What Dr. Seuss Was Really Up To
March 2, 2012
One hundred and eight years ago today, Theodore Geisel was born—you mayknow him better by his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. He wrote the books thathelped you (and countless others) learn to count, recognize letters,pronounce silly words and imagine a world where cats wear hats andSam-I-Am relentlessly petitions for the deliciousness of green eggs andham.
However, Dr. Seuss’ 60 books (which have sold more than 200 million copies) are more of a mental exercise in disguise. Seuss’ books not only made reading fun for kids, but also elevated the act of learning itself.Consider this line from I Can Read with My Eyes Shut (1978): “The more that you read, the more things you’ll know. The morethat you learn the more places you’ll go.” Prescribing reading as alaunching pad for a bright future is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social, political and moral messaging the gooddoctor expressed in his stories. Although he claimed to not begin bookswith a moral in mind, the creator of Thing 1 and Thing 2, with their hair colored blue, had more than just wacky words up his sleeve … he had an agenda, too.
With this weekend’s box office release of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax bound to stir up discussions about the movie’s environmentalistovertones, it’s time to look again at some Seuss classics with an eyefor any other not-so-subtle subtexts that could be peeking back at usfrom behind the Truffula trees.
1. Horton Hears A Who! (1954)
Another Seuss classic that has recently been reimagined as a CGI feature film, Horton Hears A Who! is about an elephant proving the voices in his head (or on a speck) are real—and then some. Horton is written as a metaphor for a subject that was very dear to theauthor: the importance of big people (or powerful governments) lookingafter and listening to little ones. The story came to be after Dr. Seuss visited Japan in 1953, just one year after the end of U.S. occupationthere and eight years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.While there, Seuss was deeply impressed by the people and places hevisited, even going so far as to dedicate Horton Hears a Who! to his, “Great friend, Mitsugi Nakamura, of Kyoto, Japan.” Morethan half a century removed from World War II, it might be hard for areader in 2012 to fully appreciate the wartimeannihilation/occupation/reconciliation context from which the metaphorof Horton and his speck were inspired. But it's not hard for modernreaders to appreciate the timeless profundity of the most famous line from Horton: "A person's a person, no matter how small."
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)
Because the animated version of The Grinch is re-introduced to the world every holiday season, it has become themost well-known of Dr. Seuss’ stories. As Dickens did with EbenezerScrooge, Dr. Seuss literally redefined the essence of what it means tobe a heartless fun hater. Set in the cheery-cheeked hamlet of Whoville, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Seuss-ified critique of both the over-commercialization ofChristmas (the Whos with all their presents) and its antithesis:holiday humbuggery (old Mr. Grinch). But, in the end, the Grinchrealizes Christmas is not about material things that can be“stolen,” but instead about the intangible joys of the season. Takinganother cue from Dickens, the Grinch is ultimately redeemed, which is not only fitting but required for anygreat story about Christmas—after all, it’s the beginning of the story of redemption itself.
3. Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss’ best-selling book, is about more than green eggs—but it is still, most certainly, about color. Although less elaborate than someof his other analogous stories, Green Eggs and Ham is, at least on the surface, about the power of perseverance in theface of stubborn resistance. (“You do not like them. So you say. Trythem! Try them! And you may.”) But it is more than coincidence that his Green Eggs and Ham was published the same year President Eisenhower signed the CivilRights Act, which mandated federal oversight of elections in the South.It may be a stretch to imagine, but when Sam-I-Am is pressing hisneighbor to try a strange gastronomic concoction, Seuss is pressing hisreaders to consider the goodness in things previously untried—likeintegrated schools systems and churches. At the very least, Green Eggs and Ham is about navigating life with an open mind and, at its best, it’sSeuss’ way of saying, “Don’t judge a book, or an egg—or a man—by itscolor.”
4. The Lorax (1971)
This “post enviro-pocalyptic” fable is clearly about the fragility of nature and the consequences of reckless human industry. Resources arepillaged, animal species banished and moderation is thrown to the windby the greedy Once-Ler who disregards the grandfatherly Lorax’swarnings. The fact that readers never see the Once-Ler’s face (only hismoney-grubbing and cigar-wielding hands) reinforces the idea thatbusiness corporations are faceless and, in the case of the Once-Ler andhis “Thneeds that everyone needs,” soulless and destructive—takingwhatever they want no matter how it affects the planet. Critics havescolded Seuss’ fable as being too simplistic and negative. But seeinghow this is a children’s book, and 20th-century manufacturing didn’t exactly get an A on its report card ofenvironmental stewardship, Seuss can be forgiven his opaque symbolism.Seuss’ greater point: When you are entrusted with something, don’tsquander it; take care of it, and speak up for what’s right even if youget shouted down.
5. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)
Arguably, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the most cliché graduation gift ever given by an out-of-touchrelative. But this book, the last written by Dr. Seuss before he died in 1991, is unquestionably one of his most profound. Unlike in earlierworks, the narrator is sage-like and directly encourages the reader topersevere through fear and loneliness, bang-ups and hang-ups. Despite whatthe title suggests, Places is not an allegory about destinations, but about thejourney of life, shaded with hardship but ultimately hopeful. Thecentral message is about moving forward, or as the doctor says: “Step withcare and great tact, and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.” Knowing that his health was failing (he was 86 years old at thetime), Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the proverbial exclamation point that Dr. Seuss stamped on his canon of work.
Whether or not you see layered meaning in the fanciful work of Theodore “Dr.Seuss” Geisel, his singular style of rhyme-centric storytelling andfantastical drawing has stood the test of over a half century. And while his readers might grow up, few can forget the first books that helpedthem fall in love with books.