Dr. Seuss and “Adolf the Wolf”

What I like most about writing books is not the actual writing  — to me, that’s about the hardest work there is– but all the research I do before the slog of sitting down at the computer. What’s particularly fun is running across a new and unexpected nugget of information about my subject. Not something dramatic or sensational, usually, but just a little bit of history that adds color and life to the story I’m telling.

In Those Angry Days, one of the most interesting nuggets has to do with Dr. Seuss, probably the most beloved author of children’s books in this country. As it turned out, Theodor Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss’s real name — did not always focus on children as his audience. Before America entered World War II, Geisel, a Dartmouth graduate who’d also attended Oxford, made his living as a humor writer for popular magazines and as an ad illustrator for several major U.S. companies, including Standard Oil. Then, in 1941, he was hired as an editorial cartoonist for PM, a new, left-leaning New York daily newspaper that advocated  an immediate U.S. declaration of war against Nazi Germany.

Geisel’s pen became one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of American interventionism. Using the knife-sharp wit and whimsical surrealistic animals that became the trademarks of his books, his cartoons skewered both Axis leaders and American isolationists. Next to Hitler, his favorite subject was Charles Lindbergh, the unofficial leader of the American isolationist movement. In one Dr. Seuss cartoon, a group of ostriches (the ostrich was Geisel’s symbol for isolationism) marches down a street carrying a sign reading “Lindbergh for President in 1944!” while several sinister black-hooded figures, labeled “U.S. fascists,” follow with their own sign: “Yeah, but why wait until 1944?”  In another, a smiling whale dances on a mountaintop, singing: “I’m saving my scalp/Living high on an Alp/Dear Lindy!/ He gave me the notion!”

Geisel was also fond of savaging America First, the country’s biggest and most influential isolationist organization. One of his best 1941 cartoons featured a mother, labeled “America First,” reading a book called Adolf the Wolf to her frightened children. The caption reads: “…and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones…But those were Foreign Children, and it really didn’t matter.”

Asked many years later about the rationale behind his scathingly funny wartime cartoons,  Geisel gave a simple answer: “I just wanted the good guys to win.”