The Politics of Dr. Seuss

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"The Lorax," which premieres in movie theaters this weekend, is an adaptation of Dr. Seuss' classic tale of the ecologically conscious Lorax, the greedy Once-ler who devastated the environment by cutting all the Truffula trees and a young boy who is provided a seed of hope to save a devastated world.

As was the case when "The Lorax" was first released in 1971, the environmental morality tale at the center of the film adaptation has been attacked by critics who say the story conveys an anti-industry message. Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, who would have been 108 years old as of March 2, 2012, never shied from embedding his political views within the pages of his books. Several examples are detailed in the documentary "The Political Lens of Dr. Seuss," featured on PBS's Independent Lens in 2004, the year of Geisel's 100th birthday.

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"The Lorax" is just one of many titles within which Geisel spins an issue into a vivid story about a bizarre and far-off world that mimics the troubles of our own.

"The Butter Battle Book," which was published in 1984, may have been Geisel's most controversial work. The story revolves around two mutually antagonistic cultures called the Yooks and the Zooks, a veiled reference to the United States and Soviet Union. Both sides are divided on what should be the trivial issue of whether bread should be buttered on the top or bottom of the slice. The divide leads to an arms race and the book ends with both sides facing off against one another on top of a wall, an allusion to the wall in Berlin. The final page is blank, inviting readers to finish the story themselves.

The story tackles the heavy issue of nuclear annihilation and mutually assured destruction. Despite the subject matter, the book was popular primarily among adults and held a place on the New York Times' best-seller list for six months, according to BBC News.

Libraries across the country yanked the book, partly because of the downbeat ending that could frighten younger children, but also because of the story's political messaging.

A less controversial, though no less serious work, is "Yertle the Turtle," a book whose title masks the message hidden within. Yertle, a turtle who's king of the pond, insists that his followers stack one on top of the other as high as the moon so that he can have a taller throne. Yertle is so obsessed with being above everyone and everything else that he even gets upset when the moon rises above him. His endless ambition ultimately proves his downfall as a simple turtle burp leads to Yertle's literal fall from grace.

Published in 1958, the book is an allegory of the ruthless pursuit of ambition by dictators. Specifically, Geisel designed the character of Yertle after Adolf Hitler. Geisel's message is that all dictators eventually meet the same fate and the people (or turtles) who were once oppressed will win back their freedom.

When Geisel published "The Sneetches" three years later, he had another issue in mind: anti-Semitism. The story has since been interpreted as a parable against prejudice and discrimination in general.

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The Sneetches themselves are a group of social animals, some of whom have stars on their stomachs while others don't. Those who lack stars are marginalized by those who do, creating an unequal society. When a clever entrepreneur comes up with a means of mimicking the stars and uproots the Sneetches' social order (and the Sneetches end up handing all their money over to this inadvertent iconoclast), the creatures learn a lesson about judging each other on appearance alone.

Although Geisel often tackled issues and current events in his books, he also had no qualms with setting his sights on a single political figure. "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!" on the surface is about a child who needs to go to bed. A few years after its publication, the Watergate scandal provided Geisel with a means of turning his book into a political statement by replacing the name "Marvin K. Mooney" with "Richard M. Nixon," an alteration that would be published in the Washington Post.

Children's books penned by Dr. Seuss may be loaded with bright colors, catchy rhymes and innocent-looking creatures. But, no matter how far away the places that Geisel would go, behind many of these stories were his views of how he saw the world around him.

Photo Credits:

Universal Pictures (top); Wikimedia Commons (bottom images)