Forward: This is my third post on Theodore Geisel, better known as “Dr. Seuss.” My first, “Dr. Seuss Sells the Sauce,” (July 3, 2010) featured Geisel’s early career when he drew beer and whiskey ads. The second, “When Dr. Seuss Shot Down Lucky Lindy,” (July 16, 2016) displays his later work as a political cartoonist taking on the pro-Nazi movement, centered around aviator Charles Lindbergh, in pre-WW II America, This current post was occasioned by my seeing the motion picture developed from Seuss’s famous children’s book, “Horton Hears a Who.” The theme takes on new meaning in our time of climate change.
The original Dr. Seuss story was written in 1954 and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura,” dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto. It followed an extended trip Geisel made to Japan and has been seen as a subtle reference to the effects of nuclear weapons. The movie, made more than a half-century later, elaborates on the original to bring new messages to the fore.
The story: A speck of dusk is adrift in the air in a jungle setting. The dust speck floats past Horton the elephant and he hears a tiny yelp coming from it. Suspecting that an entire society of very small creatures are living on that speck, he catches it and places it on top of a flower. Thus, we are introduced to Who-ville, a microscopic idyllic village that seemly has existed for centuries. Who-ville’s Mayor smugly can trace his ancestry back to a caveman.
But the Mayor is worried. Since the Who universe began to drift, the city has begun experiencing strange phenomena — changes in the weather and violent shakings. When he tries to warn the citizens and have them retreat into shelters, he is opposed by the scheming Chairman of the Town Council who in effect calls the warning a hoax. The Mayor also has learned from Who-ville’s only scientist how small their universe really is and that if Horton does not find a “safer more stable” landing place, Who-ville and all its inhabitants will be destroyed.
Speaking through an amplifying device, the Mayor convinces Horton to find such a location and in the book tells him:
“My friend,” came the voice, you’re a very fine friend,
You’ve helped all us folks on this dust speck no end.
You’ve saved all our houses, our ceilings and floors,
You’ve saved all our churches and grocery stores.”
What the Mayor fails to realize is that “it’s a jungle out there” and many of Horton’s fellow animals are just as intent on destroying the speck as Horton is to protect it. They snatch the clover and speck away from the elephant and a vulture drops it into a field. The result is damage to the town but nothing catastrophic. Not being able to hear the Whos, the skeptical animals are about to drop the speck into boiling oil when the message gets through and Who-ville is saved.
At the conclusion of the movie the narrator (Charles Osgood) points out that Horton’s jungle and the earth, like Who-ville, are specks floating in a giant universe. My own thoughts take the Who-ville story futher. The Council Chairman is like President Trump and other climate change deniers. For short term political advantage (e.g. courting the coal industry) they are willing to sacrifice valuable time and even the future of the Earth. Dr. Seuss’s jungle for me is the rest of the universe — chaotic, unforgiving and no help in a planetary crisis. In that sense we are all Whos, but without a Horton to save us.