Dr. Seuss was a children's author, not a prophet

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Today is the 107th anniversary of Dr. Seuss's birth. It is marked with National Read Across America Day, which happens each year to promote literacy and remember one of the greatest children's authors of all time. And he was a great children's author, no matter how you look at it: His books have sold over 222 million copies, seen countless adaptations and inspired kids through generations. But history has started to repaint Dr. Seuss as a great political mind and a philosophical visionary as well, and that is a worrying development. Part of the very thing that made him such a spectacular author of children's stories was his simplicity -- he painted characters and morals in broad strokes, and he did that whether he was addressing adults or kids.

For many years, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss's real name) worked as a propaganda writer for the U.S. government. The above poster was one of many he did encouraging the purchasing of bonds, and the video here is one he wrote to be shown to troops entering Germany after WWII. The video looks appalling in retrospect, a dangerous accusation of the entire German population. Kids, he writes, are to be suspected most of all, because they all believe they are meant to be masters and you are meant to be their slaves.

You can understand how this might have happened -- at the time, Germany had been a prime mover in two major wars in less than half a century. And it is true that Geisel was living in a society that was severely sociologically stunted. But this, the political cartoons, even the broadly-painted, more commendable morals of his children's books are all reduced to right and wrong. His method of debate was presenting his side as self-evident.

None of that would be a problem, but people have elevated this man to the status of a sort of folksy prophet. His quotes can be found stripped of context and elevated on pedestals all over the place. Dr. Seuss has become a sort of patron saint of reason for American society, and let's just say we can do better.

And this is not to diminish the accomplishment of his children's books -- they deserve every cheer tossed in their direction. Particularly as a weapon in the fight against illiteracy. His books, most famously Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, employ the same simplicity he used in thinking about politics and turned the English language into a useful tool that any kid of any age could approach. He showed that you could use a very basic vocabulary and still express a story beautifully. Even in the late 1950s, he was anticipating the diminishing attention spans of kids and writing books that could compete with radio and television for entertainment value, and they can still compete today with as formidable an opponent as the internet.

So absolutely, remember Dr. Seuss on National Read Across America Day. Pick up your copy of The Lorax and enjoy it. But don't expect it to give you new insight on global warming.

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