Once upon a time, a long time ago, a beloved children’s book creator named Dr. Seuss created political cartoons for a radical leftist newspaper. Yes, the same Dr. Seuss who wrote beloved stories like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Cat In The Hat did cartoons excorciating Hitler, Jim Crow and isolationists during World War II. Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has always had a strong liberal streak in his children’s books, and they find their most clear distillation in the editorial cartoons that he did for the New York newspaper, PM, during the 1940s. A wonderful book, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geissel by Richard H. Minear, showcases the 400 cartoons that Dr. Seuss did for PM.
Ralph Ingersoll was a prominent journalist who worked for Time and Life magazine and founded the newspaper PM as a progressive voice that supported the continuation of the New Deal reforms and the fight for economic and social justice. Within its pages, some of the greatest names on American journalism wrote articles on the events of the day: James Thurber, I.F. Stone, Heywood Hale Broun, Lillian Hellman, and Jimmy Cannon. One of the great comics was published only in PM, “Barnaby” by Crockett Johnson, who later was famous as the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Dr. Seuss began working as editorial cartoonist for PM from 1941 to January 1943, and at that time he created some of the best editorial cartoons in the U.S. Art Spiegelman wrote in the introduction of the book:
“These cartoons rail against isolationism, racism, and ant-Semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period. These are virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism. Dr. Seuss said that he ‘had no great causes or interest in social issues until Hitler,’ and explained that ‘PM was against people who pushed other people around. I liked that.’ More of a humanist than an idealogue- one of those Groucho rather than Karl Marxists- Dr. Seuss made these drawings with the fire of honest indignation and anger that fuels all real political art. If they have a flaw, it’s an absolutely endearing one: they’re funny.”
In looking at this collection, I’m amazed at his skills in conveying a message simply and succinctly. My only real criticism of these cartoons is the way Dr. Seuss portrays Japan, with the same Asian stereotypes that were prevalent in the U.S. of the 1940s. Seuss tackled fascism, racism, worker’s rights, the independence movement in India, government red tape, and civil liberties in time of war with gentle humor.
Dr. Seuss maintained a concern for political issues long after he stopped being an editorial cartoonist for PM. As his fame grew as a children’s book creator, Dr. Seuss tackled such subjects as totalitarianism (Yertle the Turtle, 1958), environmentalism (The Lorax, 1971), discrimination (The Sneetches and Other Stories, 1961), and nuclear war (The Butter Battle Book, 1984). Dr. Seuss was not just a great creator of children’s books, his concerns encompassed the problems of people of all ages. And that’s what made him a great artist.