Dr. Seuss Goes to War

For people of a certain age, it’s impossible to think back on our childhoods without conjuring images drawn by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, to his friends and family). Even looking through his books today, their style seems fresh and their stories an eye-opening guide to the world of life’s adult complexities. I still have to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas several times each holiday season just to sob every time.

America First Image by Dr. SeussPutting the man behind Green Eggs and Ham into the larger context of his life and times is bound to seem like an awkward fit. Our childhood icons seem to resist being fixed in the real world.

But his kids’ books were only part of his career. For starters, Dr. Seuss wrote some of the military’s WWII instructional shorts in a series called “Private Snafu,” working with such cartoon notables as Friz Freling, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones (with whom he’d later create that TV version of The Grinch).

Seuss was also a political cartoonist for several years before and during the war. And to see his familiar style put to such specific political messages feels … well, kinda weird. But now that U.C., San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library has put a number of these images on their Web site, you can experience that discomfort for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Two hundred of these cartoons are also collected in the volume Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Richard H. Minear.

Seuss’s attitude about the war in Europe is pretty clear in the cartoons. American feelings about  our involvement in a war across the ocean — particularly with the first World War being only a short while behind us — were mixed. Moreover, anti-semitism and anti-communist sentiments led a great many Americans to approve quietly of Nazi genocide and empire-building, however little they expressed their feelings out loud.

Anti-Semitism at Home by Dr. SeussSeuss appears to have had little patience for isolationists and Fascist sympathizers, particularly for Charles Lindbergh and his America First movement (yes, that Charles Lindbergh, the trans-Atlantic pilot). Seuss’s attitudes about racism and anti-semitism were pretty clear, too; at least at home. When it comes to his portrayal of Japanese figures across the Pacific, he falls back on the same dehumanizing caricatures that appeared in every war poster to feature images of the enemy. Germans and Italians usually came out looking just oafish; but the Japanese appeared inhuman. The UCSD collection can’t be the last word on Seuss’s political cartoons, but still there’s a conspicuous absence of anything addressing the matter of the internment of Japanese-Americans, even while Seuss demonstrates in a number of his cartoons that he’s brave enough to hammer on the War Department for discriminating against African-Americans.

Tojo Caricature by Dr. SeussIt’s hard to see our childhood heroes tethered to the real world in which they lived. But it’s also interesting to get some perspective on the pieces of their lives beyond the edges of the stuff we remember them for best.

Thanks to the folks at Shakesville for bringing this to everyone’s attention.

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2 Responses to Dr. Seuss Goes to War

  1. Benito Juarez says:

    June 4, 1977: An original poem composed for the 99th Commencement of Lake Forest College by Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a Dr. Seuss). Eugene Hotchkiss III was president of Lake Forest College from 1970 to 1993.

    On Dr. Seuss’s piece of paper were these words:

    My Uncle Terwilliger on
    the Art of Eating Popovers

    My uncle ordered popovers
    from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
    And, when they were served,
    he regarded them
    with a penetrating stare…
    Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
    as he sat there on that chair:
    “To eat these things,”
    said my uncle,
    “you must exercise great care.
    You may swallow down what’s solid…
    you must spit out the air!”

    as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
    that’s darned good advice to follow.
    Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
    And be careful what you swallow.
    —Dr. Seuss


    Dr. Seuss Keeps Me Guessing
    A Commencement story by President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III

    As Theodor Geisel (a.k.a Dr. Seuss) stepped forward to join me at the podium on a bright spring day in 1977, I began nervously to read the citation accompanying the degree the College would be awarding him on this occasion. Although he was listed in the program as the Commencement speaker, I was uncertain if he would accept his degree with anything more than a thank you. And thereby hangs a tale.

    The search for a Commencement speaker that year had been unusually frustrating and unsuccessful; one after another of those recommended by the seniors declined. I recall to this day the visit from a reporter of the Stentor, who was preparing copy for the final issue of the year. He pled unsuccessfully with me to give him the name of the individual who would address the graduating class. Alas, at that late hour not even I knew who he or she might be. Suddenly I recalled that a trustee of the College, Kenneth Montgomery, had once told me that should I ever need a speaker he would be willing to approach his good friend Ted Geisel and invite him to the campus. “Green eggs and ham,” thought I. “Why not?”

    A phone contact was made by Trustee Montgomery, who told me that Mr. Geisel would be pleased to be honored at the Commencement ceremony. I quickly informed the Stentor, and the word was out: Dr. Seuss would be the Commencement speaker. The seniors were elated, but I was told that some faculty expressed the opinion that my choice just proved that the Seuss books were likely the last ones I had ever read!

    Still, I relaxed…until, responding to a formal invitation I had written describing the nature of Commencement and his talk, Mr. Geisel called to say that there must have been a mistake. He thought he was being asked to receive a degree, not to talk. “I talk with people, not to people,” he declared, and if, he continued, I was proposing that he give an address, there had been a grave mistake. No, he reported just days before Commencement, he would not agree to speak.

    As I pondered my choices I grasped onto his statement to me, and I urged him to arrive early Friday afternoon so that he might talk with the graduates at the senior reception. And then, talking with him in person, I would attempt to persuade him to talk to the graduates, albeit if only briefly. He agreed to come to the campus as early has he could on Friday, although because he lived in California and would be flying against the clock, the odds of a timely arrival were slim indeed.

    The events on the day preceding Commencement were several, and each was surreptitiously extended so that the reception would be delayed, anticipating Mr. Geisel’s late arrival. Happily, shortly after the now-delayed reception began, he joined my wife, Sue, and me in the receiving line and did indeed talk with the graduates and many others, even autographing some well-loved Dr. Seuss books. Still, I wondered, would he be willing to say anything from the podium the next day?

    Both before and after dinner that Friday evening, I talked with him informally, hoping the influence of good wine might soften his resolve as it strengthened mine. I urged him to respond following the awarding of his degree, but he did not waiver. Perhaps the best that could be made of a desperate situation, thought I, was to announce at the Commencement that, as he requested, he had indeed talked with the graduates on Friday and to thank him for his cordiality. The evening came to an end — well, almost, for I did not sleep well that night, and I could hear the seniors partying and, undoubtedly, discussing the talk their much-liked Dr. Seuss would give.

    On Commencement morning, as the honored guests robed in their academic regalia, I again asked Mr. Geisel if he would be willing to say but a few words, acknowledging his degree. Still his silence was penetrating. Finally the time came to read his citation. As I reached its end and as Faculty Marshals Rosemary Cowler and Franz Schulze stepped forth to place the hood over his head, I spoke these penultimate words, for which I must credit my wife, Sue: “We proclaim you not the ‘Cat in the Hat’ but the ‘Seuss in the Noose’.” And then I awarded him the College’s degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

    At that moment, fearing his response, I shook his hand in a whisper and asked him if he would be willing to say a few words. He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was “a bathrobe,” pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone. And the rest, as they say, is history.

  2. admin says:

    Thank you for this story. The man was nothing if not complex; and I guess that’s how it should be for anyone with whom we want to spend some time.

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