Dr.Seus Critical Essays

Review of Theodor SEUSS Geisel by Donald E. Pease

Pease, Donald E. Theodor SEUSS Geisel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

"Oh the Places He Went!" announces a feature article in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine about alumnus "Dr. Seuss," otherwise known as Theodor Geisel: unexpected places, considering he was once voted "least likely to succeed" by his fellow staff members of the Dartmouth joke newspaper the Jack–O–Lantern. In Theodor SEUSS Geisel, Donald E. Pease chronicles some of the places that Theodor Geisel frequented before he became Dr. Seuss. Pease ties all of those places to the books that continue to take millions of children to brand new places every day. Pease's book is one of the volumes in the Oxford Lives and Legacies series, which includes biographies on Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Benjamin Franklin, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. Pease clearly demonstrates through his research and artfully wrought narrative that Dr. Seuss is at home with these other great artists. Pease helps the reader to understand the deeper meaning behind his picture books and Geisel's own personal struggle with history. While Pease argues for the indelible mark made by Dr. Seuss on American children's literature, he engages little with the field of children's literature criticism in order to support that claim. In addition, organizational choices, tone, and stylistic effects skew Pease's largely celebratory depiction of Dr. Seuss, undermining the stated goals of this volume.

For the reader fond of Dr. Seuss's books but not familiar with Geisel's personal history, Pease's book will yield many surprises. Before becoming a children's book author, Geisel was the son of a wealthy German immigrant family. However, his well–respected family lost everything in the 1920s while he was still in grade school. Pease describes how World War I caused the German family to fall out of favor with their Massachusetts community and how Prohibition caused the ruin of the Geisel brewery. With precise details and colorful language, Pease describes how young Geisel's life was made very difficult: he was harassed by other boys, humiliated by his family's losses and even made the butt of a joke by former President Teddy Roosevelt. In his youth, Geisel turned to storytelling, artwork and humor, and Pease sketches a slightly Freudian tale about how his father never understood the boy's stories, but his mother nurtured his creative talents. He later assures the reader that Geisel's first wife Helen "played the role in his adult life that his mother had played during his childhood: an attendant spirit who enabled him to trust in his gifts" (41).

Even more fascinating to those casual Dr. Seuss fans is the chapter devoted to Geisel's career as a political cartoonist and propaganda writer in World War II. The book includes many reprints of these early works, including some from Geisel's advertising career. Pease chooses to comment more on the political messages and personal meaning in these cartoons, rather than commenting on their visual aspects: he does little to analyze the changes in Dr. Seuss's style or techniques as he matured as an artist. However, Pease does carefully and tactfully document how the results of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust caused Geisel to deeply regret the racist and anti–Semitic cartoons he drew and published as a younger man. Some of these images are also reprinted in the book and the negative depictions of Jews, Asians, women and African–Americans may shock those readers who have only encountered Geisel's children's books.

Pease lays out the book's chapters based around what he describes as "turning points" in Geisel's life, using each chapter to focus in on a specific episode, both before and after he donned the pseudonym of Dr. Seuss. While this is a clear and easy to follow organizational structure, following a mostly chronological pattern, there are parts of Geisel's life that feel glossed over or unexamined as a result. Pease includes actual cartoons that appeared in the Dartmouth college newspaper including those that appeared after Geisel had been banned for drinking: it is important to note that these are the first works to be signed with the famous pen name of "Seuss." Seuss was Geisel's mother's maiden name: he added the "Dr." much later. Pease presents Geisel's time at Dartmouth with colorful anecdotes and bright language, allowing the reader to feel like he or she is a member of the Jack–O–Lantern staff along with Seuss.

However, the death of his sister Marnie interrupts Chapter 3, and its narrative on Geisel's political cartooning career, rather suddenly. While one could argue this is the same effect that death has in real life, causing the narrative flow of daily life to be interrupted without warning, Pease's dismissive tone while writing about these tragic episodes causes the reader to feel that the author perhaps does not care about any of these people other than Geisel. At the end of Chapter 4, when Geisel's wife Helen commits suicide, Pease almost seems to applaud her decision: he defends Geisel's decision to "pull away" from his ailing wife, even as he sought comfort in another, younger woman. The language with which he describes Geisel's need to find "a substitute family" in order to escape from Helen's illness makes it seem as if Pease holds Helen accountable for her illness, suicide and the subsequent hardship it caused her husband. Pease summarizes Geisel's actions after her death as follows: "having talked over Helen's suicide with [his sister], he was next confronted with the task of explaining his decision to marry Audrey" (133). This language and summary treatment of such difficult events leads the reader to believe that Pease, Geisel, or both men viewed his wives as interchangeable objects to be swapped out when one interrupted the work of Dr. Seuss.

Pease claims his goal is to discuss the "relationship between Dr. Seuss's art and Geisel's life" which other scholars have failed to address. In an attempt to better address the divisions in Geisel's life, Pease uses three forms of address for Geisel throughout his book: "Ted" when speaking of his most intimate and personal stories, "Geisel" when dealing with the professional man with career aspirations and "Dr. Seuss" when talking about the creative personality responsible for the best known children's books in America (xi). In theory, these designations are useful, but in practice, they can be confusing at worst and immaterial at best. By creating these various forms of address for his subject, Pease places greater distance between the reader and Geisel, making it difficult to break through the layers of "Dr. Seuss" and "Geisel" to get to "Ted," the real, intimate person behind the artist and business man. The reader's estrangement from "Ted" leads to a sense of Geisel as an uncaring and crass individual who is unconcerned with those people who surround him. This result seems contrary to Pease's stated goals and disconcerting to the reader who tries to connect with Geisel (as the protagonist of the biography) or Dr. Seuss (his artist/alter–ego).

Pease also includes a number of close readings of Dr. Seuss's most famous or pivotal works, including And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton Hatches the Egg, and The Butter Battle Book. Pease describes the images with great detail and connects them to Geisel's childhood home in Springfield, Massachusetts while making an argument that these texts have more to offer than simple children's books might first present. Pease consistently refers back to the Freudian tale he has constructed, claiming that Mulberry Street is Dr. Seuss's attempt to communicate stories with his father that his mother has already absorbed. While Pease's readings might be useful for readers who have not encountered Dr. Seuss's works since their own childhood, Pease engages very little with current children's literature scholarship in the area of picture book studies. He references the works of theorists like Bruno Bettelheim and Susan Stewart in his footnotes rather than fully engaging these and other valuable texts in his central narrative. While his references to Dr. Seuss's biographies are extensive, Pease fails to acknowledge the extensive research in the fields of children's literature scholarship or comic studies that directly address Dr. Seuss's work, or those works that could provide a solid theoretical framework on which to expand Pease's own readings.

Overall, the book is enjoyable and enlightening and would be an excellent introductory text for scholars and students interested in Dr. Seuss. However, the text will not open many doors into theoretical readings of Dr. Seuss's work, either within the text or through its bibliography. However, as a biography, it is a delightful and relatively easy read. It is clear from Pease's book that Ted/Geisel/Dr. Seuss led a colorful, interesting and comic life, both in and out of the public eye. In a compact text, Pease brings together the work of multiple biographers to provide a new and fascinating look at one of America's most beloved children's book authors and illustrators.

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But scholars and those who were close to Mr. Geisel note that this work was essential to understanding Dr. Seuss, and the museum is now grappling with criticism that it doesn’t paint a full picture of an author whose work permeates American culture, from the ubiquitous holiday Grinch to Supreme Court opinions (Justice Elena Kagan once cited “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish”).

“I think it’s irresponsible,” said Philip Nel, a children’s literature scholar at Kansas State University and the author of “Dr. Seuss: American Icon.” “I think to understand Seuss fully, you need to understand the complexity of his career. You need to understand that he’s involved in both anti-racism and racism, and I don’t think you get that if you omit the political work.”

One cartoon from October 1941, which resurfaced during the most recent presidential campaign, depicts a woman wearing an “America First” shirt reading “Adolf the Wolf” to horrified children with the caption, “… and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones … but those were Foreign Children and it didn’t really matter.” The cartoon was a warning against isolationism, which was juxtaposed with Donald J. Trump, a candidate at the time, using the phrase as a rallying cry.

In another cartoon, from October 1942, Emperor Hirohito, the leader of Japan during World War II, is depicted as having squinted eyes and a goofy smile. Mr. Geisel’s caption reads, “Wipe That Sneer Off His Face!”

Perhaps the most controversial is from February 1942, when he drew a crowd of Japanese-Americans waiting in line to buy explosives with the caption, “Waiting for the Signal From Home …” Six days later, Mr. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the roundup of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans.

Mia Wenjen, a third-generation Japanese-American who runs a children’s literary blog called PragmaticMom, has written critically of Mr. Geisel’s cartoons and blasted the museum for leaving them out.

“Dr. Seuss owes it to Japanese-Americans and to the American people to acknowledge the role that his racist political cartoons played, so that this atrocity doesn’t happen to minority groups again,” Ms. Wenjen wrote in an email.

One of Mr. Geisel’s own family members, who helped curate an exhibit for the museum, said that Mr. Geisel would agree.

“I think he would find it a legitimate criticism, because I remember talking to him about it at least once and him saying that things were done a certain way back then,” said Ted Owens, a great-nephew of Mr. Geisel. “Characterizations were done, and he was a cartoonist and he tended to adopt those. And I know later in his life he was not proud of those at all.”

Mr. Geisel suggested this himself decades after the war. In a 1976 interview, he said of his “PM” cartoons: “When I look at them now, they’re hurriedly and embarrassingly badly drawn. And they’re full of snap judgments that every political cartoonist has to make.”

He also tried to make amends — in his own way.

“Horton Hears a Who!,” from 1954, is widely seen as an apology of sorts from Mr. Geisel, attempting to promote equal treatment with the famous line “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

At the museum, located amid a complex of other museums in Springfield, where Mr. Geisel grew up, the first floor is geared toward young children. Aside from the murals, there are mock-ups of Springfield landmarks that inspired Mr. Geisel’s illustrations, such as the castle-like Howard Street Armory. The top floor features artifacts like letters, sketches, the desk at which Mr. Geisel drew and the bifocals he wore.

Kay Simpson, president of Springfield Museums, who runs the complex, and her husband, John, the museum’s project director of exhibitions, defended the decision to leave out the cartoons, saying that the museum was primarily designed for children.

“We really wanted to make it a children’s experience on the first floor, and we’re showcasing the family collections on the second floor,” Ms. Simpson said. She said Mr. Geisel’s questionable work would fit better in one of the adjacent history museums, where it has been displayed before.

Susan Brandt, the president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees Mr. Geisel’s brand (a brand he resisted commercializing), argued that the museum’s critical distinction is between Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel.

Asked why the cartoons aren’t included, Ms. Brandt, who consulted with Ms. Simpson on the museum, replied: “Those cartoons are a product of their time. They reflect a way of thinking during that time period. And that’s history. We would never edit history. But the reason why is that this is a Dr. Seuss museum.” She added, “Those are Ted Geisel, the man, which we are separating for this museum only.”

The museum does, however, have references to some of Mr. Geisel’s early professional work. There is a serving tray on display that Mr. Geisel designed for the Narragansett Brewing Company in 1941 from his days in advertising, for example, and sculptures from the 1930s.

Soon after the opening, the museum expressed a willingness to display the cartoons, perhaps sensitive to criticism that it was presenting a one-sided version of Mr. Geisel, who died in 1991. It invited Mr. Nel to a symposium this fall to discuss Mr. Geisel’s political ideology and Ms. Wenjen to the museum for a visit, something she skeptically referred to as “damage control.”

After all, contrary to Ms. Brandt’s view, the critics argue that it was the work of Mr. Geisel — the man and the political cartoonist — that inspired Dr. Seuss.

“That is the work that made him an activist children’s writer,” Mr. Nel said.

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