Some musings on Dr Seuss – why we need the Cat in the Hat to come back

Last night I read the girls Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” and was once again astounded at how good (and timely) a tale it is. One of the books I keep threatening to write is “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss” – something of a pet project I have toyed around with for a couple of years. Don’t know when I would take it on, but I think it is a winner if done right. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) began his career as a political cartoonist and captured much of the WWII paranoia both playfully and artfully. As the story goes, Life magazine published a report on children’s illiteracy in its May 1954 issue, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Geisel’s publisher at the time was taken by this report and made up a list of 348 words he felt were important and asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. This book was a tour de force—the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary could be read by beginning readers. These books achieved significant international success and remain very popular and many argued ended the world of Dick and Jane and announced the reign of the Cat.

The number of children whose political and moral foundations have been influenced by Geisel’s books such as the Lorax(the environmentalist’s mantra in Technicolor); The Sneetches on Beaches (a fantastic treatise on the relationship of prejudice and commerce found in “The Sneetches and other Stories”); The Cat in the Hat (which raises the all important ethical question ‘what would you do if your Mother asked you?’), The Cat in the Hat Came Back (a blatant node toward McCarthyism with its fear of the “pink stain” overtaking the world); and Horton Hears a Who (which is one of the most Christocentric – and dare I say kenotic – nods in children’s literature) is staggering. Two things I am always reminded by in the Dr. Seuss canon: (1) language always gives way to meaning, and (2) surrealism is the place of deep meaning and belief more than realism. On the account of language giving way to meaning, any reader of Dr. Seuss will celebrate the use of seemingly non-words that convey meaning. Geisel wrote most of his books in a poetic form called anapestic tetrameter, which is a poetic meter employed by many poets of the English literary canon. One example is this line from Yertle the Turtle: “And today the Great Yertle, that marvelous he/ is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.” Anapestic tetrameter consists of four rhythmic units, anapests, each composed of two weak beats followed by one strong beat; often, the first weak syllable is omitted, or an additional weak syllable is added at the end. This use of meter with its sing song cadence – with the employment of weak syllables pulling on strong beats – pulls the reader along and anticipates the sound of the word coming down the pike but is often realized in a word that is both strange and yet contextually meaningful. What occurs for the reader in this cadence is a willingness to accept the strange and odd as the fulfillment of the rhyme and creates for beauty as something suprizing.

Needless to say, we need more Seuss these days in the political arena – a creation of a world that is fantastic and compelling, filled with soft syllables pushed by strong beats and open the space for the new, the strange and the faithful to enter anew.

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