This article originally ran in a slightly altered form in Culture 11.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the ideal American Yuletide legend. Dr. Suess’ fable is set in a perfect, egalitarian world; the Whos of Whoville are an entire nation of deracinated middle-class nuclear families, with houses identical down to the mouses. Their Christmas rituals are defined in terms of amorphously desirable products: “their presents, their ribbons, their wrappings/Their snoofs and their fuzzles, their tringlers and trappings!” Of course, Seuss rushes to assure us that even though the Whos are robbed of their presents, they still wake up happy and singing. Thus the Grinch decides that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store….that it perhaps–means a little bit more!” But what does it mean, anyway? Certainly nothing particularly or specifically Christian — just general good cheer and carols. The evil Grinch who steals all the goodies functions, then, less as an actual villain and more as a catalogue: the whole point is to see him up there on Mount Crumpit, with the gigantic bag full of goodies that shows just how much stuff the Whos have, and how wonderful their Christmas therefore is. Plus, once their aggressive optimism has won over the cranky, cynical Grinch, he brings them all their presents back anyway! The enthusiastic blankness, the aphasiac hypocrisy, the perfect transubstantiation of Christianity into uplift — it couldn’t possibly say any more clearly “Made in U.S.A.” In comparison, the villainous banker and close-knit community of the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” fairly reek of imported socialism.
Indeed, the American spirit galumphs and galerks through every one of the Doctor’s works. Like his fellow citizens, Seuss is boisterous, hearty, optimistic, profligate in invention, and not too heavy on the thought. “Yertle the Turtle” a fascistic terrapin, forces all his pond-fellows to stack themselves in a tower so he can climb to the top. The solution? Not collective action, nor courageous resistance, but a single fed-up burp by a turtle named Mack, who just isn’t going to take it anymore. In “The Sneeches,” the sneeches with stars dislike the sneeches without stars. The solution? Not understanding, or non-violent resistance, but simply a machine which removes stars! In Seuss’ universe, there is no problem that cannot be solved by old-fashioned practicality, good will, bizarre new-fangled machines, or some combination of all three.
Perhaps Seuss is most American, though, in his fascination with appetite and production— the two pillars of capitalism. The king in “Bartholemew and the Oobleck” who wants to create a new kind of weather; the nameless narrator in “On Beyond Zebra” who longs for a more extensive alphabet; the titular avian in “Gertrude McFuzz” who dreams of a more feathery tail; Luke Luck in “Fox in Sox” who, along with his duck, ceaselessly licks lakes, the “fine fluffy bird called the Bustard/Who only eats custard with sauce made of mustard” in “If I Ran the Zoo”— who but Seuss could create such a procession of obscure and excessive desires? And who could satisfy them with such a range of bizarre products? “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” reads like an extended surreal advertisement for Voom!, the miracle product that gets pink spots off snow. “Green Eggs and Ham” reads like an extended advertisement for…well, you know. And, perhaps most tellingly, in “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” an absolute monarch is brought to his knees by a miracle of excessively propagating haberdashery. Feudalism falls before the unlimited power of production, and the zombified slobbering sound you hear off-panel is Milton Friedman rising from the grave to eat his own heart out.
Of course, Seuss never actually comes out as an advocate of the free market and unrestrained trade. On the contrary, when he has an explicit moral, it is as likely as not to be anti-greed. The king who insists on creating a new kind of weather ends up buried in gluey green Oobleck; the bird who wants more feathers ends up with such a profusion of plumage that she can’t even move; the Cat in the Hat is repeatedly chastised for allowing his transient desires (for a bath, for juggling, for kite-flying) to upset domestic harmony. Frugality and moralistic self-denial are standard American virtues, and Seuss, here as everywhere, is in sync with his countrymen.
But, it must be asked, self-denial in the name of what? The Grinch, as we noted, takes the presents away only to heighten their value and then return them. Similarly, though the king may regret having ordered up the Oobleck, the reader doesn’t. The whole pleasure of the book is in watching the kingdom drown in disgusting ichor; the joy in mess is leant piquancy by the knowledge that that mess is itself the righteous ooze of justice.
Part of what is so repulsive about the Oobleck is its suggestion of bodily fluids; it clots and sticks and is colored like snot. The story’s narrative is tied to abjection; the outer world is buried in the body’s waste. At the same time, this is a remarkably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed abjection. There is certainly anxiety in Seuss’ Oobleck illustrations, but there is also charm and gusto and enthusiasm. The way the Oobleck obscures barriers and selves is pleasurable — even titillating. It’s polymorphously perverse.
As, for that matter, is most of Seuss’ oeuvre. You can see it in the furry, genderless, insinuatingly bulbous critters; in the oral appetites for indistinct fluids (“Do you choose to chew goo too sir?”); in the way bodies morph and change dependent on desire (so that when an elephant sits on a bird’s egg, the egg hatches an elephant bird); even in the insistent labial pleasures of the rhyme and rhythm. “Happy Birthday to You” stuffs its birthday boy with hot dogs rolling off a gigantic spool; “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has the Grinch slide down the chimney into the quiet Who home, sneaking about while the whole Who family sleeps together in a single Who bed. It’s all just a little suggestive.
So is Seuss a capitalist or a sensualist — a bourgie Republican small-businessman or a subliminally subversive Democratic free-love guru? The answer, of course, is that he’s both. In the United States different kinds of lust get parceled out to different parts of the political spectrum; appetite for products and wealth to the business right, appetites for bodies and pleasures to the hippie left. In Seuss, though, the two blur together into one seamless whole. The infinite replication of hats is the delight of the narrative, a kind of sensual pleasure. Similarly, the binding together of bodies in Oobleck satisfies a fantasy of capitalist production — the invention of new and superfluous goods. The entrepreneurial satisfaction of every desire and the polymorphous elision of taboo are really just the same side of the same coin. Love of excess is love of excess; that’s the Grinchiness of Christmas, and of the U.S.