Home / Fall Table of Contents Richard Minear's latest subject: a surprising side of Dr. Seuss.
Historian Richard Minear's discovery - following the lead of one of his students - of a cache of forgotten political cartoons led to the publication this fall of one of the biggest attention-getters to come out of Herter Hall in quite some time: Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. Originally published by a defunct New York daily, these works by the Springfield-born children's-book author are introduced by his fellow winner of the Pulitzer Prize, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and analyzed by Minear. As a scholar of modern Japan, Minear notes Dr. Seuss's greater harshness with Japanese, as compared with German, subjects. But taken as a whole and with the exceptions he remarks upon, he finds the characterizations "remarkably gentle." He adds, "Is there any question that he belongs in the company of the very greatest political cartoonists of that era? Not in my mind."
. . . By 1941 Dr. Seuss had a steady income from Esso and the beginnings of a career as author of unconventional children's books. [But] all was not well with the world. In September 1931, Japan seized Manchuria, igniting Asia's fifteen-year war. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and plunged Europe into six years of war. Dr. Seuss had strong views. His opposition to Italian fascism led him to set pen to paper for his first editorial cartoon. The cartoon exemplified the sharp wit, the wealth of detail, and many of the stylistic elements that were to characterize Dr. Seuss's work for the next two years. In the cartoon, Virginio Gayda, editor of Il Giornale d'Italia, a major publication of the fascist regime, is suspended before a giant typewriter, banging away. . . A steam typewriter? Who but Dr. Seuss could have imagined it? . . . Dr. Seuss showed it to a friend who worked for PM, a left wing daily newspaper published in New York from 1940-1948. The cartoon appeared at the end of January 1941. Below it was this note:
Dear Editor: If you were to ask me, which you haven't, whom I consider the world's most outstanding writer of fantasy, I would, of course, answer: I am. My second choice, however, is Virginio Gayda. The only difference is that the writings of Mr. Gayda give me a pain in the neck . . . - Dr. Seuss.
. . . Before leaving the cartoons, we need to pause and review some of their distinguishing characteristics. First and foremost is their sheer quality. With over 400 cartoons in a two-year period, Dr. Seuss was certain to fail on occasion and to repeat himself from time to time, but how many cartoonists can boast of having drawn so many truly great cartoons? Among cartoonists active during World War II, Bill Mauldin, Herblock, and the British cartoonist David Low come to mind, but are there others? And is there any question that Dr. Seuss belongs in the company of these very greatest political cartoonists of that era? Not in my mind. These men are famous in part because we know their work: their cartoons have been collected, reprinted, anthologized. Not so the editorial cartoons of Dr. Seuss. Nearly sixty years after they first appeared, this book is the first general survey.
A second characteristic is their simplicity-in-complexity. As we have noted, Dr. Seuss's drawings are often high complex, and sometimes he adds lengthy titles and spoken words. But Dr. Seuss does not muddy the message or confuse the reader. Third is Dr. Seuss's humor and whimsy. As we have noted in discussing Dr. Seuss's depictions of Hitler, humor and whimsy both have their limits when confronting truly evil acts. But Dr. Seuss undoubtedly brightened the days of thousands of PM readers with his [Charles] Lindbergh quarter and its ostrich, head in the sand, [or] his "new Humped-Dachshund . . . to replace the "non-Aryan camel." . . .
Next, consider the tiny animals Dr. Seuss uses to underline his editorial slant. The cat that peeks around the couch as "America First" reads Adolf the Wolf to her frightened children, the fish astonished by Senator Wheeler's underwater impersonation of Admiral Dewey - [these] add a contrapuntal dimension not found regularly in other cartoons. (Among today's cartoonists, only Oliphant comes immediately to mind.)
Finally, consider a few more technical matters of cartoon art. Among these I would note the boldness of the line . . . the frequent use of patches of black and solid black backgrounds . . . his truncation of figures, as in the headless Hitlers of his greatest Hitler cartoons . . . Think, too, of his readiness to break the frame. Some of his cartoons are conventional, entirely within four clearly-marked sides, but in many Dr. Seuss draws no sides. In how many cartoons with frames does the image break out of the frame? In a number he seems to draw sides only to breach them, [as in] "HAPPY NEW YEAR! But, Boy! What a Hangover!" . . .
In short, Dr. Seuss is an innovator, always pushing the envelope. As we have seen, these cartoons tell us a great deal about Dr. Seuss and about American public opinion in 1941 and 1942. But strip away the artist's name, forget about his accomplishments before and after, and these cartoons stand the test of time. Dr. Seuss's wartime cartoons are important in their own right, as cartoons.
From Dr. Seuss Goes To War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, by Richard H. Minear, The New Press, Hardcover $25.00.