While you’re probably familiar with The Lorax, The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs & Ham, and the dozens of other world-famous Seuss books, there is one chapter of Geisel’s professional history that remains relatively unknown. Before he was world famous for his children’s books, Dr. Seuss employed his rich imagination and skillful illustrations for another purpose- convincing Americans to go to war.
According to Donald E. Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Professor of the Humanities at Dartmouth, and New Hampshire’s resident seussologist, Geisel was working on Horton Hatches the Egg in June of 1940 when something on the radio caught his attention.
"On the radio he heard news that Hitler’s tanks had moved into Paris, and shortly after that broadcast he heard Senator Nye from North Dakota urge the United States maintain a state of isolationism. "
Pease says that Suess was enraged by the paradox of the news accounts – and shortly thereafter, took a job as chief editorial cartoonist for the New York tabloid, PM. Over the next few years he drew more than four-hundred political cartoons.
“He created these caricatures rather quickly, because he worked by way of the impulse that news of the day had generated – he worked by way of the anger, the invective – he also needed to meet a deadline. So that work, although it bears some rudimentary relation to the later children’s books, it doesn’t have any of the finish, or the framing, or the wit, or the zaniness that’s evident in his children’s books.”
It’s a strange experience, looking over these cartoons – Seuss’s children’s books are often described as timeless, but these strips are anything but. In some cases, classic Seuss characters are presented completely outside their familiar context.
The GOP, for example, is represented in Seuss’s strips as an elephant – as is the case with most political cartoonists – only Seuss’s republican pachyderm looks just like the lovable Horton.
Early on, his strips frequently attacked Hitler overseas, and the American isolationist movement. After December of 1941, his strips took on a new target.
After Pearl Harbor [Seuss] turned to Japanese civilians as well as citizens as a target for his caricatures and some of them were quite stereotyped and vicious.
He nevertheless deeply regretted having constructed those caricatures… and as he would explain when he released Horton Hears a Who for publication, the refrain “a person is a person no matter how small” was one effort at apologizing to the Japanese people for the demonizing caricatures he constructed of them during the war.
So what led Theodor Geisel to turn his back on polemical subjects, in favor of Grinches, green eggs, and truffula trees? The answer, Donald Pease says, goes all the way back to Geisel’s childhood when, ironically, Seuss was bullied for his German ancestry.
He and his sister Marnie were walking back and forth from school, and would be accosted, by fellow students that would scream “let’s kill the Kaiser’s kid!” Let’s get the drunken Hun!”
After the war, he began to understand that the disposition that he had internalized to create those cartoons had actually turned him into a mirror image of those boys who had hit him with brick-bats when he was a little boy. He was now the bearer of the bricks, rather than target.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Suess got back to writing children’s books – but over the next twenty years he went on to produce The Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two-Fish Red-Fish Blue-Fish, and the recently published What Pet Should I Get. And while some of these stories fall into the category of pure whimsy, others clearly connect Geisel’s days as a political cartoonist, and his work as a children’s author. Again, Donald Pease:
It isn’t that he wanted to sacrifice the political import of his cartoons; he wanted instead to foster the love of equality, the desire for peace, a world in which human beings could be in relation to one another, a sense that they were celebrating jointly their freedom.
Sadly, Seuss’s hopes of ending partisanship and mutual antagonism hasn’t exactly panned out. After his book, The Lorax, was adapted into an animated feature in 2012, Lou Dobbs of Fox News lambasted the film as anti-business propaganda. That reaction led Comedy Central’s web-series “Funny or Die” to produce an animated short called “The Conservative Lorax”.
For now, Seuss’s newly discovered posthumously published work, What Pet Should I Get, doesn’t seem to be garnering that kind of controversy. But who knows… animal lovers can be a pretty passionate group.