reviewed by Raymond Sullivan
The middle of the 20th Century in America was marked by the emergence of two giants in the field of child-rearing. The first helped parents understand how best to deal with a baby's physical needs, bringing it up in an optimal manner. The second, working through sometimes unsuspecting parents, helped create a generation with perhaps unprecedented sexual openness. I refer, of course, to Dr. Spock and Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Spock's contributions have been adequately documented elsewhere, and I am short on space, so the remainder of this review will focus on the Seussian contributions to sexual awareness. But to summarize their common ground briefly: The two both had five-letter last names beginning with the letter "S." What more do I need to say?
Some of you may be wondering just what Dr. Seuss has to do with sex. "C'mon," I can hear you saying, "just what does Dr. Seuss have to do with sex?" Everything, my dears; everything. All one needs to do is look through the books with an open mind, and the connections become as clear as day.
Take, for example, Green Eggs and Ham. The narrator spends most of the book fending off Sam-I-Am's advances, refusing the offer of a new experience. Finally, at the end, he tries it, and -- what do you know? --he likes it! Now, really, do you think this entire book is about food? Would Sam-I-Am really orchestrate an elaborate scheme involving a car, a train, and so on, just to get some guy to try a bit of meat and a couple of rancid eggs? Get real. The Doctor was concerned with more important urges than the gastronomic variety. No, this book is simply dripping with S-E-X. And the moral is that it's good to be open to new experiences. In the end, making the appropriate changes in wording, the narrator finds a whole new world open to him:
"And I would [do it] in a boat. / And I would [do it] with a goat. / And I will [do it] in the rain. / And in the dark. And on a train. / And in a car. And in a tree. / [It feels] so good, so good, you see!"
But Green Eggs and Ham is small potatoes compared to the Doctor's epic, two-book masterpiece: The Cat in the Hat, and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In these works, the Cat -- representing the irrepressible spirit of sexual freedom -- sweeps in and turns the world of "Sally and I" upside down.
At the start of the book, Sally and the unnamed narrator are sitting at home, bored out of their minds, with only a fish for company. Suddenly, they hear a loud BUMP! and the Cat in the Hat strolls through the door, promising fun and games. Immediately, the fish objects, saying that their mother wouldn't like it.
Well, come on. The fish tells them not to do it, because it's wrong. How obvious a Christ symbol can one get, I ask you? The fish represents the traditional moral center in this story; the voice of authority, of religion, of middle-class morality. The fish, I might add, is juggled by the cat, falls into a pot, and, ultimately, is proven wrong; nothing bad happens as a result of the cat's play. And in the second book of the series, the Cat comes back, but the fish is nowhere to be found.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the Cat himself. The hat he wears is an obvious phallic symbol, of course, and it is significant that it is this that is the cat's identifying characteristic. In fact, this is not the first time Dr. Seuss used the hat motif. Consider The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, in which the king becomes consumed with jealousy of Bartholomew's perpetual erection, which is finally sated when he becomes the possessor of the finest phallus in the land. This, of course, is obvious, and I apologize for wasting the reader's valuable time with such trivialities.
Still, consider the structure of the two Cat books. In each, the Cat urges an unheard-of degree of freedom to "Sally and I." In each, there is a seeming crisis, in which it looks as if the Cat's lack of inhibition will result in punishment from a higher authority: "our mother." In each, the Cat is triumphant.
But oh, those crises. Being short on space, I'll skip over the wild antics of "Thing One" and "Thing Two" in the first book, and go straight on to the event of the second: the ring. The Cat leaves a pink ring in the tub (possibly the same shade of pink as Tinky-Winky, but I haven't had a chance to compare the two), and then removes it with -- get this --a dress. And you thought you'd heard the end of the Monica story. Clearly the Doctor was ahead of his time.
Anyway, the stain moves to some shoes, the rug, and a bed. And there it sticks, at first. Which makes sense, because it is indeed, in bed, that the crisis the Doctor is really talking about generally comes to pass. This story, in short, is the reversal of a cautionary tale on venereal disease.
The ring -- or the disease -- is highly contagious. With the "help" of multiple partners -- Little Cats A, B, C, D, and so on -- it eventually spreads to cover the entire outdoor landscape, turning all of the snow pink. It is at this critical point that Dr. Seuss reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out something he calls "Voom."
(It is interesting to speculate as to why "Voom" was not included in On Beyond Zebra! It has been speculated that this is partially due to Seuss's changing attitudes towards both sex and Scrabble over the years, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)
What is Voom? Literary critics and sex experts have tried to divine the meaning behind this, but have come up short. Perhaps a potent drug cocktail, perhaps not. In the end, we're just left with the words of the Doctor: "Now, don't ask me what Voom is. / I never will know. / But, boy! Let me tell you / It DOES clean up snow!"
What is really important here is that, in both cases, the crisis is resolved, and it is made clear that, no matter what the Cat tries, he always solves any problems in his path. And, in this case, not only does the Voom clean the snow, but it also shovels the walk, thus providing a tangible benefit for "Sally and I" missing in the first book, in which the status quo is maintained in the end.
The genius of Dr. Seuss is in how he was able to spread this subversive message -- that it's okay to defy authority, be up-front about one's sexuality, and dare to experiment -- without rousing the objection of parents, and, indeed, making them into unwitting collaborators in this noble aim. We have much to learn from his supposedly simple children's books.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel)
Green Eggs and Ham
by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel)