Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

The Walrus -- February/March 2004

Stop Making Sense

The strange worlds of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, can transform the way we understand our own

by Ian Garrick Mason

It is a little-remarked-upon fact that the economic size of the children’s book industry bears no statistical correlation with the physical size of its customers. Indeed, it is astonishing to realize just how much money is deployed toward serving the literary whims of a group of people who are rarely taller than three or four feet, and whose vocabulary and grammar skills are strikingly limited. To this one demographic category is sold nearly $1.7 billion worth of books every year in the United States alone -- a flow of money so large that a children's book author like Theodor Seuss Geisel (who wrote under the somewhat cheeky pen name of “Dr. Seuss” so that he could save his real name for the Great American Novel he always intended to write) was able to earn enough in royalties over his long career to construct a multi-million-dollar mansion from an observatory he had purchased, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Diego.

Though certainly best known and loved for his children’s books, Geisel was a man of wide experience, having also worked as an illustrator (contributing to publications such as Vanity Fair, the Saturday Evening Post, LIFE, and the weekly humour magazine Judge), a political cartoonist (in the left-wing and pro-intervention PM newspaper), and an ad man. His advertising clients included major corporations such as Ford Motor and NBC, and he lived for seventeen years off the lucrative account for Standard Oil’s insecticide “Flit”.

All authors have their true beginnings, of course. Geisel’s started with engine noise. In 1936, he endured a rough ocean voyage while returning home from a holiday in Europe. With the weather keeping passengers below decks, Geisel became obsessed by the repetitive sounds of the engines turning over. Soon, he had thought up a one-line phrase to match the endless rhythm: “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.”

Back in America, he expanded the line into a children’s book. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street described in illustrated verse a young boy’s imaginary transformation of a humble horse and cart into a full-scale parade of exotic animals and vehicles. Geisel took this remarkable, revolutionary book (his first as an author, though he had illustrated two other children’s books already) to over two dozen publishers -- and was rejected by every one of them. Ultimately, serendipity intervened: on his way to burn his manuscript, he bumped into an old acquaintance who had just started work at Vanguard Press, and the book was finally published.

Geisel finished three more children’s books before the Second World War intervened. After a spell of political cartooning for PM, he spent the rest of the war in the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Information and Education Division, which was headed by Frank Capra. Here he worked with the likes of Chuck Jones, famed creator of Looney Tunes, developing educational materials and films for soldiers stationed overseas.

Geisel returned to children’s books in 1947, with McElligot’s Pool, and went on to write some forty more over the next four decades. He would also bring his sense of whimsy to a more deliberately educational experiment. By the mid-1950s, American public schools were experiencing a “why-Johnny-can’t-read” crisis of doubt. In a 1954 LIFE magazine article, novelist John Hersey criticized the then-dominant Dick and Jane readers, and challenged writers like Geisel to produce books that would bring enjoyment to the process of learning to read. Geisel happily accepted the challenge, and when shown the stunningly short list of words that educators believed starting readers would know, he decided to base his book on the first two rhyming words in the list. Thus was born The Cat in the Hat: a funny and wild romp in verse and vivid colour illustrations, built entirely out of a mere 223 words of vocabulary. The book was phenomenally successful, and it also launched the “Beginner Books” series, which Geisel personally edited as an imprint of Random House. “There’s been too much ‘Come here, Fido’ in kids’ readers,” he told LIFE in 1959. “I sometimes wonder how any of us learned to read.”

Indeed, how did we ever? The vibrancy and sheer volume of children’s literature today can blind us to the fact that this industry is of relatively recent birth. Throughout most of Western history, people were too poor to buy things like books for their children, and childhood as a distinct stage of life with its own unique pleasures and needs was not a recognized concept. Before the eighteenth century, children were regarded as little more than miniature adults, and were expected to enjoy the same epics and ballads to which their parents listened. The hornbooks of sixteenth-century England were made specifically for children, but they contained only the alphabet, the numerals, and the Lord’s Prayer. The more lengthy children’s books of the seventeenth century were built by adding religious instruction and dour morality tales -- to the no doubt mixed feelings of the children who had to read them.

The eighteenth century brought some relief. An English translation of Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose’s Tales (a French folk expression meaning “old wives’ tales”) was published, as were children’s abridgements of Robinson Crusoe and, later, Gulliver’s Travels. Predictably, this playful and imaginative fare came under attack from writers of religious morality tales: in her 1773 review of Mother Bunch’s Fairy Tales, for example, Sarah Trimmer denounced the use of “imaginary beings for children.” Meanwhile, Enlightenment writers such as John Locke and Jean- Jacques Rousseau recommended intellectually and morally didactic approaches to their education, but even they believed a child would learn best when also entertained. After recommending Aesop’s Fables in his treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke then adds: “If [a child’s] Aesop has Pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read.”

Locke’s comment reflects a basic truth about the goals of art and literature, which Renaissance critic Sir Philip Sidney, following both Horace and Aristotle, described as “to teach and delight”. Children’s literature was not and is not exempt from these two imperatives, and Seuss’s work, with the best of the genre, accomplishes both.

Remarkably, it does so through narratives and scenarios that are largely constructed out of nonsense. Indeed, Dr. Seuss’s worlds are populated through and through with nonsense: nonsense animals, nonsense names, nonsense places, nonsense foods. In 1950’s If I Ran the Zoo, the narrator Gerald McGrew declares:

I’ll load up five boats with a family of Joats
Whose feet are like cows’, but wear squirrel-skin coats
And sit down like dogs, but have voices like goats
Excepting they can’t sing the very high notes.
Though all this may make Dr. Seuss seem terribly modern -- to be claimed and cherished by aging baby boomers as part of their own anti-establishment heritage -- his work is actually part of a small but significant historical tradition of nonsense in children’s literature. Against Seuss’s Oobleck and Sneetches, consider Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock (from Through the Looking Glass), a beast that roamed a forest filled with slithy toves, mome raths, and frumious Bandersnatch. Before Carroll came Edward Lear, whose Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, gave children a raftful of amusingly silly limericks, and whose most famous poem was The Owl and the Pussycat. And even before Lear, many nursery rhymes had emerged from the Middle Ages making very little sense.

The word “nonsense” is a little misleading, for literary “nonsense” is not really nonsense at all. True non-sense is mere random noise -- a stream of data that contains no information or meaning, like the galactic radio static that SETI computers listen to in hopes of one day discerning an intelligent pattern. Even if we keep to the structured world of words, a real nonsense phrase, such as “climb dog artful to to”, would never appear in literature, as it would convey no meanings beyond those of each word on its own. We need yet another step back from full-scale nonsense:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf, to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyalies, and the great Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gun powder ran out at the heels of their boots.
Referred to as the Great Panjandrum, this odd little construction was reputedly written to test an eighteenth-century actor’s ability to memorize text at a glance, obviously made all the harder by the lack of “sense” it contains. Yet the passage still contains sentences with subjects and objects, with generally correct grammar and spelling. One can even visualize some of the different scenes in it. Where the sense evaporates is in the conjoining of actions that do not relate to each other, in the unreality of many of the actions themselves (she-bears don’t talk, nor do they inquire about soap supplies), and in names like “Joblillies”. The Great Panjandrum is a memory test, but little more: it contains no narrative interest, and very little humour. It is as far as literary nonsense can go.

In contrast with this, Carroll’s Jabberwocky begins to look eminently sensible. “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” sets a moody forest scene, and the rest of the poem follows a simple narrative thread from here. Despite his father’s warnings (“beware the Jubjub bird, and shun”), a brave boy waits in the forest for a jabberwock (“and as in uffish thought he stood”), and when the monster appears he rapidly dispatches it (“the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!”) and returns home victorious (“and with its head, he went galumphing back”), to be greeted by a joyful parent (“oh frabjous day!”), at which point the poem closes with a repetition of the first stanza (“twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”), reminding us that the dark forest goes on as before. The fact that almost every noun and adjective in the poem has been created from scratch does not impair the reader’s ability to understand the poem’s narrative and its specific moods.

Dr. Seuss took this nonsense tradition to its modern zenith. Geisel used to say that his stories were based on “logical insanity”, a phrase that sounds like a paradox but really isn’t. As he explained to LIFE magazine in 1959: “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation, and so will I.” So while there may be no Grinches in the real world, no Whos and no Mt. Crumpet, if you can suspend your disbelief about those things, the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas will appear as logical and clean-flowing as any other child’s tale.

Geisel’s illustrations heighten the “insanity” side of the formula. His animals are alien-looking, and, though soft and furry, appear to have no bones or joints -- “My animals look the way they do because I never learned to draw,” he once said. What’s more, his physical objects seem to have a rather unsteady relationship with gravity and with their surroundings. Homes don’t nestle on mountainsides, but perch on the edges of cliffs. Cars drive down impossibly windy roads, their tires barely staying in contact with the surface. Plates and fish bowls balance in ten-foot high stacks, each item wobbling out of place, the whole construction a whisker away from total collapse. Yet within each story, this madness is logical and consistent, and never betrays its premises. Normal physics may not rule in these books, but the rules of Seuss-physics don’t vary from page to page -- they’re as consistent as the rules of Looney Tunes physics, which can be deduced after watching only two or three cartoons. As in all successful narratives, once set the premises can’t be changed in mid-story. Nonsense does not mean anarchy.

But if all this nonsense serves to delight, it also serves to teach. Like fables do, Seuss’s books encourage children to distinguish the essential from the superficial, as human dilemmas are played out through the actions and speech of non-human creatures. In Horton Hears a Who!, for example, Horton is an elephant with a sensitive heart and sharp hearing, who discovers the microscopic civilization of the Whos on a speck of dust when the inhabitants call out to him for help. He undertakes to protect the Whos, but is mocked and harried by the other animals of the jungle, and he barely manages to save Whoville by getting all the Whos to shout in unison (with the contribution of a last small Who turning out to be critical), which proves their existence to the skeptical animals. As political fable, Geisel’s point is clear, and the story’s moral is explicit: “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The tale, though set in a world of talking animals, is about such intangibles as open-mindedness, obligation, equality, cruelty, and cynicism, as played out in a more universal frame. Said Geisel about his characters, “None of them are animals. They’re all people, sort of.”

Of course, traditional drama or fiction aims at the same result, as Aristotle argued in his Poetics: “Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” But nonsense literature adds a beneficial twist: it encourages children to think about the natural world not as it is (See Spot run. See Dick run after Spot. Run, Dick, run.), but as it could be. Not in a Robert Kennedy sense of curing society’s ills, although Dr. Seuss books do provide such lessons in copious amounts. Rather, nonsense teaches children the salutary mental habit of not-ruling-things-out. Once you’ve accepted, even for half an hour, the premise of a talking cat in a tall red and white hat, you’ve taken a tiny step towards staving off, or even reversing, the process of mind-narrowing that otherwise afflicts us all as we get older. Lewis Carroll’s Alice showed immediate signs of change after reading Jabberwocky:

`It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, `but it's RATHER hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) `Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't exactly know what they are!'
Obviously, Seuss’s tales prompt their own ideas. Could a race of beings live on a speck of dust? How small would they have to be? Would they ever fall off? Could their voices be heard if they shouted? What language would they speak? Such questions are natural for children, but the ability to think logically about “nonsense” can transform the way that all of us understand the world. When Copernicus suggested that the earth goes round the sun, it seemed to most people a foolish suggestion; after all, we can see the sun going around our planet by looking up in the sky during the day. Yet, eventually, Copernican logic began to seem more valid and consistent (not to mention elegant) than the Ptolemaic logic it replaced. Today, science presents us with a whole collection of counter-intuitive and apparently impossible propositions: that time runs slower when you move very fast, that atomic particles can be in two places at once, that the shortest distance between two points is really a curve. What nonsense. But true, nonetheless.