the influence of Horton Hears a Who (long)

an audio podcast version [2011]

[Originally written in the late 1990s,
and posted here with a few minor changes.
I am not sure I agree with all of it anymore.]

Focusing on the USA, is this the most influential work of art of the latter half of the 20th century?
cover of reviewed book

It's a book for children, first published in 1954 ®. Click here to read the 1st paragraph.

the introduction: the origins of bookishness?

This is about today's literate decision-makers. Many of them have trouble dealing with problems in reality. These people tend to project the problem from reality into text.

The people that do this seem to be the same people who at one time enjoyed the great 'Dr. Seuss' * children's books!

Perhaps you first reaction is that this is absurd. After all, they seemed such simple, sweet books. How could they have had any profound effect?
generic Venn diagram
the oval represents intellectuals,
the circle represents people who
experienced Dr. Seuss books as a kids

Amazingly, this all has something to do with 'political correctness' (PC).

what has happened to the Dr. Suess kids

Even though there are enormous positives, I will focus on the negative first (at the end, I will get to the bigger picture). For now I will just assume you understand that PC's problems arise out its abstract nature.

People are often indirectly exposed to the problems of the world. That is, they will read about something or see something new on TV. Sometimes these people somehow come to believe that the solutions to these problems (that they have learned about indirectly) are in the same medium in which they are described.

These might be the symptoms:
  • they read in a newspaper about unemployment
  • the next day -on the street- they express contempt for an apparently unemployed man
  • that evening after supper they sit down the with a newspaper's op-ed page to refine their role as a hopeful member of the what they believe is an enlightened elite.
People really do this *. Is it natural? Or is something taught to children that makes them act this way as adults?

the alliterative title

I will start simply, with the title of the book. 'Horton Hears a Who' is alliterative . This means that -when spoken- the mouth forms the consonants the same way for each word. In this case, 'Horton' 'Hears' and 'Who'.

If you say these words while touching your lips you will understand that when this alliterative title is read as text the reader is pre-consciously reminded of the mouth.

Thus, for young children the poetic alliteration is actually oral re-assurance! *

As such the title of 'Horton' profoundly reassures the child reader much as a pacifier reassures an infant. This is a good thing, because in the story one hero is almost caged, and the others are almost boiled in oil.

the cadence

The sound of the book is also important. The cadence & rhyme scheme of Dr. Seuss books is somewhat like classical poetry *. An example is the pivotal event:
“Great gusts of loud racket
    rang high through the air.
They rattled and shook the whole sky!
    And the Mayor
Called up through the howling mad hullabaloo:
'Hey, Horton! How's this?
    Is our sound coming through?'”
Great stuff.

Geisel's general purpose behind this sound is:
  • to keep the kids' attention (to enchant)
  • to draw attention to the text (to help the kids to learn to read)
Note that the consequences in the children matches the purpose, but the consequences in the grown adult (years later) could be different.

I suggest this could happen because enjoyment along with happy endings are remembered as goodness. Which would automatically mean that a possible long term result of Seuss, would be a peculiar conflation (at a pre-conscious level) of text and goodness. *

the benign universality

in Horton, this hypnotic mixture is carried across content. For example, 'High' (line 1) is oral_alliteratively linked to 'hullabaloo' (line 3). * Linking alliteration teaches the very impressionable children that there is something re-assuring that -in life- carries across content.

As unbelievable as it seems, the Seuss cadence & rhyme scheme, carrying -as it does- across descriptive content (both plot and dialogue), plays the role of a benign universality.

The kids learn that poetry is sort of like the security Daddy & Mommy provide. In some, ulimately this morphs into the goodness of poetry as part of an unconscious secular god.

Thus, Horton implicitly teaches the children:
  • there is a (kind of) secular god
  • that the source of this secular god is text (eg the written word)

plot analysis I

Theodore Geisel both wrote and illustrated his children's books.
Seuss stamp

This stylistic fusion lends a rare integrity to the innocent Dr. Seuss experience (The story isn't coming from a committee, it's coming from a person). The children that read these books are entertained and educated and some of their deepest fears are allayed. I know because I have watched children read the books and I have met adults who read them as children - seeing somehow Dr. Seuss in them.

I know this might sound preposterous, but I trace the origins of 'political correctness' to these colorful, friendly books.

Geisel's masterpeice seems to be the story of a kindly elephant who is almost caged for insanity by his peers - because he alone hears the voices of a very small people, whom he befriends.

This book - Horton Hears a Who - may be the most influential of this generation!

Horton [plot summary] has an explicit moral *, spoken by Horton:
“Because, after all, a person's a person, no matter how small!”
the kindly elephant says this as he is being hauled away in a cage to be boiled in oil. He adds:
“And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourself heard! So com on, now, and TRY!”
The flower with microscopic town on it is also about to be boiled alive.

Possibly some of the children being read this story experienced this part vividly. And now many of these people are now themselves guiding voices in the culture. Some of them now treat the truths
  • a person is a person, no matter how gay
  • a person is a person, no matter how black
  • (and so on)
not just as moral imperatives, but as textualized abstractions. In other words, the liftoff of 'political correctness'.

I believe I have found ur-text of PC: it's Horton Hears a Who.

In part III I will look at the question of whether the flaws some say PC has are also there in this famous, influential children's book. But first a section on some of the plot details.

plot analysis II

'Horton' contains various plot-elements (I can't think of a better term). Key examples:
  • the 'who' per se
  • the field of flowers
  • Horton's hearing
  • the paranoid suspicions of the other animals
  • the struggle of the 'who' to be heard
The transposition of these to the things they most represent is more inexact than metaphors. Yet they retain power.

I will point this out briefly for the first two plot-elements listed.

The who might be construed as:
  • the internal voice (of the artist, of the schizophrenic)
  • the child (who is the target audience)
The field of flowers might be construed as:
  • opium
  • dreaming
Although artistically 'the who' are just themselves, and the field of flowers is just a very pretty place, Horton teaches the child lifetime-lessons using the parallels to these plot-elements as the medium.

I also believe the inexactitude of the Horton plot-elements has lead to a greater power of the belief system that is invoked. It is beyond the scope here to explain why inexact metaphors can have extra power. But this is true. And that is why I believe the Horton fables have been especially potent. For example, because 'the who' does not refer to something specific, its effect is broadened. It unspecifically resonates.

In my opinion, reading a young child Dr. Seuss can have as much permanent effect on them as taking them to a religious service.

plot analysis III

Make no mistake - I admire Theodore Geisel, and I consider the books that he created to be tremendous.
Great art is going to have un-intended consequences.

They have been enormously influential. Maybe one example is the very popular liberal blog Hullaballoo. If you have Horton at home you could compare two figures in the foreground of its climactic 'howling mad hullaballoo' scene to the hullaballoo icon
digby (Hullaballoo)icon

Its a pretty good blog. And PC has some fine, fine features. But -to get back to Horton, I believe it too-seductively merges the need the teach children to read with a misguided framing of human history.

Before I get to this, understand if this effect is real, then it surely was accidental. Geisel was telling a fable about animals so his bad guys had to be animals too. And understand that this misguided framing has another cause (involving complex class-analysis which I refuse to do *).

I am not a scholar but I think I found this misguided idea most succinctly stated by Bakunin (before Geisel was born):
"... humanity is at the same time and essentially the deliberate and gradual negation of the animal element in man ..." (from God and the State, Ch.1)
This framing had appeared before and has since. [Its opposite is no good either *]

In my contemporaries how much is due to Seuss I do not know, but in Horton he did counterpoint Text+Goodness vs evil monkeys!

Whatever is Geisel's contribution, today many adults who read Seuss as children unconsciously believe this framing. In my opinion.

Horton's two major lessons

I believe what has happened to some of my contemporaries who years ago read Horton as children is that in them the plot-elements/metaphors combined potently. I believe that resulting brew replaced by its very potency that which the book's content accidentally weighs against: the animalistic.

This sounds serious but it is mitigated both by proximate causes (the economic class factors *), and by the value of PC itself. People are people, no matter how [black, gay, mentally-challenged ...] they are.

Geisel's impact has been overwhelmingly positive. But -since I focusing on the negative here- an accidental effect has been that many Soosies today feel both
  • to call someone a name in the above list is not an insult (true)
  • to call someone 'an animal' is a special insult (false)
The clue is that Soosies typically see reading as Grace itself.

I see Horton's two major, unintended downstream effects to be:
  • that there is a fundamental separation of the animalistic & primate from goodness itself
  • that the resolution to problems in life lies within text itself like a cryptography
Children were taught (by a 'doctor' *), about a whole town that was about to boiled in oil but were saved. Today some fear the animalistic, and subconsciously negate it.

All of which maybe is not the absolute pinnacle of lifetime lessons.

This even though the supplied counterpoint -the written word benignly linked to goodness- is of inestimable value.

preface redux

Some adults today, some of my contemporaries -even the most successful- can hardly relate to anyone at all different from them with whom an unconscious animal struggle arises. Not totally blameless is Theodore Seuss Geisel , faux doctor, genius, one of the all-time greatest tellers of children's stories.

At the moment our hypothetical modern person sees the apparently unemployed man on the street quite a few thing happen at both the pre-conscious and unconscious levels:
  • a primate struggle ensues between the parties
  • the non-resolution in Western text to the problem of primate struggle * becomes apparent
  • emotions well-up, which cannot be intellectually resolved
  • the life-long training to find solutions in text sets a marker in memory
It is this adult event which is influenced by a childhood reading of "Dr Seuss". *

Either directly or from the marker, the pre-conscious mind goes backwards thru memory - to find text that resolves the primate struggle. It stops at ... a story about an elephant and monkeys!!

A story which - I think I have shown - teaches the conflation of text and goodness.

The content of this story proves to be inadequate, so the modern unconscious switches to the adult text that embodies the value system first learned in Horton ! This might easily be the daily newpaper, perhaps the New York Times ®.

Somebody must read the op-ed pages, right?

main notes

[trademark notice]

Horton Hears a Who, by Dr Seuss
Random House (September 1954); ISBN: 0394800788
TM & @ 1982 (originally 1954) Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P.

[first paragraph]

"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.

[possible current echoes]

  • highly-praised 'Dylan Hears a Who' album [via]
I don't have time to add more. But they are there.

[... People really do this ...]

A couple of years ago I was talking on the telephone with one of my brothers. I mentioned I had just had a striking conversation with someone at a bus stop. He seemed to see this as a bad thing, and cautioned me against speaking to people I did not know!

As I see it, the truth is that for my brother the people of the world are still like the monkeys and birds in Horton , and are a threat - somehow - as animals - to (symbolically) boil someone in oil for listening to "the who".

He reads the NYTimes today. It is instinctive with him to search in text from answers, but avoid the 'community'. While we were both exposed to 'Soose' as children. I believe I have grown past it and thrown off its influence.

[... somewhat like classical poetry ...]

In this respect Dr. Seuss is almost Shakespeare -for-kids. In my observation the same subset of population is enamored of both. I plan to someday add a Shakespeare essay to this website to explain this.

[... the 'poetic' alliteration is actually oral re-assurance ...]
the alliteration is all the more effective by not being on a hard consonant like 't': eg the title is not 'Tom Teaches Tiny Tots'. Teeth are needed to produce 't' whereas the 'h' sound comes from the back of the throat as does the breath itself.

[... of text and goodness ...]

Literate modern people are often narcissistic about the abstract. This stems from several sources (including 'the taboo against knowing who you are') [see also]. Relevant here is how this narcissism exists as the memory of the childhood conflation of TEXT with GOODNESS.

[... enjoyed 'Dr. Seuss' great children's books! ...]

Theodore Seuss Geisel pronounced his middle name: 'soyce'. He clearly identified with it, since he chose it as his nom de plume .

Now when Geisel was a educated young man, young men like him read and admired the Irish author James Joyce . Did Geisel ever notice his middle name rhymed with 'Joyce'?

Note that this not something many would think of, since everybody mis-pronounces 'Seuss' as 'Soose'!

Anyway Dr. 'Soyce' was a re-Joyce - someone who (as a 'genius') bound in a fetishism for text with their moral system. In this sense Geisel's Horton Hears a Who and The Cat in the Hat are Joyce 's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man done better (and targeted at a more gullible audience) . Geisel might have been aware of this ... but not only are "Dr. Soose's" legions of fans in denial - it is why they love him. He almost certainly was a crafty bastard.

[ ... if you call yourself a doctor... ]
Probably some kids thought the books were written by a doctor, and thus would help to heal them. This would certainly add to any influence it had on them. I give Geisel the benefit of doubt concerning the pseudonym which he chose - perhaps his publisher urged him to pretend to be a doctor. Whatever. But it was a unenlightened choice.

[... this is its moral ...]

Morals are often given in lieu of something else (which is why they are also called "values"). This is not the case with Dr Seuss (why his books are so beloved). I mean, not the case in terms of the overt context. The Horton subtext is a possible exception. I am not sure, but underlying its story may be a moral claiming the necessity of taking away the contingency of the breath. It may sort of be about this possibility being taken away from the child forever - to be replaced with TEXT and MORALS.

[... economic-class factors...]

These kids have grown up in a world with taboo economic classes. Over time various social institutions have indirectly urged them to feel themselves 'above the herd'.

[... Its opposite is no good either ...]

I also disagree with the apparent opposite of this philosophy - that everything natural is supposedly good. For example, human beings are naturally bigoted against people with certain developmental handicaps. This is something natural that is not good.

Please note that neither the PC nor the anti-PC can handle this topic.

[... the non-resolution in Western text to the problem of primate struggle ...]

Do you disagree? Then which Western thinker or leader has resolved the problem of primate struggle?

[... influenced by childhood reading of 'Dr Seuss' ...]
The astute reader may have guessed that I read Horton Hears a Who when young.

It was quite formative, a good part responsible for me wasting a lot of time in adolescence reading mystery novels.

plot summary

Horton is an elephant. One day - while swimming - he hears a cry for help. It turns out there is a very small person on a speck of dust which is slowly wafting by. Horton tenderly places the speck of dust on a flower.

The person on the speck of dust later metamorphasizes into a family, and after that, an entire town (called "who-ville") *. The plot cross-cuts between the jungle where Horton lives, and this speck-of-dust world.

In the jungle, virtually all of the other animals start to gossip about Horton and ridicule him for talking to a speck of dust on a flower. They cannot hear the cries for help emanating from it. * The gossip starts with the kangaroos and reaches its climax with the monkeys - who steal the flower. *

The monkeys give the flower to an eagle, who flys away with it. Horton chases after the bird. During the chase day changes to night. * Early the next morning the eagle - having just flown over a range of mountains - drops the flower into a vast sea of flowers (all visually identical).
"Find THAT!" sneered the bird. "But I think you will fail."
And he left
with a flip
of his black-bottomed tail. *

Horton spends the whole day searching the flower-field for the one flower that has the speck of dust on it. * When he finally finds it (and the good people to whom it is the world) we finally see a full picture of the "who-ville" people.

characteristics of the 'who' people
  • They are less vital (a lot of them are thin and wear glasses) than the animals in Horton's jungle
  • they are all working hard on household chores

This glorious success of this recovery is short-lived. Right away the other jungle animals appear. They have rope to tie Horton up with. They carry boiling oil - to kill the "who" (who they still claim do not exist).
The crisis produces the climax of the story, which structurally is a merging of the two worlds.

Horton figures out that if the other animals could hear 'the who' that would save everyone. He implores all the "who-people" to yell as loud as they can - on their little speck of dust perched on the flower (which one of the monkeys is holding with disdain).

In response to Horton 's pleas the good community of hard-working bespectacled people the who-people start to yell ... (lots of yelling ensues) ... but the historic attempt fails the jungle-animals are deaf to the noise from the littlest people.

In desperation the mayor of 'who-ville' searches the whole town for someone who is not yelling. At the end of this sequence he find a small boy at home simply playing with his yo-yo. The boy is made to yell, too.

This does it. Finally - with the help of the little boy - all the animals in the jungle hear the tiny cries of the tiny souls! Horton is not crazy! Both Horton and "the Who" are spared - Love rules supreme!

In the dénouement, one of the kangeroo kids hold a tiny umbrella over the speck of dust, to protect it.

plot-summary notes

[... called 'who-ville' ...]

There is a remote possibility that 'who-ville' is partly a pun on 'Hooverville' - the name for Depression-era shanty-towns (in the USA of Geisel's youth).

[... They cannot hear the cries for help ...]

Horton is a picture-book and elephants have the biggest ears. The pictures do show the other animals putting their hands to their relatively tiny ears and laughing at the very notion that there is something audible that they should notice.

[... the monkeys - who steal the flower ...]

There are many cultural references today to humans who are 'animals' indicating people believe (or pretend to themselves they believe) that being an 'animal' is basically a bad thing. Someone might say about a gang of thugs: 'they are animals'. I believe that 'Horton' - and this passage in particular - has been importantly influential in this regard.

Basically everybody of the middle-class of my generation was taught - using particularly the metaphor of the monkey - that animals kidnap the small and weak and laugh at their protectors. This is not really true. This may mutate in some children's minds that animals are 'evil'.

Being a man requires of course to be an animal also, so manhood has taken a hit since this book became popular. On an episode of "Roseanne" the little kid asks his father: "Dad, I thought it was good to be a man"

and his father replies, "Not since the sixties, son"

[... day changes to night ...]

Horton is trying to keep his friend, for this he has to pass thru darkness. It is possible that this tiny detail helps teach the child that a symbolic suicide will be the only way he will be able to keep friends in the 'modern world'. If this seems a stretch, remember this is the sort of thing that makes Geisel a genius.

Of course, it is possible it is just an insignificant detail:)!.

[... the bird with the black-bottomed tail ...]

Geisel is being a bit weird here. he uses the phrase twice, and names the bird 'Vlad Vladikoff' (the book was written at the depths of 'the Cold War'). Yet in Geisel's drawings the bird's bottom is not shown particularly as black.

[... searching the flower-field for the one flower ...]

The sea of flowers looks very much like a sea of poppies. If you are so small that a speck of dust is as big as a town to you then and you are dropped into a bed of opium poppies one hundred miles wide then you probably would get a sizable 'contact high'.

Phony subtextual analysis might say the flower-field represents drugs and then it might expand on this metaphor. You know: "everyone must get stoned" .

I believe the field represents the kundalini prana - the tiny fragment born in everyone (aka 'the enlightened child') that is destroyed by the modern world. With his genius Geisel is explaining to the child that this element in him or her must be abandoned.

More cynically I might say that Geisel is selling the idea - that the child should participate in his or her own path to dis-enlightenment.

Drug use (paradigmatically at the time: opium from poppys) in those times (and in ours) ALSO represents the kundalini prana (as well as its denial) .

I am saying that the flower-field 'metaphor' and standard drug-use metaphor use the same symbol (the poppy) because they both symbolize the same (third) thing not because one symbolizes the other.