In 1960, seven years into Eisenhower and seven years after the Korean War, the United States populace was still contending over whether they “liked Ike.” There was a question in the air of whether Americans liked Eisenhower at all. They put their faith in a bald ex-general leading them down the rabbit hole of mutually assured destruction. But it was a man named Theodore Geisel, an uncredentialed ad hoc doctor of juvenile letters who had drawn up a series of illustrations during the previous war and who remained paralyzed by the considerable deaths at The Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Ham was the natural choice for a project.
The political atmosphere had gone green. Adlai Stevenson, the egghead offered by the Democrats, had failed twice. He had merely been a governor. What remained for the left was the distant memory of such compassionate folly as the Ham and Eggs program in Southern California — a cry for economic redistribution that was a much a cri de coeur for a mostly tenebrous form of social action.
Enter Dr. Seuss with Sam and his unnamed friend. Green eggs and ham was on the table, and Sam would not sup.
I was in the children’s section of a Barnes & Noble in Stanford, Calif., shaking down the dregs from my flask and firing up a cigarette for fortitude when I was kicked out by the employees. They told me that I could not smoke or drink and that I was an evil man for practicing my habits in an apparently sacrosanct section of the store. They didn’t know I was a writer of some note, that I was the Hitch and I could write them all under the table. Literally and figuratively. I then proceeded to berate the idiot behind the counter because it amused me. He could not identify Khruschev, even when I tapped the sad sod repeatedly on the head with my heavy shoe to help him get the hint. He called the police. An arrest and a court appearance later, and I was on the phone with Sam Tanenhaus, seeing if I could write a piece that would pay my bail. He told me that I should write about Green Eggs and Ham. I could write it completely drunk if I liked. I wouldn’t be edited.
So here we are. I’ve downed the rest of my flask and the words on my screen are starting to blur. An assignment that even I can’t even begin to understand. I’m wondering if George Orwell had to operate under such circumstances so that he could publish such seminal essays as “My Country Right or Left.”
I would give a lot to understand the Dr. Seuss phenomenon. Part of it must have to do with the fact that the Cat in the Hat was clearly a yin-yang of Caucasian and African-American. A mulatto if you like, representing the approaching racial tension. This on its own would not explain the cat’s hideous barbershop hat and his continued hold on American culture. Even my youngest daughter, whose eyes seem to light up whenever I place the bright green Tanqueray bottle in my study (best imbibed on bright cold days in April), didn’t know any better. I had spent months of my life trying to get her to read Orwell and offering tips on how to avoid the ongoing religious indoctrination that remains all the rage. But she would not listen to dear old dad.
Seuss then — as malevolent a figure as Mother Theresa — deserves to be forgotten. He is concerned too much with phrases like “I would not like them” or “I do not like them” — perhaps because he is a narcissist in the grand American tradition. “Sam-I-am” is a rather overwrought form of address to the reader. One wonders whether Sam, representative of a complacent postwar nation, would have eaten the entree had it been the only option through war rations. Much like many a spoiled American now, he demands it now, leaving one to ponder Alexis de Tocqueville’s sharp foresight. Green eggs and ham — the only apparent option on the menu — is denied again and again by Sam, who becomes something of a tedious little tot you want to slap. This is the great icon of children’s literature?
Finally, Sam learns to love his dish and learns to love his mediocrity, setting a great precedent for the banal decades to come. Is this the end of Sam? One hopes so, but perhaps there will be other authors hoping to find additional silt in the muddy Mississippi that inspired Twain but appalled Dickens. The distinctly slushy close of the story may seem to hold out the faint promise of a sequel, but I honestly think and sincerely hope that this will not occur. Green Eggs and Ham reveals its narrative hand pages before the great revelation. It’s achievement enough that Sam-I-am proceeds to thank his unnamed conversationalist, and thus the reader. As for me, I’m happy enough to collect my bail money and I’m pleased that Sam (the editor, not the eggs and ham meditative figure) is now truly off his fucking rocker for giving me the strangest review assignment of my long career.