Theodor Seuss Geisel was an Aesop for the 20th-century, writing more than 60 children’s books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies and made their way into the nighttime readings of countless children around the world. Caught today in a world struggling to keep up with never-ending stories of hate, we look to a few of Dr. Seuss’s more pointed stories in the hopes of gleaning such insights as might rekindle the spirits of those who need fresh hope.
In Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss tackles themes of despotism, blind allegiance to nationality and abuse of position. An allegory for Hitler’s rise to power, the story centers on the eponymous Yertle who is obsessed with becoming the most powerful animal and to this end, forces his subjects to stack themselves on top of one another so that he can be the tallest turtle in the pond. The fate of the pond’s turtles is a warning against blindly accepting any one leader’s vision for a society. But in protest, a “little turtle named Mack” cries out, “I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.” Mack and his eventual toppling of Yertle’s tower serve to remind readers of the worth of every individual and their power to make change, valuable advice to those who find themselves pushed around in the machinations of others.
To speak truth to power is no mean feat. In The Lorax, the Once-ler’s obsession with sweater production from the rare Truffula tree drives him to destroy the local environment over the protests of the Lorax and the suffering of indigenous groups. For the Once-ler, “business is business! And business must grow.” The Lorax as protestor exemplifies that brave individual who recognizes that he is small in comparison to a vast political and economic culture of greed and inequality, but power concedes nothing without a demand. And so he reminds us that there is no hope in inaction. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
In the more personal arena of identity, Dr. Seuss sends us several powerful messages in The Sneetches, which was originally written to oppose anti-Semitism and racial and religious intolerance. The community of the Sneetches, some of whom have stars on their bellies and others of whom do not, is fractured by respective disdain for anybody who is dissimilar from each group. The Sneetches fall prey to an opportunistic entrepreneur who profits from their bigotry because, as he says, “You can’t teach a Sneetch!” Caught up in echo chambers of ingroups and outgroups, the Sneetches needlessly set back their society, and in the recent and current self-fueling climate surrounding American race relations, Islamophobia, xenophobia and other forms of bias, such individual and low-level social barriers become some of the most important to remedy.
While many more of Dr. Seuss’s works are little more than playful pieces, in October we noted the importance of contextualizing works and authors to their broader backgrounds, and so it is important to acknowledge that the man himself had flaws. Geisel was in fact known to have been heavily in favor of Japanese internment during World War II, and so even as we find simple but powerful messages in his works, a further conversation grapples with separating his views to recognize the complexities of what a person may espouse one moment and hold to be true in the next.