Friday Takeaway: What Dr. Seuss means to me

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home.

For Hampshire Life
Published: 5/16/2019 4:35:06 PM
Modified: 5/16/2019 4:34:53 PM


A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the Springfield Museum to do a recording of “The Cat in the Hat” in Spanish and English. The experience was exhilarating.

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) was a genius I had never heard of until I immigrated to America. My experience isn’t uncommon. He has sold almost a billion copies in his children’s books, but reading him in a language other than English isn’t joyful. His use of anapestic tetrameter, a form practiced by poets from Lord Byron to Edgar Allan Poe, is unrivaled. But try translating it into other languages. The result is often hilarious in inadvertent ways.

There are two versions in Spanish. One doesn’t attempt to recreate any poetic pattern; the other one does. It is called “El gato ensombrerado.” There is no such word as sombrerado in Spanish; roughly, it means “enhatted,” which I guess might be defined as “overwhelmed by a hat.” I credit the translators, Georgina Lázaro and Teresa Mlawer, for taking liberties. After all, we writers also invent words. Shakespeare created “dwindle,” “tranquil,” “gossip,” and “zany.” Dr. Seuss, no lesser talent, came up with scores as well, from “Grinch” to “Truffula.” Apparently, we even owe him the word “nerd,” whose first documented use is in “If I Ran the Zoo.”

For those of us fluent in Spanish, it takes no time to identify where a person is from. My guess is that either Lázaro or Mlawer is from Puerto Rico. Finding a “universal” sound in Spanish, one without an actual address, is harder than it seems, especially orally. I tried doing that in the recording.

I adore Dr. Seuss, but reading him out loud is not unlike kissing under the effect of Novocaine. Honestly, doing it now, at 58, felt like a crowning of sorts. My hosts couldn’t have known that I began practicing years ago, in the nineties, when I became a father. To say it gently, my English at the time was raw and inelegant. I would put my boys to sleep reading Dr. Seuss’ stanzas. The experience started as an act of courage and would end up as a form of shame. “Pa, his name is Yertle, not Yurtel,” one of them would say. Or in “The Lorax”: “Are you again saying “tnit” instead of “thneed”?

Just as there is something profoundly English (not British) in Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre is an astonishing expression of the elasticity of America, its identity as well as its collective self. Undoubtedly, his stories aren’t moralistic yet have an ideology. He’s an environmentalist, an anti-consumerist (which is ironic, given the profusion of merchandise his legacy has produced), and a supporter of democracy and exceptionalism. He had blind spots too, of course, like when he supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

These contradictions don’t deter me. After all, Shakespeare created Hamlet and Shylock. And the fact that Dr. Seuss was from Springfield is a thrill. I love the Pioneer Valley in large part because of its residents, permanent and itinerant.

What is “The Cat in the Hat” really about? Published in 1957, it might, at first glance, be about conformity. Two siblings, the narrator and his sister, Sally, are alone in the house while their mother is out. It is a rainy day and they are bored when an unexpected visitor, The Cat in the Hat, appears out of the blue. He is intent on entertaining them, displaying all sorts of tricks, including holding their fish up in the air inside its bowl. Naturally, everything he juggles around falls to the ground, creating a colossal mess. What will the children’s mother think if she suddenly comes back? She does indeed, although by then The Cat in the Hat has made sure things are back in their place.

A classic is a book that changes over time. This one by Dr. Seuss is also about disruption. Perhaps it prophetically announces what the American sixties would be about: upheaval, readiness to upset the status quo. Or “The Cat in the Hat,” as a student of mine once suggested, might be about interventionism. After all, The Cat in the Hat arrives uninvited and creates havoc only to leave the place after creating superficial reorder. Or might it be a diatribe again immigration, looking at outsiders as interlopers? Not that these approaches were intended by Dr. Seuss. He was a professed liberal democrat who supported Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet those with different politics have used him to advance their own agenda, as when the line “a person’s a person, no matter how small” from “Horton Hears a Who” was appropriated by the pro-life movement.

The end of “The Cat in the Hat” is perplexing. From a first-person description, the narrative abruptly becomes an interrogation: And you, reader, what would you do if, while your mother was out, you and your sister witnessed the house being turned upside down? Would you tell her? Would you let her know?

I was too busy controlling my voice when reading it to my boys to deliver the lines with a subversive message, which is what I believe Dr. Seuss wanted. This time around, inside the recording booth, I was in command, infusing the last stanza with a clear purpose: Chaos is just another form of organization! For better or worse, what defines our culture is the dialectic between creativity and destruction. We create in order to destroy and vice versa.

That’s what “The Cat in the Hat” means to me.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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