Dr. Seuss was okay with red fish and blue fish; he could imagine an elephant sitting patiently in a tree to hatch another species’ egg. So why was he such a bigot when it came to human beings?
And does that mean we need to abandon his books?
During China’s Cultural Revolution, there were enough book bonfires to blaze the sky orange. Mao Zedong wanted to protect community standards and shared values, reshaping the thinking of the Chinese people. In this country, condemning books for violating certain values used to be the purview of archconservatives who were sure Harry Potter was Satan’s minion or believed—with no recognition of irony—that Fahrenheit 451 was profane.
Now, books are being tucked out of sight or taken out of print by the sort of people who used to abhor censorship. Seuss’s stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, told the New York Post that there “wasn’t a racist bone in that man’s body.” But she also said that ceasing to print certain books was wise “in this day and age,” and she urged that we all be gentle and kind with one another.
Gentle and kind will only take you so far, though, if you are trying to understand current tensions and their roots in the past. How, to play devil’s advocate, is removing books from circulation different from rewriting history? There is not much power in telling children about a time when people could be openly prejudiced and not even realize it if all the examples of the prejudice have been erased. If you can point to a stereotypical caricature and explain how pervasive it was—how distant and exotic Asia seemed, how clueless people were about the rest of the world—you have proof. You have, to use that smug but valid phrase, a teachable moment.
Nobody wants to seem as though they are sticking up for bigotry, letting alone passing it on to the next generation. The stories we tell kids are of huge importance. I learned about hubris from Greek myths, sisterhood from Little Women, human nature from The Selfish Giant, Judaism from The Chosen. The more diverse the stories, the easier it is to keep opening a child’s mind.
But there is a difference between adding new, deliberately diverse stories and casting away the benighted classics altogether.
In “How to Really Read Racist Books to Your Kids,” Jeremy Adam Smith counters a New York Times column that gave only two options: Ignore racist imagery or excise it. There is a better way, Smith argues: Make the problems in the text explicit. Teach your kids to call out imagery that is unfair or hateful. Prove to them that society learns and changes; that what used to be okay is no longer okay.
It is easy to say goodbye to five of the six Seuss books on the estate’s pull list; they are not beloved. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, though? The first children’s book written by the man who probably lured more kids into reading than anyone else, selling more than 650 million books in 95 countries? That book is a piece of history. If nothing else, it teaches us how spontaneous and playful real creativity is, how wild our imagination can be. Inspired by his irritation at the noise of a cruise ship’s engine, its strong meter set a precedent for the rhythms that would imprint the rest of his books on our brains.
The problem with continuing to print Mulberry Street is its use of crudely slanted eyes to depict a Chinese man. Would it be that hard for an artist to redraw the eyes? Caricature oversimplifies by its very nature, but how it oversimplifies starts with what the author knows to be true. And Theodor Seuss Geisel knew very little about anyone Asian—except for the absurd stereotypes swirling around him—until much later.
This is not to excuse Geisel. He started life as a slacker, a screwup, and a jerk—if we want to stereotype. He feared he could not cut it in the world his parents had planned for him. Doctor Seuss bailed out of his graduate degree at Oxford; he had doodled instead of studying. Making fun of stuff was always his defense and salvation—and when he found he could make a living at it, he used whatever vile currency people were laughing at—or, during wartime, scared of—as his vocabulary.
But he refined the immature early cruelty of those caricatures into work that often bordered on profundity. And he touched a great many lives.
Now, we are smarter. Subtle critiques have explored the roots of some of his lighthearted rhymes in minstrelsy and pointed out that even when he was trying to protect the human rights of the little Who’s, he made them small and in need of protection.
We might feel differently about all of this if Geisel had been willing to express shame over his expressions of bigotry, whether enthusiastic or inadvertent—but that was never his style. Wiggling out of condemnation, he blamed his wartime political cartoons on, first, the need to trounce the enemy and, second, the “snap judgments that every political cartoonist has to make.” His refusal to bow to propriety (this was the man who snuck away from a gala at Neiman Marcus to mix up the price tags in the shoe salon) was legend. When Alison Lurie called him out for ignoring women, he tossed back, “Tell her most of my characters are animals, and if she can identify their sex, I’ll remember her in my will.”
Drawing bizarre, whimsical animals was Dr. Seuss’s solution to the difficulty of drawing human beings, and it freed him, at least for a time, from worrying about the implications of his images. When he was first asked to revise Mulberry Street, he announced that he had removed the yellow and cut off the pigtail, and now the guy looked like an Irishman.
Yet his ego could be set aside. He wrote beautifully in a 1952 essay called “But for Grown-ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun,” making the point that adults’ laughter is conditioned by what they are taught to find funny, and that is often people they have decided are inferior to them.
Would he have minded if Dr. Seuss Enterprises made a few tweaks to the problematic content? Richard Scarry’s books are regularly updated, deftly, to remove, say, the assumption that all police officers are male or only mothers push baby strollers. A note from the publisher could acknowledge such revisions up front. Granted, tweaks are tricky—they can either improve or ruin a work of art. But “a book is just like life,” Geisel once wrote, “and anything can change.”
There is no perfect solution to the sins of the past. Attempts to erase them often backfire. Taking these six books out of print shot up their value, and suddenly people were paying thousands of dollars for these racist collector’s items on eBay.
We have reached a weird place, one with patches of awareness and repentance, sensitivity and hypersensitivity, sincerity and social pressure. It is sobering to realize how one-dimensional our notions of one another used to be, and maybe that insight should prompt a clean sweep, a fresh start. Except—what about all the other hurtful, cruel stereotypes that we have yet to tackle? When do we get rid of, for example, the jolly fat person? Because there goes Santa Claus. And the Easter bunny is a textbook example of hyperactivity. Shy, bookish kids crop up everywhere, and they are nearly always dragged, as a moral imperative, into the sort of wild adventure that would traumatize any seriously introverted kid. What about all the nannies that are frumpy, slightly overweight widows or spinsters—is that fair? And how many kids’ books center a character with a mental illness or a profound disability?
We will keep learning the limits of what we perceive, and we will keep revising our view of the world. But if we then throw away all the cultural artifacts that preceded our latest realization, libraries will cease to have storage problems. We are the ones who need to change, not the dead authors. The change means we can see them in a fresh light. And if a kid might miss the point, it is up to the parents to drive it home.
“Why are they Sad and glad and bad? I do not know. Go ask your dad.”
Would it be easier on parents if we just cast aside the problematic stuff? Absolutely. And if it was never very good, the marketplace will take care of that anyway. But as Smith points out, most books are a mix of good and bad. So are most people. And if the recommended course is to dismiss a flawed, bigoted book, what are we to do we do with flawed, bigoted people?
Were Geisel to write a book about this contretemps, he might have one of his crazy beasts shake a weary head: “And this is a story that no one can beat. I saw it all happen on—” Oh, no. Not Mulberry Street. Pick a new place. And then another, when that one needs revision.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.