Springfield Library and Museums Association

Springfield, MA




The Political Dr. Seuss


A selection of little known World War II-era political cartoons by the famed children's author Dr. Seuss will be on display from March 11 through October 16, 2000 at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in the special exhibition The Political Dr. Seuss. (left: Pay Your Income Tax Here, Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss, from the newspaper PM, May 27, 1942)

More than 200 of the cartoons were assembled for the first time in the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Richard H. Minear. Minear is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and one of the country's leading historians of Japan during World War II. This exhibit, guest-curated by Minear, is based in part on his book and is the first exhibit to examine the political side of Dr. Seuss.

Minear said that there is "a disconnect between what we usually think of as Dr. Seuss and the content of the cartoons." However, many Dr. Seuss's whimsical children's books also contain serious themes. Yertle the Turtle, for example, is a cautionary tale against dictators. The Lorax contains a strong environmental message. The Sneetches is a plea for racial tolerance. Horton Hears a Who is a parable about the American Occupation of Japan. And The Butter Battle Book pillories the Cold War and nuclear deterrence. Even the Cat in the Hat's famous red-and-white-striped hat has a political predecessor in the top hat Uncle Sam wears in Dr. Seuss's wartime cartoons. (left: What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide, Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss, from the newspaper PM,June 11, 1942)

Some of these characters, such as a Sneetch-type creature and a prototype of Yertle the Turtle, made their first appearance not in Dr. Seuss's children's books, but in the some 400 political cartoons he drew for PM, a left-wing daily newspaper published in New York from 1940 to 1948. Dr. Seuss worked as an editorial cartoonist for the paper from 1941 to 1943, drawing cartoons that lambasted isolationism, racism, anti-Semitism, Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese, and the conservative forces in American politics. (right: "Listen maestro...if you want to get real harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!" Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss, from the newspaper PM, June 29, 1942)

Dr. Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904) began his career in the late 1920s, doing cartoons for the humor magazines Judge and Life. He established a reputation as an advertising artist, best known for his illustrations promoting Flit bug spray. His first cartoon for PM lampooned Virginio Gayda, editor of the fascist publication Il Giornale d'ltalia. But, Minear wrote, "Hitler is the prime subject of all of Dr. Seuss's World War II cartoons. Without him, Dr. Seuss might well have remained a successful commercial artist with a sideline in children's literature." (right: America First, Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss, from the newspaper PM, October 1, 1941)

The cartoons are all signed "Dr. Seuss," but even without the signature there would be no mistaking the artist. The drawings are filled with his trademark contraptions and creatures, many of them eerily similar to those in his children's books. Bizarre animals abound; he often used a dachshund to represent Germany, and cats to represent Japan.

However, it is Dr. Seuss's portrayal of the Japanese that is most disturbing. His Japanese characters don't represent Hirohito or any other well-known World War II figure, in contrast to his obvious pictures of Hitler. Instead, Minear wrote, "...Dr. Seuss draws 'Japan' - piggish nose, coke-bottle eyeglasses, slanted eyes, brush mustache, lips parted (usually in a smile)." He went on to say, "Perhaps it is no surprise that American cartoonists during the Pacific War painted Japan in overtly racist ways. However, it is a surprise that a person who denounces anti-black racism and anti-Semitism so eloquently can be oblivious of his own racist treatment of Japanese and Japanese Americans. And to find such cartoons - largely unreproached - in the pages of the leading left newspaper of New York City and to realize that the cartoonist is the same Dr. Seuss we celebrate today for his imagination and tolerance and breadth of vision: this is a sobering experience." (left: What Have You Done Today To Help Save Your Country From Them?, Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss, from the newspaper PM, March 5, 1942)

In addition to the PM cartoons, The Political Dr. Seuss exhibit contains a cartoon that appeared in Judge. It slams prohibition, which put Dr. Seuss's father's Springfield brewery, Kalmbach and Geisel, out of business. There are also World War II-era posters, a letter from the collection of Dartmouth College in which Dr. Seuss discusses the political meaning of his cartoons, original pages from The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book, critical reaction to The Butter Battle Book, an Art Buchwald column in which Dr. Seuss calls for the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, and a reproduction of a scrapbook where school students wrote their own final chapters to The Lorax, which, Minear said, was Dr. Seuss's personal favorite among his books. Much of the label text in the display is in Dr. Seuss's own words. Minear has also prepared an illustrated 12-page booklet to accompany the exhibit.

Read more about the Springfield Library and Museums Association in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

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