Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Dr. Seuss's The Lorax

Having had young children, although they are grown now, I spent some years extensively reading out loud the greater part of Dr. Seuss's oeuvre. I tended to group his books into two categories - those that are astounding works of genius, and those that are a bit more rote or formulaic albeit clever (inspiration hadn't hit quite as strongly in these) and that also tended to be full of tongue-twisters that could become annoying to read out loud repeatedly.

Wodehouse, a fave of mine, is similar. His books are always skillfully done, but some have immense comic inspiration coursing through them, while others are more like rote exercises that make light reading but are disposable and forgettable.

A few examples of Category 1 (genius) for Dr. Seuss: Green Eggs and Ham, The Sneetches, Cat in the Hat & its sequel, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

Also in Category 1, and of particular interest to law and economics types: The Lorax. I believe that people have even written about it in the biz. E.g., it offers a classic illustration of externalities and common pool problems. (Exam question: Could these have been solved by assigning the Once-ler ownership rights to all Truffula trees?)

But The Lorax also seems to posit a violation of rational choice by the Once-ler, who completely fails to anticipate that the trees are running out until the last one faces the axe. We know people sometimes fail to exhibit appropriate planning depth, but it isn't really explained here.

Anyway, today's NYT has an article discussing a recent article in Nature (available here, but it may be restricted-access) about The Lorax.

First point of interest, the backstory: Ted Geisel (Seuss) "was fighting to keep a suburban development project from clearing the Eucalyptus trees around his home. But when he tried to write a book about conservation for children that wasn't preachy or boring, he got writer's block.

"At his wife's suggestion to clear his mind, they [went on a Kenyan safari] ..... And if you haven't guessed by now, it was there that The Lorax took shape - on the blank side of a laundry list, nearly all of its environmental message created in a single afternoon."

This is how inspiration tends to work, even if you aren't a Seuss.

Per the Nature article, this more particularly involved his seeing an acacia tree, along with patas monkeys that commensally use it without harming it. So it was the original truffula tree, and they helped inspire the Lorax himself.

The NYT article continues: "[S]ome have worried that [the] Lorax ... isn't really a good teaching model because he comes off as a self-righteous eco-warrior with unfounded anger." Well, right at the start, the narrator calls his voice "sharpish and bossy," and he continues to act that way throughout the story.

Per an interview that the NYT writer, JoAnna Klein, conducted with Nathaniel Dominy, the Nature paper's lead author, while "[t]he prevailing sense among literary critics is that the Lorax is too angry .... [i]f you see the Lorax not as some indignant steward of the environment, but instead, as a participating member of the ecosystem [that is being threatened], then I think his anger is so much more understandable and I think forgivable."

That's a reasonable point, but it's also part of Seuss's aesthetic to have the spokesman be shrill and hence a bit self-defeating. It's a part of his combining moral lessons with an aversion to the smug sententiousness of prior children's literature that he found, not just boring, but insulting to his child audience. So he frequently complexifies a book's stance and impact by standing apart from the messenger (in cases where he assigns someone the role of being "right" - which he only does occasionally).

For another example of the same thing, consider Green Eggs and Ham. This is a book with a clear moral message for children: be openminded, try things, expand your horizons, etc. But who is the messenger for this point? The very annoying and over-zealous Sam-I-Am. There's something distinctly odd and off about Sam-I-Am's persistence, which is part of the fun even though he's right.

More examples of moral complexity in Seuss: Should the kids tell mother what happened in the Cat in the Hat? Are the child's fantasies (which he must keep to himself) more important and valuable than the mundane truth that his parents demand, in And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street?

So we can combine the Nature article's explanation for why the Lorax is so shrill - he's personally threatened, and hence feels justifiably defensive and anxious - with understanding how Seuss uses this type of strategy to help make his best works far more memorable and powerful than 99.9% of the young children's literature that is out there.

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