(Originally appeared in slightly different form in American Heritage, October 2005)
Theodore Seuss Giesel (1904-1991), Dr. Seuss, was already an experienced advertising man, political cartoonist, and children's book author and illustrator when Houghton Mifflin commissioned him, in 1957, to write a "new reader" primer of 225 vocabulary words for the school market. He came up with The Cat in the Hat, hailed as something new, a "karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane, and Spot," as the blurb on the back of every hardcover copy still says.
In fact it was the same old same old. From And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) to Oh The Places You'll Go (1990), Dr. Seuss' 44 books follow the same pattern. He presented, in Mulberry Street, something originally fairly clever (bright silly pictures, easy rhymes) and rendered it, through repetition, both pedestrian and shrill. His furry, long-fingered, snarly-faced creatures are disturbing in the extreme. His poetry ceased to be merely easy and became instead limericks, the dead spaces of which he filled up, endlessly, with what limericks are: jangling "sala-ma-goox" nonsense, and lazy, leaden-witted stories.
What are his books actually about? Nice enough moral themes -- be kind (Horton Hears a Who) be tolerant (The Sneetches) tyranny is bad (Yertle the Turtle) don't pollute (The Lorax) -- are troweled over hastily-thought-out, junk plots. An elephant hears voices coming from a dust-speck. A lowly turtle dethrones the turtle king by burping and thus dislodging the stack of other turtles the king is sitting on. Sometimes there is no moral theme. A boy imagines cooking eggs from different weird creatures. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is about a pink bathtub stain that gets splashed about the house during various efforts to clean it up. The shopworn conclusion to this one, as so often in Dr. Seuss books, is that the littlest creature brings forth the miraculous "Voom," and saves the day.
Possibly the best thing to be said about his career is that that "karate chop" primer helped launch the Beginner Books series, which gave scope to better writers. Dr. Seuss' own inflated reputation, complete with postage stamps and official public-school birthday parties, remains odd. Odder still is the spectacle of children being made to worship a man who liked to make rhymes about the helpless being allowed to be different. Somewhere in there is a lampoon of the age.