SAN DIEGO — He was a doctor who made house calls, millions and millions of them, and his unique and wildly popular prescriptions influenced the way generations of children see and understand the world.
Now Dr. Seuss is undergoing his own posthumous examination.
Twenty-six years after the La Jolla, Calif., children’s book author died, some of his most beloved creations, including “The Cat in the Hat,” are being re-evaluated because of imagery that some consider racist.
The controversy comes amid a longstanding effort to correct a lack of diversity in children’s literature, which is itself part of the ongoing and often explosive debate about race in America.
Last week, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the San Diego-based company that oversees the author’s estate, decided to remove a mural from the recently opened “Amazing World of Dr. Seuss” museum in Springfield, Mass., the writer’s hometown. Taken from the pages of a 1937 Seuss book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” the mural depicts a slant-eyed, chopsticks-carrying Chinese man in a way that critics called “deeply hurtful.”
“While this image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive in 2017,” said writers Mo Willems, Lisa Yee and Mike Curato in a letter explaining why they had decided to bow out of a literary festival, since canceled, that had been planned at the museum.
In a statement, Seuss Enterprises said the mural would be replaced with images from later works like “The Sneetches” and “Horton Hears a Who!” that contain lessons about tolerance and inclusion. “This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do,” the company said.
The mural controversy came two weeks after an elementary school librarian in Cambridge, Mass., turned down a donation of 10 Seuss books from First Lady Melania Trump.
The resulting furor quickly overran the underlying question, one that could alter the legacy of a writer whose four dozen books collectively have sold more than 650 million copies worldwide, whose earnings last year were calculated by Forbes magazine at $20 million (placing him seventh on its list of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities”), whose books are still often the very first given to newborns.
Was Theodor Seuss Geisel racist?
Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, is one of the nation’s leading Seuss scholars. He’s written three books featuring the children’s author, including “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” Published in August, it explores the impact of blackface caricature and other racial stereotypes on the 1957 story that made Seuss famous.
Nel, who is white, calls Seuss “racially complicated,” and he said to understand why you have to go back to the author’s childhood in the early 1900s, and to “The Hole Book,” which includes a black mammy talking in dialect about a watermelon. It was one of Seuss’ favorites; he remembered it so well that, into his 60s, he could still quote its opening verse by heart, Nel writes.
In high school, Seuss acted in blackface in one production, and at Dartmouth, he drew a cartoon in which two thick-lipped black boxers fight. In the magazine Judge, in the late 1920s, he drew cartoons of blacks that used the N-word.
While readers of Seuss’ children’s books today may be appalled by those images, Nel writes, they were considered acceptable and were “all too common” from cartoonists of that era. The result, according to Nel: “The popular culture of the early 20th Century embedded racist caricature in Geisel’s unconscious, as an ordinary part of his visual imagination.”
In 1937, when Seuss published his first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” it included the image of the Chinese man that triggered the mural controversy at the Seuss museum in Springfield. It has a line about a “Chinaman who eats with sticks.” Years later, recognizing how some readers might be offended by the wording, he changed “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.”
As World War II dawned, Seuss started working for a New York newspaper called PM. From 1941 to 1943, he drew more than 400 editorial cartoons. “He did great anti-racist work there, and he did work that was racist,” Nel said. “It was the same person, the same body of work, done at the same time.”
To the scholars, those seemingly opposite impulses on Seuss’ part suggest someone who wasn’t fully aware of the racial implications of what he was doing.
In a statement, Seuss Enterprises said the author’s own story is “one of growth with some early works containing hurtful stereotypes to later works like ‘The Sneetches’ and ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ which contain lessons of tolerance and inclusion.’ The statement concludes with a quote from Seuss: “It’s not how you start that counts. It’s what you are at the finish.”
So why does this matter, more than a quarter-century after Seuss died at age 87?
Part of it is because his books remain in such wide use, in schools, in homes, in libraries. Kids by the millions still learn to read under his bemused, subversive, zany tutelage. Is there a more instantly recognizable hat than the red-and-white striped one worn by that mischievous cat?
For the past 20 years, the Cat in the Hat has been the mascot of Read Across America, an annual celebration designed to motivate kids to pick up books. Held on March 2, Seuss’ birthday, it features events in cities large and small, attracting an estimated 45 million participants. U.S. presidents and first ladies, senators, mayors, professional athletes — they have routinely donned the striped hat and read Seuss books out loud to groups of children.
But that may be changing. According to an account in School Library Journal, the National Education Association, which sponsors Read Across America, is shifting its emphasis to a year-round calendar that features a diverse collection of books. The move comes amid discussions about Seuss’ early work, particularly the editorial cartoons drawn during World War II, and after the NEA received a report concluding that 98 percent of the people in Seuss’ books are white.
Diversity in children’s literature, or the lack of it, has been a concern for decades, but until recently there’s been little improvement. From 1994 to 2014, the number of books featuring people of color was stagnant, at about 10 percent, even as the population moved toward 40 percent non-white, according to statistics kept by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 2015, the percentage of books about people of color increased to 20 percent and last year it went up to 28 percent, the highest on record and maybe the highest ever. (The number of books written by people of color remains low, about 6 percent in 2016.)
That’s important, according to scholars, because the messages children absorb about themselves and the world around them from books can have lasting impacts.
“To see yourself stereotyped, to be caricatured, suggests you are less than human,” Nel said.
And to not see yourself at all? “Imagine growing up in a world where everyone tells you reading is important, books are important, and you are not represented there,” Martin said. “You grow up thinking you must not count.”