Is like another.
Don't ask us why.
Many Americans are anxiously concerned about the nation's values and the challenge of passing them on to future generations. Let them take comfort. There is at least one powerful resource through which young children become young Americans -- while complicating just what this involves. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel 1904-1991) produced an extensive body of material after bringing out And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street in 1937 (having suffered the book's rejection by, reportedly, 43 publishers). This is a body of work millions of Americans may be said to have mastered. Through his more than forty books, Dr. Seuss provides, in effect, instruction manuals in poetics, in morals, and not least in civics.
Dr. Seuss's initiation of young Americans into their cultural heritage, however, reflects tensions lurking within it. In a most surprising way, Seuss's work expresses not only classic American liberal individualism, but also a number of its diverse and potentially contradictory strands. Call them (variously) liberty and equality; or self-interest and the common good; or possessive individualism and civic virtue. Dr. Seuss on the one hand exuberantly endorses the individual in all his productions. On the other, Seuss becomes increasingly alarmed at individualism as a potentially devouring and anomic force. What, his books ultimately ask, will prevent all the individual pursuits from disintegrating into contrary and contending self-interests, where community is not built out of individual energies but destroyed by them?
Dr. Seuss's work begins in a basic pedagogical project, such as the back-covers of the books advertise: that even small children have the right to read without being bored to death. Here he has distinguished antecedents in Noah Webster and other founding figures in the early republic, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, who defined educational commitments as inseparable from the development of American democracy. Webster, inventor of the Spelling Bee as American ritual
, produced the Blue-Back Speller, Grammar, and of course Webster's Dictionary, all of which sold copies in the multiple thousands. In these works, Webster not only promoted literacy as an important prerequisite to responsible participation in democratic life. He also provided a body of common American lore and exemplary tales (to be invented if necessary) to instruct in democratic values. This educational push was to include even little girls. While voters remained male, they required mothers able to prepare them for the exercise of republican duties -- a so-called Republican Motherhood.
Dr. Seuss advances these Websterian tasks. He wants to democratize reading. Most importantly, he wants to invent lessons in liberal-democratic culture, which would display and urge the central importance of the individual. This begins with Dr. Seuss's most outstanding and pervasive feature: the creation of endless, uniquely individualized forms. The largest body of
Dr. Seuss works are dedicated to such creative proliferation. Book after book extols, and enumerates, more and more and more of some category of possibility: letters that go On Beyond Zebra; complex recipe concoctions, as in Scrambled Eggs Super!; new sights, as in Mulberry Street; open choices, as in Would You Rather Be A Bullfrog?; new creatures, as in One Fish Two Fish, McElligot's Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, Happy Birthday To You through many other interpolated sections of books; new feats, as in If I Ran the Circus; new experiences, as in Green Eggs and Ham.
Words themselves wildly proliferate in Dr. Seuss, whether as the central feature of a work, as in Fox in Socks, or as an enduring bass, booming through whatever other inventions a book may pursue. Dr. Seuss is a master-craftsman within his chosen area of expertise. He commands an extensive rhetorical arsenal, including puns, hyperbole and deflation, neologisms, chiasms (revesals of word order: "I meant what I said and I said what I meant"), polyptotons (repetitions of word-cores: "no former performer's performed this performance"), as well as allegory, parable, fable, and quest romance. Allegory is particularly central in Oh, the Places You'll Go!, where inner feelings and states become outward landscapes. One notes that after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1925, Geisel spent two years at Oxford studying toward a doctorate in literature.
Seuss's books of proliferation are the ones that threaten to grow tedious to parents who read them out loud night after night. Indeed, his work generally raises questions about the relationship between tedium and the cult of the imagination. For, the good of creative variety derives from and expresses an even more fundamental commitment -- to the individual imagination as the power which produces it. All that glory of invention is in fact a consequence and demonstration of the driven I of the imagination, as product and projection of the creative self.
In terms of literary tradition, Dr. Seuss is one of the central inheritors of an Emersonian-Whitmanian poetics. Seuss's proliferations of ever more and different beings pay homage to what Emerson calls (in "Circles") "the sea of beautiful forms." His focus on the endlessly creative self presumes Emerson's vision of life as a "self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Additive sequences of invention in Seuss likewise recall Whitman's catalogue technique. His writing, like theirs, intends to celebrate (Whitman's word. "Song of Myself" opens: "I celebrate myself and sing myself") Selfood in all its potential, all its energies and productions. Emerson, in "Self-Reliance," describes the place of the self as holy: "Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within." Whitman writes in "Song of Myself:" "I exist as I am, that is enough" (20). Dr. Seuss writes in Happy Birthday To You!:
Today is your birthday! Today you are you!
So we'll go to the top of the toppest blue space . . .
Come on! Open your mouth and sound off at the sky!
Shout loud at the top of your voice, "I AM I!
Like God naming himself to Moses in Exodus, this self declares its selfhood to be unique, precious, essentially divine. No extravaganza of gift and ceremony can exceed the incalculable value of selfhood.
Selfhood serves as an aesthetic principle. But, as Dr. Seuss shows, the poetic has moral, social and ultimately political corollaries. Even the glory of imagination is in some sense a reflected one. For it in turn presumes, and represents, individual integrity, sanctity, and responsibility. A work such as McElligot's Pool makes this connection. This book features Marco fishing in a pool which, he is told, contains nothing but junk. Despite this sober sense, Marco views the circumscribed and pathetic pond as a pool of potential. Through his imaginative drive, he converts the limited into the unlimited. He launches an imaginary procession of multiple fish-forms, which he keeps heroically marching across incredible distances and difficulties right to his waiting fish hook and worm. What this phantasmagoric bigger and better fish-story represents, however, is ultimately Marco himself: his own perseverance, commitment, and strong selfhood, pledged in the book's refrain: "If I wait long enough; if I'm patient and cool, Who knows what I'll catch in McElligot's Pool!."
Dr. Seuss's heroic individual, faithful and true, lives in the world of his imagination. But this turns out not to be a merely private world. Dr. Seuss also has a vision of society, one made up of just such heroic individuals. Certain principles then follow. Since every individual has irreducible value, all are fundamentally equal in a broad egalitarian vision. Society is itself an association of such individuals, and must be pledged to uphold and respect the individual integrity of those who comprise it. But conversely, every individual is responsible to and for this community, is called upon to participate in this common society and contribute to it. Dr. Seuss's work places him in the liberal tradition described by Alexis De Toqueville in his Democracy in America, and elaborated by such historians as Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn. America's social form is alien to feudal histories, and is opposed to fixed hierarchies of deference as well as obligation. Pledged to the protection of individual rights against incursions by a state power into the authority of the people themselves, America also relies on the people as the constituting basis of self-government.
Dr. Seuss's social vision is most fully developed in the Horton books. The final end of Horton Hatches the Egg is the birth of a new and unique creature out of Horton's long labor:
And the people came shouting, "What's all this about...?
They looked! And they stared with their eyes popping out!
Then they cheered and they cheered and the CHEERED more and more.
They'd never seen anything like it before!
"My goodness! My gracious!" they shouted, "MY WORD!
It's something brand new! It's an elephant-bird!
Dr. Seuss here utterly rejects, indeed never so much as considers any notion that such a strange, unforseen form of life might be monstrous
, or difficult to integrate back into the jungle to which Horton and his unique offspring (the gendering of this story is striking) are happily restored. The invention of the new suffices. It is an intrinsic value. But the celebration of unique invention in Horton Hatches the Egg
is itself the outcome, and reward, of Horton's own personal characteristics. The crowd at the circus, witnessing the production of an amazing new creature, shouts enthusiastically:
And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!
For Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat.
He meant what he said And he said what he meant. . . "
And they sent him home Happy, One hundred per cent!
Horton Hatches the Egg is a parable of devotion. It dramatizes the importance of keeping your word, of perseverance, of faithfulness: and particularly of these virtues as situated within and performed by the responsible individual, who is true to his own word and his own vision. The individual is the seat of responsibility, the moral center; and must be, not least, true to himself.
This conjunction of values is even more evident in Horton Hears a Who, represented through a mirroring between the matching characters of Horton and the Whos (as there is also a mirroring, negatively, in Horton Hatches the Egg: the morally responsible Horton is cast in opposition to the irresponsible Mother Bird Lazy Mayzie, who breaks her word and abandons her egg). Here the implications for society clearly emerge. In this work, Horton, the faithful elephant-individual, finds himself in the awkward position of having to protect an invisible and almost inaudible whole world of unique creatures. An extremely unpleasant mother-figure (just why mothers are such objects of ambivalence in Dr. Seuss is a question we must eventually ask), the taunting Kangaroo with child in pouch, insists on proof that this world of creatures exists. Horton must convince her. He finally accomplishes this, by calling on every least citizen of the Who world to participate in this urgent public business. Only when the leastmost least of the Whos is called to participate, to add his tiniest voice to the community's total effort: only then can the Who's world be rescued. Here Dr. Seuss exercises his allegorical talent, creating a concrete figure out of a general pronoun to represent Everywho, in the tradition of the morality play Everyman. Horton, beaten, mauled, and threatened with imprisonment, calls out to the Mayor of the Whos:
Don't give up! I believe in you all!
A person's a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!. . .
They don't hear a thing! Are you sure all your boys . . .
Are [all] doing your best? Are they ALL making noise?
Are you sure every Who down in Who-ville is working?
Quick! Look through your town! Is there anyone shirking?
No less than his puritan-elephant forebears, Horton calls the Whos to a town meeting, each and every least one. And indeed, when the smallest Who of all is at last enlisted, his additional tiny cry accomplishes the feat of redemption. The inaudible world is heard; its existence is attested, and hence assured:
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. "Do you see what I mean?
They've proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of ALL!"
With this intervention, the Whos are rescued at last. But so is Horton. Horton the elephant is large, but he is also small in the sense of being one individual only. As an individual, he is also called on to attest his vision with steadfast courage. He too is a Who, a unique creature. His integrity requires that he assert this uniqueness, his individual perception that the Whos do exist. Their survival depends on him; but his also depends on them. He is vindicated, saved from ostracism, imprisonment, even the madness of solitary testimony, by this smallest Who individual who raised his voice, taking personal responsibility.
It is of paramount importance that both Horton and the smallest Who act not only each for himself, but also for the common good. Every individual is uniquely responsible. Without the personal and individual acceptance of responsibility, the very survival of the world is threatened. Dr. Seuss's is thus not only a vision of individuals, but of community. It rests upon a faith that the exercise of individuality will build and strengthen social life. It will not initiate a dispersion into irreconcilable diversities but rather will serve as a common ground for respecting differences and making possible their expression and appreciation. As a social vision, it pledges itself to a community of unique, participating individuals, without which the individuals themselves, with their world, will perish.
And yet something goes bump. Running through this world of liberal values are fault lines that threaten to undermine and
destabalize it. Dr. Seuss extols the individual. He does not, however, wish this to mean the abandonment of community. He, rather, wishes to found the community in the integrity and sanctity of the individuals who together make it up. He would like to see these dual impulses as mutually supporting rather than contradictory. Nevertheless, there are dangers. The self-reliant individual may turn out to be uncomfortably close to a selfish one ("Are they my poor?" Emerson asks in "Self-Reliance"). Dr. Seuss, like Emerson and most notably like Whitman, wishes the pursuit of invention to remain individually creative and expressive. Also like Emerson and Whitman, he is anxious. Endless invention may come uncomfortably close to mechanical reproduction. It may involve exploitation that consumes the common world, rather than producing new ones. It may collapse into commercialism, with individual pursuit and conformity difficult to distinguish from one another.
The Cat in the Hat books already show signs of these anxious strains. Structured according to the principle of creative invention, they offer not only the pedagogical benefit of introducing numbers and letters of the alphabet, but the more important lesson endorsing imaginative play. Extensions of experience through imaginative invention may seem to threaten the discipline, order, and industry of the home -- cleanliness in The Cat in the Hat and household duty in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In the end this conflict is shown to be merely apparent. Mother will return to a house that is tidy and a walk that is shoveled clear of snow. The strange is not hostile to the familiar. Daily, domestic life will not suffer, and indeed will benefit, from the joys that imaginative production can bring. The Cat shows that the disciplined household (like the school in On Beyond Zebra), far from being assaulted by free imaginative play, can be the scene and stage for launching its salutary inventions. The destabilizing and even threatening force of the Cat in the Hat is thus neutralized in a reaffirmation of bourgeois life. Dr. Seuss's extravagances are careful to stop short of posing a revolutionary threat to society, and insist they can be absorbed into its basic frameworks. It is no accident that the Cat sports a stovepipe hat and bowtie based in Uncle Sam cartoons, where they in fact originated in earlier Geisel drawings and ads (can Sam-I-Am, I-Am-Sam, be another Uncle Sam?).
Horton Hears a Who verges further into problematic areas
hinted at in the Cat books, of tensions between individualist energies and social interests. Horton the elephant is eccentric. His odd behavior of speaking to invisible people on an invisible world is noticed by his compeers: the Kangaroo Mother and the threatening jungle monkeys, the Wickersham Brothers. These (mothers repeatedly) represent a villain in the Dr. Seuss moral world: conformity. Like Emerson before him, Dr. Seuss wishes to point lessons of Self-Reliance. This, however, requires a certain degree of resistance to the surrounding society, what Emerson calls aversion:
Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood [sic] of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.
Horton must stand up against the others out of his independent judgment and in the name of his own conscience. He must combat conformity, a force that crushes individuality. But this is to picture society as a threat to the individual, rather than as a context for and beneficiary of individual enterprise. This is one source of Seuss's ambivalence toward mothers (there may of course be other, psychoanalytic contexts for it). They represent a socializing force, a limit imposed on the individual's impulses and energies, confining him (Seuss's heroes are almost exclusively male) and ultimately threatening to subdue him into conformity. Like many another male American writer, Seuss imagines women as constraints to be evaded, as Huck Finn tries to do when he heads for the territories to escape "sivilization" in the figure of Aunt Polly. And yet, when Mayzie the Lazy Bird abandons motherhood she is even more unforgivable, for this truly threatens betrayal and abandonment of others in the name of pure self-interest.
Dr. Seuss attempts to counter the threat of unqualified self-interest by distinguishing glorification of self from domination over others. In Dr. Seuss (as in Whitman) there is a strong egalitarian impulse (Whitman continues in the first lines of "Song of Myself:" "And every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"). This, in both writers, takes shape through a pronounced anti-authoritarian strain. There is a body of Seuss work which is expressly republican. Kings fare badly in Dr. Seuss: in The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins, Bartholomew and the Ooblek and perhaps most vividly in Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins is dedicated to the complete ridiculing of the idea of doffing hats in deference to the King, something Bartholomew finds literally impossible to do (each time he takes his cap off, another one just pops right up, in a sequence of greater and greater magnificence). As Whitman wrote of the American people in the Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855: "The President tak[es] off his hat to them not they to him." The opening topography of the text makes the point graphically. Bartholomew Cubbins lives in a hut down at the very bottom of the hill whose ascending space marks the increasing status of its inhabitants. At the topmost top is the palace of the King, who likes to look "down over the houses of all his subjects. . . It was a mighty view and it made King Derwin feel mighty important." At the bottommost bottom, Bartholomew Cubbins saw this view, as Dr. Seuss puts it, "backward. It was a mighty view, but it made Bartholomew Cubbins feel mighty small."
This story's resolution may introduce other difficulties. Bartholomew is finally rescued from beheading by money. His hats become so magnificent that the King decides to buy one, removing Bartholomew's headpiece rather than his head, and paying handsomely for it. Money is a great equalizer, it would seem. Yet the hierarchical mountain was one of wealth no less than of social position. Bartholomew and the Ooblek begins to probe in this complex direction. The megalomania of the King endangers the survival of the entire realm. The King wishes to command the very elements of nature. In an act of primordial ingratitude and lack of appreciation for the created world, King Derwin of Didd commands "something NEW" to "come down from my sky." The result is disaster. In this case, the new is not benign, but threatens everything that already exists. And it is Bartholomew the lowly who finally forces the King to confront his transgression. The King must humble himself, not only in acknowledging his fault, but in recognizing the immorality of absolute power.
This question of illegitimate power, as implied by the search for the new, points forward to later misgivings by Seuss about the very fabric of his own ideology. Hierarchical power he always denounces. Yertle the Turtle makes the point most vividly, both in its animal fable and in its explicit assertions. Yertle's illegitimate bid for power is challenged by Mac, the common turtle on whose back (as on the backs of the whole common turtle-people) King Yertle has tried to climb up to an ever more commanding throne from which he would claim possession of the whole heaven and the whole earth. At this point, Seuss's ideological intentions come directly to the surface in what amounts to a Declaration of Rights. Mac tells the King:
"Your Majesty, please. . .I don't like to complain,
But down here below we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
Finally, the whole tower of turtles collapses and King Yertle is dethroned when Mac burps. The text then concludes:
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course. . . all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
But the lesson does not require kings. Among the Other Stories in the Yertle the Turtle volume is "The Great Brag," where the desire of the Rabbit and the Bear each to claim to be better than the other is exposed by an old worm who sees best of all, and what he sees are:
The two biggest fools that have ever been seen.
And the fools that I saw were none other than you,
Who seem to have nothing else better to do
Than sit here and argue who's better than who!
The point is that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Rather than conflicting with individual identity, Dr. Seuss would insist that egalitarianism is consistent with the sacred worth of each individual. And yet, at some point the pursuit of individual happiness may become a mode of self-assertion in conflict with others; while self-assertion may generate pursuits that are finally destructive of others, of the world, and ultimately of the self itself. The self has the right to stand up for itself and defend itself against others. This remains a basic commitment. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose makes a strong case here. The altruistic Thidwick is willing to offer his antlers to house other creatures. But they soon become intrusive, threatening his autonomy. Then altruism becomes self-destructive and Thidwick has the right to evict them (by shedding his horns and leaving his tenants for hunters to stuff as decorations for the Harvard Club). The book thus poses self defensively against self. One person's assertion may be another person's coercion.
Self may be opposed against self. But self may also succumb to self, not through hostile imposition, but rather subversive conformity. De Toqueville had observed in Democracy in America: "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." This "tyranny of the majority," as De Toqueville calls it, disturbs Dr. Seuss. We are all individual; we all wish to strive to assert this individuality; but instead of producing unique expressions, we instead obsessively compare ourselves to others. To be better is to be better than they are. This results not in original creations, but slavish imitation, commercialism, and endless consumption.
Dr. Seuss offers a series of sobering works on this predicament. His concern with commercialism surfaces in
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
(produced, however, in time for the 1957 Christmas season). The Grinch's plot to confiscate all the food and presents, in the guise of an inverse Santy Claus, fails. Despite the lack of paraphernalia
, the Whos of Who-ville still joyously greet the Christmas morn, challenging the Grinch to wonder whether Christmas "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas. . .perhaps. . .means a little bit more." Commercialism has been a matter of American bad conscience since the Puritan landing, alongside the no less foundational pursuit of wealth. Already worrisome to such founders as John Adams, by the time of Emerson and Thoreau, commercialism had become a cause of positive alarm. Emerson opposes "the economical use of things" to their poetic use, and praises the principle of good when able to penetrate "into every chink and hole that selfishness has left open" ("Circles"). Thoreau questions whether what his neighbors make through their obsessive industry can truly be called a living. Yet how exactly to reconcile these impulses of the American self pursuing the American dream remains unclear.
The pressures of conformity take shape in Dr. Seuss in the usual manner: fashion and humiliation, with interesting gestures toward cosmetic surgery. In Dr. Seuss's story of "Gertrude McFuzz" Gertrude is mortified that Lolla-Lee-Lou bird has more tail feathers than she does. She begs her Uncle-doctor for remedy, and through him gains access to a berry that will grow her more feathers too. In an orgy of acquisitional competitiveness, she wildly consumes them, growing so many feathers she can neither fly nor run nor walk. Assertion becomes competition becomes consumption becomes self-destruction.
The cosmetic note returns in The Sneetches. The rivalry between Sneetches is such that one group, the Star-Bellies, ostracizes and condescends to the other group, the Plain-Bellies. While it is tempting to read this story as concerning foolish nationalisms, it is significant that the difference between the two groups is absurdly negligible: except for the star the two groups are identical, belonging to the same fundamental kind within a given society. The story is then about egalitarian value, and about group pressures as they deny this value through what Freud called "narcissism with respect to minor differences" and what advertisers call "product differentiation." These result in destructive mutual competition and arbitrary social division. But then Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives. He is essentially a cosmetic surgeon:
I've heard of your troubles. I've heard you're unhappy.
But I can fix that. I'm the Fix-it-Up Chappie.
I've come here to help you. I have what you need.
And my prices are low. And I work at great speed.
And my work is one hundred percent guaranteed!
Each group begins to whirl through a cosmetic machine that alternatively installs and removes stars on bellies, at higher and higher fees. This activity is totally frenetic, and continues until the monies run out. At this point the exploitative Monkey drives away.
manages on the last page to pull out a happy ending. The Sneetches, utterly confused as to their identities after so much manipulation
, discover that "Sneetches are Sneetches" regardless of stars on bellies. But the lesson of human dignity and value seems contrived and imposed, rather than following from the forces of commercialism and competition unleashed in the story itself. Dr. Seuss seems here to be working hope against hope; and this starts to show thin in some of his later works. I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today
offers a series of tales that chasten self-assertion. The title story, featuring a shrunken Cat-in-the-Hat figure, exposes empty brag. "King Louie Katz" admonishes monarchical privilege (the whole country becomes "more demo-catic"). As to the final story, it is The Cat in the Hat
turned nightmare. "The Glunk that got Thunk" is an imaginary figure who intrudes into the home in ways that are monstrous and threatening (especially financially). Having been thought up, it needs to be "unthunk," to be exorcized.
The next book, The Lorax, is a work of ecological disaster. It recounts the cutting down of Truffula Trees and the manufacture from their soft tuft-leaves of a product called a Thneed, under the advertising slogan "That-All-People-Need!" This starves the bearlike creatures who lived on the tree's fruit, smogs up the air so the birds fly away, and poisons the pond, destroying the Humming-fish who lived there. The Lorax, as the ghost of trees-past, tries to protest. He is issued another Declaration of Rights, delivered this time by the entrepreneur:
I yelled at the Lorax, "Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, 'Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!'
Well, I have my rights, sir, and I'm telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And for your information, you Lorax, I'm figgering
on biggering and Biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING
turning MORE Truffula Trees into Thneeds
which everyone, Everyone, EVERYONE needs!"
Necessity may be the mother of invention; but invention becomes here the mother of necessity. Seuss has grown alarmed at his own Principle of the More. Freedom at this point seems self-defeating, a mode of its own undoing rather than a ground of creative individuality. In the process, the world is under the shadow of apocalyptic consumption.
The Butter Battle Book
, one of Seuss's last works, focusses this ominous vision. Again two groups, arbitrarily distinguishable (according to how they butter their bread), conduct an escalating competition of mutual threat and weaponry until, on the last page, the two sides stand poised with identical bombs either of which could destroy everybody. The very energies of invention that Dr. Seuss extols may also, as he shows, unleash forces that can threaten to become disruptive and destructive. This work ends in irresolution. There they stand, the indistinguishable enemies, threatening each other and the world with immolation.
Is this the promised end? In these works, the free, autonomous self has somehow become deformed by the commercial pressure and threatened by the competitive striving which were supposed to realize his free self-expression and potential.
As De Toqueville remarks, "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare. . . [This] fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation." Dr. Seuss remains a committed exponent of classic American liberalism. He is pledged to believe that liberal individualism can absorb its own potential ruptures. He wants to affirm free individual vision, even eccentricity, and certainly individual conscience. But he wants these to remain within certain bounds that will not explode social norms. He wants to confirm liberal individualism and community both. In this vision, the common good would not ultimately be threatened by self-assertion and production. The new would be a value for enrichment, rather than either challenging or exploiting the basic fabric of society.
Dr. Seuss's work significantly reflects on arguments between libertarian and communitarian versions of American liberalism, as these weigh claims of individual rights and personal freedom on the one hand, and obligations to public life and a common good on the other. Dr. Seuss's own position seems, again, close to Whitman's. Whitman writes in Democratic Vistas:
I say the mission of government, henceforth, in civilized lands, is not repression alone, and not authority alone [nor] the rule of the best men, the born heroes and captains of the race. . . but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.
Whitman's is not a pure vision of individual autonomy, but rather a liberal vision of individual integrity as the basis for communal commitment; and so is Dr. Seuss's. If individualism poses certain problems, it also, for Dr. Seuss, finally remains the only viable resource against the very dangers it may generate.
In the end, Seuss's qualms about the disruptive forces within the individualist creed turn back to the individual for remedy. The conclusion of The Lorax is pivotal. The Lorax, driven from the world by men, left behind
in this mess
a small pile of rocks, with the one word. . .
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess.
Guessing the meaning of the word is the main point. Responsibility returns to the individual, to the reader, as it does in Whitman and in many Seuss works. The individual is the solution to the riddle. "Unless" each one takes up his (and her) responsibility, the world we inhabit will indeed perish. The individual remains the moral center. His willingness to be accountable, to answer to others and for himself in mutual respect, is the offered antidote against the self as devouring, as aggressive, as reductive.
But this is not merely an autonomous self, self-reliant as self-made. The Seussian individual, while remaining prior, is not merely self-sufficient, nor alone, nor is selfhood its own self-enclosed purpose. And the self is not unlimited. Even the talent for invention, however glorious, is always also hemmed in by the deflations of Seuss's humor. Dr. Seuss's is finally a cultivated self, situated, committed, requiring education to respect for others as others would respect the self.
The educational project which fully launched Dr. Seuss's
writing career thus remains a fundamental commitment and frame. (He wrote The Cat in the Hat out of alarm at a 1954 report in Life concerning illiteracy in children, even as he cut his ideological teeth doing Oscar winning war documentaries called Hitler Lives and Design for Death). In an unironic and unparadoxical way, the socialization that may first seem to impose itself on the individual instead is a foremost resource for his (and her) creation. The parent, the mother, who seemed to threaten free individual growth instead fosters and teaches it, including the dangers of its destructive and truly self-contradictory potential -- and not least when reading Dr. Seuss books to children. Dr. Seuss's work questions whether stark oppositions between individual and community even make sense in a liberal society. He instead offers them as mutual resources, guarding against the hostile excesses of either, while awakening each reader to his and her individuality and individual responsibility. That, at least, is the ideological hope Dr. Seuss's work attempts, against alarm, to attest.