Though I wasn’t born until more than twenty years later, one of the most important moments of my childhood occurred on this day in history. You see, on the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, he was splashing…enjoying the jungle’s great joys…when Horton the elephant heard a small noise.
Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! was published in 1954 and it was by far my favorite in our family’s collection of children’s books. The reason is simple. It was my dad’s favorite, too. In fact I can’t remember a single time when I climbed up on his lap to read a book that he didn’t begin with those oft-recited lines, regardless of what book I had brought him. The joke never got old.
But it wasn’t just that my dad loved the book so much. I think, in retrospect, the famous line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,”resonated with me, the youngest child in a family of high achievers. And, the part of me that has always been a little bit writerly appreciated that Dr. Seuss so gracefully pulled off an obvious plot hole when Horton searches the clover field for the Whos that then beg him to take care of them when, really, if they’d just been allowed to rebuild in the clover field they’d have been perfectly safe.
Looking back, I get now why he couldn’t do that. If he had, the allegory would have broken down. Maybe. Of Theodore Seuss Geisel’s many books most have been scrutinized for subversive meanings. Some of them Dr. Seuss explained during his lifetime. Horton Hears a Who!, he didn’t. Still, neither he nor his widow ever refuted the widely held assumption that the book was an allegory for the post WWII relationship between the United States and Japan.
Politically, Dr. Seuss was an active Democrat, a believer in large governments taking care of small, and with one glaring exception, was outspoken against racism. Turns out, he wasn’t much of a good friend to the Japanese. He strongly supported internment camps for Japanese Americans, refusing to differentiate them from citizens of Japan.
He made his opinion very clear with a series of terribly stereotypical political cartoons that sought to dehumanize the Japanese and foster fear and animosity toward them. Had he tweeted them he might have been banned for life from the NBA or at least fined by the NFL and forced to apologize.
But by 1954, Dr. Seuss’s perspective changed. Hitler’s Axis had been defeated, Japan’s population had suffered terribly at the hands of the United States and its atomic bombs, and for the most part, the US postwar occupation of Japan had drawn to a close with a flourishing democracy and the promise of a bright future (with robots).
After the war, Dr. Seuss had the opportunity to visit the country. While there he was impressed with the culture and people he had previously belittled in his cartoons. In Kyoto he befriended a professor named Mitsugi Nakamura to whom he dedicated Horton Hears a Who!
So just as the people of Japan faced the threat of annihilation by atomic weapons, the citizens of Whoville face a deadly bath in boiling beezlenut oil. In a parallel to the US effort to protect and guide a postwar Japan, it is through a combination of a strong protector and the tremendous effort of a proud people that the Whos are saved.
In the end, a racist kangaroo that has worked tirelessly to spread anti-Who propaganda, villainized anyone who would stand up for the little guys, and has even attempted to ignore the Whos’ very existence is redeemed in a dramatic turnaround. And the little kangaroo in her pouch learns a big lesson, too.
I doubt very much that Dr. Seuss intended for many of his readers to get all of that from Horton’s adventure with the Whos of Whoville. He claimed he never wrote from a moral because “kids can see a moral coming a mile off,” but admitted “there’s an inherent moral in any story.” He was also a big believer in giving people in general and children in particular the tools to become great thinkers.
So I don’t think he would be bothered by the fact that when as a child I read, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” I assumed he was talking about me. I think he’d be glad to know that this book, more than any other, launched me toward literacy. And I hope it would bring a smile to his face to know that even now, the fifteenth of May makes me think of cuddling up with my dad and a good book and of Horton and the Whos and of the redemption of a racist kangaroo.