Friday, July 14, 2006

Do Foxes Even Like Grapes?

A million years ago, I wrote an essay for the NYT Book Review, "Yooks, Zooks, and the Bomb," about anti-nuke books for children. You might remember that in Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book the Yooks and the Zooks are quarreling because one eats bread butter-side up, and the other, down. I complained that the can't-we-all-just-get-along message was compromised by the metaphor, that eating bread butter-side-down was "objectively stupid, not just different." Well. I had missed the fact that stupid had become as verboten as doo-doo-head, and some frothing lefty wrote in to the letters page complaining about my disrespect for other cultures. I told you fables were trouble. The Yooks and the Zooks aren't real, and when we try to draw a correspondence between fantasy and reality to make a moral point we need to make damned sure that everything lines up neatly. This is hard, because reality resists neatness, so a fable always risks both glibness and biting itself in the ass.

18 comments:

Andy Laties said...

Well, if anyone has been guilty of this it's certainly Ted Geisel. Because he frequently covered his tracks more effectively than in BUTTER BATTLE, however, it has generally gone unremarked. Richard Minear's terrific DR.SEUSS GOES TO WAR unmasks the real-world basis of several Seuss books. The most outlandishly ignorant and offensive of his parables is HORTON HEARS A WHO. If anyone knew what exactly he was saying, with that book, they'd be disgusted. But his point was so elaborately weird that it completely vanished into the plotline.

OK. In the book HORTON HEARS A WHO, Horton the Elephant discovers a speck with sentient population living on it, at microscopic scale. The flower on which this speck is situated is however stolen and carried away by the black-bottomed eagle named Vlad Vlad-i-koff.

The book is dedicated "For My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan". Ted Geisel had recently visited Japan (1953 or so) and had had a great time there. Of course this was during the period of greatest American influence. And just around the time of the Korean War ceasefire -- the Soviet Union in the Sakhalin Islands just north of Hokkaido...

The HORTON book lines up this way: Horton is the U.S.A. The Who's are the Japanese; their speck is Japan. The black-bottomed eagle is the Russians. The book is all about how no matter what the Russians try to do to weak little Japan, you can bet that America will keep cute helpless Japan safe.

The reason this is ignorant and offensive is that when Ted Geisel experienced the legendary politeness and affability of the Japanese, he interpreted this as Love For America And All America Was Doing. He didn't understand the nature of the national humiliation Japan and the Japanese. Sure the Japanese people had waged war under a scary military dictatorship. Surely dissent was impossible. Undoubtedly many Japanese were delighted with the nature of the U.S. Occupation which was stunningly benevolent: When the Japanese themselves occupied foreign countries after victory in war they'd been absolutely brutal, and here they were being nurtured and befriended by their occupier. Being occupied post-war by Stalin would have been a truly terrifying outcome and they'd dodged that bullet. Nevertheless, the Japanese did not like being dependant, or being treated like cultural inferiors, which was essentially what the Occupation meant. The Japanese were certain of course that they were infinitely superior on a cultural level to the childlike Americans.

They were chafing under the American Occupation, but they certainly didn't show this to visiting Americans like Ted Geisel. To them, they expressed gratitude for all America was doing to help Japan recover, etc. So, Geisel didn't know that his portrayal of the ancient, sophisticated, remarkable culture of Japan (where Warriors Are Warriors) as being weak and plaintive and victimized and helpless was in fact horrifically insulting to these very people he was trying to generously assure of America's love and devotion.

Better not to know, eh?

Much funnier is MARVIN K. MOONEY WILL YOU PLEASE GO NOW (1972) which is quite specifically a plea to Richard M. Nixon to get lost.

Of course YERTLE THE TURTLE is about Hitler (note the consonants in "Yertle"). Geisel had visited Germany in the mid-30s and he misunderstood Hitler's control over the German people as somehow a matter of the people being duped and supporting a charismatic leader who they should have known better than to be supporting. He was arguing that if only people withdrew their support for this dictator, he would fall. People like Geisel -- Americans of German extraction -- like everyone in the U.S. -- didn't know about the extent of thuggish paramilitary Brownshirt and SS terror keeping the German populace from engaging in dissent. YERTLE is a fable more appropriate to the U.S. electoral context (at least in periods when the electoral machinery isn't compromised through implementation of corrupt software by corporations affiliated with the current ruling party...)

As to BUTTER BATTLE: Roger, I'd say the Ted Geisel was emphatically anti-communist and that the Butter-Side Down guys are MEANT to be the stupid ones. He was saying: They're stupid but this whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine is even stupider. (Ahem -- More Stupid.)

rindawriter said...

Dear, dear! WHO could have guessed that Dr. Seuss was stuffing all that into his picture books!

My, my....but now, I know why I have never, NEVER liked the dwarves in Disney's cartoon of Snow White....and "Millions of Cats?" And "Ferdinand?" I suppose they're goners now, too....goodness!

monica said...

You'll be happy to know that the latest celebrity children book author, M. Night Shyamalan, (in a video at amazon.com) credits THE GIVING TREE, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and the books of Chris Van Allsburg as inspirations for LADY IN THE WATER: A BEDTIME STORY. The previews for the movie make me wonder about that subtitle, but if it a fable...well, whew, no problem!

Lynn said...

I often wonder if authors really place some of the meanings attributed to them within their children's works. Or, are we reading more into it than exists?

I won't argue the complexities of Dr. Suess (though that statement sounds odd) because Geisel had a wide and varied career before, during, and after his children's book authoring days. There is a chapter devoted to "Misunderstanding Dr. Suess" in The Seuss, the whole Seuss, and nothing but the Seuss : a visual biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel. An interesting read.

Melinda said...

*starts wondering what Green Eggs and Ham is *really* about!*

Fran Hodgkins said...

Andy, thanks for the thought-provoking posting. The author of Dr. Seuss Goes to War did interview Dr. Seuss. However, Seuss said Horton Hears a Who was a story about the importance of voting -- and how one person can make a difference. The America-as-Horton/Japan-as-Whos was the author's own interpretation of the book.

As mentioned some time ago on this blog, authors can't control how people interpret our work....

Roger Sutton said...

I'm wary of Lady in the Water. Not because it looks scary (I hope it is) but bcause the preview included one of the all-time lamest spooky-movie devices, a child's voice piping some nursery rhyme in an echo chamber. Please.

Andy Laties said...

Fran,

Really??? Professor Minear was here at the museum and I spoke to him about this! I'll reread the material in the book. I recall that this stuff about Horton was in an extended footnote. (Unfortunately I'm out of stock on the title today!!)

Professor Minear is a Japanese Studies guy. HORTON's dedication...well--how could it be about American elections??!!

DR. SEUSS GOES TO WAR is definitely filled with stuff that the Seuss Enterprises gang wishes had never been reprinted. The pro-war cartoons, with lots of ugly racist stereotypes, had fallen into the public domain, which is how Minear was able to do this book.

Fran Hodgkins said...

Hi Andy,

I agree that a lot of the cartoons are at odds with the image that Seuss Inc. would like to foster! As artifacts of the time, though, they are intriguing -- especially his take on Lindbergh....

Of course, Seuss himself might have regretted some of the messages in his work after the 30+ years had elapsed between Horton's dedication and the interview. Maybe he decided to spin it toward the voting thing.

Lynn said...

You have made me curious as to Horton Hear's a Who and the two different meanings of the work being discussed. I checked several different Seuss books this afternoon and while able to find definite war and Japanese studies information and theme regarding much of Seuss's work, what interested me was the following from Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography by Judith and Neil Morgan.

Of Horton it says:

"The theme of the book - 'a person's a person no matter how small - had grown out of visits to Japanese schools, where the importance of the individual was considered an exciting new concept. Ted dedicated the book to his 'great friend' Mitsugi Nakamura, a Kyoto university professor whom he had met through Donald Bartlett."

Andy Laties said...

Well -- it begins to seem to me that maybe Richard Minear's analysis is a bit of a Hobby-Horse. Possibly.

But -- how then explain the weirdly Russian name of the evil character, the black-bottomed eagle?

I wonder if the Morgan's bio, like Charles Cohen's NOTHING BUT THE SEUSS book, has been approved by the Seuss Enterprises people. Minear's book was not -- thus he's free to say what he wants.

Lynn said...

I would guess the answer to that question is yes. The official seussville site uses the Morgan's book as an information resource for the Seuss biography posted within. Additionally, the acknowledgements page in the book thanks Audrey S. Geisel for access to papers and hours of personal interviews.

An aside since Andy mentioned Charles Cohen. An interview with Cohen, author of The Suess, the Whole Suess, and Nothing but the Seuss is also posted on the seussville site.

My apologies, I forgot to include page numbers with the previous quote concerning Horton in the Morgan biography. It is located on pgs 144-145.

Andy Laties said...

I dealt with the Seuss Enterprises people in 1998 back when they went through a huge round of licensing -- I was running the store at Chicago Children's Museum where the new Seuss exhibit came after its launch at Manhattan Children's Museum. I met Audrey Geisel, and also the lawyer who was driving the whole big licensing bus.

There's a very funny story about Audrey Geisel. She met Ted Geisel at a party (I think he was still married to his first wife Helen at the time?). She was introduced to Ted as "Have you met Dr. Seuss?" She said approximately, "What is your medical specialty?" She'd never heard of him.

The nasty stories about what really happened with Ted, Audrey and the sick Helen I will not repeat here since I don't know if they're true.

Anyway, I wouldn't trust officially approved material.

Anonymous said...

intrigued by you banter on the subject of horton his who and ww2
just curious, i was looking into the importance of the day
the 15th of may the day horton found the who speck in the book
i found vague sites about a naval uprising in japan on the day in 1938 does this have any importance?

RockytheSquirrel said...

As for May 15, don't know about the naval uprising, but Wikipedia notes that in 1948 on that day, Egypt, et al., attacked Israel. Perhaps a back-hand reference to that? Israel was rather small and many at the time were willing for her to be sacrificed to keep order in the Mid-East. She also had the backing of the largest power of the day (elephant), in the USA. Maybe there's something to that.

jackie said...

Hello, is anyone home? am I the only one who finds it blatently obvious that Horton Hears a Who is about communism and the McCarthy trials....

Anonymous said...

Just today someone was telling me about Green Eggs and Ham (powdered eggs and Spam [Korea]). Box=traincar,
Fox=foxhole
Mouse (mice problem in barracks)
so on and so on...
Anybody else ever hear that Green Eggs and Ham was the author "quietly" protesting the Korean War?

IrreverendAmy said...

Anybody else ever hear that Green Eggs and Ham was the author "quietly" protesting the Korean War?

In which case, the moral is, try the Korean War, you'll like it.

Who was telling you this? The guy on the bus who never changes his shirt and tells whoever's sitting next to him his latest conspiracy theory?