Free Dr. Seuss!

Free Dr. Seuss!

Corporate ownership of his classic works shouldn’t prevent us from having a grown-up conversation about racism and children’s literature.

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Shut out of the White House and reduced to a minority party in Congress, Republicans think they have found a path back to power in the unlikely form of The Cat in the Hat. On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it was taking six books written and drawn by the late Theodore Seuss Geisel off the market because “these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Republicans were quick to jump on the story. “Now 6 Dr. Seuss books are cancelled too?” Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted. “When history looks back at this time it will be held up as an example of a depraved sociopolitical purge driven by hysteria and lunacy,” he proclaimed. A slew of other Republicans rose to defend the allegedly threatened author. With typical smarminess, Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted a photo showing Dr. Seuss dominating the Amazon best-seller list. Cruz commented, “Who knew Joe Biden was such a great book seller”—the big lie being that Biden was in any way responsible for the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. On March 24, Republican Congressman John Joyce of Pennsylvania introduced the Grinch Act to, in his words, “safeguard kids’ access to historic stories and characters.”

Right-wing pundit Erick Erickson explained the logic of the GOP’s decision to beat the drum about Dr. Seuss, arguing that “more voters will remember Seuss when they vote than the COVID plan.”

The Republican fearmongering about Dr. Seuss being canceled is deeply cynical and dishonest. It also prevents the mature conversation that we need to have about racism in classic children’s literature. Even as we reject the right-wing demagoguery, there’s no need to accept the edict of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a corporate entity that is much more concerned with brand management than with the sensitive curation of a cultural legacy or the need to grapple with historical racism. The decision to take some dubious books out of print smacks of branding triage, pruning some ugly branches so the whole tree can continue to bear profitable fruit.

I come to the Dr. Seuss controversy from the peculiar position of being a cartooning scholar. Over the past two decades, I’ve edited or written the introductions to more than 50 books reprinting such classic comic strips as Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, and Gasoline Alley. Many of these comics are rife with ethnic and racial stereotypes, which were the pervasive language of American culture in the early 20th century. They come from a world where Asians are always bucktoothed, the Irish are frequently simian, Italians are prone to be organ-grinders, and African Americans are wide-eyed, simple-minded, and illiterate.

I work on producing these books not in spite of their racism but in part because of their racism. Aside from the artistic merits of the works, I think it’s important to have a historical record of how commonplace and accepted racism was—and of the ways racialized groups responded to being stereotyped. To leave these cultural artifacts to languish in decaying newsprint is to whitewash the past.

Born in 1904, Geisel grew up reading many of the comics I’ve worked to preserve and reprint. The man who would become Dr. Seuss was an aesthetic sponge, and his early line work shows all the lessons he learned, good and bad, from the classic American cartoonists. He both absorbed the racism of these cartoons and, as he matured as an artist, struggled to transform it into something different.

In his fine book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (2017), Kansas State University literary scholar Philip Nel maps out the complexity of Geisel’s relationship to this racist visual culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Nel and I have collaborated on a volume reprinting Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby cartoons.) As a young artist in the 1920s and ’30s, Geisel simply mimicked the stereotypes of that era. But as his political consciousness grew in the ’40s as a contributor to the Popular Front newspaper PM, Seuss worked diligently, although not always successfully, to dispense with racist images. His Achilles’ heel was his wartime drawings of the Japanese—although even on this issue he evolved. Nel reports that Geisel’s military training film Our Job in Japan (1945) was censored by the Army because “General MacArthur considered it too sympathetic to the Japanese.” Geisel came out of the war a committed anti-racist, writing books like The Sneetches (1961) to attack bigotry.

The complicating factor is that Seuss’s visual vocabulary continued to be shaped by the ethnic stereotypes of his youth, although now applied to fanciful anthropomorphic creatures. Nel, building on fellow scholar Michelle Abate’s work, plausibly shows that the character of the Grinch owes something to 19th-century iconography displaying “Irish depravity.”

The Cat in the Hat himself has an interestingly mixed heritage. Geisel was a fan of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which has a strong claim to be considered the greatest of all comic strips. Herriman was a light-skinned African American who passed as white, and his strip about the love triangle between a black cat, a white mouse, and a white dog was a racial allegory. Geisel was also influenced by the sly smile of Annie Williams, an African American elevator operator. Like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, the Cat in the Hat is also indebted to blackface minstrelsy—the white gloves being the giveaway. But to say therefore that the Cat is Black would be to follow a cultural “one drop” of blood rule. Rather, the Cat is, as Ralph Ellison said of American culture itself, gloriously mongrel.

None of this is an argument for getting rid of the Grinch or the Cat in the Hat. But the complex role racism and resistance played in creating them is a story children should also be told when they’re old enough to hear it.

The delisted books contain images and words that I as a parent would not want my kids to see. But there is no reason for the books to be out of print. The cartoon reprint projects I work on are for adults, not kids.

It’s unfortunate that three decades after his death in 1991, a corporate entity has a stranglehold on Dr. Seuss’s legacy. If his works were in the public domain, they could be published both for children (when appropriate) and in a curated archival edition. Dr. Seuss was not just a brand. He was a great artist, and his legacy deserves a more careful preservation.

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