Person’s a Person or Something Like That

Last weekend, the movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who opened. It looks like a fun my girls will enjoy.

You might think the essence of the story affirms life at all stages, but I’ve read that Dr. Seuss and his widow always disapproved of the signature phrase, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” being used as a pro-life message. A few years ago, a biographer discussed the matter on a book show in Australia:

Amanda Smith (of Book Talk): And then, also, the anti-abortion lobby in the United States has used a line from Horton Hears a Who, the line that says, ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small.’ Would that have been in accord with Seuss’s intended meaning?

Philip Nel (author of Dr Seuss – American Icon): Absolutely not. In fact, during his lifetime Seuss threatened to sue an anti-abortion group unless they took that off their stationery and they did take it off their stationery but it’s still used. I’ve still seen propaganda in recent years from pro-life groups that have adopted Horton’s line, ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small.’ It’s one of the ways in which Seuss has been misappropriated. He would not agree with that.

I don’t remember the book clearly, but I wonder if this story is larger or beyond Dr. Seuss’ intentions. Once a story is published, it’s out of the author’s hands, is it not? An author may have written something with themes he doesn’t fully agree with, stumbling on truths he does not recognize.

One thought on “Person’s a Person or Something Like That”

  1. I agree with you, but the law doesn’t. In this particular case, depending on the length of the quote and the length of the book, the issues could be complicated. But in general, Copyright law means that the author is the sole interpreter of his work.

    IMO (and the American Constitution backs me on this), the only exclusivity an author should have over his work is the ability to make a profit from it. Beyond that, it lives on in imagination and thus becomes a property of others.

    But even so, one can understand a bit of an author’s feelings when his work is used to fight an idea he cares about. Especially in the case of Dr. Seuss, a very public figure whose distinctive style is instantly recognizable. I think a similar reaction might have happened had a Billy Graham quote, for instance, been repurposed as a blazon for the Gay Rights movement.

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