Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden

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.

Theodore Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. His wife of four decades committed suicide, 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, 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. 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 was unveiled in 2002 in Seuss’s hometown of Springfield. 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.

The Springfield 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." 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 we were 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 we got to the Lorax, we immediately saw the three main groups of the sculpture diagonally across the quadrangle. At our first giant, impressive, childhood-rushing-back-at-us sight of them, we wanted to run full tilt-toward them with our arms waving in the air like it’s the Forties and our sailor husband who just came home from the war effort is standing on the dock with his arms open. However, we first peeked around to make sure we weren't missing any other statues set apart from the main group. Good thing we did.

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 can’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 do remember.

At the far end of the quad from the Lorax and Yertle is the aforementioned trio of statue groups. 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, “Dang, 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 dang-I’d-like-to-see. [Update: Dang-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! As a result, this was 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. 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) 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 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.

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. Sculpture gardens are absurdly expensive, apparently.

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.

Standing in the midst of all those bronze bits of Seussery, I suddenly realized 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 a few months later, I walked into Barnes & Noble, 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.

But this is the conclusion I came to: Don’t do what I 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.