Paul V. Allen
In March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would discontinue publication of six Seuss books that contain racist caricatures. The six books are …And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street , If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.
When the news hit – on Theodor Geisel’s birthday nonetheless! – certain segments of the populace began howling about “cancel culture,” and doing that thing where they willfully misinterpret something to froth up outrage (please note that The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are not on the list of discontinued books). This was a distorted mirror version of what happened a couple of years ago when another certain segment of the populace learned of Seuss’s proclivity for racist caricatures and proceeded to try to make themselves feel better by declaring his entire body of work null and void.
Nuance is not something that the Internet does well. But that doesn’t mean nuance doesn’t exist. This is a clear case where as a society our viewpoint has shifted, and what was once acceptable has become unacceptable. There are all sorts of examples of this - slavery, segregation, women not being able to own property or vote, spittoons. But this is also a case of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I’m no great fan of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. When it comes to stewarding Geisel’s legacy I believe they've made a series of not-great choices. But this wasn’t one of those. It was the right decision to remove those images from active circulation. Now was it a great idea to pull the books wholesale rather than simply remove the one or two offending pages from each book? Probably no, especially considering they have shown themselves more than willing to chop up and rewrite his work. Nor was it a great idea to loudly announce this on Seuss's birthday rather than do it quietly in the middle of, say, July.
Even so, DSE were fully within their rights to not offer certain titles anymore. They own them. No outside party forced this on them. And they can't and won't send an army of minions out to destroy all existing copies of these books. Since this news hit, online prices for these six books have skyrocketed to anywhere between $200 and $1000 for books you could have picked up for less than $5 last week. I pity anyone who pays an exorbitant price; they're akin to those who hoarded toilet paper at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are millions of copies of these books floating around. There will be supply long after this demand dies down.
When I was researching and writing about Geisel and Beginner Books, race came up in several ways. There was the issue of Seuss's racist cartoons early in his career. There was the fact that some believe the Cat in the Hat to have origins in black minstrelsy. There was the damning 2019 study about racist depictions in his books. There were stereotypical depictions of Native Americans peppered throughout Beginner Books. There was the fact that under Geisel’s watch Beginner Books never employed a single person of color to create their books, and that the books didn’t include black characters until the end of his tenure as president, in the late 1970s.
To address this, I created a subsection in my book called "Beginner Books and Race." It was one of thematic sidebars in the initial draft of my book. I ultimately decided to not use a sidebar format, but I did incorporate the material into other parts of the book. So the race discussion is there, and while it was uncomfortable to write about, it was too important to ignore.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises has attempted to create a narrative in which Ted saw the error of his ways regarding racist caricatures, and tried hard to atone for it. This is partially true, in that he did apologize specifically for his depictions of Japanese people in cartoons he drew during World War II. But it's not the whole story. On one hand Ted was being punished because his work had endured. There are plenty of other examples of cartoonists and children’s book illustrators who included racist depictions in their work; it was an unfortunate norm in the early-to-mid 20th century. But those other artists didn’t become world-famous, and their work didn’t remain in print past the point that societal attitudes changed.
However, when Ted was made aware of the harmfulness of the racist caricatures in his children’s books, he didn’t rush to fix them. As far as I know, the only concession he made was to change the “Chinaman” in …And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street to a “Chinese Man” and remove his yellow coloring and long braid. And as late as 1976 he was still drawing stereotypical Asians with yellow skin (in The Cat’s Quizzer). He also seems to have concluded that he couldn’t include Black children in his books because it would only lead to accusations of stereotyping.
Ted's inability to see any middle ground between racist caricatures and true representation demonstrates the insidiousness of white privilege. It digs deep and tries to makes itself invisible to those who have it. Despite being well-educated and well-traveled, and despite the fact that he identified as a liberal and an anti-racist, Ted still just couldn’t quite grasp that othering and omitting people of color was harmful. It is fully possible to do racist things while thinking you’re doing the opposite, and that’s what I think happened here. This is not to apologize for him, but it is to say that “Seuss was racist” is a reductive and simplistic view. In reality Seuss represents all white people: Bombarded with coded racist messages from a young age, and thus often unable to recognize racist actions for what they are, even when they’re pointed out.
Everyone has to make a personal choice about where they draw line the line on being able to enjoy work by someone who has proven to be less than admirable. For me the line is where the artist’s offenses are inextricable from their body of work (Roald Dahl, Woody Allen, Kid Rock, and Dave Sim are just a few examples). Seuss is not one of those cases for me. Though the days of me holding him up as a personal hero are forever gone (both for the reasons we’ve discussed and for others you’ll read about in my book), I can still find the joy in his worldview and an admiration of his approach to writing for children. I’ll continue to revisit his best work, books such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, There’s a Wocket In My Pocket, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, and Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?.
I hope some of those who have suddenly embraced Dr. Seuss as a cause celebre will actually sit down and read his books. Maybe they'll get something valuable out of the anti-corporate environmental message of The Lorax, the antifascism of "Yertle the Turtle," or the loving inclusiveness of Come Over to My House.