Published in 1938 by Vanguard Press
“A lovely bit of tomfoolery which keeps up the suspense and surprise until the last page.”
– New York Times
Dr. Seuss’ second children’s book is about a young boy name Bartholomew Cubbins. He starts out with just one plain red hat that “belonged to his father and his father’s father before him.” His family lives in the Kingdom of Didd, but unlike the mighty King Derwin who lives in the palace, Bartholomew lives in a hut on the edge of a cranberry bog.
One Saturday morning, while Bartholomew is in town to sell some cranberries at the market the King’s procession drives by. The Captain of the King’s Own Guard shouts, “Hats off to the King.” Next we know, the King is addressing Batholomew directly telling him to take off his hat. Batholomew, in confusion, holds out the hat that he has taken off to show the King, but the King shouts that there is still a hat on Bartholomew’s head. Bartholomew reaches up and takes off that hat only to reveal another hat. The King, taking this for an insult, has Batholomew taken to the palace for punishment.
When Batholomew gets to court we meet a menagerie of interesting characters that attempt and fail to make Bartholomew’s head bare.
- Sir Alaric, Keeper of the Records. With triangle glasses and, instead of a sword, he has a ruler slung from his belt.
- Sir Snipps, Maker of Hats for all the fine lords. The smallest man, with the tallest hat. He has a pair of scissors slung from his belt and a very snippy attitude to go with his name.
- The Wise Men:
- Nadd. An old, old man. Knows about everything in all the kingdom.
- Father of Nadd. An even older man. Knows about everything in all the kingdom and in all the world beyond.
- Father of the Father of Nadd. Knows about everything in all the kingdom, in all the world beyond, and in all other worlds that may happen to be.
- The Grand Duke Wilfred. Nephew to the King. A boy about the same age as Bartholomew. A very proud little boy with his nose in the air.
- Yoeman the Bowman. A gigantic man with a bow as big as the branch of a tree.
- The King’s Magicians. Seven tall men with Seven lean black cats. They only speak in verse.
- The Executioner. “In spite of his business, he really seemed to be a very pleasant man.”
After the Magicians fail to remove the hats, the snotty Grand Duke Wilfred suggests that the King have Batholomew’s head cut off! But the executioner states that it’s a rule that he can’t take off anyone’s head without them first taking off their hat. So Bartholomew is saved from the chopping block, only to be dragged up to the highest turret so he can be pushed off by the Grand Duke Wilfred.
While they are climbing hats start to flip of his head with every step. Sir Alaric is counting all of the hats when he notices that they have started to transform and become more and more elaborate and beautiful with more feathers and red jewels!
When Bartholomew’s head pokes up to the turret the King notices that he has a magnificent hat with a huge ruby and ostrich plumes. The Grand Duke is so jealous that he rushes to push Bartholomew off of the turret, but the King pulls him back and gives him a sound spanking. Just then Sir Alaric makes it to the top of the turret and announces that this grand hat is the 500th hat to appear on Bartholomew’s head. The King thinks it is so beautiful that he offers Batholomew 500 pieces of gold for it. Bartholomew accepts and takes the hat off to give it to the king.
“Slowly, slowly, Bartholomew felt the weight of the great hat lifting from his head. He held his breath…Then suddenly he felt the cool evening breezes blow through his hair. His face broke into a happy smile. The head of Bartholomew Cubbins was bare!”
So, Bartholomew headed home, with no cranberries and with no hat, but with a bag of gold!
“But neither Bartholomew Cubbins, nor King Derwin himself,
nor anyone else in the Kingdom of Didd could ever explain how the
strange thing had happened. They only could say it just ‘happened to
happen’ and was not very likely to happen again.”
Apparently Seuss’ favorite review was from an old classmate, Alexander Laing who wrote for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. He said, “his several other occupations, madly fascinating as they are, may have been only preludes to a discovery of his proper vocation. That he is a rare and loopy genius has been common knowledge from an early epoch of his undergrad troubles. It now becomes plain that his is the self-consistent, happy madness beloved by children. I do not see what is to prevent him from becoming the Grimm of our times.”
This story does have a very classic Grimm fairytale touch to it. Kingdom, Castle, Poor-farmer-boy-with-his-simple- thrown-into-something-fantastical. Of course, it has a Seussian lens over it, a bit of “happy madness” especially seen in his court characters. It’s almost like a cartoonish Game of Thrones…The bloodthirst Grand Duke Wilfred has a touch of Joffrey in him. He is the real villain of the book. At first it seems like the angry King Derwin is the protagonist. He shouts at Bartholomew, pulls him into court, in most of his pictures he is scowling, and he sentences Bartholomew to death twice! But only at The Grand Duke Wilfred’s suggestion. Interestingly enough, the first time we see the king smile is when we are introduced to The Grand Duke Wilfred. The second time we see the king smile is at the beautiful 500th hat, then we see him scowling angrily at Wilfred showing that the tides have turned and The King now likes Bartholomew more than Wilfred.
I think it’s important that the villain is a boy of Bartholomew’s own age. While the adult is the one getting mad and punishing Bartholomew for no fault of is own, it is the other boy that is being petty and attacking Bartholomew. In the end the bad little boy gets a spanking and the good little boy gets a bag of gold. From the start Bartholomew is described as a happy boy that speaks with the utmost politeness, while Wilfred is described as a proud boy who laughs meanly at Bartholomew. So really the story is a classic tale of right vs. wrong and good vs. evil. Throughout it gives the message that if you know you are right then stay true to yourself and nothing can hurt you.
“For a moment Bartholomew was terribly frightened. ‘Still,’ he
thought to himself, ‘the King can do nothing dreadful to punish me,
because I really haven’t done anything wrong. It would be cowardly
to feel afraid.
Bartholomew threw back his shoulders and marched straight
ahead into the palace.”
I also think the end is subtly powerful. I quoted the final line at the end of the summary section. It simply states that “it just ‘happened to happen’ and was not very likely to happen again.” Sometimes things just happen. I am at an age where I over think and over analyze everything. I don’t know if this is something that continues for the rest of adulthood, but I am constantly trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life, or why this or that happened or didn’t happen and that simple sentence is such a lovely reminder that sometimes things just happen to happen. Life is a constant, it’s not a goal to be achieved, it is here and now and bad things happen, and good things happen and it is a waste of energy to over analyze and go crazy of the why and how of things.
As you can probably tell from the length of the summary this book was significantly longer than And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It was originally published by Vanguard with 48 pages (24 pages front and back) of prose. Most people think of verse, rhyme and rhythm when they think of Dr. Seuss, but he actually has several books written in prose. All of his books still have a touch of those elements in names like Yoeman the Bowman, or the Wise Men’s chant:
“Be calm, oh, Sire, and have no fear,
Our charm will work in ten short years.”
Seuss stated that when he was staring at a stranger on a train from Springfield to New York he wondering what would happened if he flicked off the stranger’s hat. “I decided he was so stuffy that he’d probably grow another one.” Friends have also said that Seuss collected hats. He apparently had hundreds of them and would use them to entertain his guests during dinner parties. So when he was trying to think of a topic for his next children’s book he went with hats.
The grand total of hats was originally suppose to be 48 which then became 153 and eventually grew into 500. When I counted the little red hats in the book I came up with a totally of 70, but that’s including the cover page and the first page and the first two times we see Bartholomew it is still the original hat. Also, the final big beautiful hat is shown twice. It doesn’t really mean anything. I just thought it would be fun to count them all.
This book starts the pattern of Dr. Seuss’ books being limited in color. And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street has several bright fun colors, but this one has only red and it is only used for Bartholomew’s hats, it’s like a happier Schindler’s List. Although it is mostly black and white Seuss still uses color in his descriptions. The trumpeters are on yellow-robed horses and the King’s Own Guard are on crimson-robed horses. The King’s carriage is purple and gold. I don’t think the images are hurt by the lack of color. If anything it draw more attention to the hats which are the focus of the story.
Originally the cover of the book was black, because Vanguard felt it was a mystery story. When Random House publishing bought out Vanguard in 1988 they changed the cover to a grey so that the red was still the only color on the cover, but overall it had a much lighter appearance.
The last little comment I wanna make on the history of this book is the dedication. The dedication is to Chrysanthemum-Pearl (aged 89 months, going on 90). This dedication is actually a beautiful insight into Theodore Geisel’s life. He and his first wife, Helen, never had children because of an operation that Helen went under that made her unable to have children. When their friends would bring up their own kids Ted (what everyone called him) would make up stories about their imaginary daughter, Chrysanthemum-Pearl. He would tell elaborate tales of her accomplishments with all seriousness and his friends quickly learned to accept it as another one of his quirks.
Theodore Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer, committed suicide on October 23rd, 1967. She took a bottle of pills, wrote a note to Ted and went to bed.
They met at Oxford in a class that they both shared. She was also American and 5 years older than him. Helen finished her Master’s degree at Oxford and Ted dropped out. They were married on November 29, 1927, he was 23 and she was 28. They were married for 40 years until her death. Her suicide note read:
What has happened to me?
I don’t know.
I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, “failure, failure, failure….
I love you so much….I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you….My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed…Sometimes, think of the fun we had thru the years….”
She was clearly an amazing woman that inspired and supported Ted throughout their time together. When they were at Oxford together she told him he was crazy to want to be a professor and that he should become an artist. She became very involved in his work and helped him publish the bulk of his children’s books.
“Flupp!…the sharp wind whisked off Bartholomew’s hat. Flupp
Flupp…two more flew off. Flupp Flupp Flupp few another…and
another. “…4…5…6…7…” Bartholomew kept counting as
the hats came faster and faster.”
Everything about this quote is exciting! It starts with an onomatopoeia (I had no idea that is how you spell that) and an exclamation mark. Then we get an ellipsis quickly followed by “sharp” and “whisk”. There is so much action and build up to keep the reader flipping the pages.
I’ve always been a fan of Seuss’ stairs and this is our first real glimpse of his crazy steps. There are stairs in And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, but they are pretty straight forward and traditional, but these are spiral and different heights and have an arch, they’re just exciting and fun. Also this is the only time we see the hats get more and more elaborate. Otherwise, we only see the plain hat and the super fancy hat, but here we get to watch them transform.
Thanks for reading,
Jack St. Rebor