cat people

(“Everything stinks till it’s finished,” Dr. Seuss once said, long before the enlightened age of ‘Sesame Street’ and the meteoric rise of ‘Blue’s Clues’. Developmental education has certainly come a long way since the early days of green eggs and ham, but I still can’t help but marvel at his strangely provocative style, given that my own first read was the ever-popular “Cat in the Hat Comes Back” just weeks after my fourth birthday. Consequently, I thought it only fitting to share with the readership this great New Yorker piece about the science of rhyme and reason, and the man who first brought it to the world…)

What Dr. Seuss really taught us.
Issue of 2002-12-23

The Cat in the Hat was a Cold War invention. His value as an analyst of the psychology of his time, the late nineteen-fifties, is readily appreciated: transgression and hypocrisy are the principal themes of his little story. But he also stands in an intimate and paradoxical relation to national-security policy. He was both its creature and its nemesis—the unraveller of the very culture that produced him and that made him a star. This is less surprising than it may seem. He was, after all, a cat.

Every reader of “The Cat in the Hat” will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to some more insidious intruder. The mother’s abandonment is the psychic wound for which the antics of the cat make so useless a palliative. The children hate the cat. They take no joy in his stupid pet tricks, and they resent his attempt to distract them from what they really want to be doing, which is staring out the window for a sign of their mother’s return. Next to that consummation, a cake on a rake is a pretty feeble entertainment.

This is the fish’s continually iterated point, and the fish is not wrong. The cat’s pursuit of its peculiar idea of fun only cranks up the children’s anxiety. It raises our anxiety level as well, since it keeps us from doing what we really want to be doing, which is accompanying the mother on her murderous or erotic errand. Possibly the mother has engaged the cat herself, in order to throw the burden of suspicion onto the children. “What did you do?” she asks them when she returns home, knowing that the children cannot put the same question to her without disclosing their own violation of domestic taboos. They are each other’s alibi. When you cheat, you lie.

The decision to turn “The Cat in the Hat” on the trope of the mater abscondita is not without interest, coming, as it does, from a writer who chose his mother’s maiden name as his pen name. Dr. Seuss was called Theodor Geisel, after his father, the son of a German immigrant who settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Dr. Seuss’s mother, also the daughter of German immigrants, was Henrietta Seuss, and when he appropriated the name for his books Dr. Seuss pronounced it in the German manner, “soice,” until he realized that Americans naturally read the name as “soose,” and that the American pronunciation of “Dr. Seuss” evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose. Henrietta Seuss was six feet tall and weighed nearly two hundred pounds. Dr. Seuss’s authorized biographers, Judith and Neil Morgan, report that she was an accomplished high diver (not a sport one can easily picture a two-hundred-pound woman engaging in), and that she was admired for her beauty. She was a devoted reader of bedtime stories, and she encouraged her son’s interest in rhythm and rhyme.

The single recreation of Dr. Seuss’s father was target shooting, a hobby his son once called “silly and unproductive.” In 1902, he held the world record for marksmanship at two hundred yards. He had the misfortune of inheriting the presidency of the family brewery a month before Prohibition was declared, but he was never poor. His son attended Dartmouth, then went to Oxford, but he dropped out after less than a year. His tutor told him that he was the only man he had ever met who should never have gone to Oxford. He then tried the Sorbonne. He left that institution after fifteen minutes. When he returned to the United States, in 1927, he began a successful career in advertising. He became famous for his work on behalf of an insecticide called Flit.

The breakthrough came in 1937, when an old Dartmouth friend, an editor at Vanguard Press, persuaded his boss to publish “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” a book that twenty-seven other publishing houses had turned down. This was followed by a steady stream of Dr. Seuss books, including the great political trilogy “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” (1938), “The King’s Stilts” (1939), and “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” (1949), and two classic studies of identity, “Horton Hatches the Egg” (1940) and “Horton Hears a Who!” (1954). And so in 1954, when John Hersey published a piece in Life deploring the books used in public schools to teach children how to read—he called them “pallid primers [with] abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls”—he mentioned Dr. Seuss as one of the “imaginative geniuses” whom publishers might turn to in the hope of enriching the books they produced for the schools. In 1955, one of those publishers took Hersey’s advice.

This was William Spaulding, director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin. Spaulding had read Hersey’s article. He had also read a best-seller called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which had come out that year. “Why Johnny Can’t Read” was, similarly, an attack on primers, which it described as “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting the farm and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading ‘Look, look’ or ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘Come, come’ or ‘See the funny, funny animal.’ ”

The author was Rudolf Franz Flesch, an Austrian émigré with a Ph.D. from Teachers College. His point wasn’t just that the Dick and Jane and Alice and Jerry readers were boring; his point was that they were based on a flawed pedagogy. This was the theory of word recognition—the idea that children learn words by memorizing them. Flesch argued that this was an absurd way to teach reading, since it left the child without resources when confronted with an unfamiliar word. The correct method, Flesch believed, was phonics, teaching children the sounds that letters and groups of letters make—he maintained that there are forty-four such sounds in English—so that they will be able to figure out unfamiliar words. Ultimately, of course, we do memorize words; we don’t stop to sound them out. But Flesch thought that people could get to that stage a lot faster if they started with phonics.

Flesch claimed that American children advanced much more slowly in reading than European children did (this was in the days when Americans still cared what Europeans thought of them); and he suggested that the failure of the public schools was a threat to democracy and the American dream, since it deprived poor and middle-class children of the quality of education available to the affluent. Flesch also asserted that “first- and second-graders in our public schools are not taught to read at all, as shown by the fact that there isn’t a single book on the market that they can manage to read by themselves,” and this hint of an unexploited class of consumers is undoubtedly what inspired Spaulding to invite Theodor Geisel to dinner. “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!” he told him.

There was an added requirement. In the back of “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” Flesch had printed seventy-two word lists, which parents who bought the book could use to teach their children at home. Spaulding asked Geisel to write a story that used only a limited number of similar words, words recognizable by a first grader. As Geisel later explained to an interviewer:

He sent me a list of about three hundred words and told me to make a book out of them. At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous, and I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book—cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on. I worked on the book for nine months—throwing it across the room and letting it hang for a while—but I finally got it done.

This makes the project seem less scientific than it was. Spaulding published textbooks; he was not in the business of dreaming up brainteasers for Dr. Seuss. He really believed in Flesch’s doctrine, and he wanted a book he could sell to the schools; he had already agreed to give Random House, Geisel’s regular publisher, the rights to the trade edition. Spaulding handed Geisel three lists, drawn up by experts. The first was composed of two hundred and twenty words that first graders could be expected to recognize at sight—like “a,” “about,” “and,” “are,” and so on. Geisel selected a hundred and twenty-three. The second list contained two hundred and twenty words that beginning readers might recognize from phonics exercises—sets of words similar in sound, such as “make” and “rake” and “cake.” Geisel chose forty-five. And the third list contained two hundred and twenty words that first graders had probably never seen but should be able to decipher, such as “beat,” “fear,” and “kick.” Geisel used thirty-one. This netted him a hundred and ninety-nine words. It wasn’t enough to make a story from, so he added twenty-one words of his own, including “nothing,” “mess,” and “pink.” “The Cat in the Hat” is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.

It had some help from the Cold War. The idea that young people were being exposed to a commercial culture that was making them vicious and stupid was a prevalent anxiety in the mid-fifties. The popularity of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” was one symptom of that anxiety. Another was Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent,” an attack on the comic-book industry. Wertham was a psychiatrist who worked with problem children and delinquents. His book came out in 1954, the same year that a Senate subcommittee held widely publicized hearings on the effects of comic books on young readers, at which Wertham testified. Mad magazine, which was started in 1952 and specialized in gory humor, was a target of the investigation. And then there was television. In 1950, nine per cent of American homes had a television set; in 1956, the figure was seventy-two per cent. The general fear that American children were growing up in a dumbed-down culture was crystallized by the launching of Sputnik.

Sputnik went into orbit on October 4, 1957. It was the size of a beach ball, and its sole technical feature was the emission of a steady beeping sound. It was a danger to no man. But that wasn’t the point. The point was the missile used to launch it. Nuclear devices are not much good unless you can deliver them, and the launching of an artificial satellite suggested that the Soviets, who had exploded their first thermonuclear bomb two years before, were on the way to developing an ICBM capability. A month later, on November 3rd, the Soviets put a second satellite into orbit. Sputnik 2 carried a very unhappy Russian dog, named Laika, which contributed a spooky, mad-scientist effect to the whole thing. There was panic in the United States.

The accepted diagnosis was that the United States was being beaten in the arms race by a nation with a superior educational system. Sputnik was believed to have exposed a technology gap. “Mortal Challenge,” the cover of Newsweek declared. “A World at Stake—In Science, Education, Diplomacy, Economics, Defense.” The Saturday Review pointed out that “without mathematics, democracy cannot hope to survive.” The official response, besides an increase in funding for missile research, was the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. In “the present emergency,” the act explained, “the national interest requires . . . that the Federal Government give assistance to education for programs which are important to our defense.” These were identified as science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 paid for loans to students; for equipment needed to teach science, math, and foreign languages; for “national defense” fellowships for graduate students; and for testing and guidance services. It established centers for the study of foreign languages and supported research on the use of the media for educational purposes. The fields targeted by the act were the ones that benefitted most, but every area in education benefitted to some degree, because resources put into one area from outside free up resources for others. The baby boom was already kicking in, and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 started a steady flow of funding for educational institutions. In the same period, the economists Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker were developing the concept of human capital, which figured an educated citizenry as an economic asset and, by inference, a national-security priority. Rudolf Flesch had prevailed.

“The Cat in the Hat” was published in March, 1957, seven months before Sputnik. Within weeks, it was selling at a rate of twelve thousand copies a month. Random House’s publisher, Bennett Cerf, contrived to sell his trade edition to the schools through jobbers, and he ended up acquiring the textbook rights from Houghton Mifflin. And 1957 was the peak year of the baby boom. In 1945, the last year of the war, 2.9 million children were born in the United States. In 1952, 3.9 million were born: these are the children who were five years old when “The Cat in the Hat” came out. In 1957, 4.3 million children were born, still the largest cohort in American history. By 1960, “The Cat in the Hat” had sold a million copies. By 2000, it had sold 7.2 million hardcover copies in the United States alone, making it the ninth best-selling children’s hardcover book of all time. It was translated into many languages, including Latin: “Cattus Petasatus.”

The success of “The Cat in the Hat” persuaded Cerf to start a division at Random House called Beginner Books, and he put his wife, Phyllis, and Geisel in charge of it. They shamelessly appropriated poor, forgotten William Spaulding’s model. Phyllis Cerf made a list of three hundred and seventy-nine words, taken from primers. Authors could choose two hundred words from this list, and could add twenty “emergency” words of their own. Beginner Books started with four titles in 1958. By 1960, it was bringing in a million dollars a year. Random House became the largest publisher of children’s books in America; a third of its total sales volume was in juvenile books.

A hundred Beginner Books were eventually published. One was “Green Eggs and Ham,” in 1960. Bennett Cerf had bet Geisel fifty dollars that he could not write a book using just fifty words. Geisel won the bet. Forty-nine of the words in “Green Eggs and Ham” are one-syllable words. (The fiftieth, of course, is “anywhere.”) Cerf didn’t come out too badly, though. “Green Eggs and Ham” was the most successful book Dr. Seuss ever wrote. It is the fourth best-selling children’s hardcover title of all time. (The No. 1 best-seller is Janette Lowrey’s 1942 blockbuster, “The Pokey Little Puppy.”)

“The Cat in the Hat” transformed the nature of primary education and the nature of children’s books. It not only stood for the idea that reading ought to be taught by phonics; it also stood for the idea that language skills—and many other subjects—ought to be taught through illustrated storybooks, rather than primers and textbooks. A few years after “The Cat in the Hat” came out, four-color reproduction became economically feasible. At the same time, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and its successors were pumping money into school libraries. There was an apparently insatiable market for children’s books with educational potential, and this drew many writers and artists into the field. Children’s lit was a Cold War growth industry, right alongside Boeing, Northrop, and Dow Chemical.

I am one of the 3.9 million Americans who were born in 1952, and “The Cat in the Hat” was the book with which I was taught, by my parents, to read. I remember distinctly the first word I read by myself. It was “and,” a word William Spaulding’s experts thought that a first grader should know by sight. I knew the phonetic value of each letter: “ah,” “nn,” “duh.” What I could not figure out was how you got from those three discrete sounds to the sound-blur “and.” I remember the moment the switch was flipped, and “a,” “n,” “d” turned into “and.” I said to myself, “So that’s how you do it.” It is the moment you awake to the realization that there is a world available through print. A few years later, I was lying in my bed reading the third volume in the Hardy Boys’ outstanding series, “The Secret of the Old Mill” (eighty-six on the big list), my heart pounding as Frank and Joe peeked through the floorboards of the old mill and watched the counterfeiters at work inches below them. Before the switch was flipped, the marks on the page had been opaque. Now they were affecting my heart rate. It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.

The cat’s improvisations with the objets trouvés in the home he has invaded are obviously an allegory for his creator’s performance with the two hundred and twenty arbitrary words he has been assigned by his publisher. The cat is a bricoleur. He has no system—or, rather, his system is to have no system. He is compelled to make meaning from whatever is there. He fails, the bricolage topples, the fish ends up in a teapot; and this hint of semantic instability is expanded on in Dr. Seuss’s most difficult work (No. 26 all-time), “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” published in 1958.

“The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is the “Grammatology” of Dr. Seuss. It is a book about language and structure, those Cold War obsessions. That the “Cat” books’ appearance coincided with the publication of Noam Chomsky’s “Syntactic Structures” (1957) and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “Structural Anthropology” (1958) is, as they used to say during the Cold War, no accident. Chomsky’s work in linguistics, it might be noted, was supported in part by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research and Air Research and Development Command, and the Office of Naval Research. Not all of the increase in military spending went into missile research.

Synopsis of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is easy enough. Abandoned again by their feckless mother, those two sad sacks, Sally and me, are consigned to shovelling snow from a recent blizzard. The cat chooses the moment to make his return. Sally urges her brother to bar his entrance (“Don’t you talk to that cat. / That cat is a bad one”). The cat brushes off the brushoff and enters the house, where he is discovered soon afterward in the tub, eating a cake. He is banished from the tub by the boy (“I have no time for tricks. / I must go back and dig”), but when the water is drained a pink stain is left. The rest of the action concerns the problem of getting rid of the stain. It is first transferred, by the cat, to a series of household items, some plainly off limits to the children, including the mother’s dress, the father’s shoes, and the bed in what is described as “Dad’s bedroom” (no doubt a response to the mother’s extramarital adventures). Unable to erase the stain, the cat reveals, under his hat, various little cats named for the letters of the alphabet (“He helps me a lot. / This is Little Cat A”).

These semiotic felines do exactly what a deconstructionist would predict: rather than containing the stain, they disseminate it. Everything turns pink. The chain of signification is interminable and, being interminable, indeterminate. The semantic hygiene fetishized by the children is rudely violated; the “system” they imagined is revealed to have no inside and no outside. It is revealed to be, in fact, just another bricolage. The only way to end the spreading stain of semiosis is to unleash what, since it cannot be named, must be termed “that which is not a sign.” This is the Voom, the final agent in the cat’s arsenal. The Voom eradicates the pink queerness of a textuality without boundaries; whiteness is back, though it is now the purity of absence—one wants to say (and, at this point, why not?) of abstinence. The association with nuclear holocaust and its sterilizing fallout, wiping the planet clean of pinkness and pinkos, is impossible to ignore. It is a strange story for teaching people how to read.

When you look through the secondary literature on “The Cat in the Hat,” you read that children instinctively respond to the cat’s sense of mischief. I wonder how many children really do react that way. My own identification, as a child, was entirely with the fish. I didn’t admire his hysteria, of course (very uncool). But I understood what he was trying, with his limited vocabulary, to say, which is that “fun” is only a distraction from the reality of separation and abandonment. Pink snow, and those personified genitalia, Thing One and Thing Two, are no substitute for what we have lost. We don’t want to be amused; we don’t even want to amuse ourselves. We want to be taken care of.

Later on, in the nineteen-sixties, I, along with many other Americans born around 1952, began to understand the cat’s appeal—in particular, the whole Thing One and Thing Two business. The fish, let’s face it, was an uptight little dude, a tin-pot Puritan, and the domestic sphere in which he served as resident superego proved, on closer examination, to be a site of exclusion and oppression. New combinations seemed possible—seemed necessary. Maybe bricolage and différance were the way, after all. Misrule became the new rule, and the cat was its cockeyed lord. Having learned to read, we learned to misread. Phonics, which was supposed to make us into superscientists, cooking up formulas for landing those ICBMs right in Khrushchev’s kitchen, had unleashed instead the spirit of “anything goes.” It was Pinkisme partout.

Dr. Seuss, too, flush with the wealth his contributions to the national security had brought him, fell prey to the countercultural forces that his own cat, one of the Cold War’s most potent unguided missiles, had helped set in motion. In 1971, he published “The Lorax,” a book about the environment that was much despised by the patriotic timber industry, and in 1984 he brought out “The Butter Battle Book,” a work criticizing (of all things) the arms race. “The Butter Battle Book” was attacked in The New Republic for being soft on Communism. That’s not the kind of thing people used to say about “The Pokey Little Puppy.” Dr. Seuss took the same course as that other doctor who hitched a ride on the baby boom and the government gravy train it rode through school and into college: Dr. Spock. They went pink. (We won’t get into the later career of Noam Chomsky.)

But that was then, a long time gone. Now we have something different: we have “anything goes” without the spirit. “Transgression,” “subversion,” “deconstruction” are praise words bestowed as solemnly as “structure” and “order” once were, little gold stars awarded to rappers and television comics. Cakes on rakes are everywhere. A million cats cavort frantically for our attention. Even the fish has been co-opted (though what choice did he have?). “Enjoy!” cries the fish. “Consume! Everything will be fine when your mother gets home.” But the fish is whistling into the wind. The mother has left, and she’s never coming back. It’s just us and that goddam cat.