A new book claims the author of the Dr. Seuss stories intended them to convey Christian ideas and themes.
A Presbyterian minister has gone through the mega-popular children’s books by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and found there are strong undercurrents of Christian thought in the stories, although the books are commonly characterized by the press as usually being merely fanciful and occasionally conveying politically leftist themes:
A recent AP story lays out the issues well:
No one has ever doubted the layers of meaning in the stories of Dr. Seuss. The Lorax has obvious lessons about the environment. The Butter Battle Book took direct aim at the Cold War arms race. Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! was one way to demand the resignation of President Nixon.
So when Horton’s world of Who-ville was "saved by the Smallest of All," Robert Short saw the savior of the Whos as a symbol for the Savior of all people. From Green Eggs and Ham to How the Grinch Stole Christmas , Short has reinterpreted many of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s stories as subtle messages of Christian doctrine in the new book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss.
Questions remain, however, about whether the original author intended such an interpretation or Short, a retired Presbyterian minister, is just seeing the stories through the lens of his own life.
The common notion that Geisel was basically a leftist certainly has a basis in fact: in the early years of his career he was a political cartoonist of a distinctly left-wing orientation. Less obvious instances of left-of-center political implications cropped up on occasion in the Seuss books, as noted in the AP story, but that of course does not mean that Geisel could not have intended to convey Christian religious themes in his books
The story goes on to quote author Short in making his case for his thesis that Geisel consciously placed Christian imagery and ideas in his celebrated children’s books:
"He never did say, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to incorporate my Christian faith into my stories,"’ Short said. "And I think it’s fine that he didn’t do that because it’s up to us to draw the conclusion whether it’s actually there or not."
Short cites Geisel’s early life—the son of Christian parents, mandatory chapel services at Oxford and Dartmouth—to demonstrate Geisel’s "strong religious background." Short and Geisel met once—in 1978—and, after Short sent Geisel a copy of two of Short’s Peanuts books, Geisel wrote Short to say that he enjoyed the way Short "handled the material."
The AP story notes that the people in charge of Geisel’s estate (he died in 1991) have taken great care to prevent the public from seeing his books as overly didactic:
However, a biography on the Dr. Seuss Enterprises official website notes the following: "Like most works of merit, the works of Dr. Seuss have been overanalyzed; many scholars have found devices where there are truly none to be found. For the most part, Ted enjoyed writing entertaining books that encouraged children to read."
The AP author appears skeptical about Short’s thesis, but gives him room to make his case:
So is The Cat in the Hat really the Christ who arrives with a "BUMP" and turns the world upside down for God’s children? Is the mother in the story a symbol of the old religious law? Are the fish in the bowl representative of churches that adhere to a restricting version of the Gospel? Did Dr. Seuss really intend for his stories to be interpreted this way?
It’s a quandary that, for some, would puzzle even the Grinch’s puzzler.
"There’s so much of it," Short said. "And it fits so neatly into the configuration of the Christian message that I’m convinced that he knew what he was doing."
I think they’re both partly right. I believe that Short is probably correct in identifying strong Christian overtones in Geisel’s Dr. Seuss stories, and that the AP author is probably correct to doubt that Geisel meant to convey Christian ideas prominently, if at all, in his stories. Both notions are at least highly plausible, and they do not contradict each other.
After all, as Short notes, Geisel did indeed have a strong religious background, and regardless of whether he was a churchgoer later in life, those early experiences and ideas would surely have formed much of his worldview and influenced his ways of thinking and perceiving things. Hence, even if he left the church, his very imagination might well have been solidly based in a Christian perspective.
The imagination, moreover, is the part of his mind that would be most resistant to censorship by any conscious decisions he might make as an adult, and the very nature of the books shows that Geisel gave his imagination pretty much free reign when writing them.
Where Short probably overplays his hand is in asserting that Geisel consciously intended to convey Christian thoughts and themes, as the AP story quotes him:
"I was amazed at what I found when I started looking at it—all this Christian imagery was very carefully factored into his stories," Short said in an interview from his home in Little Rock.
"And that’s what this book intends to do, is show how he has done this in a very carefully crafted way. It’s there, and you could make an argument for it being intentionally there, because it’s done with such great care."
This is an unnecessary leap of logic, and one for which there is at present no convincing evidence. In the case of C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton, it is clear both from their lives and their writings that their fictions are meant to convey Christian ideas. The same is true of authors as diverse as Henry Fielding and George Gilder. In Geisel’s case, by contrast, that intention is certainly not evident. Yet the ideas and themes are surely there in his books, as Short has taken great pains to point out.
Having them in his books should be enough. What Geisel actually thought consciously about such matters is, after all, between him and God. We should be thankful that the Dr. Seuss books are at least to some extent doing the good work that Short identifies—without posthumously enlisting him as a Christian soldier.