IMAGINATION IS A quality much urged upon children. "Where's your imagination?" a child is often asked reprovingly, usually in response to a fretful, "I'm bored." In one of his "Dream Songs" the poet John Berryman writes, ". . . my mother told me as a boy/(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored/means you have no/Inner Resources.'" Imagination, inner resources -- put prosaically, the ability to amuse yourself on a rainy afternoon -- this thing that we admire in a child we find in abundance in the work of Dr. Seuss.
Of eight Dr. Seuss books recently published in paperback for the first time (Random House, $2.95 each. Ages 3-10), most have as a premise some variation on the "I'm bored theme: In Bartholomew and the Oobleck, King Derwin of Didd is tired of the four things that normally come from the sky, that is, rain, sunshine, fog and snow, and says, "I want something NEW to come down!"; in If I Ran the Zoo, Gerald McGrew says, "it's a pretty good zoo," but: The lions and tigers and that kind of stuff They have up there now are not quite good enough. You see things like these in just any old zoo. They're awfully old-fashioned. I want something new!
In Scrambled Eggs Super!, Peter T. Hooper says, "I sort of got thinking -- it's sort of a shame/That scrambled eggs always taste always the same"; in On Beyond Zebra, Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell says, "I guess the old alphabet/ISN'T enough!"; in a story called "The Glunk That Got Thunk" (in I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today!), the character called Sister "was thinking up/Some fuzzy little stuff," when she sighed and said, "This stuff's all right,/But it's not fun enough./I've got to think up bigger things."
From the mundane, then, to the ridiculous, as Dr. Seuss lets loose his imagination, and suddenly we are in a world that all of us under the age of about 50 (his first book, of 41 to date, appeared in 1937) know well: an often sinister world of odd, shaggy creatures called Kwongs or Nerkles or Thwerlls of Flunnels or Poozers; of dangers without end, from riding over a bumpy road at midnight in a One-Wheeler Wubble to ending up stuffed on the Harvard Club wall; of verses that are pleasantly silly, but frequently strained, and sometimes both at once, as in, "I floated twelve days without toothpaste or soap./I practically, almost had given up hope." He is zany, he is unique, he is probably the best-loved and certainly the best-selling children's book writer of all time.
But in rereading some of these books (Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose was a childhood favorite of mine) and reading others for the first time, I couldn't help wondering about the quality of Dr. Seuss' imagination. In fact, I was disappointed. His imagination and his verse have similar limitations: both are a little too facile, a little too unstructured, a little too pointless. His imaginary world lacks psychological insight and human warmth. Dr. Seuss has the imagination of a precocious child, which is no doubt why he appeals to children and parents alike.Who wouldn't want a child as clever as he? "He has a fantastic imagination," we would say of such a child, and we would be right in all meanings of the word fantastic, if not in all meanings of the word imagination.
But where does his imagination lead? Not very far beyond the pleasures of the moment. His stories are often just romps, as in most stories above, which, after their flights of fancy, return us and his protagonists unchanged to the starting point. Or else they are pedestrian moral tales, as in thidwick or I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, which begins more promisingly than most Dr. Seuss tales, with a fellow who finds his troubles mounting up, and decides to go to a land "Where they never have troubles. At least, very few." But in the end he returns to the Valley of Vung, from where he came, and "I've bought a big bat./I'm all ready, you see./Now my troubles are going/To have troubles with me!" The moral -- face your troubles head on, don't run from them -- is as banal as buttermilk.
Alison Lurie, the novelist and critic of children's literature, wrote in a recent essay that Dr. Seuss ought to be recognized as a classic (and suggested that he has been neglected because of the "subversive" nature of his work; that he takes the side of children in the psychic battles between children and parents). If there were some place to cast my vote other than the cash register (for that, over the years, is where classics are made; and by that standard, Dr. Seuss has surely arrived), I'd vote against making Dr. Seuss a classic. He has the imagination we hope for in a child -- free and full of energy, but lacking in wisdom and sympathy and human experience. A child's mind is an awesome, wonderful thing, but it is romantic to think that a child can be an artist, that a child's imagination can produce works of lasting value.