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  • Dada Knows Best:Growing up "Surreal" with Dr. Seuss
  • Philip Nel (bio)

Placing Dr. Seuss—the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel—in the company of Dadaists and Surrealists may seem a curious idea to some. Geisel (1904-1991) is best known as the author of roughly forty-seven children's books, but dada and surrealism are best known as part of a philosophical-artistic movement in twentieth-century art—the historical avant-garde. Although their images were later embraced by advertisers,1 most surrealists and dadaists maintained an oppositional role with respect to mass culture; indeed, most were sympathetic with socialists and communists. Seuss, on the other hand, was a very successful capitalist and very much a part of American mass culture. He became nationally known for his "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" advertising campaigns for Flit bug spray in the 1920s and 1930s, he founded the immediately profitable Beginner Books division of Random House in 1958, and by the time of his death "Dr. Seuss" was a multimillion-dollar industry. But although he profited from mass culture, Geisel did not endorse all of its attendant values. For example, The Lorax advocates environmental conservation, The Sneetches criticizes anti-Semitism, and the Butter Battle Book agitates against nuclear proliferation not because addressing these topics would sell more books but because Seuss wished to provoke his readers into rethinking the dominant beliefs of their society.

Highlighting the connection between Dr. Seuss and the twentieth-century avant-garde calls our attention to his role as a cultural critic. It is this essay's contention that Geisel's work draws on what Andreas Huyssen has called "the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avant-garde" (After the Great Divide 3), a movement initiated by the dadaists in the second decade of the twentieth century. The term historical avant-garde is, in Peter Burger's words, an attempt to "re-integrate art into the life process" in order to engender in the audience a "critical cognition of reality" (50). Aware that "reality" is itself shaped by ideology, Seuss is a successful example of an artist [End Page 150] who—in the tradition of the historical avant-garde—tried to shake his audience out of their habits of thought and cause them to rethink their assumptions.

We need to be reminded of this aspect of Seuss because recent "Seuss" works—books patterned on those of Seuss but written by others—have transformed him from a subversive force into a moralist who supports the status quo. Seuss's tales have always contained morals, but they have delivered these morals by raising questions and by provoking their readers. Recent books patterned on Seuss have done exactly the opposite. For example, take the first offspring of Nickelodeon's "Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss," a work called The Song of the Zubble-Wump (1996). Originally an episode of the show and now a book, this new story uses Seuss's characters and some ersatz Seussian rhymes to tell an overtly moralistic story unlike any the original Doctor ever wrote. In fact, Seuss's first published children's book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, rejected by twenty-seven publishers before Vanguard Press took it on in 1937, was rejected precisely because editors thought it lacked "moral or message" and contained nothing that would help in "transforming children into good citizens" (Geisel, quoted in Morgan and Morgan 81). The Song of the Zubble-Wump, however, seems intent on turning Seuss into William Bennett; as a result, morals and messages take center stage. The once-iconoclastic Cat in the Hat arrives to deliver a line about the gift of life, an overtly religious reference that Geisel would never have permitted.2 The Cat in the Hat rescues a Zubble-Wump egg from the Grinch and solemnly tells us, "That egg is a miracle." The Cat also delivers a lecture to the Grinch and to a little girl-muppet named Megan, who has broken the egg while trying to wrest it from the Grinch. This in turn prompts Megan—apparently to prove that she has learned her lesson—to offer us a speech about sharing that concludes with...


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pp. 150-184
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