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Trying to Figure Out the Brouhaha over Dr. Seuss

The decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises earlier this month to cease the sale of six classic Dr. Seuss titles has sparked debate about and accusations of censorship. It may be surprising to find children’s literature at the heart of current conversations about cancel culture and racial justice, so we wanted to survey the landscape of this literary happening, as best as we can figure.

According to The New York Times, after a review by a panel of experts, six Seuss titles including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) and If I Ran the Zoo (1950) will no longer be published “because of their use of offensive imagery.” These images include grotesque racial stereotypes that are hard for us to imagine ever seeing the light of day, now, 75 years after their publication.

First important fact: this announcement was made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, not its publisher Random House—although Random House has said that it respects “the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the work of the panel that reviewed the books.” Dr. Seuss Enterprises is charged with preserving and carrying on the legacy of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), so this decision is akin to an artist deciding to no longer sell certain prints or a musician no longer playing certain songs live. It was an internal decision made by what is, effectively, the estate of Dr. Seuss. Basically, it’s their work; they can do with it whatever they want.

While that is well within their rights, the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop the publication and sale of these titles has rankled censorship watchdogs. While few would argue that the images aren’t stereotypes, some fear that any decision like this carries with it steep downside. For some, it feels like a small step to go from removing Dr. Seuss titles from circulation because they contain racist images to censoring and removing other titles because they express a minority opinion. Ultimately, this perspective fears that any opinion outside the progressive mainstream runs the risk of being censored; the Seuss titles may be only the first hole in the proverbial dam.

However, according to The Week:

There is nothing new about revising or even shelving published works in deference to concerns about racism and other bigotries. Nor is there anything wrong with it. In Victorian England, hardly a bastion of political correctness, Charles Dickens changed some language in reprints of Oliver Twist to cut down on references to the villainous Fagin as “the Jew” after a correspondence with a Jewish woman who criticized him for feeding anti-Semitic prejudice. In the 20th Century, a 1939 Agatha Christie novel whose original title is now unspeakable in polite society was reissued just a few years later as Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None in the United States); the children’s counting rhyme on which the title was based was also changed in the text. In Roald Dahl’s 1964 classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas working at Willy Wonka’s factory were originally African pygmies. Just a few years later, controversy erupted; Dahl ended up agreeing with his critics and replaced the Black workers with pink and golden-haired “dwarvish hippies.”

So there is plenty of historical precedent for adjusting, or downright torpedoing, works that fail to live up to the cultural and ethical standards of the day. Also, the Dr. Seuss titles in particular will continue to circulate in some libraries, garage sales etc.—although no longer on eBay.

As for cries of censorship and fears of corporate or governmental overreach, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune put it best:

Books go out of print all the time, and when that happens it is not “censorship”…The decision to let six of Geisel’s books go out of print was made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises. It wasn’t made by the government, or Amazon, or your local bookseller or library. It wasn’t the mythical Deep State. It was Geisel’s estate, and the estate calls the shots.

Here at the Network, we encourage the celebration of Banned Books Week each fall; we also, as an anti-racist organization that pursues writerly connection and community, have been unequivocal in our belief that “Black lives matter. Black voices and stories matter, and are, and long have been, subject to unique and ingrained harm in this nation.”

Theodor Suess Geisel himself later regretted the racial stereotypes he’d perpetuated over the years. And, as we can see from the examples above, even literary giants—perhaps especially literary giants—have come to understand their classic works in new ways and made changes that made those works more accessible for all. Those works are no less powerful for those writers having done so.

Of course, we don’t particularly care for censorship either. We’re staunch in our support of indie bookstores against the Amazon behemoth, for many reasons. But, as we say in our mission statement, we “believe that writing is necessary both for self-expression and community spirit, that well-written words can connect people across time and distance, and that the deeply satisfying experiences of writing and reading should be available to everyone.”

Y’all means all, y’all.