Uncle Sam-I-Am

Tunku Varadarajan
January 18, 2006
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I am Sam. Sam I am." The first nine words of "Green Eggs and Ham," indisputably the finest American children's book, are in the nature of an anthem, uttered at the outset of a tale so consequential that it must be seen as a formative text in the making of modern American citizens. One may say of Sam-I-am--the adamant purveyor of those strangely colored foods that make up the title of Dr. Seuss's lovely little book--that he embodies the American Way. So much so that I call him, with no great inaccuracy, Uncle-Sam-I-am.

There are two ways to interpret "Green Eggs and Ham." The first--to which I do not subscribe--was suggested to me by a colleague with small children. It is as a terrifying torture-and-kidnap story: It begins, famously, with a question, "Do you like green eggs and ham?"--and a proffered platter. In spite of its unorthodox greenness, the ham looks rather succulent. Yet the offer is refused. The Protagonist--a typical Seussian creature with furry exterior and rumpled top-hat--then retreats grumpily to his house, where Sam-I-am harasses him, confronting him first with a rodent, and then with a smug-faced fox.

The Protagonist flees, Sam-I-am pursues him in a car, and then brings on a very forward goat, posing the question that has always amused the schoolboy in me: "Could you, would you, with a goat?" He then runs the car off the road, dumping the Protagonist (along with a bevy of innocent train passengers) into the sea. At this point, in self-defense, the victim adopts the worldview of his assailant and, Patty Hearst-like, becomes a propagandist for Sam-I-am's cause.

The second way to interpret the book is as a celebration, albeit a mischievous one, of two particularly American traits: salesmanship and open-mindedness. Sam-I-am is the consummate entrepreneur, although, clearly, he does not believe in soft-sell. He is convinced of his product's attractiveness, and the evangelism of his pitch is evident. He wants the Protagonist to "see the light." However annoying one might be tempted to find Sam-I-am, he retains our sympathy for as long as his interlocutor refuses to try his product. How could he know that he doesn't like green eggs and ham? Has he tried them? Why won't he try them? What if we all refused to do things simply because we haven't done them before?

These are questions all children might, and do, ask themselves, as Sam-I-am goes about his business.

"Green Eggs and Ham" is a book written to be read aloud to preliterate children. And new research--by economists such as James Heckman, and others--now reveals that a child's intellectual and civic development is often made (or marred) by the stimuli he receives well before he learns to read. So a book that electrifies a child when read aloud is not merely a source of pleasure, but a building block for his future.
"Green Eggs and Ham" is a very American book, of course, but good children's literature has certain universal characteristics. Plainly, a book must be fun. It cannot be a snooze (although sleep by the end of it is a parent's delight). So the language is paramount: If it is alluring, a child's imagination is captured; if it is all flat, the audience is lost. The pictures can be as important as the language, although great art can never rescue a flaccid text.

A good children's book, moreover, must provoke a desire to return, to be read to from the same pages again and again. For this, it must have an "aftertaste." This may either be a lesson that is left in the young mind, or a deposit of fuel for the imagination, in the form of a character, or a twist in the tale, or a rhyme that, like a good tune, insinuates itself into a child's brain. "Green Eggs and Ham" has all of these.

It is also fine, and often part of the fun, that the child be disconcerted by what has just been read to him. So darkness in a tale is no bad thing. Here, however--and especially where being disconcerted shades into being disturbed--it is important that the book end well, and on a comforting note, with a restoration of the natural order.

What is distinctive about the best American children's literature, of which "Green Eggs and Ham" is at the forefront? The obvious thing is the language. Dr. Seuss must take credit for inventing a brand new, American argot for children. Outlandish coinage and neologisms of every stripe abound in his texts. And yet, he is always perfectly, perfectly clear. Consider these lines from "The Lorax" (which some killjoys dislike for its apparently environmentalist message):

I am the Lorax," he coughed and he whiffed.
He sneezed and he snuffled. He snarggled. He sniffed.
"Once-ler!" he cried with a cruffulous croak.
"Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke."
The alliteration, the linguistic subversiveness, the stretching of the dictionary like bubble gum, these are Seussian traits that give our children an early taste for language, for flair, for the advantages of sounding smart--and even, I daresay, for the advantages of being smart. There is a narrative frontiersman's quality to Seuss that echoes the frontiersman's quality of American culture. Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!

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