Dr. Seuss’s Progressive Politics
Who hasn’t read Dr. Seuss? As kids and as parents, most Americans know all about the Cat in the Hat, Yertle the Turtle, and many other of Seuss’s colorful characters. What some may not know is that despite his popular image as a kindly cartoonist for kids, Theodor Geisel, writing under the pen name “Dr. Seuss,” was also a progressive and a moralist whose views suffuse his books. Some of his books use ridicule, satire, wordplay, nonsense words, and wild drawings to take aim at bullies, hypocrites, and demagogues.
In the early 1940s, before many Americans were aware of the calamity confronting Europe’s Jews, Geisel—a Lutheran who grew up in a tight-knit German American community in Springfield, Massachusetts—drew editorial cartoons for PM, the progressive daily newspaper in New York, warning readers about Hitler and anti-Semitism and attacking the “America First” isolationists who turned a blind eye to the rise of fascism and the Holocaust.
His most popular children’s books included parables about racism, anti-Semitism, the arms race, and the environment. But, equally important, he used his pen to encourage youngsters to challenge bullies and injustice. Generations of progressive activists may not trace their political views to their early exposure to Dr. Seuss, but without doubt this shy, brilliant genius played a role in sensitizing them to abuses of power.
Geisel (1904-1991) was, and remains two decades after his death, the world’s most popular writer of modern children’s books. He wrote and illustrated forty-four children’s books characterized by memorable rhymes, whimsical characters, and exuberant drawings that encouraged generations of children to love reading and expand their vocabularies. His books, including his two most popular stories (The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham), have been translated into more than fifteen languages and sold over 200 million copies. They have been adapted into feature films, TV specials, and a Broadway musical. He earned two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Geisel believed that children’s books should be both entertaining and educational. He thought, as he wrote in a 1960 article for the Los Angeles Times, that writers of children’s books should “talk, not down to them as kiddies, but talk to them clearly and honestly as equals.”
From Insecticide Ads to Children’s Books
Geisel’s career as a children’s book author happened by accident, one of those twists of fate that occasionally change the course of history.
Dreier, Peter. 2011. Dr. Seuss's Progressive Politics. Tikkun26(4): 28.