Seuss and WWII
The political themes exposed in the WWII political cartoons of Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, influenced a number of his later works of children’s literature.
Seuss’ Editorial Cartoons in WWII
Seuss and Japanese-Americans
First PM Magazine Cartoon, Virgino Gayda
May 19, 1941 Hitler Cartoon
July 16, 1941 Isolationist Cartoon
F. The Influence of Seuss’ Editorial Cartoons
Political Aspects of Seuss’ Children’s Literature
Recreation of PM Magazine Characters in Children’s Literature
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and Totalitarianism
The Sneetches and Other Stories and Tolerance and Racism
The Butter Battle Book and the Cold War
E. Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! And Richard Nixon
F. The Influence of the Political and Social Content of Seuss’ Children’s Literature
The political themes exposed in the WWII political cartoons of Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, influenced a number of his later works of children’s literature. Known primarily for his children’s books, Seuss wrote a series of over 400 political cartoons for PM Magazine that explored a variety of subjects, including Hitler, Fascist Italian publicist Virgino Gayda and Mussolini and fascism, American Isolationism, and racism. May of these themes were later explored in his children’s books, including Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!, The Butter Battle Book, The Sneetches and Other Stories, and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories.
Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! reveals Seuss’ feelings that President Nixon should resign, while The Butter Battle Book clearly shows that the political and social conscience that Seuss honed during his time at PM Magazine, was active well into his old age. In his children’s book, The Sneetches and Other Stories, Seuss again expanded on the theme of tolerance and the attacks on racism that he incorporated into many of his editorial cartoons from PM Magazine. Similarly, Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories is deeply reminiscent of the dislike of fascism and totalitarianism seen in his PM Magazine cartoons. Overall, Seuss’ contributions to the political landscape, while commonly overlooked in favor of his contributions to children’s literature, were significant and important in shaping public opinion, both in an overt form seen in his editorial cartoons, and in the more subtle political messages seen in his children’s books.
To most of the world, Dr. Seuss is best known for his tremendous impact on children’s literature. In his lifetime, he wrote 44 children’s books that were translated into over 15 languages and sold over 200 million copies in total. He is best known to millions around the world as a man who wrote whimsical and catchy children’s books, including The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Fox in Socks, and The Cat in the Hat. Seuss was awarded two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award and the Pulitzer Prize (Dr. Seuss Enterprises). As a children’s author, Seuss’ influence has been tremendous and long-lasting, with Hollywood adapting The Grinch who Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat into major motion pictures starring Jim Carrey and Mike Myers, respectively. One of the most famous characteristics of Seuss’ children’s literature is his masterful and almost hypnotic use of rhythmic, rhyming prose such as anapestic tetrameter in his children’s works (Wikipedia).
While his success in children’s books is clearly remarkable, Dr. Seuss’ life and career were far more complex than is suggested by the common perception of his as only a children’s author. Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel, March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. As a shy child, he learned a love of rhyme and meter from his mother (Weidt and Maguire). Later, he attended Dartmouth College and became editor-in-chief of the school’s humor magazine Jack-O-Lantern. He was soon kicked off the magazine for violating the schools drinking policy, but began to contribute cartoons under the penname of Seuss, which was both his middle name and his mother’s maiden name. Seuss then went on to Oxford but soon dropped out of school due to boredom. There he met his first wife, Helen Palmer. Seuss returned to the United States and began working as a cartoonist, writing for the Saturday Evening Post, and creating advertising campaigns for Standard oil for close to 15 years (Dr. Seuss Enterprises; Wikipedia).
Seuss’ career shifted with the advent of WWII, as he began to write weekly political cartoons for the liberal PM Magazine. Seuss was too old to be accepted for the draft, but wanting to help with the war effort, he worked making training films for the U.S. Army. He continued illustrating for magazines like Judge, Vanity Fair and Life during this period (Dr. Seuss Enterprises).
Seuss began his career in children’s literature when Viking Press offered him a chance to illustrate a children’s book called Banners. The book was a flop, but Seuss’ illustrations won high praise, and his career in children’s literature was born. He married Audry Stone Geisel after his first wife died in 1967, who now acts as president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises (Dr. Seuss Enterprises). Seuss died in on September 21, 1991, after an illness of several months (MacDonald).
Seuss’ Editorial Cartoons in WWII
Seuss’ political involvement, in the form of numerous political cartoons created during WWII that is perhaps one of the most interesting and less known aspects of his career in literature. As WWII began, Seuss’s opposition to fascism and his support of the American war effort spurred him to begin to express his political ideas through his illustrations. In all, Seuss drew over 400 political cartoons in four years for PM Magazine, and created a series of war bonds “cartoons” that appeared an a wide number of newspapers across the United States (Minear; Wikipedia).
The large majority of Seuss’ cartoons were published in PM Magazine, a leading liberal publication backed by Marshal Field III. Seuss’ collaboration with the magazine began in early 1941, when “haunted by the war in Europe” (Morgan, p. 100), Seuss showed his friend Zinny Vanderlip Schoales an editorial cartoon that he had drawn. Schoales took Seuss’ cartoon to Ralph Ingersoll, who had launched PM Magazine, and Seuss soon became a regular contributor (Morgan). PM Magazine published works by Crockett Johnson, Lillian Hellman and James Thurber, and was outspoken in its political theme, and contained no advertisements (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman).
Many of Seuss’ cartoons clearly oppose the viciousness of leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. In particular, his early cartoons showed a passionate opposition to fascism, even before the United States officially entered WWII. His depictions of Japan characterized the nation with a character with a sneering grin and slanted eyes. In his cartoons, he also brought attention to the beginnings of the Holocaust, and he also objected to discrimination against Jews and blacks (Wikipedia). His 1942 campaign against the ideas of anti-Semitic Catholic Pries Father Coughlin was largely influential in discrediting the priest (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman).
Despite the generally liberal leanings of many of his cartoons, a segment of Seuss’ cartoons during WWII depicted Japanese-Americans as traitors. One of these cartoons appeared a day before the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Untied States. Understandably, these cartoons have disturbed many people (Wikipedia). It is clear, however, that these cartoons can be seen as reflections of the prevailing political attitudes of the times. Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps in a period of political fear and paranoia, and a great number of Americans supported such internments. As such, Seuss’ cartoons that often depicted Japanese-Americans as traitorous, while clearly unacceptable today, is a clear reflection of the political climate of the day, and Seuss’ interpretation of supporting the American war effort. These cartoons have “struck many readers as a strange moral blind spot in a generally idealistic man” (Wikipedia).
Seuss’ first political cartoon in PM Magazine was published on January 30, 1941. It was an attack on Fascist Italian publicist Virgino Gayda and Mussolini (Available online at (http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dspolitic/Frame.htm).The cartoon depicts a pompous writer sitting in front of an oversized typewriter, with keys askew and the typewriter clearly about to break down. Springs are exposed, and steam seems to be escaping from the machine. A piece of paper from the typewriter becomes a banner above the machine, which reads: “Virginio Gayda says.” The banner is held up by a scruffy, chubby male cupid or angel who is holding up his hand in a disdainful, stop gesture. A small bird is caught in midair by one of the typewriter’s noxious bursts of steam. In the cartoon, Seuss is clearly characterizing Gayda’s writing as full of obnoxious rhetoric and wind (symbolized by the steam from the typewriter), and attempting to discredit both the writer Gayda and the cause that he is writing in support of, Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Seuss’ editorial cartoons often portrayed America’s opponents in an unflattering light. An editorial cartoon published in PM Magazine on May 19, 1941 depicts the nations of Europe as being milked by Adolph Hitler. The cartoon depicts Hitler as running a dairy operation, noted as “Consolidated World Dairy, A. Hitler, Prop.” On a barn in the backdrop (Available online at (http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dspolitic/pm/10519cs.jpg).In the cartoon, Hitler is surrounded by milking jugs and milking stools, and as the figure of a smiling, many-legged cow with multiple udders walks by with its eyes closed. Each of the separate bodies of the cow is marked with the name of a separate European country, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Jugoslavia (sic), Romania, Greece, and Austria, followed by a cow with a simple question mark to indicate that other nations will follow (Minear, A Catalog; Wikipedia).
Seuss was also quick to criticize American interests, and American isolationists were a favorite target, One of the most notable of these cartoons was published in PM Magazine on July 16, 1941 (Available online at (http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dspolitic/pm/10716cs.jpg).This cartoon shows a smiling whale sitting on top of a mountain, with as small mountaineer looking at it in wonder. The text below, titled “The Isolationist,” reads:
Said a whale, “There is so much commotion,
Such fights among fish in the ocean,
I’m saving my scalp
Living high on an Alp
Dear Lindy! He gave me the notion!”).
In this cartoon, Seuss is clearly criticizing the American refusal to engage in the events of WWII. Specifically, the U.S. had refused to engage in the affairs of European powers, and to stay neutral in wars between European powers. “Lindy” likely refers to the Charles Lindbergh, an advocate of the isolationist group America First, and a common target of Seuss’ cartoons. Lindenberg was a well-known flier who had often made anti-Semitic remarks and was known as an isolationist (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman). Seuss clearly felt that America should intervene in the war in Europe.
The editorial cartoons produced during Seuss’ tenure at PM magazine clearly show the whimsical nature that characterized a great deal of his later children’s literature. In his cartoons, Seuss used a number of animals like dragons, seals, whales and dogs to illustrate his ideas, and often placed them in fanciful positions. Characters in the cartoons were drawn with enlarged eyelashes, with enormous goofy smiles, and unorthodox body proportions. Animals were used commonly in Seuss’ cartoons to represent both America’s allies and enemies, with Germany often depicted as a dachshund dog, and America drawn as an eagle (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman).
The impact of Seuss’ editorial cartoons on the American population is difficult to estimate. Clearly, Seuss was a reflection of the ideas and beliefs of many Americans. For example, Seuss’ portraits of Japanese and Japanese-Americans became more virulent and racist as the war grew increasingly difficult, and American opinion of the Japanese grew more unfavorable and racist as well. Seuss’ belief that America should enter the war and his clear and pointed dislike of, and opposition to, the was also shared by many Americans (Nel).
Importantly, Seuss’ cartoons also played an important role in shaping American public opinion. Specifically, his 1942 cartoons that lampooned the anti-Semitic ideas of Catholic Pries Father Coughlin was influential in discrediting the priest (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman). Seuss’ attacks on isolationist, dictators and fascists also likely played an important role in solidifying public opinion for an America that was involved in the war. Seuss also encouraged Americans to buy war savings bonds and stamps, put up with shortages, and help to control inflation, thus encouraging Americans to support the war effort (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman).
Political Aspects of Seuss’ Children’s Literature
Seuss’ work during WWII clearly had a profound influence on the political content and the visual components of much of his later writing of children’s literature. Many of the characters created during his tenure at PM magazine appeared in a different guise in his later children’s literature. For example, the isolationist whale depicted in his July 16, 1941 PM cartoon appeared in later literature with no clear political undertones. Examples of the whale, complete with a round body and long eyelashes, appear in On Beyond Zebra as Wumbus, and in McElligot’s Pool, and If I Ran the Circus. Similarly, the many legged cow used to spoof Hitler’s actions in May 19, 1941 appeared later as the character of Umbus in On Beyond Zebra. Similarly, insects with huge stingers that were used to portray allied aircraft in his editorial cartoons appeared later as the character of Sneedle in On Beyond Zebra. The symbol of an elephant was used to represent India in several of his political cartoons, and the elephant character was used later Seuss’ children’s literature (Wikipedia). Even his famous character from the story Cat in the Hat bears a strong resemblance to Uncle Sam (Milnear, Geisel and Spiegelman).
WWII continued to shape Seuss’ writings long after his tenure writing political cartoons had ended. After WWII, Seuss and his wife Helen moved to La Jolla, California. Here, he wrote a number of children’s books that had often overlooked political undertones that were likely influenced by his political “awakening” during WWII and his tenure as a political cartoonist with PM Magazine.
In Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, published in 1958, Seuss reiterated his dislike of totalitarianism that was repeatedly seen in his cartoons for PM Magazine. In the book, Yertle begins the tale as the king of a small pond, where all of the turtles are happy and occupied. One day, Yertle decides that he should rule more land, and that he should be lifted higher on his throne in order to see more and thus expand his dominion. He is never satisfied, seeing only more opportunities and more land to rule, and even becomes so absorbed in his struggle for power that he is angered at the moon “That dares to be higher than Yertle the King” (Seuss). Eventually, Yertle’s enormous throne is toppled by a burp by the quiet turtle Mack, who is the first brick of his throne. Yertle’s dominion is ended by the simple action of one unassuming turtle.
In Yertle the Turtle, Seuss is clearly parodying the greed for power seen in leaders like Mussolini and Hitler. In the story, Seuss reveals that Yertle’s throne, literally built on the backs of others, is ultimately worthless. In his May 19, 1941 cartoon for PM Magazine, Seuss described a similar scene, and depicted the nations of Europe as being milked by Adolf Hitler. As such, Yertle the Turtle is clearly a reiteration of the themes that Seuss explored in his earlier political cartoons.
In his book The Sneetches and Other Stories, published in 1961, Seuss reiterated the theme of tolerance and the attack of racism that was seen clearly in many of his editorial cartoons from PM Magazine. In The Sneetches and Other Stories, Seuss specifically tackled many of the issues of race that surrounded the emerging American Civil Rights Movement. Actually a compilation of four stories, each pleads for racial tolerance.
In the book, Seuss tells the story of a conman who exploits individuals who want to feel superior based solely upon their race (Seuss).
The Butter Battle Book, written in 1984, shows that Seuss’ political and social conscience, honed during his time at PM Magazine was active well into his old age. The inspiration from the book came from Seuss’s feelings about the cold war. Note Morgan and Morgan, Seuss was “brooding over the mounting cold war with the Soviet Union and believed that under Ronald Reagan the nuclear arms race was beyond control. Over dinner at La Valencia, he wondered out loud how a democratic government could impose ‘such deadly stupidity’ on people like him who were so opposed to nuclear proliferation.” In response, he wrote The Butter Battle Book.
In The Butter Battle Book, the characters of the Zooks, wearing orange suits, prefer to eat their bread butter side down, while the Yooks, wearing blue suits, prefer to eat their bread with butter side up. This seemingly trivial difference sets them on a seemingly uncontrollable an arms race, which include the building of the relatively innocuous Triple-Sling Jigger, which progresses to the making of weapons like the , and finally ends with the creation of the , a tiny weapon of mass destruction. The book concludes with both the Yooks and Zooks in possession of the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, and aiming to use it.
Perhaps the most overtly political of his works, The Butter Battle Book is a scathing parody of the nuclear arms race. It clearly shows the recklessness of the actors on both side of the race (the United States and the Soviet Union), and depicts the arms race as both irrefutably irresponsible and deeply destructive. In the ambiguous conclusion of The Butter Battle Book, the Zooks and Yooks (representing the United States and the Soviet Union) are clearly ready to use the weapon.
Seuss also continued to expand on the political content that he explored in PM Magazine with a foray into political writing with his book Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! The book was spurred by Seuss’ interest in the Watergate scandal, which culminated with satirist Art Buchwald’s dare to Seuss to write a political book. In response, Seuss took a copy of the book Marvin K. Mooney, and substituted the name of Richard M. Nixon, wherever Marvin K.’s name was written (Morgan and Morgan). In the book a large adult arm, wearing a wristwatch, points Marvin K. In the direction of his departure. The figure is not clearly seen beyond this, but offers a number of suggestions, including leaving on foot or being carried through the air by seven birds. Writes Seuss, “You can go on stilts. You can go by fish. You can go in a Crunk-Car if you wish” (Seuss).
In July of 1974, Buchwald wrote a syndicated column that was based on Seuss’ revision of the Marvin K. Mooney book. Nixon resigned a mere nine days after Marvin K. Mooney was published. In response, Seuss wrote to Buchwald, “We should have collaborated sooner” (Morgan and Morgan).
Overall, the political content within Seuss’ children’s literature is largely overlooked in favor of the books’ clear appeal to children and adults as educational tools and entertainment. Under the surface of his wacky characters and catchy rhymes, Seuss was often making an astute political or social message, delivered with great skill and precision in books as diverse as Yertle the Turtle, Marvin K. Mooney, The Butter Battle Book, and The Sneetches and Other Stories. These political and social influences have likely been deeply felt by readers of the over 200 million copies of Seuss’ books that are currently in circulation. While people do not often talk openly about the social or political content of Seuss’ children’s books, it is quite likely that they are instead influenced by his social and political messages at a truly fundamental and subtle level.
In conclusion, Seuss’ children’s books often reflect in great detail many of the political themes that Seuss explored during the creation of his WWII political cartoons for PM Magazine.
In general, Seuss’ contributions to the political landscape have been often overlooked in favor of his contributions to children’s literature. Nonetheless, Seuss’ political insights contributions have been important in shaping public opinion, both in the overt messages contained in his editorial cartoons, and in the more subtle political and social messages contained in many of his children’s books.
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Seuss, Dr. 1984. The Butter Battle Book. New York: Random House.
Seuss, Dr. 1961. The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York: Random House.
Seuss, Dr. 1958. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. New York: Random House.
Weidt, Maryann N. And Maguire, Kerry. 1995. Oh, the Places He Went: A Story About Dr. Seuss-Theodor Seuss Geisel. First Avenue Editions.
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