Books

How Dr. Seuss Responded to Critics Who Called Out His Racism

A black-and-white photo of Dr. Seuss sitting at his desk with his books
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books. World Telegram & Sun by Al Ravenna/Library of Congress

On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees the 20th-century children’s author’s estate, announced that it had decided to discontinue publication and licensing of six books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, saying, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Though four of the six books are basically unknown and make up a fraction of the author’s oeuvre, Fox News and other conservative voices, as if on autopilot, are treating the decision as another example of “cancel culture.”

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Philip Nel, a scholar of children’s literature who’s written several books about Dr. Seuss, including Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, has thought a lot about all the contradictions in Seuss’ work. “Children’s literature,” he wrote in the introduction to that book, “conceals its own racialized origins.” Nel and I talked about Seuss’ responses to criticism during his lifetime and how the midcentury approach to tolerance often went hand in hand with racism. Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rebecca Onion: Can you describe the offensive content in these discontinued books? I think a lot of people have probably read And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, but the others are more obscure, and it’s difficult to talk about these issues without acknowledging the specifics.

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Philip Nel: Yes, sure. There are racist caricatures of people of African descent, people of Asian descent, of Arab descent. For example, at the end of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street [1937], the version that was published in the 1930s had a page that said, “I’ve seen a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” The man was colored yellow and had a pigtail, wearing one of those triangular hats. He cleaned that image up a bit in the 1978 edition, cut off the pigtail and removed the color, changed the language to “I’ve seen a Chinese man who eats with sticks.”

In If I Ran the Zoo [1950], there are other examples. One page says, “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant/ with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” and depicts Asian workers helping the character Gerald McGrew capture birds and other animals for his zoo. It also includes the “African island of Yerka,” with two characters, African men, who come right out of the typical caricatures of the ’20s and ’30s—racial caricatures of Black people.

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Those are the most vivid examples. I was also looking at The Cat’s Quizzer [1976], where there’s a question that goes something like, “How old do you have to be, to be a Japanese?” And of course the premise is, it’s an absurd question, because you don’t have to be any age—the book is all about absurd questions. But you’re using “a Japanese” as a punchline. It’s a trope in Seuss books more generally to treat ethnic and “foreign” others as comic, even if he doesn’t mean it in an aggressively malicious way. He’s not thinking about how making an entire group of people the subject of a joke has that effect.

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I think what is surprising to people is that this was a guy who throughout his work tried to do anti-racist stuff. Think of Horton Hears a Who—one reviewer who read the book when it was published [in 1954] described it as an argument for the protection of minorities and their rights. The Sneetches and Other Stories [1953] was inspired by opposition to anti-Semitism. Some people look at that and think, “We just must be wrong about Seuss.” That’s because they see racism as an either/or—like, you’re on Team Racism or you’re not. But you can do anti-racist work and also reproduce racist ideas in your work. And Seuss wasn’t aware that his visual imagination was so steeped in the cultures of American racism. He was doing in some of his books what he was trying to oppose in others.

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You mentioned that revision of the Mulberry Street book in the 1970s. Seuss died in 1991. Were there instances, when he was alive, of him being confronted by, or being aware of, these kinds of tropes in his books? How did he respond?

Yes, there are some examples of him revising in response to criticism, and you can give him credit for that—but I would only give partial credit! For example, he said something about the revision of Mulberry Street, to the effect of I’ve removed the yellow color and cut off the pigtail, now he looks like an Irishman—just kind of trying to make a joke but also trivializing the importance of the revision. He was also really resistant to criticisms of his work as sexist and wouldn’t change it on those grounds. He most famously said of Alison Lurie, who wrote a critique of gender and Seuss’ works in the New York Review of Books, something along these lines: Tell her most of my characters are animals, and if she can identify their sex, I’ll remember her in my will!

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Interestingly, one change he did make willingly was: There was a line in The Lorax about Lake Erie, a reference to how badly polluted it was. Then they cleaned up Lake Erie, and some of the people behind that effort wrote to him, Hey, can you take this line out? And he did.

I’m interested in the way that the nonsense worlds and the humor of Seuss’ books can kind of act as cover for racism and sexism. Like, him saying, My characters are animals, as if that excuses it.

Well, of course nonsense and the avant-garde are both ideological. So though it’s valuable to think about how they can challenge our habits of thought, upset our ways of thinking, they aren’t free of ideology. I don’t want to belabor the obvious, but I think people don’t always recognize that a fantastical or surrealist or nonsensical imagination still grows out of the very same culture that everyone’s else does.

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You mentioned humor. Seuss actually has an essay, which I put up on my blog, where he thinks about racist humor and argues against it. It’s titled “ … But for Grown-Ups Laughing Isn’t Any Fun” and was published in 1952. He argues that writing for grown-ups is less interesting because they’re culturally conditioned. They have something called “conditioned laughter.” Here’s the passage.

This conditioned laughter the grown-ups taught you depended entirely upon their conditions. Financial conditions. Political conditions. Racial, religious and social conditions. You began to laugh at people your family feared or despised—people they felt inferior to, or people they felt better than.

If your father said a man named Herbert Hoover was an ass, and asses should be laughed at, you laughed at Herbert Hoover. Or, if you were born across the street, you laughed at Franklin Roosevelt. Who they were, you didn’t know. But the local ground rules said you were to laugh at them. In the same way, you were supposed to guffaw when someone told a story which proved that Swedes are stupid, Scots are tight, Englishmen are stuffy and the Mexicans never wash.

Your laughs were beginning to sound a little tinny. Then you learned it was socially advantageous to laugh at Protestants and/or Catholics …

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All of that, and he can’t see it in his own work! When he was about to publish Sneetches, he almost didn’t go ahead with it because he was worried people would think it was anti-Semitic, rather than critiquing anti-Semitism. His editor had to say, No, you’ve done a good job here, because he almost wouldn’t publish it. So he had the capacity to reflect, but that capacity was curtailed by the fact that he, like everyone, lived in a universe that has influence over our thinking in ways that we’re not fully aware of.

This dynamic is very mid-20th-century to me. I feel like there was a big mainstream American interest after World War II in ideas of tolerance and pluralism that were always conjoined with persistent racism.

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Yes, there were all these anti-racist books that came out after the war, and what’s interesting about them is how they both do and don’t understand racism. They treat it as personal rather than structural, and in some cases they reproduce some of the racist imagery they’re opposing. There’s a 1948 book called In Henry’s Backyard: The Races of Mankind, which was adapted from the cartoon of the same name, written by the anthropologist Gene Weltfish and sociologist Ruth Benedict. The book is trying to argue that racial differences are essentially meaningless in terms of thinking about a person’s humanity—using science to argue that there’s no difference. But then in its visual imagery, it’s reproducing caricature! It’s trying to represent people from different parts of the world, with sympathy and kindness in some senses, but the iconography of it is not as successful. There are many examples of this kind of thing.

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Has Dr. Seuss Enterprises ever taken a book out of print before?

They’ve allowed books to go out of print and then be published again, but that’s not the same thing we’re talking about here. Right here, they’re doing basically a product recall, right? Like, We’ve discovered a defect in this product, and we’re recalling it. In this particular case, we cannot fix the product, so it’s simply going to be off the market. They haven’t done that before.

I’ll mention, they were not thrilled by the publication of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? book. The day it was to go to press, I got an email from them asking that it be sent to them for review before it was published. But Oxford University Press has good lawyers; they basically said, We’ll send you a copy of the book when it’s published; thanks for your note. We included a disclaimer at the beginning of the book saying that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was not involved with the publication. I understand why they would take that position. My interest is as an academic; their interest is as a business. They are running a profitable business and would like to keep it profitable. So the question they were bringing to the table was, How would a work that thinks about racism in Dr. Seuss affect our bottom line?

And that’s what’s encouraging about this recent decision. It suggests that they have, quite likely for financial reasons, come around to the position that racism is bad for their business. What the motives are, I don’t really care, for the most part; the results are good. If capitalism is what causes you to have a change of heart, we can go that route.

I liked the reframing done by scholar Ebony Elizabeth Thomas yesterday on Twitter, and so I’ll borrow that: “Curation isn’t cancellation.”

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