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The Book That Changed My Life: Oh, What a Circus

The Book That Changed My LifeDr. Seuss sketched the spiritual background of my childhood — particularly in books such as If I Ran the Circus, If I Ran the Zoo, and On Beyond Zebra! As a kid, I loved weird beasts, and each of these books featured a menagerie of goggle-eyed, fanged, tufty mammals with bizarre and hilarious habits. But really what they taught me was a lesson of the imagination: in each, a boy in a humdrum spot (a vacant lot, a dull zoo, a muddy pool) casts his imagination further and further afield, transforming his white-bread world into something dazzling, alien, and glamorous. The boy becomes a ringmaster, a world traveler, a chef, a celebrity. This, it felt to me, was what I did through “pretending,” transforming the scrap of Massachusetts forest behind my 1970s suburban house — oak suckers, white pine — into a fantasy land replete with menace and wonder. These books taught me the intoxicating lesson that anything, anywhere, can be transmogrified into the stuff of dreams, and for a lonely boy in a dull suburb, that was important.

But there are other lessons these books taught me, too. Yes, they provided a model of a certain American “go-getter” attitude — but not only are we dreamers, we are empire builders. The whole globe seemingly submits itself to the jovial young American male for use. (At the Circus McGurkus, the workers all cry, “Work us! Please work us!”) These books imagine a world where rare animals yield their young up to the boy entrepreneur gladly, smiling, to be eaten or caged. Given that the books are such pure fantasy, I think that wouldn’t have mattered so much except that, by age nine or ten, I couldn’t help but notice their national and ethnic stereotypes. In If I Ran the Zoo, for example, the inhabitants of the “African island of Yerka” had top-knots and giant nose-rings that circled their puckered lips; the monster-catchers “who all [wore] their eyes at a slant” drew on traditional Asian stereotypes. (The “Chinaman” in And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street still wore a Qing-era queue when I read the book.) At best, Seuss’s representations of the “other” were backward, provincial, and stereotyped. And this was not simply about nationality: all the apparently American visitors to these dream-zoos and vision-circuses — all the figures dressed in modern suits and trilbies in his books—were white. This was about race.

As a ten-year-old, I tried to reassure myself that it didn’t matter: after all, the white characters were “cartoons,” too. But that clearly was not a sufficient answer, though I was not yet deft or clever enough to figure out why there was a disquieting difference in how the caricatures read.

So I learned from these books not simply the lesson of the transformative power of the imagination but also the pernicious assurance that a certain kind of suburban white-male America was the only legitimate ground zero for dreams, the epicenter of human experience. The rest of the world was exotic, peripheral, and faintly ridiculous, merely by virtue of not being me. I still appreciate these Seuss books for the feelings they engendered in me of youth, imagination, and possibility — though now I am much more wary of the far-reaching havoc wrought by McGurk’s risible, rideable Organ-McOrgan-McGurkus.

But my real affection gradually shifted to the books Seuss wrote later, which seemed almost to be renunciations of those earlier fantasies of entrepreneurial control: in The Lorax the protagonist is also a young male who rides anapestic rhythms of go-getter expansion — until he depletes his bright, comic world and is left in a blasted, apocalyptic zone where nothing but the Grickle-grass grows. In Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? the narrator, an older, wiser man, tells a young dreamer about far-fetched failures; we traverse the globe only to witness landscapes of Yves Tanguy absurdism and desolation and learn melancholy lessons of limitation and need. These are the other side of the dream of expansion, and I am so glad Seuss wrote about them, too. This sadness was also a lesson I learned.

And so, from Seuss, I learned of both giddiness and melancholy — the lessons of vision and the lessons of blindness, and how, for the empire-builder, they just might be one and the same.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

M. T. Anderson About M. T. Anderson

M. T. Anderson's latest book is Landscape with Invisible Hand. He is the winner of a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor for Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad; a 2009 BGHB Fiction Honor for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves; the 2007 BGHB Fiction Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party; a 2003 BGHB Fiction Honor for Feed; and a 2002 BGHB Nonfiction Honor for Handel, Who Knew What He Liked (all Candlewick).

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