Thomas E. Wartenberg: On Dr. Seuss, ‘the champion of children’s imaginations’

  • Stars Danny DeVito, left, and Zac Efron read "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss to school children during the annual Read Across America Day at The New York Public Library in New York, March 2, 2012. AP PHOTO/Charles Sykes

Published: 5/20/2019 12:17:03 PM

I was very pleased to discover Ilan Stavans’ column ”What Dr. Seuss Means to Me” (Hampshire Life, May 17, 2019). Picture books are very often taken to be nothing more than a means of getting children to sleep, when they actually enable children to explore the perplexities they encounter in the course of their lives. Stavans recognizes this and attempts to explain why he loves Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss is, of course, one of the great pioneers of picture books. Particularly because of his zany word play and raucously imaginative illustrations, his books have become staples in our picture book libraries.

But do these books have a deeper meaning? Stavans suggests that, in the case of “The Cat in the Hat” at least, Seuss is presenting a view of society as embodying a “dialectic between creativity and destruction.” For me, what Dr. Seuss does so well is to depict, and thereby foster, children’s imaginations. When we read about the Truffula trees (victims of the Once-ler’s nefarious quest to produce more and more) or of a lone horse and cart transformed into a huge parade featuring elephants and confetti (which the young boy only imagined seeing on Mulberry Street), we realize we are in the presence of an author who wants to support children’s imaginations and the amazing creations they offer us.

Think about the language he uses. Or invents, I should say. When he suggests taking a trip to the “Vipper of Vipp or to Solla Sollew,” the meaningless of the words is lost in the play of sounds. Like the nonsense verse Lewis Carroll created in “Jabberwocky,” Seuss delights in the very sound of language and how it can create a sense of meaningfulness even when there really is none there.

So, what do I think the meaning of “The Cat in the Hat” is? The “chaos” that the book shows occurring when Mother has left results from the absence of her authority and the rules that she requires her children submit to. Left to their own devices, the children are able to live in the unbridled world of their imaginations. Their worry that their mother will discover what they have “done” in her absence reflects a fear that their unruly imaginations are not something she would approve of. Like the elephants on Mulberry Street, the Cat is just a projection of the raucous imaginations of the young children.

For my money, Dr. Seuss is the champion of children’s imaginations, upholding their validity against the supposed realism that adults impose upon their kids. That’s why I love him and the books he has left us to treasure.

Thomas E. Wartenberg, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Mount Holyoke College
Northampton




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