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PBS turns an independent lens on Dr. Seuss

Documentary examines the political outlook of Theodor Geisel '25

This year marks the centennial of the birth of the author and illustrator Theodor Geisel '25, who under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss was responsible for such children's books as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Green Eggs and Ham, among others. He is the subject of a new, multipart documentary The Political Dr. Seuss, which will appear on PBS as part of the "Independent Lens" film series on Tuesday, Oct. 26.

The documentary, directed by Ron Lamothe, is an investigation into Geisel's politics, which encompassed both militarism (Geisel supported World War II and the allied efforts to rid Germany of Hitler at any cost) and a desire to support literacy programs in America.


Don Pease

"He was fascinated by the human soul's ability to withstand efforts to terrorize it," said Don Pease, Professor of English, who was contacted by the filmmakers a few years ago and who appears in the documentary. "Geisel was truly a politically committed human being. When he became Dr. Seuss, he aimed at children a sense of the beauty of hospitality, and counseled them to overcome the forces designed to infantilize the public."

The Political Dr. Seuss posits that Geisel was a moralist at heart, that his flights of the imagination designed for children, though pleasurably mischievous, are rife with his own political beliefs.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1925, Geisel signed a contract with Viking Press to illustrate a series of children's books. His first original work as an artist-author, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was published in 1937. Millions of people worldwide are familiar with what was to come, yet according to the film, many of those who are interested in Geisel have no knowledge of his commitment to politics.

A lifelong opponent of all forms of authoritarianism, Geisel was born in Springfield, Mass., to the children of German immigrants - a fact that, according to the film, brought him trouble among classmates. The specter of a hostile Germany haunted Geisel's childhood: classmates teased him mercilessly, calling him "one of Kaiser's kids" while kicking dirt into his eyes.

Following the first wave of career success in the 1940s, Geisel teamed with the film director Frank Capra to produce a string of anti-Nazi propaganda shorts and features.

"Geisel was a strong exponent of rooting out the Nazi mentality," Pease said. "He was committed to understanding and overcoming a German authoritarianism that had not only produced the Kaiser but also, in Geisel's own lifetime, Adolph Hitler."

According to Pease, who has held the Ted and Helen Geisel Chair in the Humanities, Seuss would have much to say about the political climate of the 21st century.

"The man's artwork served two purposes with respect to political life," Pease said. "He was a figure who wanted to generate grounds in which even the most passionate disagreements could be expressed." He wanted to expose "the political logic that requires cardboard heroes and demons."

If, according to Pease, The Political Dr. Seuss encourages readers to return to the Seuss books of their childhood, they may notice a strain of fierce anti-authoritarianism previously overlooked. In fact, Pease said, many of the books are actually explicitly concerned with "adults who produce fear as a way of regulating behavior."

Geisel was, after all, "gripped by the Biblical injunction, 'Be not afraid,'" said Pease, and writing during World War II rendered impossible a retreat from the political.

It was Geisel's wish that the political sphere never become too big a business for passion, or for art.

By NOAH TSIKA '05

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08