Oh The Places He'll Go!

Henry James, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson. Of the significant writers of English since Shakespeare, probably most could draw better than Dr. Seuss. Yet not even Darwin named as many new creatures, and few had as much influence on the worlds they lived in. Can anyone doubt that the anarchic youth culture of the 1960s was a result of the assault on bourgeois order in "The Cat in the Hat," which landed in the smug classrooms of 1957 with the unsettling splat of a fish falling into a teapot? A generation earlier, would Americans have been prepared to battle fascism had they not seen tyranny up close in "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" (1938)-an account of a Mussolini-esque ruler who executes boys who fail to take off their hats in his presence? Is it not probable that Winston Churchill, exhorting his countrymen to fight on after Dunkirk, was inspired by "Horton Hatches the Egg" (1940), whose elephant hero sits on a nest through 51 weeks' worth of adversity because "An elephant's faithful One hundred percent"?

Well, no, actually, it's not very probable at all. But it is true that at the height of the Watergate affair, Dr. Seuss sent Art Buchwald a copy of "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!" (1972), with "Richard M. Nixon" written over the name of the hero who had overstayed his welcome, Buchwald quoted from it in a column ("If you like you may go by lion's tail. Or stamp yourself and go by mail") and the next day, possibly by coincidence, Nixon resigned.

Like many great children's book writers, Theodor Seuss Geisel--the doctorate was self-bestowed-harbored vast literary ambitions. These were constrained by a desire to eat that led him, after graduation from Dartmouth and study at Oxford, to take a job writing advertisements for an insecticide. The first intimations of greatness were found in the drawings of people under attack by giant flying objects, illustrating the slogan "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" Forbidden by his contract to freelance in any other field of literature, he wrote his first children's book, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," in 1937. It was followed by 47 more, which by the time of his death last week in La Jolla, Calif., at the age of 87 had sold more than 200 million copies. This counts "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" (1990), still on the best-seller list after 79 weeks. But it doesn't count the several hundred copies sold of his 1937 adult book, "The Seven Lady Godivas," which suffered, he said, from the fact that "I can't draw naked women. I get the knees in the wrong places."

Actually, he had the same problem with elephants. Horton's legs bend sometimes forward, sometimes back, but anomalies like that never bothered Dr. Seuss's readers. Childless himself with Helen Palmer, his wife of 40 years, who died in 1967, he confined himself to that peculiar branch of literature directed at those who can't read. He took revenge on Flit with "The Lorax" (1971), which of course launched the environmental movement. ("So I quickly invented my Super-Axe-Hacker / which whacked off four Truffula Trees at one smacker.") And on business with "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" (1957), viewed as an attack on holiday commercialism. But Geisel resisted academic criticism. Doctoral theses were written about how some of his illustrations used just one color, he told an interviewer in 1972, when in fact it was the idea of his publisher Bennett Cerf, who was seeking to save printing costs. Still, it is obvious that the field of postexistentialism would have been impossible without the opening quatrain of "Green Eggs and Ham" ("That Sam-I-Am! /That Sam-I-Am!/I do not like/that Sam-I-Am!"). Which suggests his place in literary history, alongside that other towering genius of English letters: Lewis Carroll.

Join the Discussion