Politics in the Books of Dr. Seuss

Some parents may protest if they find their children reading about racism, nuclear war or the evils of fascism.   Yet their children may have already read about such weighty topics without their knowledge of it.  If their children have read a lot of Dr. Seuss books, it is more than likely that these kids have been exposed to such adult subjects in books like Yertle the Turtle, The Lorax, the Butter Battle Book, or even Horton Hears A Who!  Dr. Seuss has always expressed his opinions in any of his works, and his books show a clear liberal political bent.

Dr. Seuss had never been shy about expressing what he felt.  His wife Audrey Geisel said in the December 14, 2008 issue of the L.A. Times, “He did not play to the audience.  They could take it or leave it.  He had something he wished to say and he said it.”

This fierce outspokeness first manifested itself when Dr. Seuss did editorial cartoons for the left wing magazine P.M. during World War II.  Since they were understaffed, the P.M. staff gave Dr. Seuss free reign to express his contempt of the Nazis and the Axis powers, and he caste a critical eye towards America’s own racism and antisemitism.  Art Spiegelman noted in the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War that Seuss’s cartoons were the only editorial cartoons  outside of the communist and black press that railed against the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-semitic remarks.  Dr. Seuss was very proud of working at P.M. and he said this about his cartoon work:  “I was intemperate, un-humorous in my attacks… and I’d do it again.”

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories was the first of Dr. Seuss’s books with an explicit political message.  This book, originally published in 1950, has a collection of stories that all, in one way or another, celebrates individualism.  The first and best story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of a pond of turtles.  At first he is satisfied with the small pond that he rules.  Then Yertle becomes dissatisfied with the pond and decides he must rule over everything he sees.  So he gets the turtles to stand on top of each other, so he could see more of the world and thus rule more.  The bottom turtle, named Mack, is sore from the weight of all the turles on his back and gives a classic dissent:

“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it.  Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food.  We are starving!” groaned Mack.

Yertle the Turtle  was written 5 years after World War II ended and the memories of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were still fresh.  Dr. Seuss had been especially angry at the way totalitarian regimes would run roughshod over individuals and the way egomaniacal dictators would try to get countries to satisfy their every whim.

Horton Hears a Who is another tome for the importance of the individual.  Written in 1954, Horton was partially influenced by Dr. Seuss’s travels in postwar Japan.  In the 1940s Dr. Seuss had made some documentaries of postwar Japan for the military.  After he left the military, Life Magazine assigned Dr. Seuss to go to Japan to see how the American occupation of that nation had changed the aspiration of Japanese children.  He found that a society that had always valued conformity were being influenced to adopt some Western values.   Horton is dedicated to Mitsugo Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan, whom he might’ve met on his Life assignment.  Dr. Seuss may have also been influenced by the McCarthy hysteria of the early 1950s.  A story about an elephant that resists the pressure of the community to speak out for the little people he found in a speck of dust may have been Dr. Seuss’s way of registering his disgust at the witch hunt that was going against leftists in America.

Horton fights a moralistic kangaroo and a jungle of animals who do not believe the elephant’s assertion that an entire world of creatures lives within a tiny speck of dust.  Near the end of the book, the kangaroo leads a posse of monkeys to tie up the elephant and to dunk the speck in Beezle-nut juice.  The only way to save the citizens of Who-ville in the speck is to shout as loud as they can.  And they shout, and they are finally heard when the smallest citizen of all shouts “Yopp!”  Dr. Seuss writes:

“And that Yopp…
That one small, extra Yopp put it over!
Finally, at last!  From that speck on that clover
Their voices were heard!  They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled.  ‘Do you see what I mean? …
They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!'”

The Sneetches and Other Stories was written in 1961, at a time when the Freedom Rides and other Civil Rights protests were gathering steam in the South.  In the back of the book is written, “Four wild stories that are not only humorous and entertaining but teach valuable lessons about human nature.”  They are indeed four wonderful stories that explore morality themes that have always been found within Dr. Seuss’s work.  One story is about an empty pair of pants that follows a little creature around, scaring him out of his wits.  Another story is about a pair of creatures each named Zax who wouldn’t make way for the other person and wind up standing in the same place for eternity. 

The best story is the first story.   It concerns a group of creatures called the Sneetches, and the one trait that seperates one group of Sneetches from the other.  Dr. Seuss introduces them by writing:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.

Those stars weren’t so big.  They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, ‘We’re the bestkind of Sneetch on the beaches.’
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
‘We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!’
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking

This story goes on to tell how this prejudice affects both the star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches without stars.  They are eventually taken advantage of by a salesman named Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who makes a profit by making a machine that makes stars for Sneetches with plain bellies.  It is an effective allegory for the stupidity of racial prejudice and it was brave of Dr. Seuss to come out with this tale in 1961.  The story ends on an optimistic note.

But McBean was quite wrong.  I”m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars

The Lorax, published in 1971, was Dr. Seuss’s ode to environmental protection.  He struggled in the beginning to write the story.  Then he took a trip with his wife Audrey to Kenya in September 1970, and the experience with the Mt. Kenya Safari Club let loose his creative imagination.  In their book, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan wrote:

The Lorax was a polemic about pollution, impassioned and bristling with confrontation and name-calling.  Ted unleashed some of his most magical language, phrases that defied rational criticism and enraptured a generation:  the cruffulous croak and smogulous smoke, the snergelly hose, rippulous pond, gruvvulous glove and miff-muffered moof.  His palette shifted from his usual primary colors to mauve, plum, purple and sage-green.  Audrey cheerfully accepted credit for this change, and technical advances in high speed lithography made the colors possible;  up on the walls of Ted’s studio were computer color charts offering him a huge array of possiblities.”

The Lorax is about a creature called the Once-ler who finds a forest of Traffula Trees, which is inhabited by a wide variety of Seussian creatures.   The Once-ler starts cutting down the Traffula Trees to make Thneed sweaters that make him a great profit.  But a creature called the Lorax warns the Once-ler that as he cuts down more trees, it destroys the environment for the creatures who live within the Traffula forest.  Gradually the creature leave as the trees disappear, until the last Traffula Tree is cut down and the land is now barren and lifeless.  The Once-ler gives one last message to the reader:

Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Traffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Traffula Seeds.
And Traffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Traffula.  Treat it with care.
Give it clean water.  And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest.  Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back

The Butter Battle Book was created in 1984 as a story against war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  It  was published in the cold war, when the Reagan administration and the Soviet Union were developing weapons like the MX missile and the Star Wars space defense program as a deterrence against each other.   In November 1983 The Day After had just aired in ABC television as a t.v. special that depicted the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  People all over the world were worried about nuclear war and this influence Dr. Seuss.

The Butter Battle Book is about two groups, the Yooks and the Zooks, who like on opposite sides of a winding wall and are in constant conflict against each other.   The source of the conflict is simple that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down.   They cannot live with this small difference, and they build larger and ever more dangerous weapons to hurt the other side.  Finally a  small but extremely destructive red bomb called the “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo” is created, that can destroy both sides if it is ever used.    Like The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book ends with a warning:

“Be careful Grandpa,
Be careful! Oh gee!
Who will drop it, will you or will he?”
“I don’t know,” Grandpa replied,
“We’ll see.
We shall see.”

Dr. Seuss was one of America’s greatest children’s book writers and illustrators, and he was also one of our great satirists.  The satirical aspects of his work often get little notice, but his social commentary is timeless and speak to the eternal foolishness of all human beings, whether they be adults or children.  A.O. Scott wrote in the November 26, 2000 article in the New York Times Magazine:

Anarchy, linguistic or otherwise, flourishes alongside another, equally pronounced strain in Seuss’s work- not of preachiness, exactly, but of unabashed moral seriousness.  ‘He’s sometimes pegged as a nonsense writer,’ argues Leonard Marcus, ‘but most of the time he used nonsense as a device for holding the interest of the reader while he said something that was important to him.’  Barbara Bader, in her encyclopedic history of American children’s books, writes that Seuss, like children themselves, is ‘a natural moralizer… it come to him as unselfconsciously (and unambiguously) as rhyming lines from an engine’s beat.’ 

…Seuss’s moralism was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be.”

I end this post with a verse that Dr. Seuss spoke to a commencement at Lake Forest College outside Chicago in June 1977.  His commencement poem was greeted with cheers from the students who grew up with the books of Dr. Seuss.  This poem is called “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers“.

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,”
said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!”

as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot spitting out of the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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1 Response to Politics in the Books of Dr. Seuss

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