This post isn’t all that topical anymore, but a recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collection has helped to answer a longstanding question that I had.
In March of this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the works of Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a.k.a. beloved children’s author “Dr. Seuss,” announced that they would cease publishing six of his books. After “working with a panel of experts, including educators,” DSE determined that these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” They are:
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)
At the time, DSE did not elucidate exactly how these books’ contents were “hurtful and wrong.” This is the usual quandary – you want people to know that that an offense has been committed, but you don’t want to draw attention to the details, lest you end up amplifying the offense. But I’ve always believed the Faber College motto that “Knowledge is Good,” and that ordinary people deserve to know what’s going on. So, courtesy the Children’s Literature Research Collection, in particular its Kerlan Collection, First Floor Tarpley presents the apparently problematic details of these works.
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: On his way home from school, a boy named Marco sees a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. Dissatisfied with such an ordinary sight, Marco keeps inventing and adding details to it, such that by the time he gets home he has “seen” a great parade of exotic people and creatures.
• The couplet “Say—anyone could think of that,/ Jack or Fred or Joe or Nat—/ Say, even Jane could think of that” can be read as sexist: four boys are alike in mediocrity, while the one girl is even worse.
• One of the things that Marco invents is an elephant bearing a “Rajah,” perhaps truckling in Orientalist stereotypes.
• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.”
“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well.
McElligot’s Pool (1947). Summary: Marco reappears, this time fishing in McElligot’s Pool – a fool’s errand, according to a passerby, since the pool has no fish, but lots of junk that people have thrown into it. But Marco imagines that the pool might be connected to an underground river that eventually leads to the sea, which would allow him to catch all kinds of exotic fish.
• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.
“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative for some time). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical.
• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has a odd-looking Tibetan watching it:
If I Ran the Zoo (1950). Summary: A boy imagines running the zoo. If he did, he would release all the ordinary animals like lions, giraffes, and zebras, and find fantastic ones as substitutes, such as the It-Kutch, the Preep, and the the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill.
• To capture a bird called a Bustard, and a beast called a Flustard, the narrator must travel to the desert of Zomba-ma-Tant, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.”
These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not draw attention to this fact.
• The “scraggle foot Mulligatawny” may be found in the “Desert of Zind.” The “brave chieftain” who rides him may be parallel to the “Rajah” above.
• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance.
• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.”
These creatures would be carried by “eight Persian princes,” characters not unlike the Rajah or the brave chieftain.
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953). Summary: Peter T. Hooper, tired of the same old scrambled eggs from a hen, goes hunting rare and exotic eggs from various creatures, like the Rufflenecked Salamagoox or the Tizzle-topped Grouse.
• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.
• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another orientalist caricature:
• Other creatures in the book are “wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a stereotypical name for an East Asian) and the “kwigger” (a name uncomfortably close to a certain other word).
On Beyond Zebra! (1955). Summary: A boy has mastered the alphabet, and invents further letters after Z, like Yuzz, Wum, or Snee. These letters are used to begin the names of various exotic creatures. If Z begins zebra, then Yuzz can begin Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz (pictured).
• Not only is a letter called “spazz” (in my day, a diminutive of “spastic” and an insult), it is used to spell “Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim.” These Nazzim of Bazzim are seemingly Orientalist caricatures:
• The player of a “kind of hunting horn called the o’Grunth” (to attract a Flunnel, a creature beginning with the letter FLUNN) also looks somewhat Orientalist:
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Summary: This book has no plot as such, but instead challenges the reader to answer a series of questions, some simple, some difficult, and some just absurd.
• On one spread, the reader is asked how old one has to be to be Japanese. The Japanese is shown wearing a stereotypically conical hat.
• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”
“Pigmy” (or more commonly “pygmy”) as a byword for a phenotypically short person, is “sometimes considered pejorative.”
(The answers given at the back of the book: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born” and “I know that a short pigmy is never taller than a tall giant. And a tall giant is never shorter than a short pigmy. But about the tall pigmy and the short giant – I give up on that one.”)
Prices of these books shot up on Ebay, but the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to the trade and banned
Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Lorax, or Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
The Cat in the Hat,