How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss!

Many have likened Donald Trump to a “schoolyard bully.” Back in September, Mr. Trump even admitted that his own campaign rhetoric had been “a little childish.” To best understand a candidate who addresses voters at a fourth-grade level, we need the stories of one of our most plain-spoken political analysts — Dr. Seuss. These four Seuss books best explain Mr. Trump’s character, and offer insight into how to prevent him from conning his way into the presidency.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)At first, the Trump on the stump may seem like the Cat in the Hat. He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment (represented by the fish in Seuss’s story), but he’s very entertaining. He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks. Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting. However, as Robert Coover’s satirical novella The Cat in the Hat for President (1968) points out, nominating Seuss’s Cat for president would be very risky. While an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, he’s dangerous to put in charge.

Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches (1961)Of Seuss’s many con-artist characters (the Cat, the Grinch, the Once-Ler), Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the most Trumpish. A businessman, McBean makes his money by exploiting the prejudices of the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. To the excluded Plain-Belly Sneetches, he says: “I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that.” He insists, “I have what you need,” and promises “my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!” After the formerly star-less have all paid for stars on their bellies, McBean then turns to the original star-bellied group, and offers to remove their stars. So begins an “Off again! On again!” race in which Sneetches alternately pay to gain and pay to lose stars, until they all run out of money. Seated in a car now overflowing with bags of their cash, McBean drives away laughing.

Like McBean, Trump is adept at exploiting the hatreds of his constituents. According to him, Mexicans are “criminals” but also “good people.” Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. but also are “wonderful people.” Oh, and Islam “hates us.” He flaunts his racism less out of conviction and more because he knows that manipulating people’s prejudices will help him sell himself as the solution.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)As Ezra Klein observes, Donald Trump has “the demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it.” This talent makes Trump an ally of the kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who! (1954). While Horton the elephant works to save the Whos, the kangaroo rallies the mob that nearly kills them. Her delight in encouraging violence echoes that of Trump, who has said of one protester “I’d like to punch him in the face.” When two of his followers attacked a homeless man, Trump excused their behavior by noting that his supporters were “very passionate.” At rallies, Trump condones violence against his opponents.

Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle (1958)The kangaroo, the Cat, and McBean all illuminate aspects of the Trump psyche, but, to glimpse a Trump presidency, we need look to Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: “I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!” If Trump delivered one of his “I’m really rich” speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an anti-fascist parable, in which the turtle king represented Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, but he is an authoritarian bully who scapegoats society’s vulnerable. He rejects democratic institutions — many of his proposals (such as the mass deportation of Muslims) are unconstitutional. Like Yertle, Trump is interested only in his own power, and not in his constituents’ welfare. In Seuss’s book, Yertle quite literally builds his empire on the backs of his citizens. This, too, is how Trump operates, and is what a Trump presidency would look like.

At the end of each Seuss story, the villain either fails or changes. Led by Mack’s revolutionary “burp,” Yertle’s subjects topple their king, freeing themselves and relegating Yertle to “King of the Mud.” In Horton Hears a Who!, the kangaroo changes her mind, recognizes the Whos’ humanity, and vows to protect them. The Sneetches (1961) ends with the Sneetches poorer, but wiser, having learned “that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” But what will be the end of Trump’s story?

Will the Trump on the stump make us all chumps?

Or will people wise up, and send Trump to the dump?

There’s no land of the free in his presidency.

Only anger and threats, bluster and bigotry.

If the Trump’s demagoguery wins in the fall,

Then a new idiocracy threatens us all.


I wrote this about a month ago, & pitched it to Buzzfeed & Politico, but got no response. In one version, I opened with a reference to Jimmy Kimmel’s December 2015 clip, in which he presents an ersatz Seuss children’s book as a commentary on Mr. Trump. I offer it here as a little bonus material.

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Seuss on Film

Dr. Seuss Working, c. 1940sAs a famous author whose life spanned the twentieth century, Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) should have been often in newsreels and on TV, right? From time to time, he does appear on camera — but less often than we might expect. In celebration of what would have been his 112th birthday, here’s a brief (but far from complete) collection of Seuss on film!

Below, are four film clips — two from the 1940s, one from 1958, and one from 1964. All are short: Unusual Occupations (1940) is 2 minutes, he’s only in the first 45 seconds of Making SNAFU (c. 1943), To Tell the Truth (1958) is under 8 minutes, and the New Zealand schoolroom (1964) is under 4 minutes.  However, if you’re running short on time, skip ahead to the New Zealand schoolroom.  That’s my favorite of the group.

Two of these (c. 1943, 1958) were already on YouTube, but the other two (1940, 1964) are — as far as I know — making their YouTube debut today. Enjoy!


Unusual Occupations (1940)

The earliest known film footage of Dr. Seuss is in color!  Sadly, there’s no audio. But you do get to see him with the sculptures he was making. He called them “Unorthodox Taxidermy” and sold them via mail.  Though his fourth children’s book (Horton Hatches the Egg) was published the same year as this clip, Seuss’s main occupation at this time was advertising: the “Seuss Navy” line in the narration references his adds for Esso.  Also, though the narrator describes him as a “doctor of literature,” he wasn’t.  He dropped out of his M.A. program, and never pursued the Ph.D.  But he did use “Dr.” for his professional pseudonym.

Horton Hatches the Egg would be Seuss’s last children’s book until 1947. With the World War raging in Europe and the Pacific, Seuss set aside children’s books and “Unorthodox Taxidermy.” Instead, he began working on propaganda — first, political cartoons, and next, educational videos for the U.S. Army.


Making SNAFU (c. 1943)

In April 1941, Theodor Seuss Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — became a political cartoonist for PM, New York’s Popular Front newspaper. Convinced that America would be drawn into the rapidly expanding World War, he feared that isolationism made the United States vulnerable.  As he recalled,

The way I went to work for PM is that I got annoyed with Lindbergh and his America-Firsters. I was already somewhat prominent as a cartoonist, but nobody would print my cartoons against Lindbergh. So I went to work for PM for almost nothing. When the United States got into the war I started receiving a lot of letters saying I was a dirty old man who had helped get us into the war, and I was too old to fight. So I enlisted.

In January 1943, after having written over 400 political cartoons for PM, Geisel left New York and took the train out to Hollywood, California, where he would be a captain in the U.S. Army’s Information and Education Division — “Fort Fox,” headed by Major Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director.

Capra placed Ted Geisel in charge of the animation branch and assigned him to make educational films that would run in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly newsreel shown to the troops. Ted Geisel and Phil Eastman (later famous for Go, Dog. Go!, but then an ex-Disney animator) teamed up with directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; vocal impressionist Mel Blanc; composer Carl Stalling; and the other creative minds behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Exactly who came up with the idea of Private SNAFU is not clear, but the idea itself was simple: Teaching by negative example, Private SNAFU would embody his name, an acronym for (as the first cartoon put it) “Situation Normal All … All Fouled Up.”1

In the clip below, you’ll see Ted Geisel, at the desk on the left (0:15-0:40).  As Jerry Beck says, the clip is “unedited footage shot by the First Motion Picture unit, likely intended to be used for a newsreel or other production.”  They’ve added some of Stalling’s score (from SNAFU shorts) as a soundtrack. Though Beck lists this piece as circa 1944, I think it slightly more likely to have been 1943: once the SNAFU cartoons started being screened (July 1943), they were very popular. By 1944, there would have been no need to create promotional footage. But either date is close enough.


To Tell the Truth (1958)

Up until 1957, Seuss was more famous for his advertising work than his children’s books. Then, he published The Cat in the Hat (spring, 1957) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (fall, 1957) — both of which were very popular and, to this day, remain two of his best-known works. Buoyed by this popularity, he appeared on the April 29, 1958 episode of the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth.


New Zealand TV (1964)

During a book tour in Australia and New Zealand, Seuss visited Auckland’s May Road School, where this film was made. This is my favorite footage of Dr. Seuss because he’s improvising with the children, playfully answering their questions with what he was by then calling “logical nonsense.” I also like it because it refutes the oft-repeated claim that Seuss did not like children. His response to children was similar to his response to adults: he liked some, and not others.


Notes:

  1. All information in this and preceding “Making SNAFU” paragraphs lifted from the opening of my article “Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46),” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (June 2007), pp. 468-69. <www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00404.x> (Full text available to subscribers.)

Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “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 design impedes 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.) 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’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

Credit: Photo of Dr. Seuss working from Marcus Ashley Fine Art Gallery.

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Meter Matters: Better No Seuss Than Faux Seuss

Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)The “new” Seuss book (due out tomorrow) is attracting a lot of notice — some of it, unfortunately, in verse.  It is possible to write great ersatz Seuss.  But it’s not easy. For faux Seuss, you must know Seuss.  It helps, too, if you’re a poet.

Michiko Kakutani’s metrical mess offers an excellent caution to aspiring Seussifiers. Though doubtless intended as a fond tribute, it betrays little awareness of Seussian poetics or, for that matter, of poetry in general.  Seuss typically wrote in anapestic tetrameter, sometimes introducing a pair of anapestic feet with an iamb.  For those unfamiliar with these terms, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable; tetrameter means that this pattern repeats four times in one line. If you need to hear an example in your head and cannot recall a Seuss lyric, then think of a limerick. Limericks typically use anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line) for the first, second, and fifth lines.  Edward Lear is the limerick’s most famous purveyor, but the form strongly influenced Seuss’s work, too. Those anapests give Seuss’s verse its particular swing.

Kakutani‘s verse, on the other hand, has no regular metrical pattern.  It seems to switch between iambs and anapests at random.  And yet, I keep seeing her poem (I use the term “poem” loosely) described as “Seussian.”  It isn’t.

Writing fake Seuss is a challenge, but not impossible. The late David Rakoff’s “Samsa and Seuss” does it brilliantly. It imagines an epistolary exchange between Gregor Samsa (of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) and Dr. Seuss.  It aired on This American Life exactly three years ago, read by Jonathan Goldstein (as Samsa) and Rakoff (as Seuss). It runs 13 minutes. I’ve embedded the audio below. Or click here for a link to the whole show.

Finally,…

As you enjoy the new Seuss (or do not),

Remember that rhythm that can’t be forgot.

Anapestic’s the metric. It swings! And it sings!

It dances and shimmies. It gives words their wings.

If in versification you are not a leader,

You’ll be better off if you don’t mess with meter.

Related reading:

Hat tip to Jonathan Gorbach for “Samsa and Seuss.”  An additional tip of the red-and-white-striped topper to Joseph Thomas for catching an error in the initial version of this post, and to Richard Flynn for correcting that correction.

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Six Spots of Seuss News

Today would be Dr. Seuss’s 111th birthday! Actually, it is his 111th birthday, but Theodor Seuss Geisel is not around to celebrate it — he died in 1991, at the age of 87. In his honor, here are Six Spots of Seuss News …for all of you who yearn for Seuss. (For those who don’t, I have no use: go sing the blues in sockless shoes.)


Wisconsin Public Radio1) I’ll be talking to Central Time‘s Rob Ferrett on Wisconsin Public Radio, today (March 2nd) somewhere in the 5 o’clock hour. I was told that it’d begin at 5:40 pm Central. According to WPR’s website, I will be giving “the story behind the new book,” and helping “look back at the life of the legendary author.”  Not in Wisconsin?  Not to worry: you can listen live.

UPDATE, 3 March 2015: Here’s a direct link to the audio. 9 mins.


2) From Dr. Seuss’s “The Advertising Business at a Glance” series (1936), here is “The Copy Writer” (click for a larger image).

Dr. Seuss, "The Copy Writer" (1936)

Thanks to Samantha Owen for giving this to me, as an end-of-term/successful-completion-of-her-Master’s gift, last year!  For two more examples from “The Advertising Business at a Glance,” see p. 175 of Charles Cohen’s The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss (2004).  You can find other examples of Seuss’s advertising work elsewhere on this blog, too — such as here (several examples) and here (Ford TV ad). Or, better, just go straight to UCSD’s Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss site.


Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)3) What Pet Should I Get? As you have no doubt heard, a new Dr. Seuss book will be published this July. People have been asking me about it.  Here are a few answers to your questions.

Q: Have you seen it?

A: No. The manuscript is among the materials donated by Audrey Geisel (Seuss’s widow) to UCSD’s special collections in 2013 & 2014. I haven’t done research there in about ten years; I was last there in 2007, to give a lecture.

Incidentally, in its story on the news of this donation, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a page from what appears to be What Pet Should I Get?  It seems that the book’s working title was Pet Store.

A story board complete with typewritten notes taped from the Dr. Seuss book, "The Pet Store" (UCSD)

Q: Is it legit?

A: I have no reason to doubt its legitimacy. In addition to the existence of the above page (evidently from the book in question), Seuss wrote far, far more than he published. As he once said, “To get a sixty-page book, I may easily write a thousand pages before I’m satisfied!”

During the period that he wrote it (1958-1962, according to the press release), Seuss was so prolific that he started to publish books under other pseudonyms — that way, “Dr. Seuss” wouldn’t have more than one book coming out each season. The first such book was Ten Apples Up on Top! (1961), illustrated by Roy McKie and credited to Theo. LeSieg (which is “Geisel” backwards). All the LeSieg books were not illustrated by Seuss. Most were done by McKie, but several featured the art of others, including New Yorker cartoonists B. Tobey, George Booth, and Charles E. Martin.

Since there were already two of his books coming out in 1961 (The Sneetches and Other Stories, and Ten Apples Up on Top), Seuss may have decided against publishing another that year — or in whatever year he wrote it. He published two books in 1958, one in 1959, and two in 1960, one of which was One fish red fish blue fish.

Q: The press release says the book features the two children from One fish two fish red fish blue fish. What do you make of that?

A: One fish two fish red fish blue fish is a non-narrative book — Seuss’s first children’s book to lack a story. It’s more of a concept book, a series of episodes in which various fantastical creatures appear. The boy and the girl recur in a dozen or so of these episodes, most of which are only a couple of pages long.

My guess is that, while writing One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Seuss found himself with a full-length story featuring the book’s unnamed brother and sister. Since there was no room for an entire, book-length narrative in this collection of small episodes, he cut it.  Or, he may have written the full story first — What Pet Should I Get? — and then, one section of it inspired him to create (instead) an entire non-narrative book featuring the two children and the curious animals of One fish two fish red fish blue fish.  A third possibility is that What Pet Should I Get? is an earlier version of what became One fish two fish red fish blue fish.

For more, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio during the 5 o’clock hour (Central Time) today — probably at 5:40 pm.


Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)4) The Fish in the Court.  Speaking of One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Justice Elena Kagan cited the book in a Supreme Court case last week.  The gist of the case (Yates v. United States) is that, when caught with undersized grouper, a Florida fisherman attempted to get rid of the evidence by throwing it (all of the fish) back into the sea. Officials charged the fisherman under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which prohibits destroying “any record, document, or tangible object” that might impede a federal investigation. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court actually sided with the fisherman, ruling that Sarbanes-Oxley only applied to documents and not to fish.  In her dissenting opinion, Kagan disputed the notion that a fish is not a “tangible object”:

As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” Ante, at 7 (punctuation and citation omitted). A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as no one here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

You can read the entire ruling on the Supreme Court’s website.  The above appears on page p. 29 of the pdf — p. 2 of Kagan’s dissent.

Thanks to Gary R. Dyer and Nathalie op de Beeck for the tip.


5) The Dr. Seuss Rap Quiz

Which of the following groups has no songs that reference Dr. Seuss? Also, if you try to Google this, you may get the occasional NSFW lyric. So,… don’t use Google. Use your brain.  Choose only the correct answer or answers.  First person to get the right answer will receive a Seuss-ish gift. Seriously.

A) A Tribe Called Quest

B) Beastie Boys

C) Blackalicious

D) Michael Franti & Spearhead

E) RUN-DMC

F) 3rd Bass

Tomorrow, I will post the answer at the very end of this post. I will also tell you which of these artists’ songs include references to Seuss or his works.


Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat6) Was the Cat in the Hat Black? LIVE! March 10th! That’s “LIVE!” as in “LIVE in concert” because, on March 10th, I’ll be giving a fully illustrated version of this talk plus (for the first time!) some of the introduction to the book of which it will be a part.  When? Where?

It’s at 4:15 pm, Watson Forum, at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana.  More details via DePauw’s Dept. of English “Events” page.  Another reason for you to come: Michelle Martin will be giving a talk at 7:30 pm, in the Prindle Auditorium: “From the Kitchen to the Edges: Hair Representations in African American Children’s Picture Books.”  These are free and open to the public.

If you’d like to read “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,” click on this sentence and/or email me for a copy.


Since it is Seuss’s birthday, 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

ANSWER TO QUIZ (added 3 March 2015)

Alas, Cat’s valiant guess proves incorrect.  Apart from her, no one else took a stab at the question. I put the quiz in at no. 5 to see if anyone would actually read that far down. Either only Cat did, or my quiz measured not readership but the difficulty of answering the question.

The correct answer is C) Blackalicious.  You’d think that the group behind “Alphabet Aerobics” would have a song that references Dr. Seuss.  But, as far as I know, they don’t.  A Tribe Called Quest has an R-rated Seuss reference in “Clap Your Hands” (1993).  Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham makes an appearance in Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man” (1989) and gets alluded to in 3rd Bass’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Green Eggs and Swine” (both 1991).  RUN-DMC name-checks Seuss in “Peter Piper” (1986), and Michael Franti & Spearhead’s “East to the West” (2006) mentions “the Lorax who speaks for the trees.”

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Children's Literature 42 (2014)Like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat owes a debt to blackface minstrelsy.

In my “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination” (in the new issue of Children’s Literature), I explore the implications of this fact.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the “mixed bloodlines” (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

If you want to read the full article, you can access it via ProjectMuse — unless, of course, you can’t.  So, if you work for (or have access to) a library or university that subscribes to ProjectMuse, then please do get the article that way.  Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association.  If you can’t get the article that way, then please contact me, and I’ll send you a pdf. (You can find my email address at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)

Thanks to generous individuals (such as Charles Cohen, who provided the photo of the Cat in the Hat toys that you see on the issue’s cover), the article also includes some illustrations. Here are two, both of which are racialized interpretations of the Cat in the Hat — one from 1996 (in which the Cat represents O.J. Simpson) and one from 2012 (in which the Cat represents President Obama).

Alan Katz & Chris Wrinn, The Cat NOT in the Hat! (1996) Loren Spivack, The Cat and the Mitt (2012)

The Cat NOT in the Hat! can be found only in the Library of Congress. Dr. Seuss Enterprises successfully sued its publisher and prevented its distribution on the grounds that it was not a parody: It merely mimicked Seuss’s style to comment on the O.J. Simpson case (Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, 1996). Distribution of the book was suppressed. To the best of my knowledge, all copies — save for the one in the Library of Congress — were destroyed.  The Cat and the Mitt is a special election-year version of Loren Spivack’s The New Democrat, which can be purchased from Mr. Spivack’s website.

There would be more than eight pictures in my article, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss) would not grant permission to reprint any images to which it controls the rights. As I’ve always had good relations with the Seuss people in the past, I asked why. I received no response, but my guess is that the “no” has something to do with the fact that the article addresses Seuss and race. When I wrote the Seuss bio. for the Seussville.com website, my original version included commentary on Seuss’s racist wartime cartoons — I framed the issue in what I thought was a sympathetic way, noting that his earlier stereotypes ultimately yielded to greater understanding (as in the anti-racist Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches). Such an approach offered a redemptive reading of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s work on race. But I was asked to cut that. Since I was writing for a corporate website, I did as I was asked to do.

Published in an academic journal (instead of on a corporate website), this new article has the freedom to offer a more complicated, more nuanced reading of Seuss and race. I realize that it still needs work, and I will rewrite and revise further for the book-chapter version. But it’s the best work I’ve done on Seuss and race so far. So, I thought I’d share a snippet here — with, as I say, more available for any who wish to pursue the topic further.

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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 more 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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