- Playing to the Audience:A Critical Look at Dr. Seuss
If one were to examine the log books which kept track of manuscripts received by May Massee at Viking Press during the early 1930s, one would find a reference to a manuscript received from Dr. Seuss with the notations "Theodore Geisel" and the single word which reveals the considered action of the most prominent and astute children's book editor of the twentieth century: "Returned." This rejection may have been her largest error commercially speaking; Dr. Seuss would eventually turn to Random House and continue to be published by that firm for the next half-century. But artistically the decision was probably justified; Seuss's work, both in text and illustration, was completely different from any other text that Massee was working with, not worthy, in her mind, of being ranked with such authors and illustrators as Robert Lawson, Munro Leaf, James Daugherty, Ludwig Bemelmans.
The dilemma that May Massee faced in 1932 was the same that modern readers of children's literature face when considering Dr. Seuss. On the one hand, it seems clear that Seuss is not among the top illustrators of this century, that his drawings are cartoonish and have shown little growth since the early books. Some would argue—and this reviewer is one—that his artistic sensitivities have declined since the early books. But on the other hand, as the editors at Random House might have affirmed not so long after Massee's decision, his illustrations and stories and language delight the child reader. And if one were to judge children's authors and illustrators by sheer popularity, certainly Seuss would have to be considered one of the very top authors in the field.
Seuss has had to face the critical scorn so frequently loaded upon authors who are immensely popular. He has been dismissed as a jingle-man, and not a very good jingle-man at that. He has been attacked as simplistic, as being too didactic, as being too moralistic, as being not moralistic enough, as being merely silly. At the same time, it cannot be denied that for many children The Cat in the Hat is a central character of their childhood memories, so that even decades after they have read the book, the mention of Dr. Seuss brings the Cat back instantly, and they remember the colors, the pictures, the chaos of Thing One and Thing Two, the dreadful moment when it seems that Mother is about to break in on it all. Or such readers might recall Horton the Elephant and grope silently for the refrain of the book: "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent." And they might feel again the delight and awe at what story can do.
Ruth MacDonald's task in writing this first critical assessment of Dr. Seuss's work was to deal with the dichotomy of opinion surrounding his work. To do this, she had to peel back layers of popular prejudice, both for and against Seuss, and try to examine him as an author first, as someone who is consciously telling a tale to a child audience. And here is the chief value of this book: rejecting too-easy dismissal and too-ready enthusiasm, MacDonald charts a critical course through his work and finds Seuss to be, at the center, a writer.
The second and third chapters of Dr. Seuss are devoted to a series of critical assessments of the major books in the Seuss canon. MacDonald reads And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street as a celebration of the child's imaginative powers, though the protagonist's imaginative gymnastics are spurred on by a kind of pressure exerted by the adult world. The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins pits true kingly patience and honor and decorum (exhibited in Bartholomew) against true childishness (exhibited in the king), a dichotomy which is overcome by a simple though worthy hero, whom MacDonald labels "the all-American boy." Horton Hatches the Egg is read as the story of...