrow Althusser's phrasing) such as schools and literature will promote a compatible value structure.
Hence, political ecologists often work with Arnold Naess's 1972 distinction between "shallow" or "reform" ecology and "deep" ecology (Devall 5). Shallow ecology, also known as "environmentalism," embraces most American environmental activity: recycling, fitting cars with catalytic converters, choosing paper over plastic. By contrast, "deep" ecology, which has also been referred to as "ecologism," constitutes "an ideology in its own right" (Dobson 3). An "ecologic" children's book would not, for example, encourage recycling; it would, instead, ask children to question purchasing products. Additionally, some books, among them Seuss's The Lorax, may be both environmental and ecologic, depending on the way they are read. Teasing out an ecologic text from the book, however, may present a disturbing challenge to adults who have learned that being good "providers" entails providing an endless stream of goods.
Published in 1971, The Lorax emerged amid a wave of popular environmentalism.5Silent Spring had already been out for eight years; in 1969, Friends of the Earth was founded; in 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act was passed, and the first celebration of Earth Day took place on 22 April. Charles A. Reich's The Greening of America, published in 1970, predicted a peaceful green revolution based on a "a readiness to receive new experiences in a new way" (391). Consumer critiques, which, like environmental movements, had been anticipated one hundred years earlier, also abounded.6 Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), Ralph Nader's Unsafe at any Speed (1965), and Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (1969), among other works, caused Americans to examine critically the effects of an expanding consumer culture. Legislation enacted at the time would seem also to have reflected growing consumer concern. Victor Scheffer points out that "among the laws passed between 1966 and 1972 were the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (1966) … [and] the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA)" (26).
The Lorax begins by standing the culture of abundance on its head through an inversion of nature-as-spectacle. Rejecting a traditional Edenic panorama, the tale opens on a wasteland awash in dull olive, muted mauve and murky blue. A single twisted lamp-post struggles to announce the Street of the Lifted Lorax, a place
At the far end of town
where the Grickle grass grows
and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
and no birds ever sing excepting old crows
The Lorax incites a kind of paleontological intrigue, but its disappearance, unlike the dinosaurs', is linked with human activity. It is also likely to trigger students' curiosity more than such numbingly factual news as "In the past twenty years, as many as 1 million species have vanished from the world's tropical forests" (Elmer-Dewitt 51). The Once-ler lives at the top of a rickety tower, selling his knowledge of the Lorax. The Once-ler epitomizes faceless bureaucracy; only his eyes and hands are shown, and he tells his story via the Whisper-ma-Phone, a long hose with a funnel attached at the end. As MacDonald notes, "the hands are significant, for they are always busy, always manipulating, never caressing or cherishing, never simply lying idle" (151). The work ethic, so ably suited to capitalism's growth, falls under scrutiny as the story of the Once-ler's industrial rise and fall and the ensuing communal destruction unfolds. The book implies that not all work is good simply because it is work, and that there may be certain kinds of work that ultimately cause more harm than good.
But The Lorax does not place the responsibility for environmental destruction solely on the Once-ler's shoulders. Although the Once-ler may be a villain, his "success" (which is also the environment's failure) has depended on consumers' acquisitiveness—a phenomenon that surprises the Lorax and may be an indictment of environmentalism that sees business as the sole threat. The Once-ler explains that after he arrived in a land of plenty, he discovered the magic of truffula trees:
The touch of their tufts
was much softer than silk.
And they had the sweet smell
of fresh butterfly milk.
With his trusty ax, the Once-ler fells a tree and quickly knits a "thneed," a seemingly useless, formless garment that resembles a beginner sweater. As soon as the Once-ler finishes his project, the Lorax pops out of the truffula stump:
He was shortish. And oldish.
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.
Neither human nor animal, the Lorax sports a great oversized mustache and announces his mission of speaking for the trees. His name suggests teaching, though its variation on "lore" indicates that, at least in a consumer society, teaching about trees necessitates teaching about axes as well. Additionally, the Lorax may induce readers to ask what "speaking for the trees" entails. He empowers the child audience by showing, as MacDonald explains, that "the reader can speak out and oppose the actions of polluters with strong environmental advocacy" (153). Ultimately, he may lead the reader to address the complex question of which purposes justify destroying trees and, by extension, other natural resources.
The Once-ler's tree-cutting demonstrates a useless decimation of trees. When the Once-ler explains exactly what he has done to the tree, the Lorax declares:
You are crazy with greed.
There is no one on earth
who would buy that fool Thneed!
Just as he finishes his speech, however, someone happily buys a thneed. The Once-ler has succeeded in creating a need—"TH[E]need"—for, as he puts it, "You can never tell what some people will buy." He might have added, "Or their parents." (Truffula silk strongly resembles troll doll hair.) But the larger issue here is what constitutes need. Why do people buy things? The adult reader, while attending to these questions, might also consider consumerism's role in "good" parenting. Is it possible, for example, for respectable middle-class parents to avoid buying new clothes for children who have not outgrown their old ones? Is it possible, for that matter, for children not to make such requests? Thoreau advises, "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes" (23). How might the first day of school, with its attendant shopping forays, new leather, and the latest lunch boxes, change under Thoreau's influence?
Though Thneed-buyers are unthinking, the Once-ler plays a more active role in the landscape's destruction. His success keeps pace with his greed, and he imports his entire family to help further the economic boom, expanding his tiny cottage industry into a full-scale corporation. Their frenzied, knitting hands, combined with his tanklike Super-Axe-Hacker, help him to convert the entire land into factoryscape. He is anthropocentrism at its ugliest; he and his profits form his world's center, and everything—from trees to animals to air—has relevance only insofar as it can be converted into profit. Thinking back to his entrepreneurial voraciousness, the Once-ler explains:
I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got …
I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering … selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.
His expansion rhetoric, as well as his Super-Axe-Hacker, have a decidedly militaristic ring; he has literally launched an attack on the Earth.
The Once-ler's success comes at a price that is paid by all, though the humans fare better than the nonhuman inhabitants. In each of the book's illustrations, the factory looms large, either hanging over the animals or completely crowding them out of the visual space. Swomee swans, bar-ba-loots, and humming fish all sicken and occupy an increasingly small space on the page, presumably indicating that as our love of thneeds grows, our love of wildlife declines. Each group of animals, in turn, is forced out of the Eden-turned-Wasteland, and after each exodus the Lorax renews his warnings to the Once-ler, who "keeps on biggering" until the last tree falls, "The very last Truffula Tree of them all!"
Having stripped the land of everything except stumps, the Once-ler industry packs up all its "You Need a Thneed" cars and leaves. Like strip mining or monoculture or clear-cutting, Thneed-making offers only momentary gains to a very few individuals. Once-ler thinking, it would appear, has nothing to do with perpetuity; it is not singular, but momentary—"once." Unlike their real-life counterparts, however, the Once-ler workers seem unconcerned with the joblessness created by short-term economics. They drive off with a wave, presumably to find a new Eden to "work." Once the land is bereft of its native inhabitants, its spirit, too, disappears. Without any living creatures left to defend, the Lorax "lifts himself by the seat of his pants" and disappears through a hole in the smog, leaving behind a small cairn that bears the word "UNLESS." The Once-ler's industrialization has turned space into a pure function of linear time; the Lorax's one-word legacy offers the hope of reversing that process, but it will require rethinking time (that is, thinking beyond immediate satisfactions such as Thneeds or the money they generate) in order to rebuild place. The Once-ler is left alone in his now-ghost town to ponder the mystery of the Lorax's legacy.
Partially redeemed by the act of storytelling, the Once-ler narrator finally comprehends that legacy and drops the last Truffula seed, symbolic of the last possibilities of regeneration, down to the reader/boy, advising,
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.
The planting of a seed or a solitary tree must be presented for the symbolic gesture that it is, an effort that without substantial changes will lapse into empty rhetoric. Though his empire has fallen into disrepair and he leads his gloomy life alone, the Once-ler does little actively to atone for his errors. Like real-life multinationals fined small sums for polluting land, air, and water, the Once-ler pays a small price for the environmental holocaust that he engenders.
The book concludes tentatively: the Lorax may come back; environmental enterprise remains a precarious venture. But by questioning consumerism and allowing the reader to realize that "even a child can refuse to consume products that are useless" (MacDonald 153), The Lorax involves all of its readers in environmentalism's complexities, emphasizing the dangers of relegating environmental good health to cathartic gestures such as sporting "Split Wood, Not Atoms" bumper stickers or even planting a tree on Arbor Day. These complexities, underscored by the Laytonville controversy, ask adults in particular to consider environmentalism's social ramifications. Our present economic and value systems, backed by centuries of anthropocentrism, often oppose our environmental needs (clean air, water, land, and a biologically diverse ecosystem) to our social needs (good jobs, well-funded schools, and a sound infrastructure). Big business in particular has repeatedly held the environment hostage by threatening layoffs or relocation in the face of environmental pressures. Too often environmental health has been traded for economic wealth, and too often middle-class environmentalism has supported this trade-off by failing to press for social changes that accommodate environmental needs.
The Lorax, it would seem, sends us not toward a momentary gesture, but toward a realignment, a re-thinking of those borders which, though invisible, control the individual and communal landscapes of our lives. The main question The Lorax poses is, "What constitutes need?" Unless we put such a question, and more importantly find some workable solutions to it, the dominoes of our past history will surely spill forward into our next generations.7
Originally presented at the MLA Division on Children's Literature session "Evasions and Confrontations: Facing the Unthinkable in Children's Literature," Toronto, Ontario, December, 1993. The original title, "Sublime Children and the Terror of their Parents' Nature," and the paper itself have undergone substantial revision. My special thanks to Joseph Szpila for his helpful suggestions.
- During October 1989, several California papers, including The Long Beach Press Telegram and the Sacramento Bee, carried articles and/or editorials on the controversy. I am grateful to Barbara Spindel of People for the American Way for her assistance in helping me obtain this material.
- Also ironic is Seuss's longtime association with Standard Oil, where he was employed as a commercial artist creating ads for the insecticide Flit (Marschall 13). Seuss's tagline, "Quick Henry, the Flit!" is as memorable to some older Americans as "I will not eat them, Sam I am!" is to their grandchildren.
- Peter Parnall's Winter Barn, for younger readers, or Alexander Peckham's Changing Landscapes, for older children, offer such connections.
- Child psychiatrist Robert Coles explains that though they differ from their less-wealthy peers because they feel "entitled" to their possessions, "children of affluence" are nonetheless formed by their consumer roles. Coles describes this transformation of wealthy child into affluent consumer as "an ironic act of personal surrender: the object and the person merge somewhat-from 'that's yours' to 'that's you'" (107).
- Although the late 1960s are often designated as the beginnings of environmentalism, the movement was precipitated by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, which was itself anticipated by approximately 100 years of conservation movements. For a detailed description of American conservation movements, see Coates.
- Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is perhaps the most illustrative American example of such a critique.
- Teachers wishing to use The Lorax in the classroom should consult Simpson's "Speaking for the Trees." A more general but extremely helpful resource in teaching children's environmental literature is Patti Sinclair's E for Environment: An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books with Environmental Themes.
Adler, Jonathan H. "Little Green Lies." Policy Review 61 (1992): 18-26.
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left, 1971.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Cheney, Jim. "Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative." Environmental Ethics 11.2 (1989): 117-34.
Coates, Peter. In Nature's Defence: Americans and Conservation. Keele, England: British Association for American Studies, 1993.
Cobb, Edith. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. New York: Columbia UP, 1977.
Coles, Robert. "The Children of Affluence." The Atlantic July 1977: 52-58. Rpt. in Living in the U.S.A.: Cultural Contexts for Reading and Writing. Ed. Kathleen Shine Cain. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon, 1994. 93-116.
Cott, Jonathan. Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature. New York: Random House, 1983.
Devall, Bill. Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1988.
Dobson, Andrew. Green Political Thought: An Introduction. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.
Durning, Alan Thein. "American Excess—Are We Shopping Our Planet to Death?" E Magazine January/February 1993: 26-35.
Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.
Elmer-Dewitt, Philip. "Summit to Save the Earth." Time 1 June 1992: 42-58.
Fox, Richard Wightman, and T. J. Jackson Lears. Introduction. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. Ed. Fox and Lears. New York: Pantheon, 1983. ix-xvii.
Furnas, Gail Abbott. Rev. of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Library Journal 96 (November 1971): 3895.
Greiner, Patricia. "Radical Environmentalism in Recent Literature Concerning the American West." Rendezvous 19.1 (1983): 8-15.
Kelly, R. Gordon. Mother Was a Lady: Self and Society in Selected American Children's Periodicals, 1865-1890. Westport: Greenwood, 1974.
Lears, T. J. Jackson. "From Salvation to Self-Realization." The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. Ed. Fox and Lears. New York: Patheon, 1983. 3-38.
Lenz, Millicent. Nuclear Age Literature for Youth: The Quest for a Life-Affirming Ethic. Chicago: American Library Association, 1990.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine, 1970.
MacDonald, Ruth K. Dr. Seuss. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Marschall, Richard. Introduction. The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough. By Dr. Seuss. Ed. Marschall. New York: Morrow, 1987. 9-14.
Maslin, Janet. "Children's Books/Environment." New York Times Book Review. 30 August 1992: 19.
McNulty, Jennifer. "Logging Supporters Try to Remove Dr. Seuss Tale from Reading List." AP wire service report, 13 September 1989.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
"Meter-Made Crusade." Time 12 August 1991: 59.
Pickering, Samuel F., Jr. John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1981.
Reich, Charles. The Greening of America. New York: Random House, 1970.
Richardson, Alan. "Wordsworth, Fairy Tales, and the Politics of Reading." Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England. Ed. James Holt McGavran, Jr. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991. 34-53.
Ronda, Bruce. "An American Canon of Children's Literature." Teaching Children's Literature: Issues, Pedagogy, Resources. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. New York: MLA, 1992. 32-39.
Sale, Roger. "The Audience in Children's Literature." Bridges to Fantasy. Ed. George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. 78-89.
Scheffer, Victor B. The Shaping of Environmentalism in America. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1991.
Seiter, Ellen. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Seuss, Dr. (Theodor Geisel). The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
Simpson, Steve. "Speaking for the Trees: The Use of Literature to Convey Outdoor Education Themes." Journal of Environmental Education 19.3 (Spring 1988): 25-31.
Sinclair, Patti K. E for Environment: An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books with Environmental Themes. New Providence: Bowker, 1992.
Stenger, Richard S. "The Corporate Classroom." Environmental Action September/October 1991: 27-30.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
Walker, Jeanne Murray. "High Fantasy, Rites of Passage, and Cultural Value." Teaching Children's Literature: Issues, Pedagogy, Resources. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. New York: MLA, 1992. 109-20.
West, Mark. Children, Culture, and Controversy. Hamden: Shoestring, 1988.
Wilson, Alexander. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
THE BUTTER BATTLE BOOK (1984)
Alanna J. Dow and Judith Pollard Slaughter (essay date fall 1989)
SOURCE: Dow, Alanna J., and Judith Pollard Slaughter. "The Butter Battle Book and a Celebration of Peace." Childhood Education 66, no. 1 (fall 1989): 25-7.
[In the following essay, Dow and Slaughter discuss how Seuss's The Butter Battle Book can be utilized to teach peace education in elementary schools.]
Peace education—is this really a suitable topic for the elementary school curriculum? Isn't this just a euphemism for engaging children in discussions about bombs, war and violence? Won't our children learn soon enough about our destructive arsenals and our too frequent acts of inhumanity?
Why introduce the topic at all? Because children already have questions; children already experience nightmares! Pupils in New York City schools were asked to write one question each about themselves, their school and the world. Ninety-eight percent mentioned war and bombs or the possibility of the world being destroyed (Escalona, 1964, p. 5). In the fall of 1987, 59% of the children questioned in Edmonton junior and senior high schools indicated that they were more concerned with war than with any other topic; 71% listed it as a "very important worry," second only to the death of their parents (Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 1988). Reifel (1984) has ascertained that most children become aware of the nuclear threat during their early childhood years, even before they enter school.
Children read about and see on television the likely effects of nuclear holocaust. "Some [children] manifest their fears in ways that are not understood by observers; others hide their concern from parents and teachers. Occasionally they seek information or maybe reassurance, only to be turned away …" (Kneeshaw & Kneeshaw, 1986, p. 128). As controversial as the subject is, the authors agree that for the sake of children's well-being the issue must be confronted.
The Role of Teachers
Educators have been too slow in assuming the responsibility of engaging children in thoughtful discussions and in providing hope in our nuclear age (McConaghy, 1986; Wakefield, 1987). Teachers should be aware of the child's depth of understanding before initiating discussions or answering questions. They also need to consider how their replies will be interpreted. Carlsson-Paige and Levin (1986) have formulated basic principles for a peace-education curriculum:
Provide children with materials to help them expand their concepts and enable them to express their ideas.
Help foster in children a strong sense of self.
Encourage children to develop ways of cooperating with others and resolving conflicts peaceably.
Help children learn to appreciate similarities and differences among all people.
Enable children to extend their understanding of war and peace through group discussions and activities.
Buchmueller (1964) sums up the responsibility of adults in this way: "For it is our task, as it has always been the task of those who care for children, to help them understand that it is possible to recognize danger without giving way to panic or a sense of futility, to help them see that mankind has a choice to make and that it is our job, as it will be theirs, to work as best we know toward a meaningful future" (p. ix).
Literature has long been accepted as a way to help children confront problems and cope in this complex world. Recent research demonstrates positive effects on moral development through the use of literature. Stein and Trabasso (1982) report on a study they conducted in which young children, through stories posing moral dilemmas, were able to grasp concepts far above those normally expected. Through children's literature, issues of family, sex, aging, death, ecology and multiculturalism can be presented in such a way as to foster respect for oneself, for family, for groups and for our natural world.
The Butter Battle Book
Irreconcilable differences exist between two groups of people; a wall is built to keep them apart. But the wall is not high enough to prevent an incident from occurring. To retaliate, each group builds a war machine, then another and another, each more deadly than the one before. The ultimate weapon has been developed and is about to be discharged, when a small child pleads for sanity.
From this Dr. Seuss has created a story for children, The Butter Battle Book. To add to the already unsettling plot, Dr. Seuss does not resolve the conflict. The story-without-end has confused and even angered educators (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1986; Van Cleaf & Martin, 1986). One graduate student commented that he thought the last page of the book he was reading to children had been torn out.
Yet with careful guidance, this work of literature can become an excellent tool in the hands of a teacher wanting to deal with the problems of conflict and peace. Presented below are several suggestions for activities based on The Butter Battle Book.
The focal point of using The Butter Battle Book with very young children should be creative dramatics and role-playing. Creative dramatics can be very helpful in enabling children to understand that others may view the world differently. Benninga and Crum (1982) argue that not only is the role-playing experience enjoyable, but it is necessary to real understanding. Reading the story aloud will undoubtedly lead to discussions of what might happen. Rather than having the children concentrate on the probable ending, the teacher should focus on the process that leads to the confrontation and how a positive resolution can be achieved.
Children could actually try eating bread that has been buttered on either side (an idea adapted from Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1986). There are few early childhood classrooms where making butter is not one of the activities children enjoy. Why not integrate this with The Butter Battle Book ? Using their own product, the children can try the Yook and Zook methods of eating bread during snacktime. This session provides an excellent opportunity to introduce some books with multicultural themes that demonstrate the different ways people from various cultures do things. It is important to discuss the similarities of people as well.
Drawing a Solution to the Dilemma
In DeBono's book Children Solve Problems, children offer ideas on how to stop a cat and a dog from fighting. A similar activity could follow the reading and discussion of the Butter Battle story. Children could be invited to draw their solutions to the dilemma of the Yooks and the Zooks. Over the next few days, role-playing of the various solutions would focus on the feelings of each group, and would help to clarify the feasibility of the solutions. The teacher can guide children to the realization that a nonviolent solution that involves respect and care for others is the best one for all concerned.
Class Discussion—Older Grades
In the initial discussion of The Butter Battle Book, the teacher might pose open-ended questions such as: "Dr. Seuss has decided to end the story right here. This means that you must think through what might happen next. What are your ideas on this? What might some of the outcomes be?"
Carlsson-Paige and Levin (1986) feel it is important to foster in children the notion that people (and therefore they) have some control over the situation. Just as Dr. Seuss has decided to leave the ending up in the air, we are all able to make decisions in our lives that affect the outcome of events.
Through group discussions, the children can brainstorm to create a list of outcomes. Each conclusion could then be evaluated—would the students judge the outcome as possible, or would they deem it a preferable outcome. Those conclusions judged to be preferable will contain ideas that will enable children to see that peace is possible, and that people can do something to achieve it.
A discussion of the meaning of the word peace is important. Although children are knowledgeable about war and concerned about its outcome, they have little understanding of the concept of peace (Sadker & Sadker, 1977). Books emphasizing the value of peace and peaceful resolutions to conflict should be introduced to the class. The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf, 1938), It's Mine! (Bonsall, 1964) and The Quarreling Book (Zolotow, 1963) can be used to generate interesting, thought-provoking discussions.
Alternative Courses of Action
On another day, the teacher can reread the Seuss book. The children might be asked to interrupt the reading any time they can think of alternative courses of action that the Yooks or the Zooks might have taken. The alternative courses of action suggested by the class will result, with guidance, in peaceful solutions.
The children's ideas to resolve the Butter Battle conflicts can be written on a chart, perhaps entitled "Keeping the Peace." Each peace-restoring suggestion could be discussed in terms of its applicability to conflicts that occur in the lives of the children. When disagreements take place in the classroom or on the playground, the chart can be used to see if it contains a suggestion that might help resolve the differences.
Older children might discuss each suggestion on the chart as to its potential effectiveness in easing a current tension in the world. Any topic in the news—Northern Ireland, a labor strike, acts of terrorism—would be an appropriate focus. The class could even write letters, individual or group, to the Prime Minister or President, offering suggestions to problems that arise in the country.
A Playground of Cooperation
Children realize the advantages of cooperation during play time, especially when they are on a playground. Two are required to use a seesaw and certain kinds of swings. A merry-go-round works much better if two or more play. Through discussion children can be encouraged to think of other play equipment, real or imagined, requiring the cooperation of two or more. The children can then be paired to draw their ideas for a "Let's Be Friends" playground that can cover a bulletin board or become a mural.
Celebration of Peace
The concluding activity in the Butter Battle theme should be the arrangement of a party—a party celebrating peace. Food from different cultural groups can be served. Children can be asked to bring in some food that represents their background, or the class can divide into groups to prepare different kinds of dishes. And don't forget the bread with the butter-side-up and bread with the butter-side-down! Cooperative games can be played. (Excellent resources for these games have been provided by Orlick, 1978, in The Cooperative Sports and Games Book and by Sobel, 1983, in Everybody Wins.) Children can share books they have found that reflect the theme of peace. (Fassler & Janis, 1983, offer a bibliography of children's stories that are appropriate for this purpose.)
Teachers are in an excellent position to help children deal honestly with the problems of the world. Ideally, they have already established warm, trusting relationships with the children in their charge. From this basis, the teacher creates an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect among all the individuals in the class (Read, 1949). Teachers are then better able to assume responsibility in helping children to deal with their fears and in showing them that they have some control over their own lives and, ultimately, over the fate of the planet.
The issue of peace education is crucial to humankind. Our very existence depends on it.
Benninga, J. S., & Crum, R. A. (1982). "'Acting Out' for Social Understanding." Childhood Education, 58, 144-147.
Bonsall, C. (1984). It's Mine! New York: Harper & Row.
Buchmueller, A. D. (1964). Introduction. In Child Study Association of America (Eds.), Children and the Threat of Nuclear War (pp. ix-x). New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce.
Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. (1988). Children and Nuclear War: Fact Sheet (Charity Registration No. 0585554-19-13). Ottawa: Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Carlsson-Paige, N., & Levin, D. E. (1986). "The Butter Battle Book: Uses and Abuses with Young Children." Young Children, 41, 37-42.
DeBono, E. (1974). Children Solve Problems. New York: Harper.
Escalona, S. (1964). "Children and the Threat of Nuclear War." In Child Study Association of America (Eds.), Children and the Threat of Nuclear War (pp. 3-24). New York: Duell, Sloan, & Pearce.
Fassler, J., & Janis, M. G. (1983). "Books, Children and Peace." Young Children, 38, 21-32.
Kneeshaw, S., & Kneeshaw, B. (1986). "How Shall We Tell the Children?" The Social Studies, 77, 127-129.
Leaf, M. (1938). The Story of Ferdinand. New York: Viking.
McConaghy, T. (1986). "Peace Education: A Controversial Issue?" Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 248.
Orlick, T. (1978). The Cooperative Sports and Games Book. New York: Pantheon.
Read, H. (1949). Education for Peace. New York: Scribner.
Reifel, S. (1984). "Research in Review: Children Living with the Nuclear Threat." Young Children, 39, 74-80.
Sadker, M. P., & Sadker, D. M. (1977). Now upon a Time: A Contemporary View of Children's Literature. New York: Harper & Row.
Sobel, J. (1983). Everybody Wins: 393 Non-Competitive Games for Young Children. New York: Walker & Co.
Stein, N. L., & Trabasso, T. (1982). "Children's Understanding of Stories: A Basis for Moral Judgement and Dilemma Resolution." In C. J. Brainerd & M. Presley (Eds.), Verbal Processes in Children (pp. 161-188). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Van Cleaf, D. W., & Martin, R. J. (1986). "Seuss's Butter Battle Book: Is There a Hidden Harm?" Childhood Education, 62, 191-194.
Wakefield, T. (1987, Fall). "Teaching War and Peace." York University Alumni News, pp. 10-11.
Zolotow, C. (1963). The Quarreling Book. New York: Harper & Row.
HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY! (1998)
Shannon Maughan (essay date 9 February 1998)
SOURCE: Maughan, Shannon. "And Now for Something Completely Diffendoofer." Publishers Weekly 245, no. 6 (9 February 1998): 24.
[In the following essay, Maughan discusses how Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith completed Seuss's posthumous work Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!]
Authors and illustrators usually have snippets of ideas for characters or stories percolating in their imaginations. Dr. Seuss—Theodor Geisel—was no exception. He frequently jotted down notes, verses and sketches, which he would tack onto a bulletin board in his studio as works-in-progress. When Geisel died in 1991, his bulletin board contained something special: the beginnings—several character sketches, a school setting and some verses—of a picture book about an unusual school-teacher. Janet Schulman, Geisel's longtime editor at Random House, learned of the treasure during a telephone conversation with Geisel's secretary Claudia Prescott, who then sent it to Schulman's office. While Schulman was thrilled to see the material, she was also perplexed about what to do with it. Thus began Schulman's efforts to respectfully "doctor Dr. Seuss" and share his final work with fans.
The result is Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, a picture book about a school where kids learn how to think, rather than memorize facts and formulas, "by Dr. Seuss with some help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith." Scheduled for release in April with a first printing of 350,000, this book marks the third posthumously issued book by Seuss (preceded by last fall's My Many Colored Days and Daisy-Head Mayzie in 1995).
Schulman held on to the Seuss sketches for nearly five years, until she was able to visualize a way to make it work. "The sketches had so much energy and vitality, but they were very far from being anything I could consider a book," she said. "I knew I could not approach the Seuss estate without a whole package, so I waited until I had an idea I thought would be acceptable to them." Schulman's brainstorm was to ask poet Jack Prelutsky to expand upon Seuss's verse and to invite illustrator Lane Smith to create new artwork.
"As soon as I saw Ted's sketches and the fun verses, I thought of Jack," said Schulman. "I've known him since my days at Macmillan, and we have worked on Random House poetry anthologies together. And I got to know Lane in 1996 when I asked him to do new drawings for an edition of James and the Giant Peach." Schulman added, "Jack and Lane are very similar in some ways. They're Ted-like kids who never grew up. They have a childlike way of looking at things."
Getting the Go-Ahead
When Schulman, Prelutsky, Smith and Audrey Geisel, Seuss's widow, all green-lighted the plan, Schulman discussed the project with Prelutsky's and Smith's editors, Susan Hirschman of Greenwillow and Regina Hayes of Viking, respectively. She got their approval and began ironing out the contractual fine points. "I knew it would be a miracle to negotiate these contracts to everyone's satisfaction," Schulman said. "I insisted that everything be split in threes [between Smith, Prelutsky and the Seuss estate]. Everyone received exactly the same advance and the same royalty."
Prelutsky and Smith shared Schulman's enthusiasm for the project, but both initially felt some trepidation, too. Prelutsky explained that he approached the book as a true collaboration. "I sort of pretended that Dr. Seuss was sitting next to me at the desk working on it," he said. "It was his book. I wanted to use the sorts of rhymes he would use but also the sorts of rhymes and meters I would use." Prelutsky followed Seuss's lead, fleshing out Seuss's ideas for the bushy-eyebrowed school principal and the janitor and his cleaning machine, and then developed his own plot elements. "I was pulling together a plot about a counterculture school, the kind we all wish we went to," he said. "But it needed something to hinge on, so I thought, 'What do kids dread most about school?' That simple question inspired a rhyming tale of a schoolwide test that had students shuddering with fear."
Smith, whom Schulman described as "an enormous Seuss fan," also had mixed reactions about the project at first. "I wanted to do it, but I wanted to be respectful," he said. "I didn't want it to be a posthumous book that merely imitated Seuss's style. It turned out to be a real hybrid of both styles."
As he interpreted Prelutsky's text, Smith found many ways to acknowledge Seuss. "I paid homage to him with things like radiating lines coming out of people and different eye shapes. I made reproductions of his sketches and some of his other work and collaged them into my paintings. I think I ended up with interesting paintings that are sort of indebted to Seuss."
The book also contains a 16-page afterword by Schulman entitled "How This Book Came to Be," which includes Seuss's original sketches and notes. "I just fell in love with those sketches and wanted to show people how Ted had created them," she said.
All parties involved said they are thrilled with how the book turned out. Schulman describes Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! as "Ted Geisel in the 21st century—it's something he would have loved." Smith wants fans to feel the same way. "Hopefully people will embrace it," he said. "Seuss kept coming back to this idea, but he never finished it. Now it's finished. I hope he would have liked it."
Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan (review date June 1998)
SOURCE: Menaldi-Scanlan, Nancy. Review of Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, by Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Lane Smith. School Library Journal 44, no. 6 (June 1998): 121-2.
[In the following review, Menaldi-Scanlan offers a positive assessment of Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, asserting that a "sense of fun reigns supreme" in the book.]
The original talents of Prelutsky and Smith bring an unfinished Dr. Seuss story to life [Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! ]—and what a story it is! The tale revolves around Diffendoofer School, a place where teachers make their own rules and students are taught to think. Their curriculum is an unusual one, covering such topics as "smelling," "laughing," and "how to tell a cactus from a cow," and the school is staffed by people who break all the stereotypes. When the principal informs the students that they must pass a rigorous test or risk being sent to dreary Flobbertown, the tension is palpable, but the inimitable Miss Bonkers is certain they'll pass. In fact, they receive the highest score, saving their school and their rather unorthodox education as well. The story fairly jumps off the page, as do the bright, exuberant collage and oil illustrations, which look like a combination of the familiar Seussian style and Smith's own. A sense of fun reigns supreme, and school comes off looking like a great place to be. Dr. Seuss's well-known books and characters (and even Ted Geisel himself) make cameo appearances throughout the work. The editor's notes on the process of creating the book include original sketches and ideas from Geisel's notebooks. This outstanding work is a must for all collections. Buy extra copies—and be sure to include one for the professional shelf as well. It's a great tribute to the importance of creative thinking in the classroom.
Nel, Philip. Dr. Seuss: American Icon. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2004, 301 p.
Offers a biography of Seuss's life along with an extensive bibliography and critical discussion of Seuss's works.
Boyd, Brian. "The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who." Philosophy and Literature 25 (2001): 197-214.
Presents a critical overview of the evolution behind Seuss's Horton Hears a Who.
Fish, Peter. "The Doctor's Still In." Sunset 212, no. 5 (May 2004): 180.
Discusses the significance of the centennial of Seuss's birth.
Geisel, Theodor Seuss. The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1995, 95 p.
Reprints sixty-five of Seuss's surrealistic paintings with an introduction by Maurice Sendak.
Minear, Richard H. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. New York, N.Y.: New Press, 2001, 272 p.
Collects several of Seuss's editorial cartoons from the World War II era.
Scott, A. O. "Sense and Nonsense." New York Times Magazine (26 November 2000): 48-52, 105.
Argues that the modern commercialization of Seuss's characters conflicts with the themes and ideals behind Seuss's revolutionary children's works.
Additional coverage of Seuss's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 48; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 9, 53; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 135; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 32; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 61; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1991; DISCovering Authors 3.0 ; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 28, 67, 75, 100; and Twayne's United States Authors.