Dr. Seuss

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”: 

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 (two of the books weren’t available at UMN, but I found them online).

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: Walking 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. 

Problems:

• 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.

Kerlan Collection.

• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

Kerlan Collection

“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, slanted eye, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well. The geta shoes that he wears are actually Japanese. With the popularization of Chinese food in the United States, “eating with sticks” is no longer remarkable. 

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 from all over the world.

Problems:

• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.

BooksVooks.

“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative name for some time in Canada, and the Edmonton Eskimos CFL team recently became the Edmonton Elks). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical. 

• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has an odd-looking Tibetan watching it.

BooksVooks.

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.

Problems:

• 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.”

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not make a big deal about 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.  

Kerlan Collection.

• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance. 

Kerlan Collection.

• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.” 

Kerlan Collection.

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.

Problems:

• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.

Kerlan Collection.

• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another Orientalist caricature.

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

• Other creatures in the book are “Wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a pejorative 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).

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

Problems:

• 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.

Kerlan Collection.

• 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.

Kerlan Collection.

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. 

Problems:

• 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. 

Internet Archive.

Internet Archive.

• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”

Internet Archive.

“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.”)

So it seems that a lot of Dr. Seuss books feature a plot in which the narrator turns away from the mundane to an imaginative world of the fantastic and bizarre. Unfortunately, one of the ways that Seuss marks for “fantastic” or “bizarre” are actual details from non-Western cultures, which by contrast casts white North Americans as “normal.” This is not how we try to think anymore. 

Once the DSE made the announcement in March prices of the discontinued books shot up on Ebay. Here is a screenshot I took at the time.

Ebay, March 2021.

But the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to such trade and banned it. One currently searches in vain there for any of the discontinued titles. I seem to remember Amazon making a similar announcement, although its banning was not as absolute as Ebay’s, as you can still find some used copies on Amazon at inflated prices.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

The real question is: what was DSE thinking in making the announcement? Dr. Seuss really is beloved, and a lot of people were scandalized that the guardians of his legacy were apparently turning against him. Whether these books are really all that offensive (I make no comment on this, although I wonder if DSE actually consulted any Asians and Africans about them), why did DSE feel the need to tell everyone that it was withdrawing them from publication for political reasons? Books go out of print all the time, and when people enquire about them, the usual answer is that they weren’t making enough money. Against this there is no argument, so why not just do that?

Alternately, why not quietly bowdlerize the books, something else that happens all the time? Richard Scarry was a pioneer on this front. Dr. Seuss’s works themselves have occasionally undergone this treatment: witness a key difference between the original Cat in the Hat (1957), featuring an unnamed narrator and his sister Sally…

Andrew Kay and Associates, Pty Ltd.

…and the PBS cartoon show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (2010-18), in which the original narrator is replaced by Nick, Sally’s neighbor, for reasons of diversity.

kpbs.org.

In a similar way, the “Chinaman” on Mulberry Street at one point became a “Chinese man,” and had his skin lightened and his queue lopped off. 

Jake Beal’s Next Step.

One can think of any number of ways that these Seuss books could be modified to keep them in accord with the current mores, either by changing the text, changing the illustrations, or even just omitting a page or two. (No, I’m not going to draw a comparison to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 – as long as editorial changes are acknowledged, and the originals available in places like the Kerlan Collection, I’m fine with children not getting the impression that Asians, Inuit, or Africans are somehow exotic or bizarre.)

So why did DSE do what it did? The simplest answer is that like most people right now in academia, publishing, government, the nonprofit sector, or even corporate America, they’re beholden to a certain ideology, and they get points in the eyes of their colleagues for acting in accord with it. They never think that they might be alienating everyone else, and potentially hurting their bottom line, but if they are, it’s a price they’re gladly willing to pay (viz. the recent behavior of the NFL, NASCAR, Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.). As John McWhorter puts it in another context: this operation might “function as it were to make [DSE] feel noble, and look noble to one another. They were doing their duty as religious parishioners displaying their faith.”

A more complex answer is that the announced discontinuation might be a manufactured scandal. It is better to be talked about than not talked about, as Trump has repeatedly shown, and there is no such thing as negative publicity. DSE is making money on the books they’re still selling (perhaps because people are buying them out of fear that they too will soon be withdrawn?), and they might be making money on the books that they’ve stopped publishing, by selling them at inflated prices through third parties. If so, it’s a cynical and brilliant ploy. 

An answer between these two poles is that DSE is sacrificing some of the obscure titles to protect the popular ones, like Horton Hears a Who! (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), The Lorax (1971), Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990), and the most famous of them all, The Cat in the Hat (which some people consider to be a racist portrayal of a blackface minstrel performer). The current mores dictate that one’s entire career can be ruined by a single slip-up, and Dr. Seuss is certainly in danger of this, on account of some of his early work on Madison Avenue and the anti-Japanese cartoons he did for PM magazine during World War II (plus, he’s just an old white guy anyway). So DSE decided to throw the “slip-ups” under the bus, while keeping the less objectionable (and more lucrative) stuff. But if this is true, DSE is playing a dangerous game! Any acknowledged association between “Dr. Seuss” and “racism” will come back to haunt them. 

Without knowing the people involved in making this decision I have no idea which one of these answers is true, although Occam’s Razor suggests the first.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *