Dr. Seuss and The Six
Brian Jay Jones Blog
March 7, 2021
It’s been a long week for Dr. Seuss.
As you can imagine, Tuesday’s announcement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) — the organization established by Dr. Seuss’s widow to manage the Dr. Seuss properties and legacy – that it would take out of circulation six Dr. Seuss books that contained racially insensitive material blew up my phone and DMs. Several days before that, a notice by a school district in Virginia that it would not emphasize Dr. Seuss books as part of Read Across America Day – though they were hardly banned –- resulted in a similar flood into my inbox, as did the many folks alerting me that the presidential proclamation for the occasion marked the day without mentioning Dr. Seuss.
All week long, I turned down requests from radio, TV, and print reporters who wanted to talk “for just a minute” about the DSE decision—and I did so because Seuss and race is a really complicated matter that requires more than 90 seconds (or, in the case of Twitter discussions, 280 characters). Add the heated terms “cancel culture”, “woke mob”, and the general disinformation I often see about Seuss (“He beat his wife!” “He was a Nazi!”) to the conversation, and the air quickly becomes too toxic or heated to have a genuine discussion.
Nearly a week later, however, I’m still seeing so much flat-out misinformation being flung about that I thought it was time to blow the whistle and step in to try to provide a little context on Dr. Seuss, race, and racial imagery, as well as set straight what DSE has and hasn’t done.
First, then: the six books that DSE is taking out of circulation are:
And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street
If I Ran the Zoo
On Beyond Zebra!
Scrambled Eggs Super!
The Cat’s Quizzer
That’s it. Six books. No How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on the list. No Cat in the Hat on the list. No Green Eggs and Ham on the list. Dr. Seuss books aren’t cancelled. There are still more than 50 Dr. Seuss books out there, and if you’re like me — at least pre-writing the bio — you probably didn’t recognize any of these, beyond, perhaps, Mulberry Street.
Now, the obvious first question is: Am I okay with this?
My somewhat complicated answer is, “Er, well . . . I get it.” I never like it when we police books and reading, whether it’s Huckleberry Finn or Tales from the Crypt. I think such material provides us with a learning opportunity — and in Seuss’s case, there are still some interesting things going on in these books. McElligot’s Pool, for example, is one of the very few Seuss books with pages printed in full color; meanwhile, If I Ran the Zoo! is the place you’ll find the word “nerd” making its debut in print for the first time anywhere in American English.
But let’s be clear here about what’s really going on: the six books in question aren’t being banned; rather, this is an acknowledgement by the copyright holder that a particular work no longer reflects its own brand, message, or thinking. This happens all the time, whether it’s Warner removing problematic Looney Tunes cartoons from circulation (the so-called “Censored 11”), Disney quietly shelving Song of the South, or even Disney+ adding a disclaimer to the beginning of episodes of The Muppet Show containing material that raises modern eyebrows. This is curation, not cancellation—and DSE, which engages in the difficult discussion of, and self-reflection on, Seuss and race almost annually on his birthday (which is, uncoincidentally, National Read Across America Day), finally decided enough was enough.
It’s at this point now that that the conversation tends to move along to: “But why just those six books? Wasn’t Dr. Seuss racist AF anyway?”
Often, those who posit this will point to an academic study where researchers examined all of Dr. Seuss’s work and catalogued “hundreds” of instances in which Seuss could be deemed offensive or insensitive. Fair enough; in the 1920s, while working for joke magazines like Judge—the 1920s equivalent of, say, MAD—and well before he ever thought of writing children’s books, Seuss could be too quick with a casual racist or misogynistic joke. And some of his advertising work of the 1930s could be truly, head-shakingly gross.
I’d caution you, however, that this study included not just those humor mags and ads — and his work in his college magazine at Dartmouth, which was filled with lechers and drunks — but also all of his WWII-era editorial cartoons and propaganda/training materials he produced while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. This WWII-era work contains lots of problematic portrayals of residents of Axis nations, especially the Japanese — but so did nearly every American editorial cartoon and every inch of U.S.-produced propaganda of the era (Seuss’s portrayal, however, never devolves into depicting the Japanese as monkeys, as many cartoonists of the era did).
The cited research, then, is fair, but skewed–you have to know what “all Seuss work” really means in order to arrive at such a staggeringly-high number. So, let’s stick with just the Dr. Seuss books here; in scouring the 50+ books Dr. Seuss produced for children—including those written under pseudonyms like Theo. LeSieg* — six were determined to contain problematic material.
And the material *is* problematic. Just below, you’ll see a few examples — but there are more, in both pictures and text, scattered throughout the six books in question. Given these examples alone, I think DSE’s decision to pull the plug on these books was a tough call, but the right one. Because hoo boy, Seuss is clearly being racially insensitive.
But—and here’s where it gets sticky—I don’t believe that Seuss’s use of racially-insensitive imagery means the man himself is a card-carrying racist. Mostly, he’s pictographically lazy; Seuss too easily lapses into the stereotypes and tropes of his era, especially when it comes to portraying exotic people or cultures, whether African, Inuit, or Asian. (Of the six books being removed, five were published between 1937 and 1955—an era when Charlie Chan was still being portrayed by white actors in pancake makeup and overly-slanted eyes, speaking in pidgin English to the “numbah wan sahn.”)
Keeping that partly in mind, then, it’s likely that not only did Seuss not intend to offend, but he likely didn’t even realize that his art was offensive. To Seuss, these sorts of depictions were an easy way of conveying that people were “exotic,” in the same way that he tended to draw millionaires in striped trousers and monocles, and every politician in a top hat. It was, in a sense, illustrative cosplay—creatively lazy, certainly, and definitely insensitive, but mostly just graphic shorthand. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that Seuss’s white privilege is unquestionably showing. (I know mileage varies on this, with some insisting that despite intent or lack thereof, “race is a feature, not a bug.” I’ll continue to disagree—but in this case, I’ll also refer you to my biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss, for more details.)
Later in life, Seuss came to publicly acknowledge that some of his earlier work was indeed problematic, essentially saying, “I thought it was funny then; today, I’m not so sure.” And when it came to the Japanese, he became something of a Japanophile; Horton Hears a Who!—with its recurring message that “A person’s a person, no matter how small”— is Seuss’s love letter and apology to the Japanese people, dedicated to his guide and interpreter, “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan,” who took him on a tour of the country after the war. He would also tinker with the depiction of a “Chinese boy” in Mulberry Street in an effort to make the character look like less of a stereotype, but really to no avail (Seuss said at the time, somewhat unhelpfully, “now he looks like an Irishman.” Oof.).
Dr. Seuss came a long way over the arc of his life, advancing beyond the cringe-inducing work of the 1920s and 1930s, the problematic propaganda of the 1940s, and the insensitive, easy stereotypes of the early 1950s, to become—starting in 1957, with the publication of The Cat in the Hat – the progressive advocate for children and reading that we now think of when we hear the name Dr. Seuss. That artist who lapsed into racially insensitive stereotypes? He’s also the one who later created The Sneetches, a book that openly embraced tolerance and diversity; sent a fascist terrapin tumbling into the mud in Yertle the Turtle; gave the fledgling environmental movement its first true spokesman with The Lorax; and warned of the Cold War’s inherent danger of Mutually-Assured Destruction in The Butter Battle Book. Dr. Seuss was imperfect, but he also did his best to constantly do better, and do good.
Thanks for reading.
* spell it backwards, and you’ll find Seuss’s real last name.