The Taste of Others, part 9: That low down, dirty rotten Seuss.

5 Dec

1.

In the history of children’s picture books, Dr. Seuss looms large. He’s the most famous author in the picture book canon, and arguably the most important. His body of work is equal parts zany, earnest, allegorical and political. His middle books—including The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks and If I Ran the Circus—are silly, funny, interesting, verbose and slight. They’re anarchic, confident, fluid and a great entry into literacy for children.

His early books, including The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Bartholomew and the Oobleck are more intricate, light-hearted illustrated fantasies that have dated well. These, too, are good children’s books, although the smudgy pencil drawings lack the clean elegance of his later books, and the pacing and plotting are for older readers.

Dr. Seuss is an amiable companion, big-hearted, talented and palatable, a kind old gentleman with a penchant for cornball jokes.

But before he was Seuss, he was Geisel. And Geisel was a serious student at Dartmouth, a doctoral candidate at Oxford, and a political cartoonist of the first order[1]. He dabbled in erotic art, too, before hitting his stride with children’s books. His early manuscripts were received with scorn, and he was rejected some 30 times before he finally saw one of his children’s books in print.

Behind Seuss’s silly imagination was Geisel’s keen political mind. He wrote some very fine political children’s books. His best are The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book and The Sneetches (a short story in a collection).

So I was curious, how does Seuss, the great children’s book author, fare against the hordes of angry amazon reviewers?

2.

Not well.

The Butter Battle Book is his most allegorical, and therefore most political, book. Seuss creates two societies that are very similar, only one butters their bread on the top, the other on the bottom. This cultural difference erupts into a never-ending war that escalates when two ambitious border guards begin a game of one-upmanship. They build bigger and bigger weapons, until they have an ultimate nullifier, a tiny egg that, when dropped, will destroy everything. It ends with the two old guards each threatening the other with the ultimate weapon. It’s funny, insightful and absolutely devastating, and it encompasses the madness of the Cold War as well as anything I’ve read.

Let’s see how people respond. Again, I stopped editing these to my house style. Grammatical and spelling errors abound.

The arms race is the thing that won us the Cold War! Ask anybody!

The arms race is the thing that won us the Cold War! Ask anybody! It was the only sane policy.

Title: Like most celebrities, Dr. Seuss is a little too simple-minded

As a writer and a creator of children’s stories, Dr. Seuss was absolutely brilliant; there is no doubt about that. But his childish view of the Cold War, at his age, is unforgivable. Likening the difference between freedom and Communism to the difference between the location of butter on bread is frustrating, and demonstrates once again how our American celebrities are unbelievably idealistic and out of touch with the realities of the world.

(This next one is great, but again I can’t tell if it’s a joke. Probably not.)

Untitled: 

This book does nothing but mock the all mighty military machine that made this country great. Nothing in this country has done in the past 200 plus years beats the resounding victory we scored against those cold and calculating communists during the Cold War. We beat those commies at their own game. How dare anyone mock the greatest accomplishment of the greatest president we have ever had. This book is nothing but Marxist Philosophy.

(This reviewer has many axes to grind and a skewered view of history, a combination that makes for enjoyable reading.)

Title: Trivializes a serious matter.

While I love Dr. Seuss, I cannot believe that he trivializes the Cold War in the way that he does with this book. The much hated “arms race” was a race to protect ourselves and was a race that we not only won, but a race that also brought down the Soviet Union. Ironically, we won it because we outspent the Soviets. We outspent the Soviets because capitalism creates wealth. The fight between capitalism, which allows freedom, and the crushing weight of communism, which ideology has systematically killed more humans than any other in the last century, is not boiled down to something as simple as butter on bread. Buy one of his other books-the non-political type.

3.

The Lorax is Seuss’s masterpiece. The art is superb, the message simple. The Lorax’s face, when he flees the environmental disaster left behind by the Once-ler, is sad and moving. Like Butter, The Lorax is a direct attack on the impact of unchecked capitalism. The Once-ler’s enterprise is unsustainable, destructive, and amoral. He pursues his profits with reckless abandon. He justifies and rationalizes every terrible thing he does, and any argument to the contrary he squashes with circular reasoning of jobs, money, profits, demand, and markets. And the disastrous world the Once-ler is creating unfolds before the reader’s eyes. It’s a tough little book, haunting and elegant.

There’s the environmental component—and the book’s ecological message is more relevant than ever—as well as the situationist belief that capitalism takes our desires, repackages them, and sells them back to us. You see this when the Once-ler sells a thneed to a faceless consumer.

The criticism of this book is, in some sense, legitimate. It is a cautionary tale. But who thinks it’s a good idea to starve the brown barbaloots? Or fill the streams with foul-smelling goo? Or choke the Swomee Swans with smog?

The mustachioed protector and speaker for the trees.

The mustachioed protector and speaker for the trees.

Title: hypocritical

Dr. Seuss, turned holier-than-thou by his elevated status in society, decides to preach to us about the evils of industrialization. Does he realize that the many millions of copies of “The Lorax” were all made in factories, using paper that came from trees? (Um, he’s dead.)

(This reviewer is annoyed that the book isn’t funny. He/she doesn’t agree with any of it either, but that’s besides the point.)

Title: Seuss had a bad week

Dr Seuss is supposed to be funny. Even books that tackle serious issues like Sneetches, are still hilarious. Even Butter Battle was still cute (for adults). But something went terribly wrong with the Lorax. The Lorax is heavy handed, preachy, and depressing.

For a man who successfully satired racism and nuclear war, pollution ought to be a cake walk. To be fair, perhaps the Lorax reads differently to someone left-of-center politically. We’re not, so we tend to disagree with much of the modern environmentalist agenda. However, good comedy transcends politics. You don’t have to agree with it to laugh at it. Unfortunately, we weren’t laughing, and we never even tried it on our kids.

(This next reviewer sneaks a pro-Lorax review in by pretending to write one-star review. Just trolling the one-star reviews has proven complex; when I first saw this, I missed the satire as I skipped over the end.)

Title: Crazy Environmentalist HOGWASH!

Right on, all of you people who have given this book a negative review! What a terrible book to give to a child! Who does Dr. Seuss think he is, anyway? – Trying to teach young people about our moral obligations to future generations, and environmental stewardship… it’s appalling. Doesn’t anyone care about the struggling, rich, conservative business owners (Like the proud, pro-capitalist, two star reviewer Jeffrey Gray); desperately strip mining our mountains, clear-cutting our forests, polluting our streams, for their own personal wealth and gain? What about THEM? Never mind the fact that the current rate of extinction on this planet is estimated at one species every 20 minutes! Who cares that if everyone on earth were to live like the average North American, it would require 4-5 more planets to keep up with the drain on natural resources! I mean, the Bush administration has been trying so hard to keep facts and figures like these from the public that they’ve even gone to the extent of changing and editing scientific reports on climate change for our own well being… and positive reviews of “The Lorax” are the thanks they get?

If more children were to read this tripe, they might actually begin to understand our inter-connectedness to all living beings, and accidentally inherit a world with a sustainable future. Is that really what we want for our kids?!

Maybe the Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and Humming-Fish should think twice before settling in to a perfectly viable habitat with such vast economic potential. (Wink.)

Peace.

4.

And now, just for kicks, here’s a bonus review of Horton Hears a Who, one of Seuss’s best and most innocent stories. Horton is so innocent, there’s only one, one-star review, and it’s priceless. It reveals how people often see what they want to when peering too closely.

Title: Anti-Abortion?

This isn’t a kids book at all. The message behind it is one of choice, making reference to a woman’s right to choose through horton and the planet. I don’t care what your views on abortion are (anti or pro), you shouldn’t let young children read and decyfer the hidden meaning. Dr. Seuss was a nut job and a child corrupter, don’t support his work.


[1] You can see his political cartoons in the book, Dr. Seuss Goes to War. They’re great, when they aren’t blatantly racist.

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