Monday, January 28, 2013

Yooks and Zooks

         Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book was published in an age of paranoia.  It was 1984, and President Ronald Reagan had already been in office for four years.  His opinion of the “Evil Empire,” or USSR, was well known.  The rest of the USA reflected that stance, while the Soviet Union plainly requited them in their fear and loathing.  And both sides were staring at each other across the oceans, looking very much like they were ready to do something about it.


During the early 1980’s the Iron Curtain still held strong, and the Berlin Wall would keep standing until 1989.  In 1980, the very year that Reagan became president, France detonated their first neutron bomb.  Not that this was exactly breaking news; France had had nuclear weapons since 1960, along with the UK, the USSR, and of course the USA.  By the 80’s that roster also included Communist China, India, and Israel. 

On November 18, 1981, President Reagan announced his plan to spend $180 billion on arms over the next six years.  The next year Reagan banned US citizens from traveling to Cuba.  The year after that, he announced his support for the Nicaraguan Contras.  Also in 1983, the CIA denied that an airliner shot down over the USSR had actually been on a spy mission as the Soviets claimed, and the US Marines invaded Grenada.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 on Howard Street in Springfield, Massachusetts.  He went to college in Dartmouth College, where he worked for the Jack-O-Lantern (Dartmouth’s humor magazine), until he was dismissed for violating prohibition laws.  He continued contributing occasionally under assorted aliases, his first use of the nom de plume “Seuss.”  Later, he briefly attended Oxford, where he met his future wife.  It was she who pointed out that he was wasting his time with higher education when what he loved so much was his illustrations.  He agreed, and from then on devoted himself full time to his art. 

Before WWII, Geisel worked for the Saturday Evening Post, Standard Oil (creating ad campaigns for Flit bug spray for over 15 years), and PM Magazine.  During WWII Geisel made training movies with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps.  It was there that he was introduced to the art of animation, and used a cartoon character he named Private Snafu in a series of training films. 

He was working with the SC when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in 1945, and watched tensions between the new World Superpowers continue throughout the Cold War and into the 1980’s.

There have been two stories told as to why Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated children’s books.  The first, told by Seuss himself, was that a clause in his contract with Standard Oil prohibited him from ever writing in a variety of fields, but not children’s books. There are others who say that Dr. Seuss loved a good story better than being straight with the press.  These others point out that he wrote his first children’s book in the same year that he and his wife, Helen, found out they would never be able to have children of their own. 

Either or both stories might be true, or the truth might be something entirely else: correlation does not prove causality.  But whatever the reason, the fact remains that Dr. Seuss, who had employed himself with the Saturday Evening Post and the Signal Corps making political cartoons, was now creating nothing but children’s books.

On November 23, 1983, Yuri Andropov, General Secretary to the USSR, announced an increase in the number of missiles aimed at the United States.

On January 12, 1984, Dr. Seuss published The Butter Battle Book.  The book begins,

“On the last day of Summer, ten hours before Fall . . .
. . .  my grandfather took me out to the Wall.”
The seasons were changing and the precursor to Winter was upon the land.  Indeed, it would happen literally any moment.  During the time when this book was first published, I remember hearing again and again about Nuclear Winter, and the devastation it would cause across the world for thousands of years.  One wonders if the rest of the Butter Battle Book story took ten hours for Grandfather to tell, and if this childlike “Once Upon a Time” is not a grim foreshadowing of the fate that befalls the child narrator as soon as the pages are closed.

The Wall is always capitalized, a deliberate barrier reminiscent of the then-standing Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain both.  In this Seussian land, the Wall separates two almost identical nations – the Zooks and the Yooks.  The Yooks, from whose point of view the story is told, are dressed in fine Union blue.  The Zooks, on the other side of the wall, are dressed in red, the traditional (in the USA) colour of Communism.  They are enemies over a minor point of ideology that they revere above all else: upon which side to butter their bread.

In 1984, there were Communists and Capitalists.  With “bread” being an old slang term for money and “bread and butter” being one’s career, any good capitalist knows “which side of his bread is buttered on,” a common euphemism for knowing where one’s money comes from. 

To most capitalists, the most obvious difference between Capitalism and Communism is in resource dispersal.  Unlike in Capitalism, in the ideal Marxist Communist state everything is divided according to need, and given to the commonwealth according to ability. A minor point of contention, really, especially if one reads the Communist Manifesto.  Many of the demands therein have been granted by Capitalist systems over the decades, in fact, including the establishment of a public educational system.  But this was more than sufficient reason for humans to kill each other, so the spread of butter did well enough for the Yooks and the red-wearing Zooks.

As the first passage makes clear, the narrator in The Butter Battle Book is the grandson of the Yooks’ Wall sentry:

“. . . as a youth, I made watching my goal, watching Zooks for the Zook-Watching Border Patrol!”
 In 1950 Joseph McCartney had claimed there were 205 Communists in the State Department, and Klaus Fuchs was sentenced to 30 years for spying for the Soviet Union.  In 1984, though McCarthyism was not quite so blatant as it once was, the USA still feared spies and enemy action.  Small wonder, then, that the Yooks were constantly vigilant against their hated enemies.  But the narrator himself is almost completely uninvolved in such matters.  Much like the grandson in Andronicus Titus, he is simply a witness to his grandfather’s tale, listening in awe as the old Yook tells him of the arms race that has led them to this final conflict.  Such is the fate of children.

Almost the entire book, therefore, is a flashback narrated by the boy’s grandfather to him, as he in turn shares it with us.  The grandfather is not an evil man, in fact he is very loving.  But he is a product of his culture, and his nationalistic fervor is merely a reflection of the Yooks around him. 

From a simple snick-berry switch to discourage Zooks from the wall, to a slingshot, to a compound slingshot, to explosives, to bombing aircraft, each time in turn the Zooks matched the Yooks weapon for weapon, sometimes outdoing them.  Ultimately, the arms race of the Yooks and the Zooks ends in the weapon to end all weapons: the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, a small pill capable of destroying both countries at once.

At this turn, as the story spins into its conclusion, we find we are hearing again from the grandson at last.  He is the innocent, swept along by forces outside his control, knowing just enough to stare in horror at what is about to happen. His grandfather welcomes him to the Wall as a witness to the making of history as, in an act of pure genocide, the Zooks are to be wiped out as a people completely.

“You will see me make history! Right here!  And right now!"

The story is unusual in Seuss’ works, in that there is no tidy conclusion.  Seuss allowed for no gentle solution as he did in Horton Hears a Who, no point where kindness wins the day as in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, not even a small ray of hope and call to action among his young readers such as in The Lorax.  But there was no happy ending to be seen in real life, either.  With the Communist and Capitalist powers poised, each with fingers on their prospective buttons, Seuss ended the book with each Wall sentry holding his own identical doomsday pill over the Wall . . .

"Grandpa! I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who's going to drop it?
Will you . . . ? Or will he . . . ?”
"Be patient," said Grandpa. "We'll see.
We will see . . . "
 We will see indeed.  The Iron Curtain fell at last, and the Berlin Wall was finally torn asunder.  But the bombs are still out there, be they nuclear, chemical, or germ.  And as the old-time Zooks have ceased being a problem – and/or the US has stopped being a problem for them – others have hopped up on the Wall to take their place.  The story is still just as relevant as it was almost 30 years ago.  And there’s still no happy ending in sight.

(Eagle and Bear cartoon courtesy of; Reagan cowboy cartoon courtesy of; The Butter Battle Book is (c) Dr. Seuss.  All art is (c) their original artists and all rights are reserved.)

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