Jan. 14 2004 12:00 AM

Geisel Library explores Dr. Seuss' early political cartoons


    This year marks a full century since the birth of Theodor Geisel, famously known as Dr. Seuss. To honor the La Jolla native, who's had a profound impact on literature and American pop culture, UCSD's Geisel Library is featuring a series of three exhibits of his work throughout the year.

    Drawing from the collection donated in 1991 by his widow, Audrey Geisel, the series opened Jan. 5 with The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew, a show of the child-friendly rhymesayer's early work.

    Displaying his work chronologically, the series will move onto Dr. Seuss Between the Covers (March 27 through Sept. 26), revealing original sketches and drawings from his more famous work in children's literature, and finish off with The Cat In the Hat for President (Fall 2004), a commemoration of Seuss' lasting influence on the American pop canon.

    While the exhibits will resonate with the familiar perception of Seuss as the author of zany yet lovable kids' stories, the The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew introduces us to a lesser-known, underappreciated side of the man.

    Long before we met the Grinch or the Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss' quirky, whimsical characters broke into American media through commercial and political art he created from the 1920s to the 1940s.

    As one of the exhibit's viewers, Steve McCartney, noted, “People think of Dr. Seuss and they think of The Cat in the Hat. Here he's completely flip-flopped. He's making major political statements and he's part of the propaganda machine that knocks you over the head with its message.”

    In the early years of his career, Seuss' flamboyance took shape in satirical form. He broke into the public arena as an illustrator for advertisers and other authors, and by 1940 had become the chief editorial cartoonist of New York's PM newspaper. His art blatantly reflected the political controversies confronting America.

    By 1940, Hitler had conquered most of Western Europe as America watched through the lens of Chamberlain's isolationism. Our nation struggled with the seemingly impossible decision of whether or not to get involved in WWII. Not until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941 did President Roosevelt finally shake off isolationist complacency and enter the war against the Axis Powers.

    Fast-forward about 60 years. Conforming to cliché, the new century has inaugurated historical themes. The United States' military involvement in Iraq has continued to be a contentious political issue.

    In fact, our country's involvement in foreign affairs currently divides Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean not only from Republicans but also from some of his fellow Democratic candidates. While Bush has adopted an aggressive policy in Iraq, Dean argues that the U.S. shouldn't have gone in at all. Although Dean does not explicitly advocate isolationism, the degree of involvement in global disputes clearly remains as controversial today as it was in the 1940s.

    Political archetypes of the past also haunt us in modern times. Saddam's recent genocide has framed him as a Hitler-esque figure, two similar faces of evil.

    The satiric comedy of Seuss' editorial cartoons effectively reminds us that our current war-informed consciousness echoes the politics of WWII. As Linda Claassen, the director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UCSD, explains, “Certainly Dr. Seuss had no idea what would be going on in the 21st century. But, I think that, like with many things, you can look back and see the same patterns in history, like the new Hitlers of the 21st century.”

    Claassen notes how these parallels “show the genius of the man-a good artist... really in-tune with things. Even though [he's] writing in [his] time and place, [his] work relates to larger issues that continue to exist.”

    In one such powerful piece done in 1942, Seuss marks the front half of a cow with a swastika and connects it to a series of rear-ends lined up and linked together like railroad cars, one behind another. Each of the attached ends bears the name of a country overtaken by Hitler's army: Belgium, France, Poland and so on.

    To the side of the extended cow stands Hitler surrounded by milk cans. The caption atop the sketch reads: “The head eats... the rest gets milked.”

    Although this cartoon does not directly comment on the position of the U.S., it does depict the fallen European countries as a string of asses headed by the brutish force of Germany, while a sidelined Hitler rapes each ass of its valued commodities (literally milking each country for its worth).

    In “Hurry Up with the Ark!” (1942), Seuss portrays the world as if it has been submerged in an ocean of Nazism (the ocean is peppered with swastikas), save for a few mounds of land. On each mound stands a typical Seussian animal that represents a particular country: the elephant as India, the giraffe as Africa, the kangaroo as Australia and the camel as the Near East. All animals are looking desperately to the top of the drawing, where the U.S. is in the process of building an ark. Here Seuss reveals his own politics by explicitly demanding that America mobilize against the fascist flood, to be the world's savior.

    Like many other political cartoons, Seuss makes a statement under the guise of comedic and light-hearted images.

    However, The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew links not only historical and political themes of the 1940s to today, but it also simultaneously invokes philosophical issues of art's place in politics and politics' place in art. Political cartoons continue to be a vital part of pop culture by opening up a space for biting political commentary.

    “It's stunning humor, but it gets the point across. That's important,” commented another viewer, Leigha Nicole. “[It's] an important way for the opposition of the powers that be to express themselves that is pretty light, but actually only light on the surface.”

    While the themes driving Suess' art remain familiar in the 21st century, they also show that political cartooning has maintained its original technique and purpose.

    “Political cartoons that are still out there in papers are the same as [Seuss' work],” McCartney says. “They just whack you over the head. They'll show a big, fat, ugly Saddam to get their point across. It's an exaggeration of caricatures.”

    The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew runs through March 27 at UCSD's Geisel Library. Free. 858-534-2533.

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