A post-seasonal editorial.
[The opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Special thanks to Charles D. Cohen and Patrick Brough for their contributions to this post.]
The story has been around for years. Supposedly the Town (now City) of Easthampton and Mount Tom were Dr. Seuss’s inspiration for Whoville and Mt. Crumpit in the classic children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Back in 2009, a surge in the currency of this suburban legend prompted me to ask a friend, Charles D. Cohen, whether there was any legitimacy to the story. It was not an idle question; Dr. Cohen is Theodor Geisel’s biographer (The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel, Random House, 2004) and possibly the leading authority on All Things Seuss. Dr. Cohen responded,
The first thing I should point out is that whether you have the Grinch atop Mt. Crumpit, or King Derwin on his mountain looking down into the valley where Bartholomew Cubbins lived, or Yertle sitting on top of a skyscraper of turtles, there are plenty of similar images in Ted Geisel’s work. However, I’m not familiar with the notion that the Grinch story was based on something involving Mt. Tom specifically.
I do know that Ted had visited Mt. Tom — his senior picnic was held there on 09/23/1920. And he did have an uncanny memory for images. But I’m not aware of anything special that ever happened to him involving Mt. Tom that would be the genesis for the Grinch story.
In fact, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! A 50th-Anniversary Retrospective (Random House, 2007), I believe that my contention was that the Grinch living on a mountain looking down on the village below was reflective of Ted Geisel living atop Mt. Soledad and looking down on the village of La Jolla down below. We know that the Grinch was modeled on Ted, himself. For example, in the book and in the 1966 cartoon, the Grinch says, “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I MUST stop this Christmas from coming! . . . But HOW?” The book was published in 1957, when Ted, not coincidentally, was 53 years old. There are several other bits of information on this subject in my retrospective, but that should give you the idea.
That apparently satisfied my interest at the time. But a few weeks ago, the story reasserted itself. This time it spread rapidly on Facebook. Suddenly, Easthamptonites wanted to celebrate. Shortly before Christmas there was a well-attended rally on the Town Common, attended by a number of city politicians and the green fellow himself, apparently in competition with Santa Claus.
The best I can say is that it was good for local business, people were enjoying themselves, and it was probably harmless. Why they would want the distinction of living in Whoville, I don’t know. I’m reminded of the joy in Springfield, Vermont, a few years ago when, following a competition among several Springfields, the town was designated the model for the city of Springfield in The Simpsons. It didn’t seem entirely complimentary . . . although I’m told that doughnut sales soared.
But something about claiming a rumor as historic fact didn’t sit well. So I wrote Charles Cohen again, initially seeking permission to use the quote earlier in this article, but also wondering if any new information, confirmational or not, had come to light. His response:
The Mt. Tom story still is no truer today than it was last time we corresponded, but I do have a bit more.
Dr. Cohen continued,
I should start by explaining that the reason I got involved in the field of Seuss scholarship was specifically because of the large amount of misinformation I saw. So this Mt. Tom claim is not surprising. In fact, it isn’t even the only rumor that puts a local claim on the origin of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
One story, from at least 2007, alleges that Ted applied to the University of Virginia three times and was denied entrance on each occasion. Supposedly he eventually bought a large house on a mountain above the school so that he could always “look down” on it. Students at UVA are called Wahoos, and the campus is sometimes called Hooville, theoretically leading to Ted’s Who-ville. Some Virginia kids are apparently even taught that version in school. In 2009, a message was sent to the urban legend debunking site snopes.com, in which a parent described that story as having been told to their son by his 7th grade social studies teacher.
For the record, Ted graduated from high school on January 26, 1921 and began classes at Dartmouth College on September 22, 1921. That doesn’t exactly leave time for him to have applied to, and been rejected by, UVA three times.
Many people seek a commonality with those who have achieved wealth and/or notoriety. The quirk of human nature that causes folks to follow a Kardashian on Twitter also tempts them to look for local connections to famous people. Since Ted grew up in Springfield, there is even more of a reason for people to associate him with their environs. It’s the same impulse that causes people to erroneously claim that Ted, or one of his relatives, lived at 51 Mulberry Street (a rumor that I’ve traced back to 1992).
The dynamic of looking down from a great height on those below is one that Ted used a number of times. There are also a variety of instances from his personal life in which Ted may have looked down from a mountain at a town below. Due to his uncanny (and unconscious) memory for images, it is theoretically possible that any (or all) of these views might have influenced his writing. You originally asked me about the Mt. Tom story in February 2009, and I’ve traced it back to at least to a 12/15/2005 posting on Masslive.com. However, there is no reason to believe that the view from Mt. Tom had any specific correlation with How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The first two illustrations in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) show that same dynamic from two different perspectives–first King Derwin’s view from above and then Bartholomew’s view from below. One could just as easily claim that this setting was based on a view from Mt. Tom. But there wasn’t anything particularly memorable in Ted’s history that involved that peak or Easthampton. The only relation between Mt. Tom and Ted Geisel that I’ve seen is that his high school class’s senior picnic was held there on September 23, 1920 — eighteen years before The 500 Hats was published. Ted visited Germany less than two years before that publication, and I can make a much more convincing argument that the set up in the Kingdom of Didd was based on the Hegau mountains in Baden-Württemberg, Germany—most likely Hohenkrähen, perhaps with a bit of Der Mägdeberg added in.
In theory, Ted could have had a vestigial memory of Mt. Tom or the Hegau mountains when writing How The Grinch Stole Christmas. However, the direct link comes from California, not Massachusetts or Germany.
The explanation starts when the Geisels bought property surrounding an old observation tower at the top of Mount Soledad, overlooking the town of La Jolla, greater San Diego, and into Mexico, with a long stretch of ocean view. Construction of their new home began on September 17, 1948 and the Geisels moved in about a year later, in roughly the fall of 1949.
Ted was wary of his own success and about a year after moving in, drew a parallel between Yertle overlooking the water from atop his mount in Sala-ma-Sond and Ted overlooking the water from his perch atop Mount Soledad. “Yertle the Turtle” appeared in the April 1951 issue of Redbook magazine. Although the warning against being too prideful was directly based on Adolph Hitler, Ted was also drawing on his own efforts to remain humble. He felt conflicted, being both a part of the wealthy community and removed from it. An article in the December 17, 1960 issue of the New Yorker described Ted as being “staggered and a bit frightened by his opulence, for he has never learned to come to grips with money . . . ‘I wish people would stop talking to me about money,’ he says. ‘All I want to do is write books.'”
Over the next few years, Ted continued to have mixed feelings about his relationships to his success and fame, as well as to the people and places with which he interacted from his new home. The following year, a December 1952 article in National Geographic included a picture of Ted, along with a hint of the splendid view in question. That article described La Jolla as a haven for the wealthy and powerful, noting that “at last count there were 63 permanent residents with an individual net worth of more than $1,000,000” (and that was in the 1950s), as well as “twenty-six retired admirals or generals.” In contrast, a year after he originally wrote The Sneetches in 1953, Ted asked his agent if he “might count on $5,000 a year from royalties.”
That National Geographic article described La Jolla as a beach town where “Cadillacs and broken-down jalopies with surfboards tied on their sagging tops park side by side in happy democracy.” Ted saw things differently from his mountaintop perch and wrote The Sneetches, in part, to show a different view of those two classes.
Ted continued to feel that division, both in his surroundings and within himself. We know with absolute certainty that Ted based the character of the Grinch on himself. When he wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957, he was 53 years old, which is why the Grinch says, “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I MUST stop this Christmas from coming! . . . But HOW?” That year he drew a picture of himself looking in the mirror and seeing the Grinch as a reflection.
Looking down from Mount Soledad onto La Jolla below, Ted felt the distance between himself and the millionaires, physically and emotionally, and THAT is the basis for the setting of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
So those are the facts. I suspect that it won’t make much difference. And one might ask, given the enjoyment people have derived from an apparently benign delusion, why am I trying to undermine it? Could my behavior be just a little [gasp] Grinchlike? (I’ve been called worse, including “Curmudgeon” (Erin Fitzgibbons ’11) and “The Troll that Lives Underneath the Library” (Joe Vasicek ’03) — all, presumably, with appropriately affectionate deference.) When the Grinch Myth reared its shaggy head on Facebook last month, and I tried to put in my two cents of sense, a friend and colleague quoted, as he often does, from a Western we both admire, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It’s a great line, from a great film. And mythology can be a useful tool for addressing history, for framing the real story. But in and of itself, as a approach to journalism it leaves something to be desired. As a philosophy of history, it strikes me as dangerously counterproductive. Too often mythology is used less as an approach to history than as a retreat from it. We live in an age where we are comforted by platitudes and simplified ideas, where we are fascinated and distracted by celebrity irrelevance, where political discourse is driven by innuendo, misdirection, misstatement. There is a sense that if one repeats a lie often and loudly enough, it takes on a truth of its own, especially if it doesn’t require serious critical thinking. This is how we end up with Fox “News” and the drivelous rantings of a growing number of national figures whose notoriety is based entirely on their ability to talk convincing nonsense, and make good copy while doing so — all the while consigning the intelligent, fact-based, critical exchange of ideas to the back pages, if reported at all. This is why special-interest organizations and state legislatures, rather than scholars and educators, have far too much say in what is presented as history or science in school textbooks. And in fairness, there’s just as much abuse of the truth on the left as the right side of the aisle.
Pundits are fond of quoting Plato: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Except that Plato didn’t write that; George Santayana did. (Reason in Common Sense, 1905-06). The line has also been attributed to Winston Churchill and Kurt Vonnegut, among others, but now we know where they got it. (Vonnegut added, “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. It’s pretty dense kids who haven’t figured that out by the time they’re ten . . . Most kids can’t afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.” Bluebeard, 1987). Historical traditions that concern George Washington cutting down the cherry tree or Emily Williston stealing a button are probably benign, except that they oversimplify and distract from the true stories, which are often far more interesting. So it is with the Easthampton Grinch. But when history, or mis-history, is used to achieve questionable political, moral, or strategic gain, then it is dangerous — as has been seen countless times in real history. And because the line is rarely black-and-white, we owe history — and the truth, and our kids, and ourselves — something better than to elevate rumor or legend to the status of fact — even if it makes us feel good.