The Seussian Left

The Seussian Left

Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel
ed. Richard H. Minear, introduction by Art Spiegelman
The New Press, 1999, 272 pp., $25

Somehow, all the hypsters who compiled end-of-century, best-of-the-millennium lists neglected one vital topic: greatest figures on the American left. One is thus obliged, even after the celebrations have ended, to pose a question to the historically astute readers of this journal: which men and women best advanced our ideals, leading movements or producing intellectual work whose influence persists in U.S. politics and culture today? My own list would include Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, César Chávez, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Michael Harrington, and Betty Friedan.

Yet for broad and continuing appeal among both young and old, one individual stands apart: Dr. Seuss. From the early 1950s through the 1980s, in books that sold millions of copies, Seuss (Theodor Geisel) used witty rhymes and fluid, unpredictable drawings to convey the best principles and some of the fondest aspirations of the democratic left: racial equality and integration (The Sneetches), workers’ control (Yertle the Turtle), protection of nature from corporate greed (The Lorax), nuclear disarmament (The Butter Battle Book), and encouragement of men who nurture the young (Horton Hatches a Who). His most famous book, The Cat in the Hat, broke joyfully with the moralistic conventions of literature for beginning readers. That one hip, sublimely destructive feline may have done as much to inspire the counter culture of the 1960s as the Beats, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. And, of course, Seuss’s work still graces elementary schools and homes throughout the land.

I realize that more than a few Dissent readers will bridle at the thought that a children’s author, particularly one whose books have long been staples of the commercial canon, should be ranked alongside or even ahead of men and women who devoted their lives to building great social movements. Many of Seuss’s books, particularly those meant for preschoolers, are full of lovely nonsense with no discernible moral point. His political sympathies notwithstanding, Seuss, who lived to the age of eighty-seven, never appears to have joined a left organization or performed a political act more daring than denouncing billboards, thereby giving up a lucrative national contract for designing same.

But we should have learned long ago that good politics gets nowhere in a hostile culture. And Seuss did more than any artist and writer of his time to challenge the cruel pieties of cold-war America and to make defying them seem possible, necessary, and droll. As E. J. Kahn wrote in the New Yorker forty years ago, “In his [Seuss’s] books, might never makes right, the meek inhe...