Not only do Dr. Seuss’ more than 40 books have crazy rhyme structures and illustrations that are uniquely Seussian (many of the plants apparently were inspired by succulents at the San Diego Zoo), but Theodor Seuss Geisel also had a political agenda that he worked into some of his silliest-sounding books. And so, despite writing for kids, he voiced his opinion on dictatorships, nuclear proliferation and participatory democracy.
Friday marks the opening of the latest Dr. Seuss adaptation, “The Lorax,” and it’s a great opportunity to revisit our chat with Kansas State University’s Philip Nel, an English professor and children’s literature expert. He’s the author of “Dr. Seuss: American Icon” and is a fabulous source of of Seuss knowledge.
Photo: The 1954 Dr. Seuss book “Horton Hears a Who!” became a film of the same name in 2008.(20th Century Fox / Associated Press)
1. “Horton Hears a Who!"can be read as an allegory about equal rights for minorities.
“When it was reviewed, people said it was a rhymed lesson in the protection of minorities and their rights. Like the Whos, Seuss argues minorities deserve rights even as they have less power. This was significant if you consider that that Brown vs. the Board of Education was taking place at the same time he was writing the book. It was implicitly and explicitly an anti-discrimination book.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)
2."Horton Hears a Who!” was probably inspired by the rise of democracy in Japan.
“During a trip to Japan [in the early 1950s] Seuss saw how democracy and participatory democracy was taking hold there and how allied occupation had changed things. He visited Japanese schools and saw the importance the individual was taking on in Japanese society. The importance the individual has in making a democracy work is key to ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ It is important that everyone makes his voices heard.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp)
3. There’s no question where the author’s political loyalties lay.
“He was a liberal democrat, a New Deal democrat. He supported Roosevelt and the Democratic Party throughout his life. ‘The Butter Battle Book,’ which came out in 1984, was a critique of the arms race Reagan had started and nuclear proliferation.” (Mandeville Special Collections)
4. Many of Seuss’ “bigger books” were political allegories.
“The most political ones were written after the war: ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ was anti-discrimination; ‘The Sneetches’ was an opposition to anti-Semitism; ‘Yertle the Turtle’ was about the rise of Hitler, an anti-fascist children’s book; ‘The Lorax,’ about taking care of the environment; and ‘The Butter Battle Book.’ There are other ones with political messages, but those are the most obviously engaged.” (Amazon.com)
5. How he said he got the name Dr. Seuss.
“It is important to remember that Seuss told a lot of stories about himself and the press would write them. That’s fine, he was a creative person, and he’s a storyteller. The story he told about his name was that he was saving his real name for the great American novel. That’s not true.” (Masterson Productions)
6. How he actually got the name Dr. Seuss.
“In his senior year at Dartmouth, in the spring of 1925, he was editor of and contributor to the Jacklelantern, a humor magazine, and he and his friends were caught drinking gin in his room. He was suspended from working on the magazine, so he started using different names so he could still contribute. One was Seuss. Then as a magazine cartoonist he calls himself C. Theophrastus Seuss. (Theophrastus was the name of a stuffed toy dog he had as a child. He used that in 27 of his cartoons and then shortened it to Dr. Seuss. Seuss is his mother’s maiden name and should probably be pronounced ‘Soice’ [rhymes with voice].” (Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.)
7. He never had kids of his own.
“Helen, his first wife, could not have kids, and when he married his second wife, he inherited two teenage daughters. So he didn’t have kids [of his own] but not by his choice. His response to kids is essentially that kids are like adults. Some you enjoy the company of and some you don’t. People would ask him, why he didn’t have children but wrote for them. He said, ‘You make ‘em. I’ll amuse ‘em.’ ”
Photo: “The Cat in the Hat” became a 2003 movie, with, from left, Spencer Breslin, Mike Myers and Dakota Fanning.(Universal Studios)