Editorial: Dr. Seuss? Really?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

While the howling about oppressive “political correctness” has been much overdone, the PC resistance may have a point when it comes to Dr. Seuss. Yes, the liberal, tree-hugging, anti-fascist defender of turtles and goodness has himself come under attack from absolutist elements of the left.

Recently, a public school librarian in Cambridge, Mass., said no thanks to a donation of Seuss books by first lady Melania Trump, because she thought they’d be better sent to a needy school in Detroit or Philadelphia — point taken — but also because she considered his work “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes.” Say that again? Have generations of children and their parents been wrong about Dr. Seuss — the late Theodor Geisel, 1925 Dartmouth College grad — whose books seemed to advocate for childhood literacy and wild creativity?

His critics say that early in his career, in pre-World War II America, his illustrations included some that today would be considered racially insensitive, if not offensive. They included stereotypical black characters in Flit advertisements (an early insecticide) and even more stereotypical Japanese people in war propaganda. Both would make viewers today wince, but they were not remarkable for the time and, as for the latter, it was war after all. It’s also been claimed that the Cat in the Hat character was inspired by blackface minstrel stereotypes. We looked again, and we don’t see it. Sometimes a cat is just a cat, even in a hat.

Seuss was in the news again recently when several children’s authors said they would skip a children’s literature festival at the Seuss Museum in Springfield, Mass., his birthplace, because of the “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man’’ on a mural. The festival was canceled and the mural is going to be removed.

The character, from To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, makes a cameo appearance in a book about a child’s walk home from school. A boy, Marco, sees nothing but an ordinary horse and wagon in his travels, and thinks that’s not enough to tell his father. His imagination creates an elephant ridden by a rajah and fanciful beasts pulling a wagon with a circus band, as confetti-dropping planes fly overhead. As in other Seuss works, that level of commotion is just for starters. He also imagines “a Chinese man who eats with sticks,” and “a big magician doing tricks.” Said man is wearing a pointy hat and appears to have slanted eyes as he moves smartly along with chopsticks and a bowl. In the unlikely event the Chinese character jarred any child of today, a parent could say, “Oh, that’s from a long, long time ago, when people here didn’t know much about Asian people.”

In any case, Geisel left those images behind when he created a series of books that urge children to open their hearts and minds. And to take the edicts of adults with a grain of salt. It’s presumptuous to speak for him, but we guess he might have confessed to early missteps and moved on, because he seemed, if anything, big-minded and open to change. It seems awfully small-minded not to grant him that.