May 2009

Lorette C. Luzajic

Fascinating Writers

The Dr. is in

Before The Simpsons set foot in Springfield, USA, Springfield, Massachusetts gave birth to Theodor Seuss Geisel who transformed childhood for every generation since.

The good doctor validated the wild, free-associating, inventive, mumbo-jumbo imagination of kids. To adults, he prescribed a dose of childish nonsense, insisting that happiness and even genius depended on it. Imagination is everything is the profound message of his life’s work.

There’s one thing we can’t imagine, though -- a world without wacky Wednesdays, Sneetches, Whoville, blue fish, and the curious, kooky cartoon machinery and mad science of Dr. Seuss. The sensical underpinnings of the nonsensical gave free reign to creativity in the classroom, in business, in advertising, in society as a whole. The morals of the stories helped parents and teachers impart to kids our most important values. But perhaps the greatest contribution Seuss made was helping kids discover the simple joy of reading. It wasn’t nearly as splendid with Dick and Jane as it was with the Cat in the Hat. Theodor’s witty wordplay and sublime rhyme influenced the furthest and most unlikely reaches of the world, inspiring writers, artists and even hip-hop.

“I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells,” Dr. Seuss famously stated. His work was populated by quirky and anthropomorphic figures, with fuzzy flora and fauna, with mischief and silliness and hyphenated-super-words and wriggly jiggly rhymes. Seuss’s playful rhythms and invented vocabulary jumble and tumble and bumble about. It feels so natural that readers might be surprised to find out how painstaking their creation was. Judith and Neil Morgan talk about that process in Seuss’s biography, telling us that he laboured for six months over the first title. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was a tedious affair for him, with endless drafts and rewrites. He discussed each page with his wife Helen until he was sure he had it right.

And yet he didn’t get it right, 27 publishers told him. It was “too different” or too fantastical or not commercial enough. A chance encounter with an old university colleague saved the manuscript from a ritual burning of defeat, and lucky for us, Vanguard Press published the very first Seussian adventure in 1937.

It didn’t begin there, of course. Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 in Massachusetts to a German brew master. His family life was reasonably content, though he lost a baby sister to pneumonia. At Dartmouth College, Theo wrote for the Jack-o-Lantern. He got fired for throwing a beer party during the Prohibition. Theo wanted to keep writing, so he signed his work with his middle name, Seuss, and no one was the wiser. After school, he did a column for a humour magazine and that was when he added the “Dr” to his byline. He had intended to earn a Ph.D. but didn’t, and in homage to his father’s hopes, he called himself Dr. Seuss.

Theo was an imaginative child and something of a merry prankster, bright but easily distracted. He exhibited a penchant and genius for rhyme and repetition early on. Everything in his environment was absorbed, only to reappear sooner or later in one of his crazy stories. If Theo heard the chugging of an engine, its rhythm went into his vault. That his earliest years were spent at the dawn of mass production was also important. The Morgans observe that the factories all around the state were “yielding a torrent of moving things: guns, watches, machine parts, bicycles, motorcycles, tires, toys, ice skates, roller skates, railroad and trolley cars…” Inventing and patenting was de rigueur in the early 1900s, and the plethora of mechanics and devices became fodder for Theo’s mad inventions.

The world truly was his oyster, in this sense. The man’s large hat collection inspired The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. When he was suffering glaucoma-related vision impairment as he entered his twilight years, he wrote I Can Read With My Eyes Shut.

After college, Theo studied literature at Oxford. He traveled Europe (and South America), drank champagne and married Helen. In the Morgan’s bio he recalls spying Ernest Hemingway in France, smoking a pipe and jotting notes on paper. “I was scared… to walk over and ask him,” Ted said. “I was a 22-year-old kid writing knock-kneed limericks about goats and geese and other stuff that I couldn’t sell. He was probably writing A Farewell to Arms.”

Before becoming the famous Dr. Seuss, Ted wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and for Vanity Fair, and he also published political cartoons and other funny business. He made art for advertising, including insecticide and oil industries. He spent two years creating 400 cartoons for a left wing paper. He also made a few “adult” comic books. But ultimately, it was the 50-plus children’s books that made Ted our beloved Dr. Seuss.

Everyone between the ages of 2 and 102 has a favourite. Mine is What Was I Scared Of?

Then I was deep within the woods
When suddenly, I spied them
I saw a pair of pale green pants
With nobody inside them!

I also love the Lorax, the Sneetches, and Marvin K Mooney Will You Please Go Now.

But not everybody does. It’s hard to believe his playful words have caused umpteen controversies, and more than a few conspiracy theories. He’s come under fire for Japanese racism for some illustrations that picture Asians as buck-toothed. He’s been called an enemy of liberty and capitalism, a communist, a secret Bolshevik, an eco-terrorist, and a Zionist. A few extremist zealots say outright that Seuss is a pinko communist propagandist; his verses imply such treacherous ideas as sharing and concern for the environment, after all. Certainly Seuss made no secret of leaning to the left, and his ideals of compassion, kindness, and inclusiveness are apparent in his works.

Though he attended a Lutheran church, and sold millions of copies of Green Eggs and Ham, it is still widely rumoured that Seuss was a German-Jewish immigrant. So what if he was?

John Miller writes in an article called “The Good 'Dr'” that Seuss’s works are “infused with… liberal messages on everything from environmentalism and arms control.”

Oh, of course- the evils of asking industry and individual to reduce waste! Sigh. From Yertle the Turtle:

“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.

Oh, damn, those pesky poor people expect to eat, too!

The Lorax was the aforementioned “eco-terrorist” number. The California lumber industry got their panties in a bunch over the fabulist’s Once-ler, who ravaged the “truffula” forests, gunking up the rivers, and driving out the Barbaloot bears, all because he wanted to manufacture the latest thneed-crap nobody needs. Miller points out the “not-so-subtle attack on capitalism.” It’s amazing that we have more far out far right wing-nuts who will stand up for the thneed factories than who will stand up for the right of clean water, forests, and fish.

“You’re glumping the pond where the Humming Fish hummed!
No more can they hum for their gills are all gummed
So I’m sending them off, OH, their future is dreary.
They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
in search of some water that isn’t so smeary."

The Lorax was removed from many schools following various uproars. In fact, the lumber industry came out with a pamphlet called The Truax, which featured a logger talking “reason” to the hysterical about how necessary lumber is to labour and how many trees they plant. That we’ve lost two-thirds of the world’s forest and tripled the world’s population in this past century is not mentioned.

Seuss’s personal favourite title, The Butter Battle Book, also comes under attack by Miller. “It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War: It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread -- as if Communism weren't a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.”

And here I thought nuclear arms threaten liberty -- and life of the whole planet. Silly me.

Even when Seuss’s controversial messages renouncing racism, war, pollution, nuclear arms, and Hitler weren’t obvious, various groups have used his work to spread their words. Horton Hears a Who was co-opted by pro-life groups, who passed around gory pictures of fetuses to grade school classes, with the quote “a person’s a person no matter how small.” These same groups lobbied outside of cinemas when the film played, allegedly “educating” the public to a message that Seuss had never intended. Angelo Lopez wrote that the story instead may have been “registering his disgust at the witch hunt that was going against leftists in America.”

On a more esoteric note, Heinz Insu Fenkl attributed something much more esoteric to the works. “ L O R A X is an anagram that breaks down into three symbolic clusters: AO, RX, and L. AO represents Alpha and Omega…”

Perhaps.

In any event, this remarkable man spoke his last in 1991, when he died at 87 of jaw cancer -- rumoured to be the result of a lifelong Camel cigarette addiction. His wife, Audrey, survived him. He had no children with either Helen or Audrey, but it is not true that he hated children, as has been rumored -- that is actually Shel Silverstein, not Seuss. Seuss was shy in crowds, kids or otherwise. (His first wife, Helen, committed suicide in 1967 when the pain of cancer drove her mad.) It was a peculiar wish Seuss had to be cremated, with no funeral, and no grave, headstone, or marker, but it was a wish honoured by his widow. A memorial garden was erected in his state with sculptures of Seuss and an assortment of his most beloved characters.

Regardless of what the hidden messages Dr. Seuss did or did not intend, the author has touched the lives of millions of children and perpetual children all over the world. His nizzards and zizzer-zazzer-zuzzes and diffendoofers and whisper-ma-phones and wockets will continue to bring giggles to countless generations. If, that is, we manage to halt pollution in time to save ourselves, and neutralize that butter battle after all.

Lorette C. Luzajic also writes Fascinating People at www.fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com. She is the acclaimed author of The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos, and Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life. Learn more at www.thegirlcanwrite.net.