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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 18, 2017: Children’s Histories: Dr. Seuss and Propaganda

[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up a special post on Yang’s book.]
On the iconic author’s surprising starting points.
As I wrote in one of my earliest posts, it’s possible to read The Cat in the Hat (1957) as particularly radical in its portrayals of family and gender roles (especially in relationship to dominant 1950s images and narratives). But even if you don’t subscribe to that reading of Cat, it’d be very difficult to argue that its author, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), didn’t have a substantial and generally very radical impact on the world of children’s books and animation—not just in his voice and style, his silliness and playfulness, his breaking of virtually every formal and generic rule, but also in his subtle but frequent inclusion of progressive themes and morals, including prominently the anti-Cold War (and anti-war period) ethics of The Butter Battle Book, among many other such messages.
Which makes it that much harder to grapple with the fact that Geisel got his start crafting animated propaganda films for the military during and after World War II. But he did—first making army training films (featuring the cautionary tales of one Private Snafu) as part of Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (the organization that produced the most prominent U.S. WWII propaganda, the epic eight-part Why We Fight series), then branching out into even more overt anti-Axis propaganda works. Geisel even continued to make such films in the aftermath of the war, creating works to be distributed to soldiers in occupied post-war Germany. To call these films propaganda isn’t to critique them, necessarily—the term has come to be used pejoratively much of the time, but at its core it’s simply descriptive, a categorization of works that are overtly designed to further political purposes. Geisel’s World War II works were precisely that, and achieved their purposes clearly and convincingly.
As the Capra reference indicates, Geisel was far from alone as an artist who enlisted in the war effort—in fact, he was more the norm than the exception. Moreover, it’s even possible to link his World War II works directly to (for example) his later anti-Cold War messages, since in both cases he could be seen as opposing the proliferation of violence and war (in the first case by the Axis powers, in the second by the Cold War superpowers). But for me, the problem is more one of style—whatever else we say about propaganda films, they are by design and necessity both straightforward and conservative, neither of which are terms that we would likely apply to most of Seuss’s subsequent children’s books and works. Of course we can simply say that Seuss evolved and changed, as does any artist (especially a talented one) over the length of a long career. But we also have to consider that each stage of Seuss’s career tells us something about the man and his work, and can’t dismiss or minimize the first stage just because it doesn’t line up with how we (or at least I) like to think of him.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

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