Oh, the Quotations You’ll Forge!

Dr. Seuss poses with The Cat in the Hat and other books, c. 1957Every March 2nd, Americans celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Ted Geisel) by reading his work… and by sharing words he neither wrote nor said.

I understand why. Seuss could be pithy. He’s far from the only aphoristic writer to be credited with phrases he didn’t coin. Mark Twain, Ghandi, Groucho Marx, and many others have posthumously become the authors of many ideas.

But finding something on the internet does not confirm that what you’ve found is true. So, in what will likely be a failed effort to set the record straight, here are some things that Dr. Seuss never said — or, at least, there’s no record of him saying these things. And the historical record is all we have.

1. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

The sentiment here is congruent with Seuss’s public statements and some of his children’s books, but he never said this. (Below: one of many graphics that spread misinformation about Seuss.  He only said numbers 1 and 3.)

3 quotes that Seuss didn't say, and 2 that he did.2. Today I shall behave, as if this is the day I will be remembered.

Not only did Seuss never say this, but he tended to celebrate misbehavior.

3. Don’t cry because it’s over…  Smile because it happened.

You have to be kidding me. Smile because it happened? No. He never said this.

4. Why fit in when you were born to stand out?

This is a Seussian sentiment, but he never uttered it using these words.

5. We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

Seuss might agree with this sentiment, but he never said it.

6. Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.

Nope. Not something Seuss said.

7. Be awesome! Be a book nut!

Seuss wrote lots of books and read many others, but he did not say this. The giveaway is the colloquial use of “awesome.”


Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat25 Things That Seuss Said

There are many quotable lines that Seuss actually did say.  Why not use those instead?  Here’s a sampling.

1. It is fun to have fun.

But you have to know how.

— the Cat in the Hat, in The Cat in the Hat (1957)

2. Today you are you! That is truer than true!

There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!

Thank goodness I’m not a clam or a ham

Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam!

I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!”

— narrator, Happy Birthday to You! (1959)

3. You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax4. UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— the Once-ler, The Lorax (1971)

5. Outside of my beginner books, I never write for children.  I write for people.

— Dr. Seuss, interview with Michael Lee Katz (1984)

6. From there to here,

from here to there,

funny things

are everywhere.

— narrator, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)

7. I meant what I said

And I said what I meant. . .

An elephant’s faithful

One hundred per cent!

— Horton, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)

Dr. Seuss, from Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)

8. Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

— Horton, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)

9. Adults are obsolete children and the hell with them.

— Dr. Seuss, in many interviews, including Shepard 1968, Dangaard 1976, & Bandler 1977

10. you’re in pretty good shape

for the shape you are in!

— narrator, You’re Only Old Once! (1986)

11. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words, and you’ll lose them if your story gets complicated.  But if your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults.

— Dr. Seuss, lectures at University of Utah (1949), quoted in my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004)

12. I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.

Dr. Seuss, Hop on Pop

— Mack, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958)

13. STOP

You must not

hop on Pop.

— Pop, Hop on Pop (1963)

 14. So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact

and remember that Life’s

a Great Balancing Act.

— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book (1962)15. A yawn is quite catching, you see. Like a cough.

It just takes one yawn to start other yawns off.

— narrator, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (1962)

16. My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant’s bill of fare.

And when they were served,

he regarded them with a penetrating stare . . .

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things,”

said my uncle,

“you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what’s solid . . .

BUT . . .

You must spit out the air!”

 

And . . .

As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,

that’s darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

— Dr. Seuss, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers” (1977), quoted in Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995)

17. Nonsense wakes up the brain cells.  And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age.  Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world.  It’s more than just a matter of laughing.  If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.

— Dr. Seuss, in interview with Miles Corwin (1983)

18. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Christmas, . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

— narrator, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)

19. children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth.

— Dr. Seuss, “Writing for Children: A Mission” (1960)

Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut (1978)20. The more that you read,

the more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

the places you’ll go.

— the Cat in the Hat, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! (1978)

21. It has often been said

there’s so much to be read,

you never can cram

all those words in your head.

 

So the writer who breeds

more words than he needs

is making a chore

for the reader who reads.

 

That’s why my belief is

the briefer the brief is,

the greater the sigh

of the reader’s relief is.

— Dr. Seuss, “A Short Condensed Poem in Praise of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” (1980)

22. Think left and think right

and think low and think high.

Oh the thinks you can think up

if only you try!

— narrator, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975)

Dr. Seuss, from Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975)

23. Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, “You can do better than this.”  The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be “We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this.”

— Dr. Seuss to his biographers, Judith and Neil Morgan, as reported in their Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995)

Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)24. And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTIANS!

— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

25. Today is gone. Today was fun.

Tomorrow is another one.

— narrator, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)


In celebration of what would be Seuss’s 110th birthday (March 2nd), you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss.  Here’s a selection:

Occasionally, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.
Though the website appears to have been designed to impede its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.)And… that’s all.  Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’ll be celebrated on Monday, March 3rd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

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Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss! A guest post by Charles D. Cohen

Dr. Seuss: Revell - Birthday Bird

Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss today!

What do we know about Ted and birthdays?  We know that he wrote a birthday book.  Published on August 12, 1959, Happy Birthday To You was Ted’s first book with completely new characters in two years (since the Grinch–the two books that were published in between returned to previously created characters) and he anxiously wanted it to be a success.

Wanting to return with something special, Ted created his first full-color book.  It worked–according to a Dec. 17, 1960 article in the New Yorker, the first print run of 100,000 copies “proved inadequate… Within a few weeks, stocks of the book were exhausted, and fifty thousand additional copies were run off.”

Of course, after The Cat in the Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas came out in 1957, Dr. Seuss books were, in general, pretty popular.  By the June 5, 1960 issue of The New York Times Book Review section, a Random House advertisement celebrated that “5 out of the 16 books on the New York Times children’s best seller list are DR. SEUSS books.”

Happy Birthday to You! delivers the expected menagerie of strange animals, but this time, readers weren’t marveling at Marco or Gerald McGrew amid all of these wonders.  For the first time, Ted created a book about the prospect of YOU entering the world of Dr. Seuss and being surrounded by flower-snipping Who-Bubs and foliage-toting Hippo-Heimers, a cafeteria-carrying Smorgasboard and a time-telling fish, singing herrings and plumbing-horn blowing Zummers, and transportation beasts like Hiffers and Hooded Klopfers.

There was a particular aspect to birthdays that was important to Ted.  In “Happy Birthday To You!,” the Birthday Bird exclaims, “There is no one alive who is you-er than you.” Moreover, he explains that “If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you” and, if you weren’t you, “You might be a doorknob!  Or three baked potatoes!/You might be a big bag full of hard green tomatoes.”

Ted was taken with this concept of personal uniqueness throughout his life.  At a party given for his 80th birthday, he surprised guests, who had prepared speeches, with a poem of his own:

If my Daddy had shacked up

with some lady else…

just supposing, for instance,

Miss Abigail Schmeltz…

or Patricia MacPhee…

or Louella McGee…

I would not have resulted.  I wouldn’t be me!

There’d just be no telling who the hell I might be!

For example, had he foolishly eloped to South Wooster

with some floozy named Florabell Frankenstein Flooster,

I might now be writing for Simon and Schuster.

As he got older, Ted generally tried to avoid public celebrations of his own birthday, claiming that he would “observe his birthday in West Ear Lobe, Saskatchewan.”  When asked whether his fame would make him “a big noise in West Ear Lobe,” Ted guilefully replied, “You don’t know West Ear Lobe.”

In addition to his usual aversion to publicity, the problem was also that birthdays eventually become reminders of aging—a fact that Ted skewered in one of his more surrealistic birthday pieces, presented to the publisher who brought him to Random House.  For Bennett Cerf’s birthday in 1940, Ted reworked a piece that he’d written several years earlier for his alma mater’s literary-arts magazine.  It was a parody of Romantic poems like John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which Ted replaced visions of the beauty and grandeur of pentelic marble (of which the Parthenon was constructed) with his own “pentellic (sic) bilge”:

PENTELLIC BILGE FOR BENNETT CERF’S BIRTHDAY

The fine-toothed comb of Time marches on

Through the scalp of Life.

 

The dull, blunt needle of Time

Sews another button on a sadly worn pair of underdrawers.

 

In the dank, musty, spider-webbed cellar of Existence

The Superintendent of the Animate

Throws another shovel full of the Anthracite of Breath

Into the gassy, Old-fashioned Furnace of Living.

 

In the Cookie Jar of the Infinite

A sour, forgotten lump of angel cake

Becomes one year staler.

 

For every hour has sixty minutes;

Every minute, sixty cream puffs;

Every cream puff, sixty umlauts;

Every umlaut, sixty shirt sleeves…

Stitch….Stitch….Stitch….

 

A mildewed cloud leans its crutches against

The half-mast lamp post of oblivion,

And clears its throat to speak.

But no one gives ear.

Who gives a cockeyed sausage wreath!

 

Who cares if the strings of the Zither of Life

Are flecked with one more flick of Corn Flakes!

…Who cares if Cerf is thirty-umpfh

Or if he’s umpfh-and-forty!

 

O Anguish of Age!  Is there no one who cares?

 

…I care, shouts a man with a face not unkind!

I care, shouts a girl with a dancing behind!

…I care, shouts a fellow named Thidwick Hieronimus!

I care, shouts another whose name is anonymous!

 

…So come and let us frantic freshly!

Come and let us dorsal deftly!

Come and let us limber lushly

In a Grecian Urn!

 

And let us sing with throats unfurled

And tonsils blithe and snorty!

For Bennett Cerf is thirty-nine.

Good Lord!  It’s 1940!

Now it’s 2013, the 109th anniversary of Ted’s birth.  The best way that I can think to commemorate the day is with his own creation, as he created it for Revell in 1960.

Dr. Seuss: Revell - Birthday Bird with box

Enjoy the day without which Ted would have had no others.  He has meant a great deal to each of us in different ways.


Charles D. Cohen is the author of The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography (Random House, 2004), editor of Dr. Seuss’s The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Random House, 2011), and 50th anniversary editions of Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Random House, 2007) and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Random House, 2008).  The images featured above are from here and here.

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How to Mispronounce “Dr. Seuss.”

Dr. Seuss poses with The Cat in the Hat and other books, c. 1957Offering a great example of information without context, The Week‘s Amanda Green says we should not pronounce “Dr. Seuss” as “Doctor Soose” but as “Doctor Zoice.”  She’s wrong.

The professional pseudonym of Theodor Seuss Geisel is Dr. Seuss, and all the English-speaking world pronounced it “Doctor Soose.”  If you pronounce it “Doctor Zoice,” you’ll sound like a fool.

It is true that the middle name of Theodor Geisel — “Seuss,” which was also his mother’s maiden name — was pronounced “Zoice” by the family, and by Theodor Geisel himself.  So, if you are pronouncing his full given name, saying “Zoice” instead of “Soose” would not be wrong.  You’d have to explain the pronunciation to your listener, but you would be pronouncing it as the family did.

However, if you’re referring to the author of books for children, you pronounce it “Doctor Soose.” For his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss accepted this pronunciation of his middle name.

Since you may have arrived at this page from anywhere (and may not be a regular reader of this blog), I should tell you that I’m the author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  I also wrote the bio. and timeline for Random House’s Seussville website.  The beginning of that bio. includes the pronunciation information (“Zoice”), which I learned from Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995).  If you read one secondary source about Seuss, their book is the one to read.

Related content on this blog:

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I am the Lorax. I speak for the Thneeds?

The Lorax: teaser poster (2012)The commercials for The Lorax film say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the tweens.1

The commercials for the many Lorax tie-ins say:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the SUVs.2

I am the Lorax. I speak for the pancakes.3

I am the Lorax. I speak for the diapers.4

But what does the film itself say?  In its own way, Illumination Entertainment’s film adaptation actually does speak for the trees.  Sure, having the film’s male lead (Ted, voiced by Zac Efron) drive a gigantic motor-scooter isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. Why not give him a bicycle, or, better, the Seussian equivalent of a bicycle? That said, the kid only gets his ecological consciousness raised near the end of the film. So, perhaps having him buck social convention prior to the awakening of his conscience would have been less plausible for his character.

In any case, he does get the message. Initially, he seeks a Truffula seed solely to impress the girl he has a crush on — Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift. (She’s named for Geisel’s widow, and he’s named for Theodor Seuss Geisel himself.) However, by film’s end, the Once-ler has convinced Ted of the Lorax’s message. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Ted, defending his goal of planting the last Truffula seed in the town square, announces, “I’m Ted Wiggins. And I speak for the trees!” Indeed, the movie manages to work the book’s central message in twice:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

Realizing what the “UNLESS” left by the Lorax must mean, The Once-ler delivers this line, just as he does in the book.  Later, just before the credits roll, the filmmakers put the full quotation up on the screen:

UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— Dr. Seuss

In The Lorax’s film adaptation, the book’s environmental message comes through loud and clear.

It also amplifies the book’s depiction of capitalism as amoral.  In the “How Bad Can I Be?” number, the Once-ler (in the narrative of his past) sings about the “biggering and biggering” of his business: “My conscience is clear. I’ve done nothing illegal. I have my rights.”  Just after he sings, “nothing is going to stop me,” the Super-Axe-Hacker cuts down the last Truffula tree, and the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) tells him, “That’s it. The very last one. That may stop ya.”  This puts the lie to the plaque on the wall of his mansion, glimpsed earlier in the song:

TOO BIG

TO FAIL

The Once-ler.

Aligning the Once-ler’s Thneed business with the mismanaged banking industry, the film reminds us that no one is too big to fail. The Once-ler’s remorse for destroying the trees also indicates that all business decisions are moral ones: what is legal or financially remunerative may not also be moral.

Driving this point home, the film creates a second villain who, unlike the Once-ler, does not develop a conscience during the movie.  Voiced by Rob Riggle, O’Hare is the businessman who runs Thneedville, where our protagonist and everyone but the Once-ler lives. He makes his money selling air. Thneedville is a walled-in, completely artificial city: As we learn at the beginning of the film, it’s “a town without nature, not one living tree.” Visually, it looks a little too appealing, like a Seussian amusement park.  The grey, desiccated Street of the Lifted Lorax more effectively makes vivid the effects of pollution.  However, the film shows us that scene, too. And it exposes O’Hare’s mercenary nature: he doesn’t want a tree in Thneedville because it’s bad for business. Warning Ted to cease venturing outside Thneedville (where the Once-ler lives), he says, “I make a living selling fresh air to people. Trees — they make it for free.  So, I see this as a threat to my business.”

As you will have already discerned, yes, the film is didactic. Of course, the book was didactic, too. Both offer entertaining didacticism — brightly colored landscapes, rollicking anapestic verse, and, in the film, more fully developed characters, dance numbers, a lively score by and even a tween crush.  Seuss purists may complain: but the book has no dance numbers, no tween crush, no Thneedville, no O’Hare, and the Once-ler does not play the guitar!  All of that is true.  If you were hoping for a movie that was slavishly faithful to Seuss’s original book, then the film will disappoint.

However, a picture book and a film each have different strengths and weaknesses.  An attempt to create a literal rendition of the book would fail,… and would probably be quite short.  The question to ask is not: Was the film faithful to the book?  No film can be faithful to its original source, and nor should it aspire to be.  The question to ask is: How well did the director, writers, actors, animators, etc. translate the experience of the book into the medium of animated film?  And: Did their film manage to convey the core experience of the book?  In the case of The Lorax, the answer is: Yes.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Dr. Seuss himself would like the film — or most of it, anyway.

Kelloggs' Frosted Mini-Wheats, featuring the Grinch (2000)I doubt Seuss would appreciate seeing his Lorax selling SUVs, diapers, or pancakes, just as I suspect he would have disapproved of the Grinch being used to sell cereal, candy, and soda.  The 2000 live-action Grinch film had its title character selling Frosted Mini-Wheats, Hershey’s candies, and Sprite — among many other products.  When Seuss’s anti-consumerist grouch (the Grinch) is selling Frosted Flakes or his environmental protector (the Lorax) is selling SUVs, there’s a problem.

Yes, I recognize that product tie-ins are a standard way to underwrite the astronomical costs of a big-budget film. Furthermore, I’m aware that Seuss was an advertising man himself: until the publication of The Cat in the Hat (1957), he made his living by creating advertisements, not children’s literature.  In other words, I’m not trying to represent Seuss as a morally uncomplicated, anti-consumerist figure.  He was a commercial success in part because he was able to apply what he learned in advertising to writing and illustrating books for children.

However, you don’t have to be a Seuss scholar to see that the Lorax should be speaking for the trees, not the SUVs. As the book and the film make clear, we really don’t need more Thneeds.

My rating for the film: B+.

My rating for the tie-ins: F.


1. The trailer plays up the romance narrative, which (mercifully) doesn’t figure as prominently in the film.  Below, the longer version.  The short ads give the whole love-interest angle even more prominence.

2. In connection with the film, the Lorax is selling the Mazda CX-5 as “Truffula Tree-Certified.”  In addition to running on TV, this ad ran in the theatre prior to the start of the film.  Oy.

3. As the Horton Hears a Who! film (which I would also recommend) did, The Lorax is selling food of dubious nutritional merit.  That is, both are selling food from the International House of Pancakes.  At IHoP, you can buy Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes.

True, the commercial above indicates that IHoP is also giving away free seeds — which, at least, is something.

4. Seventh Generation is selling diapers bearing the Lorax’s likeness.  In their defense, they’re trying to make healthier diapers (which is more in line with The Lorax‘s message).  Of course, they are disposable, which isn’t great for the environment.

The Lorax: diapers by Seventh Generation

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Dr. Seuss: children’s books “have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth.”

Dr. Seuss poses with The Cat in the Hat and other books, c. 1957

Noting the rise in “adult” authors writing for children, Dr. Seuss in November 1960 published an article in which he argued that children’s books were more important than other types of books — because children’s books had the potential to be more influential than all other books.

I’m reproducing it below exactly as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times, on 27 Nov. 1960.  For this reason, the fanciful claim that Seuss was “mayor of La Jolla” remains, even though Seuss or his editor was just kidding.  (Theodor Seuss Geisel lived in La Jolla, California, but he wasn’t mayor.)


Writing for Children: A Mission

(Dr. Seuss is one of the world’s best-known writers and illustrators of children’s books. He is editor and president of the beginner book division of Random House, and, in his other identity, is mayor of La Jolla)

BY DR. SEUSS

Some 23 years ago I made a move that most of my writer friends acclaimed as the height of stupidity.

I walked out on a fairly successful career as a writer who wrote for great, big grown-up adults and began to write for the Kiddie-Kar and Bubble-Gum set.

This, in the 30s in the writing profession, was not a sign of going forward. This was a step down. At that time, the attitude of most of this country’s top writers was: writing for children is literary slumming. With a few notable exceptions, they wanted no part of scribbling for little girls who played with dollies and for little boys who had not yet shaved.

Flood of Treacle

And, to a certain degree, these authors were right. In those days, an appalling percentage of books for children were concocted out of inept, condescending, nature-faking treacle. They insulted the intelligence not only of the child, but also of the people who write them. They were batted out, hippity-hoppity, by amateurs and semi-pros with little or no experience in the very tough-to-learn craft of writing.

The funny part — and the happy part — of this brief historical essay is this:

Those same top professional writers who, a few years back, wouldn’t be caught dead with their name on a brat book are today writing enthusiastically in the juvenile field. More and more of them every year.

I think that writers have finally realized that children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise.

New-Found Potential

In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth.

It is the awareness of this is now bringing so many fine top writers into the once-despised juvenile field. To be sure, the field is still full of the dispensers of mush, still hippity-hopping around their Maypoles and still ladling out their lukewarm treacle.

But the children are absorbing treacle in ever-decreasing doses. For the proportion of fine books vs. junk is growing steadily. And the children are eagerly welcoming the good writers who talk, not down to them as kiddies, but talk to them clearly and honestly as equals.


Seuss repeated the theme of talking to children “clearly and honestly as equals” throughout his postwar career.  He was equally critical of the “lukewarm treacle,” works he derisively called the “bunny-bunny” books.  Indeed, in 1949 at the University of Utah, he delivered an illustrated lecture on the subject: “Mrs. Mulvaney and the Million-Dollar Bunny.”  I hope that this lecture, the above article, and his other non-fiction someday gets collected in a book.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, a collection of Seuss’s non-fiction is one of my (many!) failed book proposals.

In celebration of what would be Seuss’s 108th birthday (March 2nd), you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss.  Here’s a selection:

Occasionally, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss — indeed, I’ll be on Wisconsin Public Radio from 7 to 8 am (Central Time) tomorrow (Friday, March 2nd).  Here are a few others:

  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.
Though the website has been designed to impede its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.)

And… that’s all.  Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy.  Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

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Dr. Seuss on “conditioned laughter,” racist humor, and why adults are “obsolete children”

In 1952, Dr. Seuss published an essay in which he pointedly critiqued racist humor. True, his own work — both before and after then — did contain stereotypes. In an essay that’s been languishing at American Quarterly since August 2010, I examine the conflict between Seuss’s progressive impulses and a visual imagination steeped in early twentieth-century caricature. But my point today — Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here in the U.S. — is to highlight Seuss’s anti-racism, and his awareness of how humor is implicated in social structures.

So, then, here is Seuss’s  “… But for Grown-Ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun,” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review, 16 Nov. 1952, p. 2.  (The asterisks are in the original — I presume they’re supposed to be ellipses.)


… But for Grown-Ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun

Dr. Seuss

There are many reasons why an intelligent man should never ever write for children.  Of all professions for a man, it is the most socially awkward.  You go to a party, and how do they introduce you?  The hostess says, “Dr. Seuss, meet Henry J. Bronkman.  Mr. Bronkman manufactures automobiles, jet planes, battleships and bridges.  Dr. Seuss * * * well, he writes the sweetest dear, darlingest little whimsies for wee kiddies!”

Mr. Bronkman usually tries to be polite.  He admits there is a place in the world for such activities.  He admits he once was a kiddie himself.  He even confesses to having read Peter Rabbit.  Then abruptly he excuses himself and walks away in search of more vital and rugged companionship.

Wherever a juvenile writer goes, he is constantly subjected to humiliating indignities.  When asked to take part in a panel discussion along with other members of the writing fraternity he is given the very end seat at the table * * * always one seat lower than the dusty anthologist who compiled “The Unpublished Letters of Dibble Sneth, Second Assistant Secretary of Something-or-Other under Polk.”

Besides that, since we don’t make much money, our friends are always getting us aside and telling us. “Look, now.  You can do better.  After all, with all your education, there must be some way you could crack the Adult Field!”

The thing that’s so hard to explain to our friends is that most of us who specialize in writing humor for children have cracked the adult field and, having cracked it, have decided definitely that we prefer to un-crack it.  We are writing for the so-called Brat Field by choice.  For, despite the fact that this brands us as pariahs, despite the fact this turns us into literary untouchables, there is something we get when we write for the young that we can never hope to get in writing for you ancients.  To be sure, in some ways you are superior to the young.  You scream less.  You burp less.  You have fewer public tantrums.  You ancients are, generally speaking, slightly more refined.  But when it comes to trying to amuse you * * *!  Have you ever stopped to consider what has happened to your sense of humor?

30 x 30 blank space Seuss, illustration for "But for Grown-Ups, Laughing Isn't Any Fun" (1952)

“Him * * * ? Oh, he’s nobody. They say he writes for children”

When you were a kid named Willy or Mary the one thing you did better than anything else was laugh.  The one thing you got more fun out of than anything else was laughing.  Why, I don’t know.  Maybe it has to do with juices.  And when somebody knew how to stir those juices for you, you really rolled on the floor.  Remember?  Your sides almost really did split.  Remember.  You almost went crazy with the pain of having fun.  You were a terrible blitz to your family.  So what?  Your juices were juicing.  Your lava was seething.  Your humor was spritzing.  You really were living.

At that age you saw life through very clear windows.  Small windows, of course.  But very bright windows.

And, then, what happened?

You know what happened.

The grown-ups began to equip you with shutters.  Your parents, your teachers, your everybody-around-you, your all-of-those-people who loved you and adored you * * * they decided your humor was crude and too primitive.  You were laughing too loud, too often and too happily.  It was time you learned to laugh with a little more restraint.

They began pointing out to you that most of this wonderful giddy nonsense that you laughed at wasn’t, after all, quite as funny as you thought.

“Now why,” they asked, “are you laughing at that?  It’s completely pointless and utterly ridiculous.”

“Nonsense,” they told you, “is all right in its place.  But it’s time you learned how to keep it in its place.  There’s much more in this world than just nonsense.”

Your imagination, they told you, was getting a bit out of hand.  Your young unfettered mind, they told you, was taking you on too many wild flights of fancy.  It was time your imagination got its feet down on the ground.  It was time your version of humor was given a practical, realistic base.  They began to teach you their versions of humor.  And the process of destroying your spontaneous laughter was under way.

A strange thing called conditioned laughter began to take its place.  Now, conditioned laughter doesn’t spring from the juices.  It doesn’t even spring.  Conditioned laughter germinates, like toadstools on a stump.

And, unless you were a very lucky little Willy or Mary, you soon began to laugh at some very odd things.  Your laughs, unfortunately, began to get mixed in with sneers and smirks.

This conditioned laughter the grown-ups taught you depended entirely upon their conditions.  Financial conditions.  Political conditions.  Racial, religious and social conditions.  You began to laugh at people your family feared or despised — people they felt inferior to, or people they felt better than.

If your father said a man named Herbert Hoover was an ass, and asses should be laughed at, you laughed at Herbert Hoover.  Or, if you were born across the street, you laughed at Franklin Roosevelt.  Who they were, you didn’t know.  But the local ground rules said you were to laugh at them.  In the same way, you were supposed to guffaw when someone told a story which proved that Swedes are stupid, Scots are tight, Englishmen are stuffy and the Mexicans never wash.

Your laughs were beginning to sound a little tinny.  Then you learned it was socially advantageous to laugh at Protestants and/or Catholics.  You readily learned, according to your conditions, that you could become the bright boy of the party by harpooning a hook into Jews (or Christians), labor (or capital), or the Turnverein or the Strawberry Festival.

You still laughed for fun, but the fun was getting hemmed in by a world of regulations.  You were laughing at subjects according to their listing in the ledger.  Every year, as you grew older, the laughs that used to split your sides diminished.  The ledger furnished more sophisticated humor.  You discovered a new form of humor based on sex.  Sex, a taboo subject, called for very specialized laughter.  It was a subject that was never considered funny in large gatherings.  It was a form of humor you never indulged in at Sunday school.  It was a form of humor that was subtle and smart and you learned to restrict it for special friends.

And, by the time you had added that accomplishment to your repertoire, you know what had happened to you, Willy or Mary?  Your capacity for healthy, silly, friendly laughter was smothered.  You’d really grown up.  You’d become adults * * * adults, which is a word that means obsolete children.

As adults, before you laugh, you ask yourselves questions:

“Do I dare laugh at that in the presence of the boss?  Sort of dangerous, when you consider how he feels about Taft-Hartley.”

“How loud shall I laugh at that one?  Mrs. Cuthbertson, my hostess, is only laughing fifteen decibels.”

“Shall I come right out and say I thought the book was funny?  The reviewer in THE TIMES said the humor was downright silly.”

These are the questions that children never ask.  THE TIMES reviewer and Mrs. Cuthbertson to the contrary notwithstanding, children never let their laughs out on a string.  On their laughter there is no political or social pressure gauge.

That, I think, is why we maverick humorists prefer to write exclusively for children.


Someday, I hope someone will publish a collection of Seuss’s non-fiction. (Some years ago, I proposed such a collection to Random House. This is one of my many failed book ideas — they turned it down.)  Until that day, Seuss scholars and fans will have to seek out these pieces. If you happen to be seeking them, I give full bibliographic citations in Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) — borrow it from your local library.

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Seussology

The Cat's hatI’m doing it again — teaching an entire course devoted to Dr. Seuss (the link in this sentence takes you to the current draft of the syllabus).  Art!  Politics!  Verse!  Nonsense!  Activism!  These are but some of the subjects we’ll explore in English 710: Dr. Seuss, a graduate-level course which begins on Wednesday.

Aiming to improve on the earlier Seuss course (taught 5 years ago), I did not look at the earlier syllabus as I drafted this one.  Only when I finished the draft did I read the 2007 version of the class, incorporating some of the worthier parts of that syllabus.  The idea, this time, is to structure the class around a dozen sets of questions — any of which, as I’ve pointed out on the paper assignment, could lead students to a fruitful paper.  Here are a few:

Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (cover)1. The Child: The Boy in the Book.  How do Seuss’s works conceive of the child? With which understanding of childhood would you link his children? In his works, what sort of power do children have? And which children get that power? How is Seuss’s work influenced by his own childhood, including what he read?

3. Activism, Part 1: Horton Hears a Heil! How do Seuss’s politics play out in his own works? Are there ideological inconsistencies between his stated goals and other messages that the books may convey? What makes an activist children’s book persuasive to its readers?

4. Cartoons, Camp, & Surrealism: The Art of Dr. Seuss. What kind of artist is Dr. Seuss? How do cartoons inform his aesthetic? How do artistic movements inform his aesthetic? Beyond The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., does camp play a role in his aesthetic? Indeed, what is the Seuss aesthetic? How does his art work?

7. Gender: Is Seuss for the Goose Seuss for the Gander? The most blunt way to ask this question is this: Was (or is) Dr. Seuss sexist? More subtle ways to ask the question might include: In what ways do Seuss’s books participate in gender stereotypes? In what ways do they resist gender stereotypes? What role, if any, should Seuss’s biography play in your answer to these questions?

10. Marketing: Quick, Henry, the DDT!  There’s debate among those who study Seuss, and in the wider public discourse about Seuss. On the one hand, there are those who argue that much of the posthumous merchandising (Grinch selling breakfast cereal, etc.) violates Seuss’s wishes: his work had a moral and aesthetic value, not merely a commercial one. On the other hand, there are those who will point out that Seuss was a successful advertising man (until the publication of The Cat in the Hat, his primary source of income was advertising), and in fact entered into merchandising agreements during his life. Wade into this debate about art and commerce. Which side is more correct? Or is there a different set of questions we should be asking?

Above: Seuss’s Ford advertisements, 1949

There are also questions about poetry, race, and adaptations, among other topics. (You can find a full list on the paper assignment.)   I chose this structure because the best discussions derive from good questions.

Your Favorite SeussAnother change from last time: using the anthology Your Favorite Seuss, instead of having the students buy individual Seuss books.  I have mixed feelings about this choice.  On the one hand, this is far cheaper than having them buy the individual books — and that’s my primary reason for doing this.  I realize that books are expensive.  And, also in its favor, Molly Leach has done a really nice job in redesigning the layout for each Seuss book.  On the other hand, I’d prefer for students to read the books as originally laid out.  Your Favorite Seuss includes all text, but moves artwork around so that it can include 13 books in fewer pages.  As a compromise, I’m putting the original versions on Reserve (at the library) so that students can also see the originals.

One assignment I’ve retained from the original version of the class is “Sighting Seuss,” which requires students to keep an eye out for appropriations, references, parodies, etc. of Seuss in contemporary popular culture.  Examples might include this Kids in the Hall sketch (1990), in which Dave Foley presents the “Dr. Seuss Bible”:

Another example is NicePeter’s recent “Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare: Epic Battles of Rap History #12″ (2011):

As it’s an election year, we should find many examples of Seuss in political satire.  Since the 1990s, people have been aligning Newt Gingrich with the Grinch.

Newt Gingrinch, Newsweek cover (1994) Grinch

But he’s not the only one.  John Kerry, George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Barack Obama, and others have all been caricatured as the Grinch.

There are hundreds of examples of Seuss in popular culture.  The point is to get students to think about the ways in which Seuss circulates in the public imagination.  When people invoke Seuss (or his anapestic tetrameter, or his characters, etc.), to what purpose do they use him?  In popular culture, what does Seuss mean?

One big change from the last time I taught this is that formerly obscure short films by Seuss are now easy to find.  5 years ago, I showed the class a bootleg DVD of Your Job in Germany (1945), a propaganda film written by Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) and directed by Frank Capra.  You can now see this via YouTube or Archive.org.

Indeed, until this weekend I had never seen Our Job in Japan (1945), another U.S. Army propaganda film written by Geisel — and, incidentally, considered so sympathetic to the Japanese that General MacArthur worked to prevent it from being shown to the troops.  But now, it’s very easy to find (as in below, also courtesy of Archive.org).

I’ve assembled a whole page of these films.  We’ll still view a few of these in class, but now the students have the luxury of re-watching them and seeing more than those screened during class.  For those of you who lack the time to view all of those Private SNAFU cartoons, here are a couple of the better ones, which, yes, include some “adult” humor.  (The audience were GIs, not children.)  You will also note the sort of ethnic caricature common to Warner Bros. cartoons of the period.

Private SNAFU: Spies (Aug. 1943)


Directed by Chuck Jones.  If the voice reminds you of Bugs Bunny, that’s because Mel Blanc is also the voice of SNAFU. (From Archive.org)

Private SNAFU: The Home Front (Nov. 1943)


Directed by Frank Tashlin. (From Archive.org)

Well.  Any suggestions?  Let me know.  Classes start on Wednesday, and I’ll be editing the syllabus until then.  Though (of course) I can modify the reading list during the term, I tend to do that only minimally once the semester begins.   If no suggestions, well, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about, oh,… the thinks that we’ll think!

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Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me: Part II

Inspired by BoingBoing’s notice of my post on Syd Hoff’s leftist cartoons, I’m sharing another letter from the late Mr. Hoff, along with a cartoon from 1939.  As those who remember his first letter to me might recall, he and I corresponded — and spoke over the phone a few times — when I was working on Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due out in fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi).

In the 1930s, Crockett Johnson was New Masses’ art editor, and Hoff contributed cartoons under the name A. Redfield — a pseudonym he reserved for his New Masses and Daily Worker pieces.  Here’s the first page of his third letter to me, followed by a transcription of the same.  He dated it July 1, 2000, but he intended to write August 1, 2000.  (His first letter was July 8, 2000, and his second was July 15, 2000; the one below was posted August 1st.)  The “Dave” you’ll see mentioned is Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Johnson Leisk and who was known to his friends as “Dave.”

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 1

Here’s the transcription, with “[?]” marking places where I’m unsure if my transcription is correct, and brackets [] indicating my own interpolated text:

July 1, 2000

Dear Phil:

To repeat, I never got to know Dave personally, perhaps because I was awfully young.  I got into the “movement” in my teens, was influenced by a student at the Natl. Academy of Design, where I studied for 2 years, starting when I was 16.  The student, Boris Gorelick, with whom I had been in Morris High School in the Bronx, was hurrying out of the Academy one day, just when the NY Daily News has having page 1-3, front page words[?] and photos of “Red” meetings in Union Square, NYC, with mounted police attacking protesters, etc.  “Where ya going, Boris?” I asked innocently, “to one of them Red meetings?”

He gave me an answer I never forgot: “Don’t you know, a Russian tree is just like an American tree?”  Sounds funny, but in one second, I had a universal feeling.

Back to Dave.  Prior to him at N.M. there had been a “Butch Limbach,” whose art was not great, perhaps because he seemed to have just gotten a jolt as an art editor.  Either before him or after, there was Mischa Richter, who was already appearing in The New Yorker, doing a syndicated panel for King Features, and soon to become a successful NYer cartoonist.

[Marginal note, running horizontally next to the above three paragraphs:] I did read the NY Times review of Lewis Allan’s book My “Locomotive History” — + NM showed ex-leaders of the Left, “jumping from a train..  It was said to be a remark of Lenin’s, and Max Gordon of Village Vanguard almost bought it as a curtain trim[?].

By the way, the business manager of N.M. was George Willner, with whom I became very friendly in 1939, when my wife and I took a vacation in Los Angeles, perhaps because Tiba Garlin, of the Garlin family, his wife (Sender sometimes occupied Mike Gold’s space in the Daily worker, with a brother member of the family owned and ran Green Mansions, in the

The “Locomotive History” comment references a Syd Hoff cartoon, published 28 November 1939.  It comments on all those who, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, left the Communist Party.  Riffing on Marx’s idea (and Lenin’s claim) that revolution is the locomotive of history, Hoff shows the locomotive leaving behind all those who have deserted the Party — suggesting that they’ve made a mistake in doing so.

Here’s page two:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 2

The transcription of page two:

Adirondacks, when the Group Theatre at least one summer was the entertainment, with Franchot Tone, its richest and one of its most talented stars.  Such guys as Morris Carnovsky, da Silva, John Garfield, and Elia Kazan etc. were always there, as well as S. Edna Bromberg[?], who eventually would die in London, probably because of a heart attack from being blacklisted in the U.S.A.

Another celebrity in stage and screen, was Philip Loeb, star of the Gertrude Berg TV show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”  Red Channels named Philip, demanded that he be dropped from the show, etc.  This was wonderfully done in Woody Allen’s movie, “The Front,” with Zero Mostel checking in at the Taft Hotel in Manhattan, calling room service for a bottle of wine, then dropping out of the 20th floor window, exactly like Loeb had done!

Cafe Society was to become the gathering place for the left in N.Y.  A short way downtown, opposite the Arch in the Village, the great writer (? — my memory fails me at times!) was writing articles for the Jewish Forward (Forvitz) for $5 a piece.  Eventually The New Yorker discovered these, ran them all (?) won a Pulitzer Prize.  His books are bestsellers yet!  He was always in Stewarts Cafeteria.

[Marginal note identifies writer:] Isaac Bashevis Singer

I never knew Seuss had drawn for N.M.  He first “rang a bell” with ads for FLIT, an insect repellent.  “QUICK, Henry, the FLIT!” Seuss character would yell.  I can’t recall “Doctor” ever being a red, though.

I’m trying to get around to answering some of your questions.  I drew for N.M. before my trip to the Coast in 1937, in fact, I

A correction: Dr. Seuss drew cartoons for PM, not for NM (New Masses).  Hoff’s misreading my letter to him, in which I mention Seuss’s work for PM.  Hoff is right about Seuss not “ever being a red, though.”  Dr. Seuss was a liberal Democrat, but he wasn’t a leftist.

And page three:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 3

The transcription of page three:

had been doing a daily cartoon for the Daily Worker about right after I left the Academy.  “The Ruling Clawss” was the title Clarence Hathaway, its editor, who was coming up into the Party with Earl Browder gave it that title.  (How awful!  Hathaway would eventually be named in “Workers Enemies Exposed,” shortly before Browder himself, now obviously with “Alzheimer,” would appear on TV with Hamilton Fish of Congress, probably the worst reactionary person in American History.

[Marginal note with arrow pointing to above paragraph:] These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a “children’s author!”  Please refrain!

By the way, a very young Jack Gifford, was the MC of Cafe Society and he remained a close friend of Barney Josephson for the rest of his life.  Which reminds me, I finally tracked down the mural I had done, and have sent it to Mrs. J.  The widow of a friend of mine had it all the time, and unfortunately she folded it in an envelope.  I hope Terry can use it…  Oh yes, I recall in a bio of Judy Holiday, how she hated Comden and Greene, her old buddys at the Village Vanguard, for not ever sending word or coming to visit her when she was dying from Cancer.

Last words: I have done, am still doing “chalk talks.”  They are one-hour presentations, live drawings with commentary about my life, past and present, drawings of Danny and the Dinosaur, and some of my other books, plus a Weston Woods video of Danny.  Sixty minute shows with more particulars if any one is interested.

I apologize for mySmith-Corona. Best wishes,Syd hoffBox 2463

Miami Beach, FL 33140

You may be struck by the incongruity of the fact that Hoff writes, “These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a ‘children’s author!’  Please refrain!” … and yet you are reading these remarks on-line, in a public forum.  What do you think you’re doing? you may be asking.  Can you not keep the secrets of the dead?

Here’s my response.  First, Hoff wrote those words in 2000, five decades after the blacklist.  They show how thoroughly the blacklist imprinted itself on his psyche.  He himself was never blacklisted, though he does have an FBI file.  And, in 2000, the blacklist was history.  Uncovering the fact that an author or artist had contributed to the Daily Worker would not then be a career-ending revelation.

Second, this post does not break the news of Hoff’s political affiliations in the 1930s. I’m not sure who published that news first, but we might credit Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2006).  Julia and I also include this information in our Tales for Little Rebels (2008), which reproduces Hoff’s first children’s book, Mr. His (published by New Masses in 1939).  And, of course, two earlier blog posts on this site also divulge the information: “Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me” (Nov. 2010), and “Syd Hoff’s Teeth” (Feb. 2011).

Third, if we don’t know the past, then we cannot learn from it.  For example, Julia discovered that children’s authors were largely exempt from the blacklist because the blacklisters thought children’s literature too unimportant a field to monitor (in part because most of its creators were women).  If we keep hidden the Left affiliations of Hoff, Wanda Gág, Crockett Johnson, and others, then this understanding gets lost.

We are, at present, reliving some of the same political battles of the 1930s — the role of progressive taxation in maintaining the welfare of the many, of government investment in creating jobs, of government as a necessary regulatory mechanism (in curtailing corporate excess).  Though the Estate Tax applies only to people who leave $5 million or more, its opponents call it the Death Tax — as if it applied to everyone.  As Hoff shows in this 1939 cartoon, the Estate Tax affects only the wealthiest among us.

"It isn't poor pater, Doctor. It's the inheritance tax." Cartoon by A. Redfield (Syd Hoff). Printed in New Masses, 16 May 1939.

Similarly, though strategic spending by the government helped get the U.S. out of the Great Depression, opponents of such investment today allege (without evidence) that it does not create jobs.  Though reckless speculation undid the world economy in 2008, opponents of regulation allege that reinstituting rules such as those provided by the Glass-Steagall Act would somehow be deleterious to business — despite the fact that Glass-Steagall helped stabilize the economy in the 1930s.  In the 1930s, progressives carried the day, instituting many of the social programs (welfare) and legislation (Fair Labor Standards Act, which abolished child labor; Minimum Wage) that we once took for granted.

History offers a guide for our future — if we’re willing to learn from it.  Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding, it’s not yet clear whether we’ll learn from the past or repeat past mistakes.

Related posts:

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Desert Island Picture Books

On her blog today, Anita Silvey asks her “readers to weigh in with their list of five books that they can’t live without or the ones they read again and again.”  So, first, let me encourage you to weigh in over on her blog.  As soon as this post is up, I’ll do the same.  In order to narrow down the criteria a little bit, I’ve kept my focus to picture books only (though her query is more expansive than that).  So that I can expand my list to ten, I’ve also decided to post a list here.  And, yes, I’m well aware that all such lists are subjective.  Indeed, had I spent more time dwelling upon the question, I’m sure this list would change further.  Anyway.  Without further prologue, here are my…

Top 10 Desert Island Picture Books

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon1. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) because it’s the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility ever created.

2. Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006) because it’s a richly imagined, beautifully rendered, wordless graphic narrative of immigration, dislocation, and hope.

3. Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936) because, with a mix of humor and gravity, it sustains many very different interpretations.

4. Delphine Durand, Bob & Co. (2006) because it’s a story about life, the universe, and story.

5. Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984) because it offers an infinite number of stories.

6. Toby Speed and Barry Root, Brave Potatoes (2000) because it’s good poetry, good advice, and really funny.

7. Tim Egan, Friday Night at Hodges’ Cafe (1994) because it contains one of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature: “Too bad his duck was so crazy.”

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

8. Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House (1942) because it’s an economically designed tale of change, entropy, and survival.

9. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953) because “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop.”

10. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971) because “UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”

A tough question!  I struggled – for example, I also wanted to include Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), but I limited myself to one title per author/illustrator.  And, yeah, many other creators of picture books whose works ought to be here: Barbara Lehman, Peter Sís, Anthony Browne, Bryan Collier, Lane Smith, Peggy Rathman, Ezra Jack Keats, Kadir Nelson, Emily Gravett, Robert McCloskey, Jon Agee, Maurice Sendak (as author-illustrator, not just as artist, as he is here)….  And so on.

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Study Shows Dr. Seuss Makes You Happy

Often, media headlines highlight academic research in order to make fun of it — so that people can say, “look at how these eggheads spend their time!” or “They needed a study to prove that!?”  My title (above) alludes to such media coverage, but my purpose here is to highlight a new article which argues… precisely what the title says.  Aaron Ahuvia, a professor in the College of Business at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, writes:

A felicitator is a person or thing which brings happiness to others. As with most good authors, Dr. Seuss was a felicitator in part through the enjoyment people derived directly from his work. But he was a felicitator in a more profound sense as well, because he has helped teach a particular set of values and outlook on life to hundreds of millions of children. Geisel disliked the heavy-handed moralism which was endemic to the children’s literature of his day, but many of his works nonetheless taught a moral point of view. Like that of many children’s authors, his work emphasized honesty and our responsibility to protect those weaker than ourselves. But somewhat less typically, especially for an author of his generation, his work championed personal creativity while rebuking snobbery, materialism, conformity and prejudice. It is the values that underlie Seuss’s stories, and not just the memorable rhymes and funny illustrations, which gave his work the classic status it has today. And it is these values which form the foundation of my argument that he was a felicitator. Specifically, I argue that his books had a modest but nonetheless real influence on millions of children, encouraging their imaginative creativity and discouraging snobbery, social exclusion and materialism.

The article, titled “Dr. Seuss, felicitator,” appears in the International Journal of Wellbeing, 1.2 (2011), 197-213.  You can download it from the journal’s website for free (it’s open access — just scroll down to the “full text” pdf).  I have no expertise in either business or happiness, but I like the social dimension in Professor Ahuvia’s definition of happiness.  Though I’m skeptical of our ability to track the ways in which literature influences those who read it, I also like both the optimism of his assessment and the fact that it’s qualified: he calls Seuss’s effect “modest,” and, later in this paragraph, adds, “children raised on Dr. Seuss had improved odds of growing up to be happy adults.”  “Improved odds” is, I think, the best we can hope for.

I share this article because I’m interested in the ways in which Seuss circulates in contemporary culture, from political cartoons to scholarly articles to The Simpsons — I deal with this subject in more detail in Chapter 6 of my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (Continuum, 2004).  Some examples of the range of scholarship: One essay argues (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the little cats in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) are examples of fractals.  Another finds similarities between apparently fantastic Seussian creatures and the natural world (this one is accurate, as far as I can tell).  Here are the citations, in case you want to look them up:

  • Lakhtakia, Akhlesh. “Fractals and The Cat in the Hat.” Journal of Recreational Mathematics 22.3 (1990): 161-4.
  • Raymo, Chet.   “Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein: Children’s Books and Scientific Imagination.”  The Horn Book Sept.-Oct. 1992.  Repr. Thomas Fensch, ed., Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr. Seuss: Essays on the Life and Writing of Theodor Geisel (McFarland & Company, 1997):  169-75.

At one point, I imagined that I would maintain a bibliography of all new Seuss — both literary criticism and any other posthumously published Seuss books.  This grew out of a desire both to correct omissions in Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and to add works published since then.  As you can see, I’ve fallen behind on updating it.  I’ll add the above article to it, and will make an effort to add others I’ve omitted, such as Kevin Shortsleeve’s smart new piece in Lynne Vallone and Julia Mickenberg‘s Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2011), and Charles Cohen’s new collection of Seuss’s Redbook stories (The Bippolo Seed). If you see others (and I’m sure you will), feel free to send them my way.  Thanks!

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