One hundred and eight years ago today, Theodore Geisel was born—you may know him better by his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. He wrote the books that helped you (and countless others) learn to count, recognize letters, pronounce silly words and imagine a world where cats wear hats and Sam-I-Am relentlessly petitions for the deliciousness of green eggs and ham.
However, Dr. Seuss’ 60 books (which have sold more than 200 million copies) are more of a mental exercise in disguise. Seuss’ books not only made reading fun for kids, but also elevated the act of learning itself. Consider this line from I Can Read with My Eyes Shut (1978): “The more that you read, the more things you’ll know. The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.” Prescribing reading as a launching pad for a bright future is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social, political and moral messaging the good doctor expressed in his stories. Although he claimed to not begin books with a moral in mind, the creator of Thing 1 and Thing 2, with their hair colored blue, had more than just wacky words up his sleeve … he had an agenda, too.
With this weekend’s box office release of
The Lorax bound to stir up discussions about the movie’s environmentalist overtones, it’s time to look again at some Seuss classics with an eye for any other not-so-subtle subtexts that could be peeking back at us from behind the Truffula trees.
1. Horton Hears A Who! (1954)
Another Seuss classic that has recently been reimagined as a CGI feature film, Horton Hears A Who! is about an elephant proving the voices in his head (or on a speck) are real—and then some. Horton is written as a metaphor for a subject that was very dear to the author: the importance of big people (or powerful governments) looking after and listening to little ones. The story came to be after Dr. Seuss visited Japan in 1953, just one year after the end of U.S. occupation there and eight years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While there, Seuss was deeply impressed by the people and places he visited, even going so far as to dedicate Horton Hears a Who! to his, “Great friend, Mitsugi Nakamura, of Kyoto, Japan.” More than half a century removed from World War II, it might be hard for a reader in 2012 to fully appreciate the wartime annihilation/occupation/reconciliation context from which the metaphor of Horton and his speck were inspired. But it’s not hard for modern readers to appreciate the timeless profundity of the most famous line from Horton: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)
Because the animated version of The Grinch is re-introduced to the world every holiday season, it has become the most well-known of Dr. Seuss’ stories. As Dickens did with Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Seuss literally redefined the essence of what it means to be a heartless fun hater. Set in the cheery-cheeked hamlet of Whoville, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Seuss-ified critique of both the over-commercialization of Christmas (the Whos with all their presents) and its antithesis: holiday humbuggery (old Mr. Grinch). But, in the end, the Grinch realizes Christmas is not about material things that can be “stolen,” but instead about the intangible joys of the season. Taking another cue from Dickens, the Grinch is ultimately redeemed, which is not only fitting but required for any great story about Christmas—after all, it’s the beginning of the story of redemption itself.
3. Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss’ best-selling book, is about more than green eggs—but it is still, most certainly, about color. Although less elaborate than some of his other analogous stories, Green Eggs and Ham is, at least on the surface, about the power of perseverance in the face of stubborn resistance. (“You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may.”) But it is more than coincidence that his Green Eggs and Ham was published the same year President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act, which mandated federal oversight of elections in the South. It may be a stretch to imagine, but when Sam-I-Am is pressing his neighbor to try a strange gastronomic concoction, Seuss is pressing his readers to consider the goodness in things previously untried—like integrated schools systems and churches. At the very least, Green Eggs and Ham is about navigating life with an open mind and, at its best, it’s Seuss’ way of saying, “Don’t judge a book, or an egg—or a man—by its color.”
4. The Lorax (1971)
This “post enviro-pocalyptic” fable is clearly about the fragility of nature and the consequences of reckless human industry. Resources are pillaged, animal species banished and moderation is thrown to the wind by the greedy Once-Ler who disregards the grandfatherly Lorax’s warnings. The fact that readers never see the Once-Ler’s face (only his money-grubbing and cigar-wielding hands) reinforces the idea that business corporations are faceless and, in the case of the Once-Ler and his “Thneeds that everyone needs,” soulless and destructive—taking whatever they want no matter how it affects the planet. Critics have scolded Seuss’ fable as being too simplistic and negative. But seeing how this is a children’s book, and 20th-century manufacturing didn’t exactly get an A on its report card of environmental stewardship, Seuss can be forgiven his opaque symbolism. Seuss’ greater point: When you are entrusted with something, don’t squander it; take care of it, and speak up for what’s right even if you get shouted down.
5. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)
Arguably, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the most cliché graduation gift ever given by an out-of-touch relative. But this book, the last written by Dr. Seuss before he died in 1991, is unquestionably one of his most profound. Unlike in earlier works, the narrator is sage-like and directly encourages the reader to persevere through fear and loneliness, bang-ups and hang-ups. Despite what the title suggests, Places is not an allegory about destinations, but about the journey of life, shaded with hardship but ultimately hopeful. The central message is about moving forward, or as the doctor says: “Step with care and great tact, and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.” Knowing that his health was failing (he was 86 years old at the time), Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the proverbial exclamation point that Dr. Seuss stamped on his canon of work.
Whether or not you see layered meaning in the fanciful work of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, his singular style of rhyme-centric storytelling and fantastical drawing has stood the test of over a half century. And while his readers might grow up, few can forget the first books that helped them fall in love with books.