He is the first author we learn to read with, starting with such Beginner Books as One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and graduating to more complicated fare such as The Lorax. He is the first author we read to our own children, reliving, through them, the delight we once felt when the unnamed protagonist of Green Eggs and Ham finally gives in, tries the admittedly disgusting-looking breakfast and admits to Sam I Am that he would like to eat green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in a house and with a mouse. Finally, in the winter of our years, we gather with our grandchildren to ritualistically watch the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmason TV and smile a little ruefully when the kids gift us with a copy of You're Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children. But for all that he shapes our lives, Dr. Seuss himself remains something of an enigma to most of us. We don't even know we're mispronouncing his name (it actually rhymes with "voice," apparently. I consider myself a fan, and even I didn't know that until about five minutes ago.)
Theodor Geisel became Seuss because of a minor scandal in his college days. While he was serving as editor in chief of Dartmouth's Jack-O-Lantern humor magazine, Geisel was busted for throwing a drinking party and violating Prohibition. The college insisted he drop all extracurricular activities, so Geisel began using Seuss—his mother's maiden name and his own middle name—as a pseudonym so he could continue working for the magazine without the college's knowledge. That's the official story anyhow, although you have to wonder if the administrators at Dartmouth were really such dopes that they could look at the singularly bizarre cartoons of this "Seuss" fellow and somehow not recognize them as Geisel's, or if the whole thing was just a plot they cooked up because they had to save face but didn't want to cut loose a talent like Geisel's. In any case, it was an appropriately outrageous beginning for the career of a man who would later boast that he was "subversive as hell," describing the politics of The Cat in the Hat as "a revolt against authority. . . . It's revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky, and then stops. It doesn't go quite as far as Lenin."
Cat, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, began life when Seuss' publisher, concerned about rising illiteracy rates among children, asked Seuss to write a book using just 250 words. Seuss responded with a 236-word, intricately rhyming epic about a trickster cat-man in a candy-striped top hat who arrives at the door of two unattended children and brings some crazy, messy fun into their lives, much to the consternation of the priggish family goldfish. To call it Kerensky-esque is perhaps pushing it, but in the age of those tiresome goody-goodies Dick and Jane, there was something undeniably shocking about a book that ends by asking the reader if the kids should tell their mommy about the anarchic, life-changing events that have transpired that day.
Conservatives have never quite known what to do with Seuss. On the one hand, he spent his career crafting works that are unmistakable leftist propaganda, from the Green Party preachings of The Lorax to the more subtle satire of Seuss' post-Watergate attack on the Nixon administration, Marvin K. Rooney, Will You Please Go Now? On the other hand, when you grew up loving somebody's work, it's really hard to get it up for a good, old-fashioned book burning. And so conservatives twist themselves into funny, almost Seussian shapes arguing that his writing was pure nonsense in the Lewis Carroll tradition, with nothing to say about the real world at all. Either that, or they get really silly and try to argue that some of Seuss' work actually supports the conservative cause.
In a widely-reprinted and controversial 2003 National Review article, published in the early days of Gulf War II, John J. Miller reached all the way back to Seuss' World War II political cartoons to support W's mad crusade, claiming the cartoons "[remain] pertinent today because the problem of appeasement is ever with us." Somehow, from these yellowing, anti-Hitler doodlings, Miller concluded that Seuss would've approved of the invasion of Iraq. Surveying Seuss' critique of such isolationists as fascist flyboy Charles Lindbergh, Miller concluded, "If this is liberalism, it's a liberalism many of us modern-day conservatives can embrace," neglecting to mention it was the conservatives who wanted to keep us out of WWII while Seuss' hero, FDR, was pushing us in. Rather like the Cat in Seuss' 1978 classic, Miller seems determined to prove that I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
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When Seuss is at his most unapologetically preachy, when the lefty messages simply cannot be ignored and Seuss' Liberalism becomes the Horton-sized elephant in the room, guys like Miller just throw up their hands and say he was being crazy and stupid. The Butter Battle Book concerns two nations that go to war over whether to eat bread butter-side up or butter-side down, and it ends with a terrifying standoff on the brink of Armageddon. "It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread—as if Communism weren't a threat to liberty, but an eating preference." Jesus. John J. Miller, will you please go now?
Beyond the beautifully silly pictures and the hypnotically screwy rhymes of Seuss' world, the reason why his books have survived crappy movies such as The Grinch and that Mike Myers atrocity, the reason why they may well outlast America itself, is because they are funny, wise and honest books—and they make us feel so good we're eager to share them with those we love. Dr. Seuss makes us want to be better people, and somehow, some way, he makes it fun. Shortly before his death, Geisel was asked if he had any message for the kids of the USA. He responded with what may be the most on-target words of his entire, amazing career.
"The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the USA would be: 'We can . . . and we've got to . . . do better than this.'"
And then he went back and crossed out "the kids of."