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Serious Seuss

Cincinnati Art Museum maintains five Dr. Seuss editorial cartoons taking aim at villains on the world stage

By Bill Sloat · February 26th, 2014 · News
news1_drseuss_cincinnatiartmuseumTheodor Seuss Geisel’s “Warming Up the Springboard” from 1942.

The Seuss is not loose at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which has a stash of the good doctor’s political cartoons filed away and unavailable for public viewing in its archives.

The five cartoons were drawn for a New York newspaper’s editorial page and appeared years before Horton heard any Whos. These works date to the days when Nazis were heiling Herr Hitler. And most of the world was giving a deaf ear to the destruction of Jews that we now call the Holocaust.

Seuss was just starting the trajectory that would make him a household name. Sadly, most Cincinnatians have no opportunity for appreciation and leisurely examination of this early work. They can’t see this chapter, the one that is virtually unknown.  

Caitlin McGurk, an expert on political cartooning at Ohio State University, said that his work on the editorial page is great, though not widely exposed.

“I can’t tell you that he is totally unknown as a political cartoonist because there are people who know he worked for a newspaper,” McGurk says. “But there aren’t many people who are familiar with the work he did. They just haven’t seen any. Truth is, the Seuss political cartoons are fantastic.”

Ohio State has more than 300,000 original cartoons catalogued at its Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus. None are drawn by Dr. Seuss. The only known collections seem to be in Cincinnati and at the University of California San Diego, which has about 200 of his newspaper political cartoons. Some of UC San Diego’s are available online.

Seuss was aghast by villains on the world stage. The caricatures in his newspaper cartoons include an oafish Fuehrer and a Mussolini who dwells in a snail shell under the sea. They appear in an unmistakable style that harkens Grinches to come, precursors of the fictional characters post-war Dr. Seuss imagined much more clearly. The Uncle Sam who appears in the political cartoons has a big beak — perhaps he’s an American eagle. Uncle Sam’s tall top hat surely turned up later on a famous chapeau-capped feline.

An Oct 31, 1941, cartoon in the museum possession shows a swastika-emblazoned U-boat sinking a U.S. freighter. An American sailor was adrift, clinging to a life raft.

Although the U.S. was not in the war yet (the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor was 37 days away), Seuss’ message was that we were already under attack. In the cartoon, the Nazi sub’s radio sent a signal, “And Now, Kiddie Widdies, we take you to Madison Square Garden where Uncle Lindy-Windy will sing there Ain’t No Boogey Man Now.” 

His joke implied the Nazis were behind anti-war rallies. Lindy-Windy was a reference to aviator Charles Lindbergh, who led the rallies and admired the Germans.

Seuss, whose real name was Theodore Seuss Geisel, was a thirtysomething illustrator — a Dartmouth dropout — trying to make a living in New York as the Great Depression wound down. America was on the eve of World War II. He was the son of a brewmaster in Springfield, Mass., still very much obscure. Years would unwind until, “Something went BUMP!  And how that bump made us jump!” at the Cat in the Hat’s debut in 1957.

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Times were incredibly bumpy when Dr. Seuss penned the editorial cartoons for PM, a left-leaning tabloid newspaper that reviled and lampooned the isolationist crowd who opposed fighting fascism. Britain was standing alone, and the Soviets were getting mauled on the Eastern Front. PM, which ceased publication in 1948, was a political progressive’s dream newspaper. It accepted no advertising. It was pro-union. It was a strong supporter of FDR’s New Deal. It opposed rightwing extremism. It has been called the newspaper for the 99 percent. Conservatives considered it a leftist hotbed, and some say it failed to speak out against Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

Seuss spent two years at PM. He left in 1942 to join the Army and made training films in a unit led by Hollywood Director Frank Capra. One of the characters Seuss created for the Army was Private Snafu. The private’s surname name came from a military expression — Snafu was shorthand for “situation normal, all fucked up.”

Seuss, like the newspaper, was eager for the U.S. to act against Hitler and crew. His views put him at odds with Cincinnati’s most famous and powerful politician of the day, U.S. Sen. Robert Taft, aka Mr. Republican. Taft was non-interventionist — he fought efforts to join the Allies battling across the globe. Taft only supported the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

But don’t suppose that the five Seuss cartoons at the Cincinnati Art Museum are locked away because of any pressure from the Taft clan. There is no Grinch in the galleries. No, they are stored because the museum apparently has no real desire to put them on display at this time.  Still, it ought to be a good time to show them.

Seuss turns 110 on March 2. His birthday is somewhat of a national milestone — it kicks off national reading day and other events that are supposed to lure young people — and adults — into enjoying books and poems and other gems they can find in tomes.

Fanfare is widespread — the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., is sponsoring an event for Seuss. The Public Library of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Museum Center are holding a March 1 “Seussabration” with Read Across America. All for the good doctor’s birthday.

Kristin Spangenberg, curator of print at the art museum, said the cartoons are being preserved and are safe. They probably haven’t been on public view since 1991, the year Dr. Seuss died at age 87. The museum offered a brief showing as a memorial.

Spangenberg said the museum has “limited exhibition space” and can’t put the works up fulltime.

 “We are the stewards of these drawings and we are taking care of them,” she says. “I have to say I was not aware of, I didn’t know about this aspect of his work when the cartoons came in in 1973. I was quite surprised when they came in.”

Spangenberg declined to put a monetary pricetag on the five cartoons.

“From the standpoint of history, they have value,” the curator said. “We have a talented individual, Dr. Seuss, commenting on major events.  That’s really part of the overall view. … overall value, of the cartoons’ visual contribution. These prints are a recognition of the talent of Seuss-Geisel. They are safe here. They are preserved.”

Lowell Leake Jr., a retired University of Cincinnati math professor, donated the Seuss prints to the museum in 1973. Leake’s dad was the assistant managing editor at PM and got the drawings on the day the paper closed its doors for good. Staffers went through the offices picking up mementos, a tradition among news people when a paper shutters.

“My dad scooped up some of the political cartoons,” Leake told me in 1991. (I interviewed him after Seuss’s death.) “Dr. Seuss was pretty unknown at the time, it’s sort of luck that my dad picked them up.”  

Leake kept one cartoon for himself and hung it above a computer terminal in his UC office. The cartoon showed a bunch of bugs that were nagging President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Every bug resembled somebody with a conservative political philosophy.

“You would recognize it as his work immediately. The bugs are the same sort of creatures that are in his children’s book,” Leake said.

Mark Fiore, a Pulitizer Prize winning cartoonist in San Francisco, heads the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, the organization comprised of artists who try to use humor and satire in their political drawings. Fiore says Seuss had a knack for skewering people on the editorial page, but “there isn’t a lot of his political work out there. Basically, everything I’ve seen him draw is amazing and I love his work. And now I’m reading his books to my 2-and-a-half year old, who is memorizing them. He’s a truly timeless cartoonist.” 

Fiore believes these obscure pieces of work deserve to be more accessible for Seuss fans and the public alike.  

“I wish they would do a display or retrospective in Cincinnati,” Fiore says. “I think it is important enough that it should be seen. It’s kind of sad that all these cartoons are sitting in a file somewhere.” ©

 
 
 
 

 

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