Twice a month, our column You Know Who Sucked? explores a beloved historical figure who was actually an asshole. This week, we remember the rhyming racist philanderer Dr. Seuss.
Image by Alex Cook
The latest release from Theodor Geisel--entitled What Pet Should I Get?--is a 48-page joyride for children about the paralyzing fear of making consumer decisions in late capitalism.What Pet Should I Get? was released on July 28 of this year with a print run of one million copies, and it debuted at an immediate number one on Amazon, making the decision of what children's book to get in 2015 blindingly clear.
Perhaps its author, more widely known as Dr. Seuss, would have been charmed by this juxtaposition. Maybe he would have illustrated it into the sort of whimsically optimistic allegory that a quirky aunt gifts her 30-year-old nephew at his MBA graduation; maybe he wouldn't have noticed or cared. Who knows! The cat in the hat may have come back, but Theodor Geisel died in 1991, and so can only be resurrected through his vast and bizarre body of work.
In 87 years of life, Theodor Geisel was and was not many things. He is most well-known as Dr. Seuss, the author of classic children's books, which, depending on whom you ask, are either goofball learn-to-read teaching aids or complex morality plays on topics such as Hitler (Yertle the Turtle), nuclear deterrence (The Butter Battle Book), racial harmony (The Sneetches), and the American occupation of Japan (Horton Hears a Who).
But before Dr. Seuss was the most beloved children's book author or all time, Theodor Geisel was the author of a popular advertising slogan for Flit, a DDT-based insecticide produced by Standard Oil, now a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. Geisel's fantastic depictions of strange bugs and zingy "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" catchphrase helped to normalize the use of toxic household poisons in America; they also supported the author and his first wife through his early career. Seuss's debut book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 via his Dartmouth fraternity connections, helped to establish his work as an imaginative alternative to the white bread and blandly moralizing Dick and Jane-type children's lit of the day.
Geisel published four more storybooks before the dawn of World War II, at which point he took a sabbatical from his career as an acclaimed entertainer of children in order to create propaganda videos for the US Army. This part of Seuss's career is often reduced to a footnote, but, in reality, it comprises a body of aggressive pro-war media not much smaller than his body of children's work. Geisel's wartime output included a full animated series of raunchy educational cartoons called Private Snafu, voiced by Bugs Bunny's Mel Blanc, which the army commissioned in order to indoctrinate young, unworldly, and often illiterate new recruits before shipping them overseas.
Dr. Seuss was a man knew how to harness the power of symbols and metaphor, but who had little by way of a coherent or consistent adult ideology to express.
In a more menacing live-action video entitled Your Job in Germany, which was created in collaboration with It's A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra, Dr. Seuss warns the American G.I. of the inherently diseased German mind. "Every German is a potential source of trouble," his script explains coldly over fast cuts of smiling dancers in Lederhosen, Nazi flags, German children, and soldiers heiling Hitler. "Don't clasp that hand; it is not the kind of hand you can clasp in friendship."
This sort of baffling fluctuation--from progressive steward of childhood imagination to conventional agent of American supremacy--is a common thread that winds through Seuss/Geisel's career. His large portfolio of published political cartoons points to a man who knew how to harness the power of symbols and metaphor, but who had little by way of a coherent or consistent adult ideology to express. Sometimes he seems hateful, while at other time he seems uncritical or just confused. In one cartoon, Dr. Seuss defines racial harmony as the utilization of black labor for the war effort, while in another he depicts 25 offensively caricatured black men standing beneath a sign that reads TAKE HOME A HIGH-GRADE NIGGER FOR YOUR WOODPILE!
During the war, Dr. Seuss was an open advocate for Japanese internment, and he frequently published cartoons featuring Asian Americans as buck-toothed and slanty-eyed threats to American freedom. Later, as an apology, he would dedicate Horton Hears a Who to Mitsugi Nakamura, a university professor and "great friend" he met on a post-war trip to Kyoto. During this six-week visit, Seuss collected Japanese children's drawings of the American occupation for Life magazine, but was ultimately dissatisfied with the way the collection was presented in print. "They raped the article," Dr. Seuss explained, citing the pro-Chinese bias of editor Henry Luce. It was not until 1978 that Geisel would agree to allow a throwaway joke about a "Chinaman" to be rephrased as "Chinese boy" in the text of Mulberry Street. The illustration, featuring a caricature of an Asian man with a long braid and conical hat eating rice with chopsticks, remains intact.
Theodor Geisel was as sloppy in his personal affairs as he was with his politics. He began dating his second wife Audrey while he was still married to his first wife Helen. At that point in their marriage, Helen was partially paralyzed and terminally sick with cancer. More than cancer, however, she was sick with the knowledge of her husband's affair, and as a result committed suicide with a barbiturate overdose in 1967. In her suicide note, she wrote that Geisel could "say [she] was overworked and overwrought" so that his "reputation with [his] friends and fans will not be harmed." (A family member called Helen's suicide "her last and greatest gift to him.") Dr. Seuss's mistress, 18 years his junior, promptly divorced her husband, and the recent widower was remarried within the year. The newlyweds sent the two children from Audrey's previous marriage to boarding school. Of children, Dr. Seuss was known to say, "You have 'em and I'll entertain 'em."
In a Life magazine interview in 1959, Dr. Seuss argued, "There's an inherent moral in any story." With this in mind, it's tempting to wonder what sort of moral is inherent in the story of a children's author with a hunger for pussy and war, an imagination for truffula trees and cats in hats and racist propaganda. We as adults are quick to smooth the rough edges of complicated stories, to make easily explained lessons from unintelligible chaos. Luckily, children do not share this impulse, and so both the whimsical storybooks and the reprehensible man can live on in equal truth.