The Cat in the Hat part 1

It’s difficult for us, now, to fully appreciate the impact The Cat in the Hat had on generation of parents, children and educators. The Cat, as an aide to teaching children to read, seems as obvious and omnipresent as the alphabet itself and has not been improved upon in 50 years.

The story of the book, which has been told many times (and can be found in greater detail here), is that the reading programs of the US were a laughingstock for their inefficiency and waste, and an editor of children’s books decided to take it upon himself to rectify the situation. (If someone could find the name of that editor, I would be in your debt.)

Ted Geisel (that is, Seuss) was given an assignment to create a children’s reading primer that would tell a story that uses only 220 easily-recognized words, which were drawn from a list provided by an educational theorist. One might imagine that a book produced by this technique, in kind and understanding hands, would turn out something like PD Eastman’s charming but plotless Go, Dog. Go! But Ted Geisel came up with something more original, daring and explosive.

(Eastman would later climb this mountain beautifully with the woefully underrated Sam and the Firefly, which I hope to get to at another time.)

The story goes that Geisel wrestled with the difficulty of creating his primer for months before taking the first two words from the list, “cat” and “hat,” and saying, essentially, “screw it, I’ll call it The Cat in the Hat,” and going from there.

The Cat in the Hat does its job as a primer very well indeed. It’s lively, funny, and tells a complete story with its bare-bones vocabulary (Seuss would later, of course, trump himself with the 50-word Green Eggs and Ham, which I discuss here). But the thing that makes The Cat in the Hat a classic, what makes it a book that sticks with you, is not that it teaches children to read but that it contains mysterious worlds of allegory and symbolism. It’s open to many different readings and addresses, in its way, some of the most profound questions of human life.

There was a wonderful piece by Louis Menand in the New Yorker a few years ago that gave a modernist interpretation to the story, and which is not available online, (although some criticism of it is — curse you, internet!). The Cat, says Menand, is Seuss himself, who’s been thrust before an audience of children and is required to entertain them with nothing but a handful of arbitrary, meaningless words — cat, hat, wall, cake, run, thing, etc.)

(The Cat carries an umbrella but the word “umbrella” does not appear in the book — not on the list, and difficult to fit into Geisel’s patented meter in any case.)

Having nothing to work with, the Cat throws a bunch of crap together (a ball, a rake, some books) and puts on a piss-poor circus act. One can feel Geisel’s frustration — “I could tell you some wonderful stories, but look what they gave me to work with!” — as the Cat abandons his mission of entertainment and moves on to destroying the house. The Cat becomes a Beckettian protagonist — ‘there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express” is the way the author of Waiting for Godot put it.

(Beckett, Seuss’s exact contemporary, would dedicate his life to paring down his work to Seussian levels of economy — was this the influence of The Cat in the Hat? Was it the dare of Green Eggs and Ham that took Beckett from the flourishes of his youth to the spareness of his mature work? The opening sentence of More Pricks Than Kicks, an early collection of stories, is “It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first canti in the moon.” The first line of his last work, Worstward Ho, is “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” Worstward Ho, like many of Beckett’s late prose pieces, is about the author’s inability to express himself with the tools at his disposal — he would have recognized the cat’s dilemma immediately.)

The Cat, of course, has been denatured, neutered if you will, through time and love and wide acceptance, as all successful comic anarchists are, from WC Fields to the Marx Brothers to Richard Pryor, but the book itself still retains its mysteries and wildness. We see the Cat on a bookbag or bong and smile — he is there to comfort and charm. But, like Charlie Brown (another classic baby-boomer figure), the Cat represents something much darker and more interesting than the merchandising suggests.

“The sun did not shine.” That’s the opening line of this beloved classic. “The sun did not shine.” Not to torture Seuss’s place in the Modernist pantheon too greatly, but I’m reminded that the sun does not shine in a great many of Ingmar Bergman’s movies. In his case, it’s partly because the stories Bergman tells take place during the Swedish winter, when the sun does not shine as a matter of course. But Bergman always used the lack of sunlight (one of the peaks of his art is actually titled Winter Light) to denote a lack of divine light, an absence of God in the lives of his characters. (The Seventh Seal, lest we forget, was released the same year as The Cat in the Hat. There truly was something in the air — maybe fallout from H-bomb tests; that’s what critics thought the characters in Beckett’s Endgame, also published in 1957, were hiding from in their skull-like bunker.)

(When the sun does shine in Beckett’s work, as it does, unremittingly, in Happy Days, it is a harsh, burning, scorching blast without night.  Light in Beckett is always important, whether it’s Krapp caught in his Manichean dualism or the protagonist of “Ohio Impromptu” stuck in his unending night or the beings of “Lessness” caught in their gray un-light.)

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.” Well, this is Endgame. Endgame is about exactly this — two people locked in the house on a cold, wet day. All the Cat would need to do is bring in two old people in garbage cans instead of two Things in boxes and they would be the exact same work. The characters in Endgame, like the characters in Waiting for Godot, like the children in The Cat in the Hat, are faced with interminable boredom and nothing but a handful of ordinary props (a stick, a hat, a chair) to entertain themselves. Geisel stands squarely at the crossroads of mid-20th-century angst. Except, of course, he’s an American, which means that his characters’ problem is that they have things, but those things are useless consumer junk, the things we buy with our post-war dollars in order to feel less empty. The kids in The Cat in the Hat sit staring out the window in their house full of junk — a ball, a bicycle (Beckett again, with Molloy’s preferred mode of transport), a badminton racket. In literal terms, the stuff is useless to the kids because it’s all “outdoor” stuff, and it’s raining outdoors. But I am reminded, again, of Beckett, and his sense of indoors and outdoors. For him, the outdoors is everything outside his skull, that is the “real world,” and the indoors is his mind.  The Cat kids are stuck not in a house but in their own minds, or in the mind of Geisel anyway.

(That’s why the shelter in Endgame has two windows — the characters are all inside Beckett’s head, and the windows are his eyes out onto the world, which, in Beckett’s view, is a blasted wasteland devoid of life.)

(It’s also worth noting that Beckett’s characters, like the boy and girl in The Cat in the Hat, are pseudocouples. That is, Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov, Mercier and Camier, etc, are not really two different characters, but only different aspects of the same mind, a pair of characters who appear to be a couple but who are really only one character arguing with him-or-her self.)

So I’m tempted to bring a both a psychological and spiritual reading to The Cat in the Hat, and will try to do so hand-in-hand here.

The kids stare out the windows of their suburban house the exact same way the characters in Endgame stare out the windows of their shelter, the same way Winnie stares at the landscape in Happy Days (Winnie also has nothing with which to face eternity but a toothbrush, an umbrella (!), some makeup, a hairbrush and a revolver — Seuss, apparently, couldn’t bring himself to include suicide in his list of possible activities for the kids of The Cat in the Hat), the same way The Unnamable stares, unblinking, out of its jar, at the void. They’re looking for life, and meaning, where experience has taught them none exists.

Beckett’s characters search for any signs of life at all — the possible appearance of a flea counts as a major plot point in Endgame — but the kids of The Cat in the Hat are searching for one specific sign of life — their mother.

Because their mother is out on this cold, cold wet day.

It took Time Magazine until 1966 to ask “Is God Dead?” (that’s Time for you, always behind the curve) but the question was very much on the minds of all the big thinkers in the middle decades of the 20th century.  For obvious reasons.  The end of the world had just narrowly been avoided, only to be threatened by a different end of the world, one that was in the hands of “the good” but which was still infinitely more scary than, say, Nazism.

In any case, the death of God was the central question informing Bergman’s greatest dramas, The Seventh Seal being only the most famous (Beckett’s works support a spiritual reading, but I think in the end his works are all about the act of writing itself — it is only coincidental that they invoke humanity’s relationship to God). But it’s not too far a leap, I think, to suppose that the absent Mother in The Cat in the Hat is God. God has left the children at home and gone off somewhere, she said she’d be back (like Godot) but there is no sign of her. And so all the children can do is wait (like Godot). They have a house full of stuff, certainly there’s a box of toys somewhere (although Seuss declines to put a TV in their house), but all the kids want to do is sit and stare and wait. Clearly, their mother’s absence worries them. Where has she gone, what is she doing, why is she not there? The story doesn’t say, but then God didn’t leave a note either.

The kids will sit and stare and wait (“All we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!” says the narrator [“I,” which I supposed would make “Sally” “Not I”]). Their house full of junk is meaningless and the world outside the house of their perceptions is a blasted void. Nothing has meaning, everything is dark, until their mother returns. Their anxiety about their lives in this suburban purgatory is palpable.

Alas, this is going on longer than I intended and my time grows short and I’m only on page 3. I will pick this up again on the nonce.

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9 Responses to “The Cat in the Hat part 1”
  1. e_ticket says:

    Beautiful. I look forward to reading more. 🙂

  2. mcbrennan says:

    The publisher in question–I have to assume it was Bennett Cerf, who was the big cheese at Random House throughout the 50s and 60s. Unless it was some lesser-known underling who hatched the original idea.

    Eagerly awaiting further analysis on this topic. I have a vast collection of Seuss (and Eastman and other lesser 50s/60s children’s books) in the vaults, but you’re articulating what drew me to them far better than I ever could.

    • Todd says:

      Bennett Cerf sounds like a likely candidate, but the Wikipedia entry on Beginner Books says only that it was founded by Geisel and Phyllis Cerf (Bennett’s wife). Beginner Books, however, was the result of the success of The Cat in the Hat, not the other way around. If I’m not mistaken, the editor in question was not at Random House at all, and in fact was from a completely different publisher.

      (This information can all be found in that Louis Menand article, which I could easily get from my handy “All The New Yorker On CD-ROM” set, but I’m too damn lazy.)

      • mcbrennan says:

        Well, Beginner Books was sort of a subsidiary imprint that was indeed the result of the Cat’s success, but many of Seuss’ early books were published by plain ol’ Random House, pre-Beginner Books. (This is one of things I know because I’m blessed with a few first editions.) Prior to Random House (say, pre-1940) Geisel was with Vanguard/Houghton Mifflin, and I faintly recall that The Cat In The Hat was the result of some unusual partnership (spearheaded by Cerf, I think) between Random House and Houghton-Mifflin.

        I could, of course, be wrong. Only your pesky laziness prevents us from knowing for sure.

        • Todd says:

          IIRC (as the hip kids say these days), the call to Geisel to write The Cat in the Hat came not from one of his usual publishers but from a textbook publisher who wanted the book for school use only. In the original deal, Random House (who was, indeed, Geisel’s usual publisher) only had the right to publish it commercially. But when the book became what it became, Random House took over and sold millions of the thing (1957 was also the peak year of the baby boom) and I don’t know what happened to the original publisher.

          • mcbrennan says:

            On a completely different topic, I have to say that based on your above analysis, I think I might have enjoyed a theoretical Alcott Cat In The Hat feature somewhat more than the one that actually got made. One presumes the Alcott Cat wouldn’t have primarily struggled with erections and hairballs and the like. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t jump to conclusions?

            I’m suddenly flashing on a Cat In The Hat-based remake of The Seventh Seal

            • Todd says:

              One presumes the Alcott Cat wouldn’t have primarily struggled with erections and hairballs and the like.

              The Alcott Cat, maybe not. The Alcott, definitely. Erections and hairballs are the twin polestars of my existence.

              • mcbrennan says:

                “Erections and hairballs are the twin polestars of my existence.”

                I look forward to hearing Malcom McDowell narrate that line in hushed, reverent tones in the forthcoming documentary The Compleat Alcott.

  3. Anonymous says:

    obligated to express

    You are so fucking brilliant.