Black Cat Bone

fish 80.jpgAround the 5th time I read my nephew The Cat in the Hat, I started thinking. Sure, I might have been overthinking my thinker and overpuzzling my puzzler reading the book 15 times in half an hour and cutting it with The Cat in the Hat Comes Back!, but I think the Cat in the Hat is the Devil.

The story goes that Dr. Suess’ 1957 The Cat in the Hat was a response to John Hersey’s 1954 challenge in Life Magazine to make an engaging reading primer. For his primer, Dr. Seuss chose constraints that could make poets cry or lead to painful imitation: a 236 word vocabulary; and anapestic tetrameter, which looks like u u ′ / u u ′ / u u ′ / u u ′ and sounds like the sinister line that started me thinking, “It is fun to have fun but you have to know how” (18).

While the Devil has long been associated with unorthodox and disreputable meters, keys, modes and notes, that’s not all I’m thinking about. I’m thinking of a very particular Devil, a Devil in the American grain, as William Carlos Williams says. Not so much Asmodeus as Old Nick, Scratch, maybe even tricksters like Coyote, Iktomi or Legba at the crossroads. He’s a confidence man, a snake oil salesman, an itinerant peddler with the medicine cures what ails ya and fixes that only make things worse until he unleashes his voom! Dapper and slick and trouble from his first knock, searching for idle hands on a “cold, cold, wet day” (1).

cat in the hate 250.jpgHe finds them in The Cat in the Hat. Sally and the narrator have nothing to do but sit sit sit sit till the narrator says, “How I wish for something to do!” (2-3). And as in most trickster tales, wishing is dangerous. Immediately, the Cat bumps at their door and offers his fun know-how. “You SHOULD NOT be here / When our mother is not,” the family fish, a tiny prophet, warns after the Cat’s balancing game falls flat (25). But the Devil’s hard to dislodge and so is the Cat, who, drawn reminiscent of an old time medicine show, reveals “Fun-in-a-box,” or Thing One and Thing Two. And just as the Things are at their most chaotic, the fish warns of mom’s second coming, “Oh,
what will she do to us? / What will she say? / Oh, she will not like / To find us this way!” (47). The power of mother impels, so the Cat packs up his Things and leaves.

In The Cat in the Hat Comes Back!(1958), the Cat does what the Devil and so many other tricksters do, he interferes with work—onerous snow-shoveling. With the fish recuperating somewhere, Sally warns, “That cat is a bad one…. He
plays lots of bad tricks. / Don’t you let him come near” (7) But who can stop him? Telling them to keep working, the Cat skis inside to eat (presumably their) “cake in a tub” with the water running. The narrator drops his shovel and tries to kick the Cat out, but the first try never works. Three is the magic number, somebody said. Anyway, the Cat leaves a pink ring in the tub that he wipes down “WITH MOTHER’S WHITE DRESS!” (I’m not touching that, but in stories with an older audience in mind, the trickster often woos the lady of the house. Go ask Levi-Strauss) (16).

All the while, the smooth-talking cat asks Sally and the narrator to have
confidence in his spot-removal expertise, making me think that like many con artists, the Cat mostly wants people’s confidence and trust. But all the Cat’s patented miracle solutions turn out to be stain-spreading humbuggery. The Cat looses the Little Cats under his hat and their subsequent hats, who transfer the pink cat stain from dad’s bed (again, not touching it), through the house to the snow where the cats try to “kill the mess,” spreading it everywhere.

Finally, the Cat provides his solution:

“Take your hat off now,

Little Cat Z!

Take the Voom off your head!
Make it clean up the snow!” (57)

Voom! Everything’s clean. The paths are shoveled. And the Cat in the Hat becomes more complicated. Since I’m taking it so far, what the hell, I might as well take it all the way. In an introduction to Melville’s The Confidence Man, Stephen Matterson quotes Evert Duyckinck, “It is a good thing, and speaks well for human nature, that men can be swindled” (xvii). It speaks well of Sally and the narrator that they have trouble expelling the Cat. But the Devil’s not all bad, and neither is the Cat. He proves Sally and the narrator’s essential virtue when mom’s not home–maybe even preventing them from fetishizing order and labor in themselves. And, in his way, the Cat also proves worthy of confidence—he cleans up his messes. As he leaves, even the fish smiles.

~~~

Then Carol Borden shut up the Things in a box with a hook. And then went away with a sad kind of look.

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6 thoughts on “Black Cat Bone

  1. You almost have me convinced that Dr. Seuss knew what he was doing when he made that cat so very very bad and set him up in opposition to the fish – a Christian symbol from very far back (and also associated with the spiritual goodness of water, as opposed to the troublesome element of fire.)
    And, of course, the cat (a common familiar animal for a witch) also wears a tie and a hat, which is highly suspicious in an animal. Yes, I even begin to wonder if he isn’t the very same cat named Behemoth who appears in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and who is also very dapper and wears a bow-tie.

  2. Has some crazy fundamentalist preacher gotten ahold of this information already?
    Maybe you could pose as a crazy fundamentalist preacher and warn the whole world. (Maybe some forms of Christian conservative thought is actually performance art.)
    You have to save souls, ya know.:-)
    But maybe you have it right. If you’re going to see the Devil in everything, you should do it responsibly.

  3. if i warned good christians about this, they might successfully exorcise the cat in the hat and while i don’t want him in my house, he is the kind of devil i like.
    as for the devil vs. devilish: no, one does not. in lots of places, tricksters almost always were identified with the devil. some people later adapted the devil as their trickster. and the cat in the hat fits so many american folk traditions about the devil.
    and thanks for being irresponsible with me. bringing in the fish and natty ol’ behemoth from the master and margarite. i hadn’t considered those at all!

  4. I dunno, I love how something as “straightforward” and simple like Dr. Seuss can get interpreted in a million different ways.

  5. Hi Carol,
    This is great! It gave me fun on a cold, cold wet day, so thanks.
    Allow me to join in the overthinking and bring up two more “too much academe” references. Jackson Lears talks about itinerant peddler as Devil in his investigation of the rise of advertising in early America, Fables of Abundance. I know that no one will believe me, but it’s actually a really fun read, even if you’re not me.
    Secondly, Irene Silverblatt’s investigation of witchcraft persecutions in colonial Peru collects stories of the Devil that are totally Coyote: he comes around, keeps looking in his sack and implying there’s good stuff in there and, gee, he’d be so happy to show you, but he’s hungry, and lonely, and tired, so you feed him, kiss him and put him to bed, but BOOM! in the morning he’s outta there and all you get is some corn or something. You just can’t trust that guy!

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