Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz.": How World War II Created Dr. Seuss

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz.": How World War II Created Dr. Seuss

Article excerpt

This essay examines the effect that Dr. Seuss's experience as a cartoonist for the newspaper PM had on his later career as a writer of children's books. While Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel situates these cartoons historically, this essay examines how the war shaped Dr. Seuss.

Long before Theodor Seuss Geisel became the Dr. Seuss famous for The Cat in the Hat and over forty other children's books, he was a successful advertising artist and--for just under two years--a political cartoonist. In 1940, Dr. Seuss was best known for his "Quick Henry, the Flit!" advertising campaign (for Flit bug spray) and was just starting to build a reputation as an author of children's books. At the time, he had published only four: To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (both in 1937), The King's Stilts (1939), and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). His next, McElligot's Pool, did not appear until 1947, because his concerns about the rapidly expanding world war had begun to simmer. Convinced that the United States would be drawn into the wars in Europe and the Pacific, he feared that American isolationism left the country vulnerable. In late January 1941, he expressed his frustration by sending a sketch of Mussolini's chief propagandist, Virginio Gayda, to the inde pendent New York newspaper PM, where both the cartoon and his letter were printed on 30 January. Less than three months later, Seuss began his twenty-one-month career as a political cartoonist, publishing nearly 400 cartoons in PM between April 1941 and January 1943.

According to a Gallup Poll from April 1941, 80 percent of Americans opposed going to war with Germany, but 73 percent were in favour of the United States Navy escorting aid to Britain and, if attacked by the Germans, returning their fire. Probably referring to this 80 percent, Seuss's cartoon of 29 May 1941 depicts Hamilton Fish, representative from New York, talking on the telephone with Adolf Hitler. Fish says, "Now, Adolf, Just Forget What Franklin Said. 80 Per Cent of Us Here Want to Let You Have Your Fling." Strongly disagreeing with Fish and the 80 percent, Seuss was not only in favour of aiding Britain, but he also saw that war with Nazi Germany would be inevitable. As Seuss wrote in his never-published Non-Autobiography, "We were going to have no choice in the matter" (Morgan and Morgan 103). He added, "N.B. To the younger generation: I'm not talking about Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. I'm talking about a war that had to be fought. If my philosophy irritates yours, please write me in care of Justin Hoogf liet, the boy who stuck his finger in the dike, Foedersvlied, Holland 09037" (311). A cartoon from June 1941 expresses his views quite directly, and in verse: a bird representing Uncle Sam relaxes in an easy chair, while bombs explode all around him. The rollicking anapests in the caption lack the sparkle of the poetry in his children's books, but this cartoon does introduce the primary effect that World War II had on Dr. Seuss's post-war works. During the war, and especially during his stint as a cartoonist for the left-leaning daily paper PM, Seuss not only grew more interested in social issues but also wanted to make his readers care about these issues, too. Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War--which omits this cartoon--does an excellent job of situating Seuss's cartoons historically, but it might do more in situating them in the context of Seuss's children's books. Because Minear is a professor of history, he should not be faulted for his emphasis. However, scholars of children's literature and culture would do well to consider how the war shaped the artist who became Dr. Seuss. His career as cartoon propagandist made Seuss more willing to confront his readers, even at the risk of offending them. Furthermore, Seuss's work in the fight against Fascism both galvanized his commitment to various social issues and motivated him to write books that encourage readers to challenge certain structures of power. …

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