Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Dr. Seuss Analyzed for Political, Social Effects

• March 02, 2011 • 5:00 AM

From there to here, from here to there, researchers find that Dr. Seuss is — in political, social, psychological and even business terms — everywhere.

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.”

March-April 2011 Miller-McCune 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.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


November 19 • 4:00 AM

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.


November 18 • 4:00 PM

I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup

After 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, I’m now living in a halfway house. I can go out to work and visit my wife, but I’m sometimes reminded how vulnerable my new life is.


November 18 • 2:00 PM

Chesapeake Energy Faces Subpoena on Royalty Payment Practices

The Justice Department’s inquiry comes after an investigation and years of complaints from landowners who say they have been underpaid for leasing land to the energy giant for drilling.


November 18 • 12:02 PM

Is McDonald’s Really Becoming More Transparent?

In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don’t believe its new campaign is built on honesty.



Follow us


Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

To Find Suspicious Travelers, Try Talking to Them

Brief, directed conversations are more effective at identifying liars than fancy behavioral analysis, experiment suggests.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.