Back in the earliest days of Richard Nixon’s first administration, Robert Coover published a short novella in the New American Review, entitled “The Cat in the Hat for President.” Narrated by a party hack named Soothsayer Brown, its strange and fanciful conceit, as the title suggested, had Dr. Seuss’s most famous character hijacking the electoral process and commanding his party’s nomination. Chaos, of an identifiably fabulist sort, naturally ensued, but the power of the story lay not just in its hilarity but in the oddly apposite juxtaposition of children’s literature’s King Id and American presidential politics. It’s really quite a wonderful thing, Coover’s tale, and if you can find a copy (Viking published it as a little book retitled A Political Fable), I urge you to take a look.
But truth is stranger than fiction, and life imitates art, and so on, and it happens that Seuss himself had already beaten Coover to the punch line: For several years in the 1940s, he was an editorial cartoonist for a New York newspaper. The results, having somehow wriggled through a wormhole in literary-historical space/time, have just been published under the Coover-esque title Dr. Seuss Goes to War.
Reader beware: The official author of Dr. Seuss Goes to War is not Dr. Seuss himself, but Richard H. Minear, a professor of history at UMass, who provides a lengthy commentary to the cartoons. A small fraction of Minear’s text provides useful historical context; the greater part consists of first-order descriptions of staggering obviousness (“On July 16, Dr. Seuss draws a happy whale on a mountain-top…,” with a margin note guiding you to a cartoon showing, sure enough, a happy whale on a mountain-top). There’s also a gratuitous introduction by Art Spiegelman. These are mere trappings, of course, meant to give the volume the appearance of an academic study rather than a picture book. They can be safely ignored: A picture book it is, albeit a curious one.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was the son of a respectable Massachusetts German Lutheran family. By the outbreak of war in Europe he was in his mid thirties, a successful commercial illustrator, and the author of three marginally successful illustrated children’s books. PM, which took him on as an ed-page illustrator, was one of New York’s seven daily newspapers; started by Ralph Ingersoll in 1940, it was left-wing to the point of fellow-traveling, and uncompromisingly opposed to racism and anti-Semitism—though, alas, Seuss himself renders Japanese Americans as a uniformly grinning, slant-eyed fifth column. It was also furiously anti-isolationist: Among Seuss’s cartoons there are many calls to battle, exhortations to the troops, celebrations of the war industry, thumbed noses at the enemy, and many attacks on such spokesmen for appeasement as Charles Lindbergh, and America First’s Father Coughlin, both of whom he attacks with outraged glee.
For these are, after all, partisan newspaper cartoons, and not terribly subtle ones at that. Probably subtlety would have been inappropriate, given the circumstances; but anyone picking up Dr. Seuss Goes to War hoping for an essential missing chapter in the history of hortatory illustration will probably be disappointed. Seuss’s work is clever enough, vivid enough, timely enough—but it lacks the playful freedom of imagination that provided the grounds for his genius. Such, perhaps, are the exigencies of the editorial form; but if the Seuss we grew up with stood for anything in particular it was a gentle sort of anarchy, a world ruled by rhyme and very little else. The Cat in the Hat could have been written by no one but Seuss; the PM cartoons could have been drawn, differently but just as well, by almost anybody.
But it was, after all, Seuss who drew them, and if that fact doesn’t make them brilliant, it does make them deeply strange to see. It’s truly disorienting to see Seuss’s familiar line—his beasts of indeterminate lineage, his fondness for jalopy imagery, his characters’ plump sweat drops and blissful, eyelid-lowering grins—in the service of real anger. Fans can play Find the Precedent: India, for example, is represented by an elephant much like Horton, Uncle Sam by a disheveled-looking bird, wearing the slightly lopsided striped hat that will later adorn the head of the Cat in the Hat. There is a V-shaped stack of turtles that prefigures Yertle’s covetous column. For the Grinch, read Hitler. For the Lorax, read the IWW. It’s like seeing all your childhood favorites in some harsh and not entirely convincing drag.
It may be that gaping at Seuss’s work for PM through the rosy lenses of children’s literature is a little unfair. It may be that a few of Seuss’s lesser books like The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book were political allegories anyway. It may be that he would have been pleased to be claimed by the left, by the likes of the New Press, The Village Voice, and, for what it’s worth, myself. But I hope not. Books for kids survive by catering to their audience’s unencumbered taste for playful violence, lawlessness, and absurdity. The Cat in the Hat prevails for just that reason. The cartoons in Dr. Seuss Goes to War are mere curios by comparison.