“He loaded some bags
And some old empty sacks
On a ramshackle sleigh
And he hitched up old Max.”
- Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
March last year after a good solid three months of my daughter asking me to read her How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, my lifetime love of the book was being tested. I understood it was her way of holding onto Christmas, but still. I explained it was time to move on to reading other things until next Christmas, and that we would kill the book’s magic if we read it too much. “But PLEEEEZE daddy. I just love it so much!” Big wide earnest eyes. So, okay, all right. I read it to her again. And maybe one more time after that. And then I hid it.
Not that I don’t sympathize. I’ve always loved Dr. Seuss, to the point that I used to have philosophical debates in my own head pitting Richard Scarry’s workaday depiction of life versus Seuss’s surreal, play-based one (shockingly, the surreal, play-based vision won). And while now I’m more than happy to wave goodbye to the holiday season via the inevitable booze and food hangover on January 1st, there was a time in the hazy past when it killed me—KILLED me—to leave the warm cocoon of Santa and presents and no school and (some) family visits and Peter Ustinov’s arch British accent narrating Ogden Nash’s rendition of The Nutcracker Suite and my mother-the-Christmas-candy-factory’s amazing, endless stream of chocolates, cookies and sweets.
The Grinch himself, that curmudgeonly almond-eyed crank of indeterminate species, was an annual mainstay in both book and TV form, with his loyal, ever-wary dog Max and his bottomless dislike of the raucous, festive Whos down in Whoville. Like so many things associated with Christmas—Santa, Scrooge, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Jimmy Stewart’s annually televised suicide watch—it seems strange to realize that the Grinch didn’t just appear fully-formed out of our collective yuletide unconscious.
Regardless, he was in fact the creative output of one particular man and appeared in the world on a specific date. That date was November 24th, 1957, (with Sputniks and a dog named Laika both flying overhead) and the man who created him was Theodor Geisel, known to the world at large as Dr. Seuss. The Grinch arrived in bookstores just as the 53-year-old Geisel was becoming children’s lit’s version of a rock star. In March of that year, he’d released The Cat in the Hat, the first of his Beginner Books aimed at getting younger readers to read by providing literature with simplified vocabularies. He’d spent 20 years writing mildly successful children’s books and was content living his very modest lifestyle on the $5,000 a year he was making in royalties. Suddenly, after a nine-month long battle of wills with the only 236 words he was allowed to use in writing The Cat in the Hat, he discovered that he had suddenly produced a monster critical and popular hit that within two years would be bringing in millions. By May, two months after The Cat’s astounding debut, he had submitted his new Christmas-themed book to his editor at Random House with the note “Hope you like it. I’m sorta happy about the drawings.”
He was much happier about the book than the note let on. It was the easiest book he’d ever written, and this even with the deteriorating health of his first wife Helen, a children’s book author herself, who, despite a small stroke in April, still acted as his best editor and creative sounding board. Her illness seems to have even provided him with one of his key lines; as a result of her difficulties Helen said that it always felt as though her shoes were “two sizes too small,” exactly like the Grinch’s shriveled heart.
The one difficulty he had with the book was the end, the part after the Grinch hears the Whos rise up on Christmas morning in unexpected song. “I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism… Finally in desperation… without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the ‘roast beast.’… I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.”
The Grinch almost immediately became a holiday symbol as pervasive as Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, and as readily applied to peevish fellow humans immune to the season’s charms. Still, for all that people tend to use the terms Scrooge and Grinch interchangeably, there are definite differences between the two characters beyond the obvious ones of species and a predilection for not wearing any clothes. There’s no indication that the Grinch, unlike Scrooge, is a wealthy, malevolent, card carrying member of the 1%. He’s more just a finicky grump who hates it when his downstairs neighbors have late night parties, ostensibly because the noise keeps him up, but maybe just possibly because he hasn’t been invited. So, faced with his own bitterness that he masquerades as a moral judgment on the Whos’ holiday excesses, he comes up with a brilliant plan for ruining everyone’s chance at fun.
Also, unlike Scrooge, the Grinch has a dog, Max. In the book, Max is little more than the Grinch’s weary, put-upon canine slave, made to dress up as an unconvincing reindeer with one heavy faux-antler roped onto his head. When I lived in Brooklyn with my brother John, his dog Mary, a so-called natural dog with the sleek facial lines and large bat ears of the Egyptian god Anubis, would get the same look of resigned disappointment in her eyes—“please don’t do this to me”—every Christmas when we’d dress her up with a fake antler headpiece. Laden with his one heavy antler, Max is forced to drag the Grinch on his sleigh down into Whoville, then, once the Grinch has loaded the sleigh so full it looks like an undergrad’s laundry bag on a trip home to see the parents, Max is forced to pull the sleigh “three thousand feet up/up the side of Mt. Crumpet.”
Max’s species is basically “cartoon dog” (although Wikipedia curiously insists—on what basis, I have no idea—that he’s a Redbone Coonhound) but the essential point is that Max is a likeable, sympathetic mutt. If Geisel had chosen to give the Grinch a menacing, growling pit bull, say, it would have made an entirely different book, and made the Grinch a wholly different character.
In the 1967 TV version, Max’s participation is expanded substantially. Geisel made the adaptation with his friend, legendary animator Chuck Jones, who Geisel had met over 20 years earlier when serving as a captain in the Army’s so-called “Hollywood front” tasked with helping to make the Why We Fight series at a studio located at the intersection of Sunset and Western Avenues. He reported directly to Major Frank Capra, already a Hollywood legend and destined to make his own Christmas classic with Jimmy Stewart in 1946 right after the war’s end. Geisel was always impressed by his mentor’s patience and ability to teach, and credited Capra with training him how to trim a story to its essentials.
In Jones’s TV adaptation, Max is now a much more active sidekick in order both to expand the storyline and to give the story an innocent silent comic victim on which to unleash the full brunt of Chuck Jones’ classic animated physical shtick. My six-year-old eats up every goofy yank and drop and kuh-zow and fuh-zhang with mustard and relish, which I find obscurely pleasing despite the fact that I’ve apparently grown pretty Grinchy on the Jones brand of slapstick myself.
Scrooge, unlike the Grinch, not only doesn’t have a dog, but is so horrible he can’t even cut a break with man’s best friend (not that he cares). “Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and, when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!’”
The two classics also aim at different morals, and as a result entertain different unlikely fantasies about human behavior. Scrooge is more the popular conception of modern day Wall Street, the 1% seeking to enrich itself while beggaring everyone else, and if they do become so beggared, then they most likely deserve it. Like a good hardcore American conservative, Scrooge is dead set against the nanny state, espousing a thorough-going social Darwinism in which, if people would rather die than go to the workhouses, then “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
The warm fuzzy fantasy that Dickens paints is this: if the heartless controllers of wealth could only resolve their soul-deadening childhood issues, they’d suddenly become generous and charitable and filled with a desire to spend the rest of their blessed days doing nothing but good for the Tiny Tims of the world. Having done my hired slacker time for years at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, if you actually believe that any investment banker worth his M.B.A. from Wharton would ever have such an epiphany, then I’ve got a nice bundle of lucrative subprime mortgage-backed securities to sell you.
Seuss, on the other hand, was taking aim not at the wealthy overlords, but at the growing commercialization of Christmas. This was the same target Charles Schulz aimed at even more explicitly in his equally enduring A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which Charlie Brown is dismayed to discover that even Snoopy—the most famous cartoon dog of them all—has gone commercial, angling for the $1,000 grand prize in a Christmas decoration contest. As Lucy says with comic specificity, “Look Charlie, let’s face it. We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate.” And at that point in the mid-60s, neither Seuss nor Schulz had even experienced Black Friday, that American version of the annual running of the bulls, only more deadly.
The fantasy Seuss paints is that the Whos, upon awakening on Christmas morning to find every present and decoration and speck of Christmas food vanished from their homes, do not immediately set out on a Christmas witch hunt—as would most likely happen with Humans down in Humanville—but instead gather in the town square to sing a heartwarming Christmas carol that grows the Grinch’s heart three sizes that day and sends him and Max back down Mt. Crumpet with all of the Who’s stolen Christmas in tow. Perhaps this generosity of spirit comes from living on a dust mote floating through the Jungle of Nool.
So far we’ve watched and read the Grinch this season, and we’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. She still won’t watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; apparently the emotional scars that the Abominable Snowman left when she saw it at age three are still too fresh and too deep. After she watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, she told us there were no adults in Charlie Brown’s world, only ghosts, which sounded kind of cool and mystical and wicked existential. During the holidays especially, for me, that sentiment makes all the sense in the world.