I grew up with Dr. Seuss, as did most people. My parents grew up with him, and have remained massive fans to this day. My mom, a former elementary reading specialist, adores The Lorax, and every year on March 2nd would enthusiastically don a Cat in the Hat hat for Read Across America Day. Not a holiday season goes by without my dad (a retired English teacher and principal) watching and singing along with "How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The animated 1966 Boris Karloff one is the definitive version, he insists, and I agree. My parents read his books to my sister and me until we could read them ourselves; they now read them to their grandchildren, and can probably each recite several of his books from memory.
Seuss is a cornerstone of my childhood. So, of course, it was a shock to hear the recent news about his work.
For those who aren’t aware, Seuss Enterprises--the organization that manages the late writer’s estate and oversees the continued publishing of his works--announced on the late author’s birthday that they would cease production of several of Dr. Seuss’s books. The announcement sparked immediate controversy, with many crying that Dr. Seuss was being “cancelled,” i.e. scrubbed from the collective cultural consciousness. If Dr. Seuss is being erased, what’s next? Is nothing sacred?
As many news outlets have pointed out, and as Seuss Enterprises explained in their statement on the matter, the decision was reached after lengthy consideration and discussion with a panel of experts. The books in question “depict people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” per the statement. But before you start clutching your beloved copy of The Cat in the Hat to your breast and swearing they’ll pry it from your cold, dead hands, you should know that this decision affects only six books: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.
Oh, never mind then. Crisis averted.
Personally, I wasn’t aware that the last four of those books even existed, and I’m willing to bet that many people outraged over the news didn’t either. They’re not exactly popular. As reported by the NYT, Bookscan, which tracks the sales of physical books at a number of retailers, reports that McEligot’s Pool and The Cat’s Quizzer haven’t sold a single copy in years. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street sold just 5,000 copies last year. To put that in perspective, Green Eggs and Ham sold 338,000, and the ever-popular graduation gift Oh, the Places You’ll Go! sold over 518,000. Of those books impacted, If I Ran the Zoo is probably the most well-known, but the fact that the book contains racist imagery shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s been paying attention. Controversy has hounded that book since at least 1988.
Someone like Dr. Seuss is a nigh-sacred figure. Think of all the joy that his work has brought to millions around the world. To learn that he was guilty of perpetuating racist caricatures is shocking, especially contrasted with the wholesome messages of much of his other work. Indeed, several of his works have a decidedly antiracist tone. For some, this is confusing. How can Seuss be at once racist and not racist? And if he’s not racist, can we keep his work around? As children’s book scholar Philip Nel points out in a phenomenal interview with Slate, people “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.” Commenting on the same issue to the New York Times, Nel thinks this reevaluation of Seuss’s legacy is a good thing: “There are parts of his legacy one should honor, and parts of his legacy that one should not.”
This touches on a larger issue: our dislike of nuance. When we’re faced with the reality that a person we admire has done terrible things (the figures implicated in #MeToo, for instance, or the fact that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves), or that something we like has problematic elements (the Seuss works in question, or Dungeons & Dragons), we sometimes have a difficult time reckoning with that. We ask ourselves: can I continue to enjoy the good, now that I know about the bad? and the answer that we reach determines how we proceed. For some, the solution is to carry on like nothing has changed. It keeps the image pristine and perfect, and does not require us to reevaluate decades of good memories. For others, the knowledge taints the entire experience, and we want nothing to do with it any longer. To continue to enjoy the work elicits feelings of guilt and even complicity. Those people in the second group often enrage the people in the first, who accuse the latter of “cancelling” things, or trying to ruin it for everyone. Sometimes, those cries are accurate, but most of the time they’re just reactionary melodrama.
For a third group, admittedly the minority, caveats are introduced. Nel’s quote about Dr. Seuss can be applied to many of the things that we hold dear. There are parts of any legacy that we should honor, and parts that we should not. Does fantasy have racist origins? Yes, but it has also been used to give a voice to the voiceless, to offer consolation to the forlorn and grieving, and to critique the problems in our own world. Is Joss Whedon toxic and emotionally abusive? Yes, but “Buffy” is still a groundbreaking work of feminist television, the product of many hands and minds. Did the Founding Fathers own slaves? Yes, but they also helped build the foundation of a great nation, and every day we strive to make it more in line with their noble vision. We can celebrate the good work these people did while still acknowledging that they were (sometimes deeply or even irredeemably) flawed individuals.
There’s a school of literary analysis called Death of the Author, which states that a work speaks for itself, regardless of the author’s intentions or anything the author ever said about the work or did in their personal lives. The logic is that once a work goes out into the world, it doesn’t belong to the creator anymore. It belongs to the public, and how they interpret it and what they do with it is their own. I’ve always been a proponent of this school of thought, and I think it’s one that we can apply more broadly. People do great things, and they often fail to live up to the ideals present in the great things they do. That doesn’t detract from the greatness of their acts, or invalidate the even greater things their work might have inspired. It just means we have to change our focus from who they were to what they did.
Thomas Jefferson himself said that “As [mankind] becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." These words are inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, and I think we need to take them to heart. If our ancestors look barbarous, that’s not an indictment of them. It’s a testament to us, how far we’ve progressed, and what we’ve learned. We can be at once upset with what they did and celebrate what we’ve learned from it. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It just means we have to take the bad with the good. We can’t pretend history is perfect, but we can’t afford to throw everything out, either.
Dr. Seuss’s works will continue to bring joy to millions more for decades to come. The decision to cease printing of these six books--six books that, apparently, nobody was reading anyway--is not a loss to our culture, and not an erasure of our past. Those works remain in collections around the world, where they will doubtless be preserved and studied and discussed in the proper context. Seuss Enterprises, charged with maintaining Dr. Seuss’s legacy, has simply decided that the depictions in these works do not reflect the larger philosophy of the man we all hold dear. We’re continuing to honor the parts that are worth honoring.
As a great man once wrote: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not."