When we come of age, we put away childish things, as the oft-quoted Bible verse reminds us. More often than not, this is because childish things leave us no choice: Beheld in the cold light of adulthood, they elbow us into uneasy recognition of the undemanding plasticity of our youth. Reheated Cold War macho gimmickry? Sure did love that G.I. Joe. Sexist oppression crammed into a pink package? Anyone who didn'town a Barbie, hold up your hand.
Worst of all is when this happens to children's literature, supposedly the one sphere uncontaminated by sleazy mass-marketers luring innocent miniconsumers down Day-Glo alleyways. But then beloved crank Roald Dahl turns out to have been, if not the "Nazi" urban legend whispered him to be, at least an alarmingly adept racist, all-around misanthrope, and generally unappealing human being. (Puts Willy Wonka's scarily authoritarian treatment of disobedient tots in a whole new light, really.) Gentle Babar is, as Ariel Dorfman and others have hastened to point out, a justification for European colonialism. And kindly old C.S. Lewis was sneaking hard-core Christian propaganda into Narnia on the sly, occasioning an inevitable headslap of betrayal every time Jewish college students get together to reminisce.
In that light, how can we approach Theodor Seuss Geisel's propaganda cartoons, Dr. Seuss Goes to War (New Press), with anything but apprehension? If there's one universally beloved childhood emblem, Seuss is it: Adult tributes include an indie band called the Sneetches, Cat in the Hat headgear sported by rappers like LL Cool J, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers recording of "Yertle the Turtle" when they were still hot. Possibly the most naturally anarchic author in kiddie lit (with the exception of Kenneth Grahame and his The Wind in the Willows, which seems to urge young readers toward a fulfilling life of debauchery and drunkenness), Seuss shares children's hunger for disorder, their sense that allrules are arbitrary adult constructions. Even the realization that his late-career Hallmark slump (graduation-present clichés like Oh, the Places You'll Go!) was fully of a piece with earlier position papers--environmentalist tract The Lorax, Cold War allegory The Butter Battle Book, anti-fascist screed Yertle--can't dampen your enjoyment. In their wit, economy, and lack of condescension to the smallest reader, they remain great books.
Still, some unhappy revelations do crop up in the biographical section of this rather odd cartoon collection, penned by editor Richard H. Minear: The good "Doctor" (an honorific he gained much later in life) spent the Depression flacking for Standard Oil, from which he earned enough to live on Park Avenue. The same profitable work enabled him to travel frequently to and from Europe in a period of increasing social tension. And it must be admitted that he was not immune to the racism infecting much public discourse of his day: his boar-faced, bespectacled Japanese are, despite their beguiling cuteness and humor, mostly consistent with the less appealing claptrap piled up in wartime-propaganda archives such as historian John Dower's War Without Mercy. "Beware! I can be velly dangerous when aroused!" goes the sign held by a Japan allegedly sinking under the weight of its invasion of China--a cartoon Seuss published six days before Pearl Harbor.
Yet for the most part I found myself relieved while flipping through this book that the good Doctor's heart seemed, if anything, three sizes too large. Drawn for the legendary lefty Forties tabloid PM between 1941 and 1943, these cartoons twit isolationists like Lindbergh, spoof anti-Semitism, prod readers to go hear Socialist Norman Thomas's orations, and do their best to whip up morale in the war's dark early days. More to the point, they make use of the same charming alternate universe that the rest of Seuss's work inhabits. The slightly gooney American eagle's striped top hat does suggest the Cat in the Hat's most famous item of apparel, as Art Spiegelman notes in the introduction; strange wheeled mechanical contraptions trace the speeding or slowing of the war effort; weirdly self-satisfied animals satirize leaders and nations with a force not at all diminished by their cartoonishness. Seuss's 1942 swipe at the abasement of Pierre Laval's collaborationist Vichy government--"then there was the man who was SO LOW, he could walk under a Dachshund's belly"--is masterly.
For the most part, these drawings make as much sense artistically as they do politically. Unlike much editorial cartooning, they're not imprisoned in the everyday. Minear's contextual notes add useful clarity, but Seuss makes his positions perfectly legible on his own, with the same sense of essential humanity that makes even his worst villains redeemable. Uncle Sam besieged by a horde of evilly smiling Japanese cats conveys both American disbelief and, unwittingly, hubris--surely, such puny foes, seemingly more suited to parading behind Bartholomew Cubbins and his 500 hats than conquering Asia, would be dispatched in no time.
But could he regularly attain profundity? From this evidence, Seuss doesn't quite belong in the company of political-cartooning greats like Thomas Nast or Herblock. Seuss's lightness of touch, his suspicion that war itself was fundamentally absurd, feel positively airy in comparison with the grizzled sufferers populating the work of his contemporary Bill Mauldin. Perhaps Seuss was unburdened of the very real heaviness of the events he drew, but the best political cartooning may originate in a certain ability to distinguish, on the fly, weight and historicity from mere transient foolishness. (He could have made fine sport of Joe McCarthy, but the enormity of the Holocaust would silence his pen.) Could Seuss have mustered anything as visceral as Herblock's still-pungent reaction to the Soviet atomic explosion, in which the bearded American Robinson Crusoe bomb discovers another footprint on his island? Probably not.