EDITOR’S NOTE: March 2, 2004, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who would become known as “Dr. Seuss.” John J. Miller originally wrote about The Cat in the Hat for NRO on November 21, 2003.
Hey moms and dads: Bet you don’t know what Dr. Seuss really thought about his most famous book, The Cat in the Hat–the basis for this weekend’s big movie opening. “I’m subversive as hell,” Seuss once said. “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority. … It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky, and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.”
Russian-history refresher: Alexander Kerensky was an ineffective revolutionary dictator who preceded Lenin. He wasn’t a Commie, but he was a man of the far Left–and not exactly a champion of freedom.
Happily, America’s most celebrated children’s author was exaggerating. The only thing that’s even arguably “subversive” about The Cat in the Hat appears on its final two pages, following the raucous performance of the book’s title character, who has just cleaned up an extravagant mess and taken his leave.
Then our mother came in
And she said to us two,
“Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?”
And Sally and I did not know
What to say.
Should we tell her
The things that went on there that day?
Perhaps keeping parents in the dark really is “a revolt against authority,” as Seuss claims. It probably depends on what children are hiding. I’ve always chosen to read those lines–dozens of times to my own kids, by the way–as suggesting a child doesn’t need to share every detail of his imagination with grown-ups. I’m perfectly comfortable with that, and any reasonable parent would be.
Yet Dr. Seuss–the pen name of Theodore Seuss Geisel, a non-doctor who died in 1991–had politics in his bones. He came from a family of Republicans, but turned into an FDR Democrat in the 1930s and never looked back. He infused his books with liberal messages on everything from environmentalism to arms control, especially during the last quarter century of his life–though one of his lesser-known books is also deeply conservative and deserving of a revival.
Seuss’s first public foray into politics came as a cartoonist for PM, a left-wing daily newspaper in New York, during the Second World War. He savaged all the right people: Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. His caricatures of Hirohito–slit-eyed and buck-toothed–probably would be called racist today by the grievance industry; they are certainly forceful. More than 200 of his cartoons from this era were published several years ago in a collection called Dr. Seuss Goes to War. All of them are recognizably Seussian–the “art” in his children’s books are really just zany cartoons–and many of them have a kind of relevance today. My favorite ran a few months before Pearl Harbor. A bright-eyed nincompoop labeled “The Appeaser” stands on a rock holding four lollypops. Sea monsters wearing swastika tattoos surround him. “Remember,” says the man with a dumb smile, “One More Lollypop, and Then You All Go Home!” The picture is rooted in its time, but remains pertinent today because the problem of appeasement is ever with us.
Seuss held a special animus for the America First crowd of antiwar isolationists, and especially for Charles Lindbergh. He once drew a “Lindbergh Quarter”–it’s an ostrich jabbing its head in the sand. He also wrote a bit of verse, which was not published but appears in a 1995 biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, by Judith and Neil Morgan:
The Lone Eagle had flown
The Atlantic alone
With fortitude and a ham sandwich.
Great courage that took.
But he shivered and shook
At the sound of the gruff German landgwich.
If this is liberalism, it’s a liberalism many of us modern-day conservatives can embrace. The same goes for a few of Seuss’s better-known children’s books. Yertle the Turtle (1958) is an anti-authoritarian parable. Its final lines apply as much to Saddam Hussein as they once did to the European fascists:
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course … all turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
Another book, The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961), contains four tales. Each one is a plea for racial tolerance, continuing a theme Seuss explored during the war with cartoons urging full use of “colored labor” and railing against anti-Semitism. The stories are also amusing, with their meaning embedded inside a delightfully breezy anapestic tetrameter verse (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, with four beats to the line) that Seuss employed to such wonderful effect throughout his career.
But that is not all. Oh no, that is not all (as the Cat in the Hat might say).
Over time, Seuss’s stories became more strident. One of his most famous books, The Lorax (1971), remains a favorite of liberal environmentalists. In the tale, the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” delivers a stern lecture to the Once-ler, a greedy industrialist:
Your machinery chugs on, day and night without stop
making Gluppity-Glupp. Also Schloppity-Schlopp.
And what do you do with this leftover goo?
I’ll show you. You dirty old Once-ler man you!
You’re glumping the pond where the Humming-fish hummed!
No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.
And so on. Now, I happen to love these lines–”Schloppity-Schlopp” is a bit of doggerel genius. At bottom, however, the book is a not-so-subtle attack on capitalism. (Go here to learn from Seuss’s publisher how you can “Celebrate Earth Day with the Lorax.”)
The next year, Seuss published Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! Like The Cat in the Hat, it’s an early-reader book meant for kids who are just getting started:
The time has come.
The time is now.
I don’t care how. …
Marvin K. Mooney,
I don’t care how.
Marvin K. Mooney,
will you please
Here’s how the Morgans describe the book’s political legacy in their biography: “In the spring of 1974, as the Watergate scandal neared its climax, Ted met the satirist Art Buchwald at the San Diego Zoo, and they became mutually admiring friends.” Soon after, Buchwald dared Seuss to write a political book. Eager to comply, Seuss “grabbed a copy of Marvin K. Mooney and, with a few strokes of a pen, deleted each mention of that name and substituted the name of the president.” On July 30, Buchwald’s syndicated column was based on Seuss’s revisions: “Richard M. Nixon, will you please go now!” Nine days later, Nixon really did go–he resigned–and Seuss was delighted. “We should have collaborated sooner,” he wrote to Buchwald.
His most political book of all, however, was yet to come. Again, let’s let the Morgans set the scene: “[Seuss] was brooding over the mounting cold war with the Soviet Union and believed that under Ronald Reagan the nuclear arms race was beyond control. Over dinner at La Valencia, he wondered out loud how a democratic government could impose ’such deadly stupidity’ on people like him who were so opposed to nuclear proliferation.” Then he wrote The Butter Battle Book (1984), which his publicists earnestly declared to be “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.” Seuss himself called it “the best book I’ve ever written.”
The story describes a conflict between the blue-suited Yooks, who prefer to eat their bread with the “butter side up,” and orange-suited Zooks, who eat their bread with the “butter side down.” The Yooks and Zooks then embark on a perilous arms race. They build ever more menacing weapons, from the Triple-Sling Jigger to the Eight-Nozzled, Elephant-Toted Boom-Blitz, and finally the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, which is basically a pea-sized weapon of mass destruction. At the ambiguous conclusion, which recalls “The Lady or the Tiger,” both the Yooks and Zooks have the boomeroo and look ready to use it.
All of Seuss’s other books, including The Lorax, end on a hopeful note. The Butter Battle Book, alone, does not. It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War: It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread–as if Communism weren’t a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.
(Seuss did meet Reagan once, when he and his wife were guests at a state dinner. The story, as related by the Morgans, is wonderful because it is vintage Reagan: “[Seuss] was recalling with the president and television anchorman Tom Brokaw how he had rejected Lieutenant Ronald Reagan forty years earlier as narrator for the wartime film Your Job in Germany. Reagan had not forgotten. ‘But you were right,’ the president said with an engaging smile. ‘John Beal did have a better voice.’”)
So what are conservatives to do with Seuss? I say read him, because most of his books are incredible fun–but also choose wisely. My favorite Seuss book is one that many people don’t know about: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (1965). Seuss may not have realized it, but the theme of Solla Sollew is powerfully conservative.
Unfortunately, it was not Seuss’s most commercially successful book–sales were disappointing, even though it was written and issued during his heyday. The Morgan’s describe the book this way: “a somber morality tale, a Seussian Pilgrim’s Progress with the message that one can’t run away from trouble.” Yet it’s far deeper than that. In truth, Solla Sollew is a warning against what Eric Voegelin called immanentizing the eschaton. Put in plain English: Don’t seek heaven on earth.
The unnamed narrator–one of Seuss’s typical cat-like creatures–joins an odd fellow on his way to the City of Solla Sollew, which is
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo,
Where they never have troubles! At least, very few.
It is, in short, Utopia. Trying to reach this impossible place, the narrator embarks on a series of misadventures, including an encounter with a loony knight who bellows, “I’m General Genghis Kahn Schmitz.” (“The finest line I have ever written,” Seuss once said.) Ultimately, he arrives at the outskirts of Solla Sollew–but he can’t get inside. It seems that a key has been lost. Everybody’s locked out. Frustrated, the city’s gatekeeper declares that he’s had enough:
And I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
On the banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!
Ah, yes: a place that’s even better than Utopia. By this time, of course, the narrator has caught on. He goes back home to confront his troubles rather than avoid them.
It’s a wonderful book with a beautiful message–and in Seuss’s liberal universe, perhaps even a subversive one.