speaking for the Lorax

a few weeks ago i needed dish soap. i was out, totally out, had balanced the bottle at improbable angles until nothing but funny noises and the occasional bubble would come out. no big deal, i was due to make a grocery run anyway.

i've used Seventh Generation brand dish soap for some time now. i don't primarily buy it for the "hoorah let's save the earth like the Native Americans would have done" business; i like how it smells, and it gets my dishes clean, and it doesn't destroy my hands even when i need to clean every pot and pan in the kitchen. all of these are good things, including the environmentalism, but i stopped in my tracks when i reached towards the grocery store shelf and saw this:

i picked it up. i put it down. i paced around the aisle. i calculated how many more dishes i could do with what i had at home. (zero.) i contemplated walking all the way to the other end of the store and buying the radioactive blue stuff that kills bacteria, skin cells, and anything else it touches.

in the end, i caved and bought the Lemongrass & Clementine Zest Corporate Shill. i wasn't going to write about this episode as it stood by itself, especially since the internet already has plenty of indignation over corporate tie-ins with the new Lorax film.

fast forward a week or so, and i was in Austin for the North American Summer School on Language, Logic, and Information. on my last morning, i got in a final bit of tourism, including going to the LBJ Presidential Library, which is right on campus at the University of Texas.

i didn't know that the museum was under renovation, and that only a handful of the exhibits were open. they still had a mock-up of LBJ's Oval Office, but 90% of the rest was devoted to an exhibit on the First Lady. the remainder was one little case of miscellany, a hodgepodge of gifts from various heads of states and dignitaries: swords, jewelry, ancient artifacts, cowboy boots, and — at the very end, almost an afterthought — this.

the entire original art of The Lorax is in the library's collection, but just this one spread was on display. the coloring is done in crayon, as if by a child instead of for a child, and the words are held on with masking tape. how humble, i thought, unassuming artwork for an iconic book, donated to a public collection. the antithesis of selling out an idealist character to the highest bidder.

i had the impression that this art had been lovingly and spontaneously donated by Theodor Geisel. i discovered later that the truth was rather different. i suppose "spontaneous" still holds, but apparently the donation was an extreme case of presupposition accommodation:

I was at a dinner for Democrats some years ago, and I sat next to Liz Carpenter, who was LBJ’s press secretary. Since Lady Bird was so interested in beautification, it seemed that environmental protection was a safe topic, so I mentioned that I had written a book on the subject. Liz seemed interested, but soon after left the room. When she reappeared she called me to the phone and said, “The President wants to talk to you.” I said “Hello,” and there was LBJ thanking me for donating the drawings for The Lorax to his library in Austin, Texas.
source: LBJ Library

so the fate of this artwork was made by executive decision. but the Chief Executive acted in the spirit of respect, and preservation. it's not so clear that any preserving force stands watch over the Seuss canon today. what's to be done? near-indefinite copyright terms don't seem to do a lot; as intellectual property, beloved characters can be passed around, traded, sold, and generally mismanaged for decades after the author, long passed away, can no longer say anything. it's hard to say whether limiting that would help, but perhaps there would be a more level playing field; the Once-ler couldn't buy an exclusive product placement in the story where he's the villain.

i don't have a perfect solution, but one thing is clear: The Lorax is an orphan with his creator gone. he's just crayon on paper, and taped-on, typewritten verse. someone needs to speak for him, and his kind, for like the trees, they too have no tongues, and everyone from movie studios to soap makers wants to put words in their mouths.