Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904 -1991) was an author, political cartoonist, poet, animator, publisher, and artist, best known for writing more than 60 children’s books. His work includes several of the most popular children’s books of all time, selling over 700 million copies and being translated into more than 20 languages. His honors include two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a USPS stamp, and the Pulitzer Prize.
When I was a little gay 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. Even as recently as 1992, a California school district banned Green Eggs And Ham, claiming that it promoted “a seductive homosexual agenda” and because of Sam-I-Am’s apparent homosexual seduction of the protagonist. Also, because the ham is a phallic symbol, if you have a dirty mind.
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”, and 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 a bit, at least until we have President Pence.
During his senior year at Dartmouth College, Geisel and nine of his friends were caught drinking in his room. This was the spring of 1925, and the dean put them all on probation for violating the Prohibition laws. He also dropped Geisel as editor of The Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine, where Geisel published his cartoons. To evade his punishment, Geisel began publishing his cartoons under aliases: L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti, T. Seuss, and Seuss. This was the first time he signed his work “Seuss”.
After college, he got a job as a magazine cartoonist, and he began signing his work under the mock-scholarly title of Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. He shortened that to Dr. Seuss in 1928. In acquiring his professional pseudonym, he also gained a new pronunciation. Most people pronounced the name Soose, and not Zoice. And that is how Ted Geisel became Dr. Seuss.
Geisel was a political progressive and a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and The New Deal. His early political cartoons show his passionate opposition to Fascism. His cartoons portrayed the fear of Communism as overstated, finding greater threats in the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Geisel converted a copy of one of his famous children’s books into a political parody of the Watergate Scandal by replacing the name of the main character with the name of the president. Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now! was published in major newspapers.
Of the Publisher’s Weekly list of the Top 100 Hardcover Children’s Books of All Time, 16 were written by Geisel, including Green Eggs And Ham, at Number Four, The Cat In The Hat, at Number Nine, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, at Number 13.
The line “a person’s a person, no matter how small!!” from Horton Hears A Who! has been frequently as a slogan by the anti-abortion movement in the USA. Geisel and later his widow Audrey objected to this use. According to her lawyer:
“She doesn’t like people to hijack Dr. Seuss characters or material to front their own points of view.”
In the 1980s, Geisel threatened to sue an anti-abortion group for using this phrase on their stationery, causing them to remove it. Geisel never expressed a public opinion on the subject. After Seuss’ death, Audrey gave an endowment to Planned Parenthood.
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.“