In what may have been his last interview before his death in 1991, Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, delivered one last message, as short as most of his readers: “We can and we’ve got to do better than this.” He was 87 years old and still talking like the Enlightenment. Why it should surprise anyone that a writer of books for children had something to say in those books about social issues is a mystery to me. But throughout his long life, as Ron Lamothe rehearses it in an absorbing and affectionate installment of the Independent Lens series, The Political Dr. Seuss, Geisel managed to make waves and trouble for himself by allegorizing his strong opinions on prejudice, conformity, authoritarianism, corporate greed, environmental degradation, and the arms race—quite as if he were as much entitled to such opinions as any old Mother Goose or Brother Grimm.
We follow the boy on a long trail of old photographs, home movies, comic strips, book illustrations, and film adaptations, from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1904 into a German-American family with brewers on one side and bakers on the other; through Boy Scout school days in World War I, during which he was bullied as a “Hun”; to the Dartmouth College humor magazine, where he discovered words and pictures as his “yin and yang”; to Oxford, where he failed to write a novel, decided not to become a professor, but fell in love with the Helen who managed his career for the next 40 years; to New York City, the Jazz Age insouciance of magazines like Judge, and seventeen years in advertising, with a Standard Oil contract that bound the artist to a Flit bug-spray account with just enough wiggle room for children’s books; after which, time-out during the war as an editorial cartoonist for the left-wing tabloid PM and as a propaganda filmmaker with Frank Capra and Chuck Jones; before he finally settled down in a water tower in La Jolla, California, to eat green eggs and ham.
That not all of his creative endeavors were something to be proud of is remarked upon by such talking heads as his biographers, Richard H. Minear and Neil and Judith Morgan, his Random House publishers, Robert Bernstein and Michael Firth, and the historians Michael Kazin and Elaine Tyler May, who are also fond of quoting from the sacred texts at the drop of a hat or a cat. His tabloid cartoons stereotyped Japanese-Americans as fifth columnists, and his Private Snafu training films insinuated that all Germans were born with a Fascist gene. But Yertle the Turtle and Horton Hears a Who! in the postwar period had broader liberal sympathies. The Sneetches helped children to develop the moral imagination to reject racism. The Lorax criticized not only industrial pollution but also consumer culture. The Butter Battle Book, my grandson’s favorite, was an all-out attack on Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars. And then there are the uses to which Art Buchwald, with Seuss’s approval, put Marvin K. Mooney during the last Watergate days of Richard M. Nixon, and what The Cat in the Hat and other beginner books did for children’s literacy in this country.
The Political Dr. Seuss raises questions that it doesn’t answer about a childless, curmudgeonly, publicity-shy Seuss. (If Helen’s poor health hindered conception of a child, her 1967 suicide still comes as a shock.) But it’s smart enough about everything else to complicate our understanding of a man who was equally in favor of being different, making mischief, and doing good. We come to appreciate how hard he worked, in his tower, throwing out 90 percent of his drawings, as if our children actually deserved our full attention and maximum power instead of automatic pilot and a snooze alarm—not exactly a model for the John Gottis Jr. and Madonnas who manufacture kids’ books these days in prison or on tour. And best of all, we are reminded that the stories we read to our children, or that they read to themselves, have always had agendas—from the cannibalistic fairy tales that scared us straight in our fearful nurseries to the weekly meltdown of the nuclear family reactor on The Simpsons; from jungle boys, Batgirls, and Lone Rangers to those Marvel Comics superheroes who embodied, in their underwear or drag, the plight of the poor, the anguish of the artist, religious bigotry, or closet sexuality—not to mention the Boy Scout quest fantasies of the monarchist and Luddite J.R.R. Tolkien, who so loved Franco and trees and so hated Mongols and machines that he sent Beowulf off to war against the Industrial Revolution. Even J. K. Rowling’s creations dramatize racist ideology (mudbloods), hysterical politics (witch hunting), and disgraceful behavior (elf serfdom). And so it has been from Aesop to Voltaire to the punitive Grimms; from Ugly Ducklings to Mad Hatters—webbed feet and wicked stepmothers as small craft warnings, subliminal signals of seduction and betrayal.
Today, of course, no fable arrives unaccompanied by the siren song of advertising, that theme-parked Big Sell of the sort that Dr. Seuss despised and that Mike Myers obeyed with his recent big-screen travesty. When the release of Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones is brought to us by Doritos and the associated sale of Yodas, when Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools . . . well, as someone once put it: We can and we’ve got to do better than this.