In the image displayed on the jump page of this article, Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss” has written opposite the title page in The Lorax: “A good friend of the Jewish Community Centers of South Florida, With best wishes, Dr. Seuss.”
Published in 1971 at a time when Earth Day and the ecology movement were gaining counterculture traction, the overtly political Lorax – which Seuss himself characterized as his favorite work – addressed then-unconventional issues such as deforestation, pollution, and greed while advocating conservation and corporate responsibility.
Rather amusingly, The Lorax was the only work by Seuss ever to be censored when, in 1989, the United School District of Laytonville, California determined that the book “criminalizes the foresting industry.” Logging was one of California’s principal industries, and educators feared the “indoctrination” of their children against lumber production. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book on the shelves, but The Lorax continued to be challenged in many other lumbering municipalities.
A champion of the rights of American Jews, Seuss himself experienced anti-Semitism when, in his college days, he was refused entry into certain circles because of a misperception that he was Jewish: “I had black hair and a long nose, and it took a year and a half before the word got out that I wasn’t [Jewish].”
In fact, Seuss was a practicing Lutheran who often spoke out in support of equal opportunity for Jews. As just one notable example, though he supported the establishment by the University of California of a local campus in his beloved La Jolla, where he maintained his mountaintop home, he sternly warned civic and church audiences that they could never develop a great university until they ceased discriminating against Jews, specifically with respect to home ownership.
Many of Seuss’s whimsical children’s books contain serious political themes: Yertle the Turtle is a cautionary tale against fascism and dictators (Seuss later stated that Yertle was meant to serve as a metaphor for Hitler – “originally, Yertle had a moustache, but I took it off”); 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. In The Sneetches, his powerful critique of anti-Semitism, members of a group sport stars on their stomachs as a sign of their supremacy and to maintain their oppressive social domination over others. Seuss’s specific use of stars was inspired by the yellow Magen David the Nazis required Jews to wear on their clothing so as to be immediately identifiable as Jews.
Most people are unaware that Seuss was a highly influential political cartoonist during World War II and that some of the characters from his beloved children’s books, reflecting the distinctive artistic style we all have come to recognize as “Seussian,” made their initial appearances in the 400 political cartoons he drew in the early 1940s for PM, a left-wing New York daily.
His drawings, which savage Hitler, Japan, Mussolini, and isolationist American leaders, whom he characterized as “American enemies of democracy,” urge readers to give full support to the war effort, put up with shortages, buy U.S. savings bonds, and help control inflation. The cadence, rhyme, and penchant for silly words for which he is now famous were all evident even in his first cartoons for PM.
Seuss’s wartime cartoons denounced American discrimination against Jews and called attention to the early stages of the Holocaust. Displayed here is the famous July 20, 1942 cartoon through which he became one of the first cartoonists, if not the very first, to publicly suggest the Holocaust and the fate of Jews under Hitler. Seuss depicts a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. With the day’s lynching completed, Hitler, with an extra rope draped over his arm, and Vichy French leader Pierre Laval are shown singing happily: “Only God can make a tree, to furnish sport for you and me.” (The line “Only God can make a tree” was taken from Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem Trees.)