If you were to approach 100 people on the street and ask each one to recite from any narrative poem, the odds are that maybe one of them could get off a few lines of "Hiawatha" or "The Raven." But if you were to suggest that they could include the works of Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, the chances are that most born after 1950--or everyone with children--could get off not just a few lines but perhaps whole book-length poems. He is, without doubt, the best-known American narrative poet of the last half of the 20th century. And not just best-known: he's one of the best.
In "The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats," Philip Nel helps us understand just why Dr. Seuss has captured the imaginations of several generations of readers--and their parents. Nel's line-by-line analyses and explanations illuminate precisely how Seuss created his masterwork. We are treated to rough sketches and first drafts. We see the Cat's antecedents, especially the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat (more for Ignatz than Krazy) and Felix the Cat (for the bow tie). We get literary criticism and history: it took Seuss a year and a half to write and draw "Cat"--he once described the writing process as like "being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love." Not that Seuss minded hanging out with the bad guys--in fact, Nel says that the unconventional and subversive author identified most strongly with his most mischievous characters. After all, Seuss's license plate read grinch.
When "Cat" was finally published in 1957, it actually came out in two versions. The edition sold to the public took off immediately; in four years it sold 2 million copies. But the school version didn't sell nearly as well. Many reading teachers preferred the predictable stodginess of "See Spot Run," and refused to switch. Not that Seuss ever lacked defenders--and not all of them were in the second grade. One of the earliest was language maven Rudolf Flesch, the author of "Why Johnny Can't Read." But not even Flesch was able to explain the elusive, albeit obvious, charm of "The Cat in the Hat": "What exactly is it," he asked, "that makes this stuff immortal? I don't know. There is something about it--a swing to the language, a deep understanding of the playful mind of a child, an indefinable something that makes Dr. Seuss a genius pure and simple." Pure maybe, simple certainly not.
Whatever we make of "The Cat in the Hat," we cannot call it an accident. Watching Seuss revise is a lesson any writer or artist could benefit from. When the Cat says he knows some new tricks and offers to show them to the two children whose home he has invaded, Seuss began by making him say, "I can show them to you." He crossed out "can" and substituted "Let me." Then he crossed that out and penciled in "I will." Suddenly, the Cat is in focus--and in command. Showing us how Seuss worked--showing him assemble the cat line by line in ink and print--is the coolest gift this "Annotated Cat" could give us. Looking over the shoulder of a master, we learn the true meaning of the words "It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how." Boy, did he know how.
Yet when something is as much fun as "The Cat in the Hat," it's hard to take it seriously, to think of it as poetry. But how many poets do you know who can sustain a book-length poem using a vocabulary list of only 236 words--only one of them more than two syllables--and not make it look like a stunt? Because the fact is, when we read "The Cat in the Hat," we are not thinking anapestic dimeter, we are not marveling at the ease with which Seuss manipulates this first-grade vocabulary list. Instead, we are lost in the cat's effort to balance two books and a fish and little toy ship and some milk on a dish! We are hypnotized by the struggle to contain Thing One and Thing Two before they can destroy the house. (And yes, some of us are hypnotized by the book's unanswered questions: what is the boy's name, and what sort of mother leaves two young children home alone "for the day"?) But most remarkably, we are hypnotized night after night after night. This is a story that never goes stale, and what is that if not art?