Seuss flap points to beloved author’s mixed legacy
A decision by a Dr. Seuss museum in Springfield to remove a mural that contains an image many deem racist has drawn attention to the author’s complicated legacy, if not exactly toppled him like Yertle the Turtle from his exalted perch in the canon of children’s literature.
Seussian scholars and children’s librarians said the decision by the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum to take down a mural showing a stereotypical image of a Chinese man underscores how the beloved Springfield-born author should not be lionized or vilified.
“Seuss did both great antiracist work as well as work that is racist, and that’s kind of the point,” said Philip Nel, a Kansas State University professor whose book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” explores Seuss’ racial tropes. “Even people who are actively trying to oppose prejudice can unintentionally perpetuate prejudice, so I’m glad there’s been conversation about that.”
The museum said last week it planned to remove the mural, which is from Seuss’ first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” after three authors said they would boycott a festival at the museum because the image showed a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat, and slanted slit eyes.’’
The museum acknowledged that some of Seuss’ earlier works contained “hurtful stereotypes,” and said it would replace the mural “with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’ later works.”
The museum’s decision sparked an angry response from the mayor of Springfield, Domenic J. Sarno, who called on the institution to consider leaving the mural in place.
“We should not have acquiesced to these authors’ demands,” Sarno said in a statement Friday. “It’s their choice — their prerogative not to be part of the event. Again, where do we draw the line? This is political correctness at its worst, and this is what is wrong with our country.”
But the authors — Mike Curato, Mo Willems, and Lisa Yee — applauded the planned removal, calling it “a change that we feel will help the museum more accurately reflect the legacy of Dr. Seuss,” whose real name was Theodor Geisel.
“Your organization’s choice will help create an institution that welcomes all children and embodies Ted Geisel’s own growth and career-defining commitment to changing the preconceptions of the world around him,” the authors said in a statement.
It was the second time in recent weeks that Seuss’ imagery had sparked a backlash. Last month, a librarian in Cambridge refused to accept Dr. Seuss books sent to her school by Melania Trump.
Liz Phipps Soeiro, a library media specialist at the Cambridgeport School, called Seuss a “tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” and said his illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
Nel, the Seuss scholar, said the combination of harmful stereotypes and more progressive works are an important part of Seuss’ legacy.
He praised such works as “The Lorax,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” and “Horton Hears a Who!,” which was published in 1954, the same year as Brown v. Board of Education, and contains the memorable refrain, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Even in its own time, the book was seen as championing civil rights, Nel said.
But other books are more problematic, he said.
“If I Ran the Zoo,” published in 1950, contains depictions of Africans drawn to resemble wild animals, Nel said, and references to “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” The iconic Cat in the Hat, he said, draws on black-face minstrelsy and was inspired by an African-American elevator operator at Seuss’ publisher, Houghton Mifflin.
“It’s neither to condemn nor to praise him,” Nel said. “It’s to invite us to think about his work and ask questions and to remind us that it’s OK to have complicated relationships with artists that we love.”
Marah Gubar, a scholar of children’s literature at MIT, said Seuss is remarkable because his ideas about race were not fixed.
“He changed and, in that sense, Dr. Seuss is a model,” she said. “He was willing to acknowledge he had made mistakes, he had been insensitive, and he evolved over time.”
She said it’s important that parents and others are becoming more aware of Seuss’ use of racial caricatures.
“It doesn’t mean we should toss these books out,” Gubar said. “It’s just important to know about and talk about and think about how we present them to kids.”
Ultimately, she said, the goal is to diversify the kinds of books that teachers and parents read to children, beyond those that many parents cherished when they were young.
Nel said parents and children’s librarians have a choice: They can skip Seuss’ more controversial works or read them to children “and be ready to have uncomfortable conversations about them.”
Amanda Bressler, children’s librarian at the Newton Free Library, said she would never remove Seuss’ books from the shelves because the library carries what the community wants.
At the Boston Public Library, Seuss is consistently among the top 10 children’s book authors checked out each month. (In August, he was No. 6; Willems was No. 1).
“I do think his books have value for literacy and for the canon of children’s literature,” Bressler said. “I also think even the most venerated books are worth examining through our current sensibilities. Just because something was acceptable doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned now.”