Last week I was once again huddled on the floor in the vintage books corner of "Half Price Books".
My eye caught sight of a familiar orange-spined children's book. The corners of the front and back cover were predictably soft and rounded. Inside on the front end paper a name was printed in bold, decidedly adult handwriting and a large, faint ball point "X" had been scrawled across the smiling elephant face on the front cover. I got a strong, happy vibe that this may have once been a teacher's book.
Aside from these signs of age, the book was in very good condition. I levered myself off the floor and sat in a chair, "Horton Hears a Who" gently cradled in my arm.
"Horton Hears a Who!", written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) is just one of Dr. Seuss' many iconic, instantly-recognizable and, indeed, universally beloved creations. Dr. Seuss' works have been translated into over 20 languages (2) including, of course, Japanese.
And yes, there is a reason I am fixating on Japanese.
As a student I must have read this book--or had it read to me--countless times. As a Early Childhood/Kindergarten teacher I must have read it aloud to students a hundred times more--at least--over my 25 years as a teacher. I recognized each picture. I recalled each turn of phrase.
"For My Great Friend,
How was it that I had never noticed this before? I lived for coincidences like this. I had lived in Japan for 8 1/2 years--5 of those years in Kyoto. And here was a detail in a beloved children's book just screaming coincidence. Even more perplexing was the fact that I always, ALWAYS pointed out the dedications in the books I read aloud to my students. Doing so not only brought us closer to seeing the author as a real person, but sometimes also planted a tiny seed in many students about who THEY would dedicate a book to, if THEY were to write a book.
So how did I miss THIS dedication?
Before I could try to discover the identity of Mitsugi Nakamura I had to step back a bit, before "Horton Hears a Who!" was written, back to World War II. Back to the years 1940 to 1948, when Theodor Geisel was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM. (4)
So if Theodor Geisel was so anti-Japanese, how is it that he dedicated "Horton Hears a Who!" to his "...Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura, of Kyoto, Japan"(1)?
Simple. He went to Japan.
On March 23rd 1953 Theodor Geisel visited Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe Japan (4,7,8). He went there on assignment by the Ford Foundation to investigate the effects of World War II upon children and to ascertain the effects of the American occupation. (8) Geisel's friend from Dartmouth, Professor Donald Bartlett, arranged for him to meet with teachers in each city, who then had their students draw pictures to give Geisel of what they hoped to become in the future. (8)
I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that his trip to Japan was life changing.
It is as true now as it always has been: it is much harder to demonize people once you get to know them. Once you see the world through their eyes.
It was during that trip that Professor Bartlett introduced Geisel to Mitsugi Nakamura, who was then Dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto. (8)
According to sources I could find, a close and lasting friendship grew between Geisel and Nakamura-san, with multiple trips made to visit each other over the years and Nakamura-san's daughter even being sponsored by Geisel and his wife to attend college in California. (8)
Geisel's trip to Japan ultimately fueled his desire to write "Horton Hears a Who!"--a book that
has been interpreted to represent Geisel's desire to offer protection and guidance to Japan as they tried to heal from the war, and more specifically, from the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (12) Across all the articles I read, there was a general consensus that "Horton Hears a Who!" was written as both an apology of sorts for Geisel's earlier, war-tainted views against the Japanese people, as well as a cautionary tale for all of us, countries, governments and individuals alike.
In the course of researching for this post, I came across many academic papers, opinion pieces and blogs that asked multiple versions of the same questions: How can we reconcile that Dr. Seuss, creator of so many powerful, beloved children's books, was the same man who once drew such painful, racist and dangerous political cartoons? And can we forgive him?
This is perhaps a question wrongly put.
It is not for us to forgive. Theodor Geisel chose to re-evaluate his beliefs rather than allow himself to stagnate in his former fear and hatred of former enemies. He kept growing, not towards perfection (a human impossibility), but towards greater understanding.
"Horton Hears a Who!" may have been partly written as an apology. However as I re-read it now, it seems instead to reflect Geisel's attempt to share the lessons he learned, perhaps with an eye towards building a better future.
The question is not "Can we forgive him?" but rather "What can we learn from him?"
As it turns out, we can learn perhaps a great deal, and not just through his words and pictures.
3. "Horton Hears a Who" Dr. Seuss. Random House. New York. 1955.