On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees the 20th-century children’s author’s estate, announced that it had decided to discontinue publication and licensing of six books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, saying, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Though four of the six books are basically unknown and make up a fraction of the author’s oeuvre, Fox News and other conservative voices, as if on autopilot, are treating the decision as another example of “cancel culture.”
Philip Nel, a scholar of children’s literature who’s written several books about Dr. Seuss, including Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, has thought a lot about all the contradictions in Seuss’ work. “Children’s literature,” he wrote in the introduction to that book, “conceals its own racialized origins.” Nel and I talked about Seuss’ responses to criticism during his lifetime and how the midcentury approach to tolerance often went hand in hand with racism. Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: Can you describe the offensive content in these discontinued books? I think a lot of people have probably read And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, but the others are more obscure, and it’s difficult to talk about these issues without acknowledging the specifics.
Philip Nel: Yes, sure. There are racist caricatures of people of African descent, people of Asian descent, of Arab descent. For example, at the end of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street , the version that was published in the 1930s had a page that said, “I’ve seen a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” The man was colored yellow and had a pigtail, wearing one of those triangular hats. He cleaned that image up a bit in the 1978 edition, cut off the pigtail and removed the color, changed the language to “I’ve seen a Chinese man who eats with sticks.”
In If I Ran the Zoo , there are other examples. One page says, “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant/ with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” and depicts Asian workers helping the character Gerald McGrew capture birds and other animals for his zoo. It also includes the “African island of Yerka,” with two characters, African men, who come right out of the typical caricatures of the ’20s and ’30s—racial caricatures of Black people.
Those are the most vivid examples. I was also looking at The Cat’s Quizzer , where there’s a question that goes something like, “How old do you have to be, to be a Japanese?” And of course the premise is, it’s an absurd question, because you don’t have to be any age—the book is all about absurd questions. But you’re using “a Japanese” as a punchline. It’s a trope in Seuss books more generally to treat ethnic and “foreign” others as comic, even if he doesn’t mean it in an aggressively malicious way. He’s not thinking about how making an entire group of people the subject of a joke has that effect.
I think what is surprising to people is that this was a guy who throughout his work tried to do anti-racist stuff. Think of Horton Hears a Who—one reviewer who read the book when it was published [in 1954] described it as an argument for the protection of minorities and their rights. The Sneetches and Other Stories  was inspired by opposition to anti-Semitism. Some people look at that and think, “We just must be wrong about Seuss.” That’s because they 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. And Seuss wasn’t aware that his visual imagination was so steeped in the cultures of American racism. He was doing in some of his books what he was trying to oppose in others.