Interview with filmmaker Ron Lamothe about “The Political Dr. Seuss”

interview conducted by Hayley Wood

Hayley Wood: When you were doing the archival research for this film, what was your most surprising or intriguing find?

Ron Lamothe: What I found most intriguing was that many of the best stories surrounding Dr. Seuss—anecdotes that had been published in books and articles year after year after year—turned out not to be true. Well, that's not quite right…most of them contained some kernel of truth but were altered to make for a better story. This happened over and over again, which of course made for fun detective work, but was also disappointing because I had planned to use many of them in the film. Fortunately, most of these Seuss tales had enough factual elements whereby I was able to include them after weeding out the fictional parts. It wasn't always easy.

Dr. Seuss, himself, would have been the first to tell you that he had trouble being honest with his own biography. In fact, in one of his many failed attempts at writing his life story he made this very point: “You'll discover a strange and disturbing thing when you start writing your autobiography…a lot of stuff that happened to you never really happened at all…If you have a scar on your lower left leg, as I do, you might remember, as I do, how the police cars with wailing sirens drove up to the scene of the accident and kept back the crowds as they lifted you into the ambulance and rushed you to the hospital where teams of surgeons working around the clock finally rescued you from the Jaws of Death. The actual thing that happened to me on Sumner Avenue, Springfield, Mass., sixty-five years ago was that I was riding on the handlebars of my cousin Eric's bike, and fell off. Got a minor gash which my grandfather patched with plaster after a wash in the kitchen sink.”

HW: In the film Seuss himself mentions Swift and Voltaire as literary influences on his work. Are you aware of other literary influences? Illustrational influences? (British illustrator William Heath Robinson comes to mind, for his whimsy, satire, background as a commercial artist, and sense of composition.)

RL: One would certainly think someone like William Heath Robinson had an influence on Geisel, but I don't know for sure. I do know he often spoke about the books he read as a child, which he said fostered in him a love of words and rhyming verse—titles such as The Hole Book by Peter Newell and the Goops books by Gelett Burgess, as well as The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales for Children, both written by Hillaire Belloc.

HW: Was Seuss a self-taught visual artist?

RL: Yes, and in fact he credits this for much of his success in the children's book genre. He once told an interviewer that his style of drawing animals “derives from the fact that I don't know how to draw…I can't draw normally. I think I could draw normally if I wanted to, but I see no reason to re-create something that's already created. If I'd gone to art school I'd never have been successful.”

Similarly, he also once said: “I find most kids draw as I do—awkwardly. I think I've refined my childish drawing so that it looks professional. But kids exaggerate the same way I do. They overlook things they can't draw, their pencils slip, and the get some funny effects. I've learned to incorporate my pencil slips into my style…Technically, I'm capable of doing more complicated things. But every time I try to do something sophisticated in a children's book, it fails—it doesn't attract kids. This is due to the fact that I work the way they work. A child's idea of art is a pen-and-ink drawing filled in with flat color, with no modulation and no subtlety. McElligot's Pool, which has modulation of tones, isn't as successful as the books with hard black outlines and flat color. That's just the way kids see things.”

HW: Rules of children's literature: I believe it's Seuss who calls his method of writing for children "logical insanity.” Please offer some commentary or observations about this particular rule of children's literature, some precedents for it (Lewis Carroll?) and Seuss's success with it.

RL: Dr. Seuss did see himself following in the tradition of nonsense writers such as Mother Goose, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and P.L. Travers. He said as much lecturing at a 1949 writer's conference at the University of Utah. Moreover, at that same conference he laid out his philosophy of children's literature: “This is the crux,” he lectured. “A man with two heads is not a story. It is a situation to be built upon logically. He must have two hats and two toothbrushes. Don't go wild with hair made of purple seaweed, or live fireflies for eyeballs…Children analyze fantasy. They know you're kidding them. There's got to be logic in the way you kid them. Their fun is pretending…making believe they believe it.”

HW: It is particularly amazing that Seuss could infuse a new market-category of children's books (using a list of only 225 elementary words!), Beginner Books, with his imagination and wit, creating a new pedagogy for teaching reading/early literacy. Did you come across any testimony besides the incredible market success of his Beginner Books division, that his marrying of humor, word-play, and early literacy goals accelerated learning to read among children?

RL: I'm not aware of any statistics on this, but if one is to believe the anecdotal evidence, it does seem that Beginner Books succeeded in improving literacy among America’s children. And yet, interestingly enough, The Cat in the Hat found its way into children’s hands through playground word-of-mouth rather than through educators, many of whom remained devotees to the Dick and Jane primers. Evidence of this is the fact that the trade edition put out by Random House sold far better than Houghton Mifflin’s edition, which was targeted at the educational market.

HW: Were any of his books unsuccessful?

RL: Yes, it seems that the one book he ever wrote specifically for adults was a total flop. Entitled The Seven Lady Godivas (1939), it played on the old legend but now had seven Lady Godivas, all sisters, and seven brothers who courted them named Peeping (one of whom was named Tom, of course). Apparently, Geisel had trouble drawing the Godiva sisters in the nude: “I tried to draw the sexiest-looking women I could, and they came out just ridiculous.” Only 2,500 copies of a first printing of 10,000 were sold.

HW: Did Seuss ever, to your knowledge, receive any direct criticism from right winged politicians who may have felt attacked by his message books? Was there any negative repercussion to his partnering with Art Buchwald for "Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now"?

RL: I am not aware of any direct criticism. As for the Dr. Seuss-Buchwald caper, I think the only negative repercussion was that Geisel may have raised the ire of his publishers at Random House, who had initially denied permission for it to be printed. According to Geisel, Random House had “gone through the ceiling” and told him not to allow Buchwald to use it in his column. Yet when Geisel called to deliver the bad news, Buchwald prodded him further, asking “What do you think?” Geisel said, “Oh, go ahead.” And, of course, the column ran, and soon Nixon went a la Marvin K. Mooney.

HW: On the World War II political cartoons for PM and propaganda films for Frank Capra's Signal Corps: did Geisel come to regret some of the racism displayed in those pieces, especially since race was a theme of American culture and politics (in The Sneetches and even somewhat in Horton Hears a Who) that he took an interest in?

RL: That's a really good question, and I wish I knew for sure what the answer was. The only evidence I have comes from his biographers, who told me that years later—although still recognizing its necessity due to the war—he was regretful about some of his cartoons for PM and some of the propaganda work he did for the Army Signal Corps. I do think the fact he dedicated Horton Hears a Who—a parable about the American postwar occupation of Japan—to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan,” says something of his changing attitudes toward the Japanese (this following a trip he made there in 1953). Though, as Richard Minear has pointed out, Horton Hears a Who still smacks of American chauvinism, and it makes no reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

HW: Could you describe Geisel’s basic ideas about “difference” and “diversity” in America?

RL: I think Geisel was, as historian Michael Kazin states in the film, a typical 1930s/40s Liberal in that he cared less about multiculturalism than he did about the more fundamental American ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality.

HW: What were Geisel's pet political themes, what books or periods of work do they appear in, and how do they relate to his life experience?

RL: If one had to whittle it down to a few themes and books, I would say they were anti-isolationism/internationalism (Horton Hears a Who), racial equality (The Sneetches), anti-fascism/anti-authoritarianism (Yertle the Turtle), anti-materialism/anti-consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Lorax), environmentalism (The Lorax), and the arms race (The Butter Battle Book).

HW: There's a great scene toward the end of the film of a classroom discussing The Butter Battle Book. The insights and ideas of the children were (to me) remarkable. If you have anything anecdotal to add about this scene, it might be an interesting point to touch on: how these Geisel allegories do promote critical thinking. I particularly liked the little conversation about the “stupidity” of the actual butter conflict, and how appropriate it was for Geisel to break it down to that level to illustrate the insanity of the arms race.

RL: I was amazed by the students at Wildwood Elementary School! Based on the controversy and criticism surrounding the book when it was first published, I wanted to see how it was actually experienced by kids. The experiment far exceeded even my most optimistic expectations. For fourth graders to be talking about the Cold War, conflict resolution, and the nature of allegory—I was blown away. Of course, Dr. Seuss never underestimated children, and never spoke down to them. I think this sequence in the film demonstrates that he was right and his critics were wrong about what kids can and can’t handle.

The other interesting thing that came out of the Wildwood experiment was the timelessness of the book. Almost twenty years following its first publication, its message on the folly of an arms race was immediately understood by the young Amherst students. And so, though the Cold War may be over, it seems to me that its message is still extremely relevant, especially when considering the rhetoric and defense spending of the current administration. I know Bush isn’t much of a reader, but I think he would do well to pick up The Butter Battle Book before wasting any more of our tax dollars on bigger and better “Triple-Sling Jiggers” or “Jigger-Rock Snatchems.”

HW: Another interesting point is that Geisel says he's not “anti-military,” and that “some wars are necessary,” and one presumes he's talking about WW II, which he obviously promoted with vehemence. Is there any evidence to suggest that he did support some US incursions after WW II?

It does seem that Geisel saw World War II as a special case—a war that had to be fought. Evidence of this can be found in a 1976 note he penned in response to an interviewer’s question about his PM cartoons: “I think I helped a little bit . . . not much, but some . . . in stating the fact that we were IN a war and we’d damned well better ought to do something about it. (N.B. To the younger generation. I'm not talking about Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. I'm talking about a war that had to be fought. If my philosophy irritates yours, please write me c/o Justin Hoogfliet, the boy who stuck his finger in the hole in the dike, Foedersvlied, Holland, 09037.)”

-August 2004

© 2004 Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities