Dr. Seuss: Art, Politics, and Imagination
Theodore Seuss Geisel, known to most as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most recognizable author-illustrators of children’s literature of the 20th century. His wobbly towers of preposterous composition, his trademark gibberish, puns and tongue twisters, and the endless list of invented places, peoples, instruments, and alphabets were the accompaniments to countless childhoods. However, Seuss’s work is hardly childish escapism. The aesthetic autonomy of Seuss’s creative expression is coupled tightly with an equally evident political and ideological commitment. When so many mid-century authors, both children’s and adult’s, seem irredeemably dated, why does Dr. Seuss endure? At every step of his career, one finds an engagement with the political, historical and cultural moment—from the racist depictions of Asian people in his early works such as And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street to his books on tolerance from the 1950s (The Sneetches, The Zax, Horton Hears a Who!), his iconic, racially complicated The Cat in the Hat, his “bizarre” books from the 1960s (Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Sox), the environmentalist The Lorax, his Cold War parody The Butter Battle Book, and the late 20th-century optimism of Oh the Places You’ll Go! All the while, the quirky irreality of Seuss’s visuals signal a powerful autonomy of artistic expression. How can we understand Seuss’s work—as literary, visual, cultural, and political objects?
In this course, we will explore the mix of ideologies and political positions expressed in Seuss’s work and their relationship to his unique visual and literary style. Troubling the “man of his times” narrative that would explain Seuss’s politics as timely and his commitments as “mainstream,” we will instead take his inconsistent, and problematic, social engagement as an opportunity to explore questions of ideology and artistry in literature. As we read from selected works, we will discuss the tension between their (often didactic) ideological commitments and their (largely visual) autonomy from a realist mode of representation. Supplementing our reading will be secondary sources on questions of artistic autonomy and commitment by writers such as George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, and Salman Rushdie. Our overarching questions will be: What does it mean to create art, and children’s literature in particular, in the context of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and environmentalism? What are the possibilities and limits of artistic autonomy and political commitment?
Course ScheduleThursday, 7:00-10:00pm EST
February 10 — March 03, 2022