Of all the places he’d go in his wildly fertile imagination, Theodor S. Geisel — better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss — probably never dreamed he’d be referenced in the journal Critical Perspectives on Accounting. But the man who wrote a classic work of children’s literature using a vocabulary of only 51 words (Green Eggs and Ham) would be amused to discover how many densely packed pages of academic prose are devoted to his work. Today, on the beloved author and illustrator’s 107th birthday (which, as always, will be celebrated by the National Education Association as Read Across America Day), we look at some of the ways researchers have mined his nearly two dozen books for political, social and psychological implications.
A radical departure from the Dick-and-Jane reading primers of their day, The Cat in the Hat and other Dr. Seuss classics remain remarkably fresh reads. So what is it that gives these whimsically illustrated tales their multigenerational appeal? Kerry Mallan of Australia’s Queensland University of Technology points to the poetic meter Dr. Seuss usually utilized, the name of which — anapaestic tetrameter — sounds like one of his imaginary creatures. This meter, also used by Lord Byron, “has the accented syllable following two unaccented ones,” Mallan noted. “This creates a wonderful galloping rhythm, which is perfect for humor.”
But however enticing the rhymes or evocative the droopy-faced drawings, the key to Dr. Seuss’ longevity is the way his tales resonate with their intended audience. In an insightful 1995 analysis in the journal Children’s Literature, Tim Wolf of Middle Tennessee State University points out a recurring theme in his books: the desperate need “to win the approval of a rejecting parent.” On the first page of Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, 1937’s And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, a father sternly tells his son: “Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales.”
“Visually, this large passage of verse looms over a small boy in the lower right corner, almost pushing him off the page,” Wolf notes. “We might say that the parent wants to push the imagination out of (the boy’s) head.” He fails to do so, but parent and child remain estranged at the end; in essence, they live in two different worlds. It isn’t until later books, beginning with The King’s Stilts, that Dr. Seuss finds a way to bring them together.
Consider the 1960 classic Green Eggs and Ham. In Wolf’s interpretation, the unconventionally colored breakfast symbolizes a precious gift the child is trying to give his grumpy parent — a reminder of the importance of creativity and play. When the beaten-down adult finally submits to his child’s wishes and eats the oddly hued food, he experiences “a return to lost bliss.” There are fewer lines around his eyes and mouth, so he looks younger, more energetic — and more emotionally available. The child saves the parent from despair and reclaims him as a loving caregiver. That’s a hero myth most every youngster can relate to — or at least fantasize about.
There was never any question about Dr. Seuss’ politics. Geisel drew editorial cartoons for a left-leaning newspaper during World War II, and several of his children’s books are allegories, tackling such social issues as prejudice (Horton Hears a Who), environmental degradation (The Lorax) and the Cold War nuclear arms race (The Butter Battle Book). Nevertheless, some conservative thinkers have claimed him as one of their own, at least to a degree.
Writing in the Political Research Quarterly in 1983, Timothy Cook contends that many of Dr. Seuss’ stories, like those of Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, “present a distinctly negative aspect of government and authority.” In such tales as Yertle the Turtle and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, “Seuss shows political authority as potentially selfish and exploitative, thirsting for more power, heedless of the best interests of the community,” Cook asserts. “Both Baum and Seuss, by the conclusions of their stories, appear to argue that government should be limited in its scope.”
But the real political message of the books concerns family dynamics. Writing in 2002, Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, asserts that Seuss “reflects a larger current in American progressivism during this period, which saw the home and family as the birthplace of a more democratic culture.” In the 1950s, the patriarchal, because-I-said-so approach to child rearing was being replaced (at least among the educated) with a different style of interaction, in which parents set boundaries for their kids, but also let them explore and experiment. Dr. Spock explained the theories; Dr. Seuss brought them to life.
“Seuss felt that the best children’s stories acknowledged and worked through children’s anger toward parental rules and that, in doing so, they respected children’s innate sense of justice,” Jenkins notes. “Seuss seems to be getting at the absurdity of adult demands which run counter to children’s natures, parental expectations which transform innocent behavior into misconduct.”
To conservatives, this let-children-be-children mindset led to an overly permissive culture, lacking appropriate respect for authority. But Jenkins points out that Seuss’ view of family life was hardly business-unfriendly: “One can’t help but note how this cultural re-valuing of play paved the way for the leisure- and consumption-oriented culture demanded by the postwar economy.”
Capitalism’s dark side is the theme of his 1971 book The Lorax, which grew out of the ecology movement of the previous decade. It focuses on the Once-ler, an enterprising but morally blind businessman who chops down a forest of Truffula Trees in order to make Thneeds, a vaguely defined but highly desirable consumer product. The story was adopted by environmental activists as a way to teach children about the link between mindless consumption and ecological damage. But writing in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education in 2006, Kathleen Pleasants of Australia’s La Trobe University argues it has outlived its usefulness.
In Pleasants’ view, the title character, who claims to speak for the trees, is far too negative and strident to appeal to children. No one, least of all youngsters, likes a scold. Furthermore, she argues, the story’s theme of idyllic nature despoiled by greedy humans is, at best, oversimplified. By framing life as a contest between man and nature, she writes, “Seuss seemingly ignores the necessity for humans to live and labor in nature.”
Even if its ecological assumptions are shaky, The Lorax “can be used in management education to highlight particular ethical issues,” according to a 2000 article in journal Business Ethics: A European Review. Michelle Greenwood argues that “a number of core ethical issues are addressed with great clarity in both the text and illustrations of this story.” For example, she notes disapprovingly that the Once-ler “did not attempt to establish any relationships or contract with the local inhabitants in any of the potential roles they could have held (e.g., employees, customers or suppliers).” If only he had earned an MBA, he might still be manufacturing Thneeds today.
Similarly, in a 2005 essay in the Journal of Management Education, Debra Comer and Robert Holbrook argue that many Dr. Seuss books “contain wonderful illustrations of management and organizational behavior concepts that transcend the basic message of the text.” These books “emphasize universal principles of individual, interpersonal, intragroup and intergroup behavior, thereby collectively providing an excellent repository of illustrations of management concepts.” With all that knowledge, it’s a good bet Sam-I-Am grew up to become a CEO.