Books: 'Cat in the Hat' Explained at Last

If you were to approach 10 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 everyone born after 1950, or with children born after that date, 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 gives us a better grip on just why Dr. Seuss has so thoroughly captured the imaginations of several generations of readers—and the imaginations of their parents (when I was reading to my children, I would "lose" other favorites night after night just to have another go at "Fox in Sox" or "Green Eggs and Ham" or, best of all, "The Cat in the Hat," and I never had a single complaint—family fun may be an oxymoron in almost every other instance, but we all loved Dr. Seuss).

When something is as much fun as "The Cat in the Hat," it's hard to take it seriously. It's hard, for example, 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 only 14 with two—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?

In 1954, the novelist and journalist John Hersey wrote an angry essay in Life magazine that condemned the "See Spot Run" style of children's reading textbooks. If Johnny couldn't read, Hersey argued, it was because he was bored to tears by what he had to read. Hersey called for more imaginative reading texts and he challenged children's-book authors, including Dr. Seuss, to write such a book. Seuss accepted the challenge, thinking it might take him "a week or so." But then he discovered the limitations he would be laboring under. First-reader vocabularies are slim—that's where the 236 words came in. Not even all one-syllable words were permitted. "King" worked fine, for example, but "Queen" did not. In the end, it took him a year and a half to write and draw the book, an experience that he once described as like "being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love."

"The Cat in the Hat" first appeared in 1957 in two editions, one for classrooms, one for the public. The edition sold to the public took off immediately; in four years it sold two million copies. The school version did not sell nearly as well. "See Spot Run" had a lot of fans among educators. But not among educational critics. One of Seuss's biggest champions was Dr. Rudolf Flesch, the author of "Why Johnny Can't Read." Flesch loved "The Cat." 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.

Nel's line-by-line annotations illuminate precisely how Seuss created his masterwork (Nel also includes annotation for "The Cat in the Hat Came Back," which, while it's not a bad book, is no "Cat in the Hat"). We are treated to rough sketches and first drafts. The antecedents (comics of all kinds, of course, but especially "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Krazy Kat" [more for Ignatz than Krazy] and "Felix the Cat" [for the bow tie]). Nel even delves into the differences between the book and the animated cartoon of the same name made by Seuss and Chuck Jones. As delightful as the cartoon is, it offers a singular lesson in economy. The book, lacking music, lacking animation, lacking extra scenes and lines, is still better.

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 Sally and Whatsisname, 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 (but a master of the unconventional and the subversive—Seuss, according to Nel, identified most strongly with his most mischievous characters: his license plate read GRINCH), 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.