March 2, 1904 – Theodor Seuss Geisel
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than You.”
Geisel, is better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss. When I was a kid in the 1960s, I had little interest in children’s books, but I was all in favor of Dr. Seuss. His illustrated books eliminated boy-girl romances of any sort, and to me, they had pleas for tolerance, diversity, ambiguity and nonconformity, plus plenty of gay subtext:
Horton Hatches The Egg (1940): Gay guy takes over for a neglectful mom, and proves to be a wonderful father.
Horton Hears A Who (1954): A community does not exist until everyone shouts “We are here!”.
The Cat In The Hat (1957): An emissary of chaos is accompanied by a gay couple, Thing 1 and Thing 2.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1957): a queer outsider is accepted by the community.
The Sneetches (1961): Insignificant personal characteristics, dumb stuff such as are you are attracted to men, women, or both, can create crazy prejudices.
Green Eggs And Ham (1960): We are each into all sorts of different things. Get over it. ‘
The 1960s Maoist Chinese government would not have been happy with my childhood conclusions about Dr. Seuss; China banned his books in 1965, a ban that wasn’t lifted until 1991. Even as recently as 1992, a California school district banned Green Eggs And Ham, claiming that it promoted a seductive homosexual agenda. Not all of Dr. Seuss books have LGBTQ subtext, he expressed his views on a remarkable variety of social and political issues: The Lorax (1971) is about environmentalism and anti-consumerism; it was also banned in California in 1989 because it portrayed loggers as environmentally unfriendly… which is kind of the point of the book. The Butter Battle Book (1984), was considered a pacifist manifesto by a Texas school library, and another school district removed Yertle The Turtle from libraries in 2012 because the line: “I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom, we too should have rights” was seen as a political message, while I thought it meant something else entirely.
Dr. Seuss called himself “subversive as hell”, but when interviewed, he was upfront about the political content of his books.
For books that encourage readers to try new things, even if “new” includes Marxism and homosexuality, it seems that censorship advocates have given Dr. Seuss a break, at least until President Pence.
Dr. Seuss was a lifelong Progressive and a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. His early political cartoons show a passionate opposition to Fascism, and he urged action against it both before and after the USA entered WW II. His cartoons portrayed the fear of communism as overstated, finding greater threats from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
In 1942, he worked drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and was made commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, where he wrote films such as Your Job In Germany (1945), a propaganda film about peace in Europe after the war; Our Job In Japan; and the Private Snafu series of U.S. Army training films.
As Theodor Geisel, he turned out political cartoons, drawing over 400 in two years as editorial cartoonist for the left-leaning NYC daily newspaper, PM. He denounced Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and was highly critical of isolationists, most notably Charles Lindbergh, who opposed the USA entry into the war. His cartoons were strongly supportive of Roosevelt’s handling of the war and urged citizens to ration and contribute to the war effort with frequent attacks on the Republican Party and the conservative press.
Dr. Seuss isn’t without his own bigotry and flaws. He produced some incredibly racist (by today’s standards) anti-Japanese cartoons. Although these sentiments were normal in America at the time, fueled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, it still was not right. He supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW II, and his statements and drawings about the Japanese and of Japanese-Americans struck many as a moral blind spot.
When Seuss visited Japan in 1953 and witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombings, he reconsidered his anti-Japanese stance and wrote Horton Hears A Who as an apology. The book’s theme of ”A Person is a Person, No Matter How Small” was an allegory for the American post-war occupation of Japan, and it is dedicated to his Japanese friend Mitsugi Nakamura.
Dr. Seuss’s widow Audrey Stone Dimond, was a big supporter of Planned Parenthood. When ”A person is a person, no matter how small” was first used in the pro-life movement, Seuss demanded a retraction and got one. Anti-choice activists continue to use this quote to support their cause against Dr. Seuss’s wishes. Among the many things it does, Planned Parenthood provides care specifically to LGBTQ teens and adults.
Dr. Seuss took on the subject of bullying many times in both his early political cartoonist career and in his books, but The Sneetches really stands out. In it, there are yellow bird-like creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a star on their bellies, and some who don’t:
‘‘Now, the Star-Bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”
Yet, the stars mattered quite a bit to Sneetches, and when a fast-talking salesman with a star-making machine shows up, stars on bellies become déclassé with the help of the salesman’s star-removal machine; then, as the nouveau-starred Sneetches go through the removal machine, stars become chic again, and over and over, chaos ensues as the symbol of privilege changes, culminating in a frantic assembly line of Sneetches running from one machine to the other. They end up losing track completely of who had stars on their bellies in the first place:
‘‘The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether
They had one, or not, upon thars.”
I don’t know if Dr. Seuss had LGBTQ rights in mind, but for me, it nicely captures the essence of the movement.
After WW II, he and his wife moved to La Jolla, California where he wrote 60 more children’s books. Dr. Seuss also wrote the musical fantasy film The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. (1953), a critical and financial failure, and he never attempted another feature film.
In May 1954, LIFE Magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. William Ellsworth Spaulding, Chairman at Houghton Mifflin Publishers, compiled a list of 348 words that he felt were important for first-graders to recognize. He asked Dr. Seuss to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words, challenging him to “bring back a book children can’t put down”. Nine months later, Dr. Seuss completed The Cat In The Hat, using 236 of the words given to him. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of his earlier books but, because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.
One of my favorites is one of his earliest. In 1931, The Viking Press published a small book titled Boners, By Those Who Pulled Them, a compilation of humorous gaffs made by kids while writing school papers and taking tests. It was the fourth most popular non-fiction book of 1931. Now, our sense of naughtiness is on a much different level, yet Dr. Seuss’s cartoons give it whimsy and make it still enjoyable.
His first real book was And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street in 1937 and his last is Oh, The Places You’ll Go! in 1990. Dr. Seuss was also known in the 1930s and 1940s for illustrating advertising campaigns for companies like Flit (an insecticide) and Standard Oil. I am particularly drawn to these.
Green Eggs And Ham has sold more than a million copies. Along with The Cat In The Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960), his books continue to outsell newly published children’s books. He has sold over 700 million books, won two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the Pulitzer Prize. His work has been adapted to Broadway musicals and to film starting with Horton Hatches The Egg from Warner Bros. in 1942. Warner Animation recently announced a batch of new animated movies based on the stories of Dr. Seuss. Their first project is in production now, a fully animated version of The Cat In The Hat.