December 15, 2008 — He earned a doctorate in nonsense words, catchy meters, inescapable rhymes, and sketches of fuzzy, floppy-skeleton’d creatures. And for that, Dr. Seuss, you get yourself a statue. Actually, a whole slew of them. Enough, in fact, for the lot to collectively merit the designation “sculpture garden.” And “national,” to boot. And I do boot.
Theodore Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, MA, his wife of four decades suicided herself, he was childless, a World War played a prominent part in his life, and he spent a decade and a half in the advertising business. All that sounds like a sad existence (especially the Springfield, MA, part), but that’s because I’m leaving out the happy bits of his life. Like creating 40-odd sparsely worded and brightly illustrated children’s primers that forced the world to adore him or else.
And large-scale adoration usually results in instatuation. Granted, statues are easier to fabricate these days, so more people have them who wouldn’t have had them in the past (For instance, I know of no remaining examples from any ancient culture of such honors bestowed upon a children’s entertainer, although I definitely want to know with an inward fire if there are any). However, in this particular case, somebody dedicated some serious resources to the immortalment of Dr. Seuss, giving him not just a solitary statue in his likeness, but also three-dimensionalizing enough of his character creations to fill an entire funeral procession of bookmobiles.
The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden (the Dr. applies to the “Seuss,” by the way, not the whole monument) was unveiled in 2002 in Seuss’s hometown of Springfield, MA. Since that time, I assume even without knowing the state of the educational system in the area that every kid on the Massachusetts-Connecticut line has been there on more than one field trip. The bronze sculpture garden was sculpted by Seuss’s step-daughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, who is currently in the process of sculpting another Seuss memorial for Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, of which Seuss was an alumnus.
The Springfield, MA, memorial dominates an outdoor quadrangle surrounded on all sides like a circled wagon train by museums of the Springfield Museums Association. One of these museums, the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, features an ongoing exhibit on Seuss called, “Seuss on the loose in Springfield,” which, judging from this Flickr set, is imminently skippable. The quadrangle itself, though open later than the museums around it, does have visiting hours, from 9 to 8 every day in the “s” seasons and 9 to 5 every day in the other two. We went pretty late and were the only ones there...except for a lonely security guard pacing around and wishing we’d leave so he could close down early and get on without whatever impossibly way cooler stuff he has going on in his life than guarding Seuss sculptures.
The sculpture garden is arranged in five different parts. Entering from the Springfield Museums parking lot you will first be accosted by a short solitary statue of the Lorax on a stump. Yup. He’s a preachy little bastard even in statue form. It’s no wonder the Once-ler ignored all his bluster. Once you get to the Lorax, you’ll immediately see the three main groups of the sculpture diagonally across the quadrangle. At the first giant, impressive, childhood-rushing-back-at-you sight of them, you’re going to want run full tilt-toward them with your arms waving in the air like it’s the Forties and your sailor husband who just came home from the war effort is standing on the dock with his arms open. However, for the purposes of this narrative, we’re taking a disciplined and calm right turn at the Lorax to the adjacent corner of the quadrangle to see the second of the five-part statue group.
Tucked away just outside the corner of the quadrangle and pretty much hidden from the rest of the sculptures is a tall stack of 10 turtles in a fountain. You know the top one as Yertle, king of the turtles. I couldn’t remember the moral of the Yertle story, but I did come away from that statue with the firm-fixed belief that stacked turtles are just a great image no matter what the context, especially when they’re topped by an anthropomorphic caricature of Adolph Hitler. Oh, I guess I did remember.
At the far end of the quad from the Lorax and Yertle is the aforementioned trio of statue groups that are the whole reason you’re going to want to visit this spot in the first place. The smallest but most important of the three depicts Seuss himself casually lounging at his drawing board, with the Cat in the Hat looming tall and thin at his side. If you’re across the country thinking, “Crap, I’d like to see that,” it’ll make your minute to know that a second casting of this solitary piece was installed at the amazingly architectured Geisel Library on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, which is something crap-I’d-like-to-see. [Update: Crap-I-saw-it.]
By itself, that one statue is enough to more than adequately honor the work and spirit of Seuss, M.D., but they must have had an endowment that needed spending, because they way didn’t stop there. Seuss faces another statue group, this one dominated by a giant 10-foot-tall book bearing the full text of his, Oh the Places You’ll Go! Visiting this sculpture was the first time I ever came across this book, but more worthy of mention is that it was also the first time I ever read a 10-foot-tall bronze book. Well, from start to finish, at least.
Taking the “You” in that title literally, the designers of the statue placed a bronze chair in front of the open book for photo ops. You can even balance your camera on Seuss’s conveniently placed drawing table for the picture, although I don’t know if that’s encouraged or not. Miss Gertrude McFuzz from the story of the same name perches atop the book, and the Grinch and his antlered dog Max peek around one of the sides. It was this part of the statue that I was most jazzed to see, and I’ll probably go back to visit the sculpture in the snow so I can take my photo with the Mean One again for some future Christmas card.
Behind Seuss, the rest of his characters are exploding out of another bronze book (this one horizontal and textless) with enough force to scare a child into not opening a Dr. Seuss book. The centerpiece is a giant, 14-foot-tall Horton the Elephant with Whoville safely at the tip of its snout at the highest point in the entire sculpture. Also featured in the arrangement are Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat in the Hat, Sam-I-Am and his plate of spoiled eggs and ham, and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose from his self-titled debut. The two children from the Cat in the Hat are also there, but I consider them perhaps the sculpture’s only misstep, as it already has enough Cat in the Hat characters, and there are much more visually interesting Seuss characters to choose from than those two.
With the dopey, welcoming faces of the characters; the smooth, polished surfaces of the material; and the statues’ general gigantacity, the sculpture definitely accesses that primal ex-monkey instinct of ours to climb all over it. And that’s probably why there are signs posted against that. Although I don’t know how you’d explain to a child that inviting cartoon characters are not a part of a playground, but of a serious $6.4-million artistic tribute to a man worthy of such. Sculpture gardens are absurdly expensive, apparently, even when they don’t look like they should be.
Overall, though, and cost aside, the memorial is mortally on. By including so many characters and casting them all in bronze, the sculpture maintains the fun of its subject matter without losing its dignity of purpose. I imagine it would have been way tempting to gaud this thing out like Seuss Landing at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FL. In fact, if they’d of had the foresight to hire my marketing services, I’d of taglined the sculpture with, “Silly enough for kids, dignified enough for silly adults.”
And although the latter group includes me for a million different reasons, I suddenly realized, standing in the middle of all those bronze bits of Seussery, that I didn’t really know much about this man’s work. I mean, sure, I knew the Grinch because of the Boris Karloff-narrated and Chuck Jones-directed Christmas special that has made all of my Christmases that much better, and I had vague recollections of one or two of his books finding their way into my childhood, but I can’t really remember him having any real impact on me other than what I gleaned through osmosis from our surrounding culture. And while certainly The Grinch Who Stole Christmas! is enough for me to justify his existence, I hate not having an opinion on something apparently opinion-worthy enough that somebody else thought it merited a large, sprawling memorial.
So I decided to find out what I actually thought of Dr. Seuss. And while I don’t usually need to close chapters in my life (I’m a big fan of loose threads both metaphorically and literally), I do usually need article endings.
So a few months later, I walked into Barnes & Nobles, shoved children out of my way, grabbed every Dr. Seuss book off the shelf, bought a peppermint hot chocolate both because ’tis the season and to slightly make up for the fact that I was using the place of business as a free library, and started going through the stack. After grabbing a few art magazines to hide that embarrassing stack, of course, and then a few sports magazines to hide those art magazines.
In that manner, I sprinted through How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who!, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (the non-bronze, non-10-foot-tall version), I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, The Sneetches and Other Stories, The Butter Battle Book, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, and The Cat in the Hat. Whew. That’s a lot of italicizing. It’s a sampling that tips toward his more famous work, certainly, but that’s what happens when you access the physical stock of a mainstream book chain.
And this is the conclusion I came to: Don’t do what I just did. For the love of sanity and all of your natural biorhythms, just don’t. Be content with the knowledge that Seuss engaged our children in an uncondescending way, developed a unique style of art and text distinct enough to merit adjectiving his name, and, most importantly, gave us the Grinch. That’s all anybody over the age of 10 needs to know (I’ve since discovered that the Borders near me actually has an entire special section containing pretty much all of Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre...I trepidatiously visited it after my Barnes & Noble outing but ran out screaming).
Incidentally, my private goal for this article (besides finishing it during a mad, mad Christmas season) was to not once resort to the “w” word (rhymes with flimsy) that is always applied to Seuss and pretty much any other children’s artist/writer in the business. Totally did it, and that can never be taken away from me.