• Letter from Whoville: On Dr. Seuss and Racism

    Theodore Geisel’s birthday passed unnoticed here this year. Each March 2, my campus, the University of California, San Diego, would hold a public party in the library that bears his name. Librarians would dress in red and white striped top hats. Students would arrive in “Thing One” T-shirts. And we all would sit out in the southern California sun, eating luridly colored layer cake and green eggs and ham.

    The pandemic has closed my university. The library is shut. There was no party. What greeted us, instead, on this second of March, was the news that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to withdraw from in-print circulation six books that have been taken to “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” To Think that I Saw it On Mulberry Street, the first book to appear under Geisel’s now-famous pseudonym in 1939, would no longer be reprinted, along with five others. Words like “Chinaman” and racially demeaning caricatures have exiled these books from the backlist — and no doubt, soon, from bookstores, public and school libraries, and maybe even households.

    Was Dr. Seuss a racist? Did Geisel espouse the biases embedded in these caricatures? Recent scholarship exposes publicly the things that many already knew. In Geisel’s college caricatures, cartoons of big-nosed Jews and thick-lipped Africans fill 1920s issues of Dartmouth’s Jack-O-Lantern, as well as his contributions for the magazines Judge and College Humor. In his advertising work in the 1930s and 40s, as well as in his political cartooning during WWII, Asian stereotypes are everywhere. I’m not so sure that Geisel was different in kind from those of these decades. Anyone who grew up, as I did, with Saturday morning cartoons saw black crows and lisping pigs and cheeky rabbits all miming the stereotypes of racial difference. The thing that gets us is that this material bled into Geisel’s children’s books. It’s one thing to have a bigot as a quiet neighbor; it’s another to have him babysit your children.  As “Dr. Seuss” became the household brand for learning how to read, this residual racism echoed in our ears.

    Professor Philip Nel of Kansas State University, in his book, Was The Cat in the Hat Black?, argued that this most iconic member of the Seuss menagerie was modeled on minstrel-show performances and African-American idioms. Nel’s argument is that Seuss drew on the traditions of blackface to construct a cartoon version of racialized self-presentation. The Cat in the Hat, like so many figures out of twentieth-century popular culture, wears the markers of the old stage. There is the top hat, transformed now into a red and white striped parody of formal wear. There are the white gloves, all-too-familiar from the minstrel show. There is the umbrella, a descendant of the prop cane of the buck-and-wing man. Nel recognizes that the Cat is not unique. Many American children’s books, films, and toys played with the stereotypes of Black and Asian and Native American heritage. Looking back on it all, my own childhood was full of Black Sambo, Curious George, the Five Chinese Brothers, and Amelia Bedelia (herself a caricature of Irish servanthood).

    Nel recognizes that it’s not enough simply to say that this was how we thought back then, or that a writer such as Geisel came to recognize, by the 1950s, that children’s books could have a liberal reformist argument of tolerance that might make up for decades of denigration. Sure, The Sneeches teaches acceptance, regardless of whether one has a star or not. Horton Hears a Who looks to a world in which people may be valued for themselves. The perennial high-school graduation gift, Oh the Places You’ll Go, offers a benign view of worldly experience. Today, it comes off as a kind of soft liberal rewriting of such books as On Beyond Zebra and If I Ran the Zoo, books in which the adventures of the imagination come replete with caricatures more out of coloniality than curiosity (the now notorious encounter with the men of the “African island of Yerka”).

    I live in Dr. Seuss country. Geisel moved to La Jolla in 1948 and lived here another 40 years. His name is on the campus library (thanks to his widow, Audrey’s, gift). We have his papers there, and locals love to be associated with the universal humorist, as if it all could wash away the stain of old angers and past mistakes.

    For here, at the University of California, San Diego, we tell the stories of how there had long been a restrictive covenant in the town: Jews, African-Americans, and Irish could not buy property. Only with the coming of the university campus in the mid-1960s was the restrictive covenant broken. Jews, in particular, then joined the faculty to teach, research, and live in view of the Pacific Ocean. Not only UCSD but also the Salk Institute and half-a-dozen hospitals have drawn émigrés and East Coasters. By the late 1960s, realtors had to sell to those who wished to buy. Men who had shared a cigarette with Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos began to arrive.  By then, Geisel and his first wife had been living here for 20 years. Was there a luxury in claiming that the Star-Bellied Sneeches of 1954 were a plea for tolerance when those who had been forced to wear a yellow star could not live next door?

    Ted, as he universally is known here, married twice, and after Audrey Geisel’s death last year, the University came into possession of a mass of hidden Seussiana. It turns out that, late at night or on his own, Ted would paint strange acrylic canvases: vast landscapes of mazes, forests, houses, often with dark backgrounds, and, somewhere in a corner a tiny figure. These weird creatures — classic Seuss, with pointy heads and hair coming out like a floral spike out of an Agave — live in these paintings like lost émigrés. It would be luridly delightful, to some, if these secret paintings were as racist as the college cartoons. But they are not. They are sad and lonely canvases. When I was called upon to talk about their exhibit in our library, there was not much to say. Everyone wanted them to be wonderful; they were not. The acrylic is smeary. The characters are simply unfunny. The color palette is limited. Left to his own devices, we concluded, Ted just wasn’t a very good painter.

    He was not a very good politician, either. Late in life, when asked to disavow the racist caricatures from the War, he hedged a bit: “When I look at them now, they’re hurriedly embarrassing, badly drawn. And they’re full of snap judgments.” And when he tried his hand preaching, the results are empty. The Lorax (1970) falls flat as environmental activism. The Butter Battle Book (1984) reads like a heavily medicated version of Gulliver’s Travels. And his posthumously published, Oh the Places You’ll Go, has become the safest high school graduation gift. The prosody lapses into self-parody. The lessons are preached. The drawings have the feel of an old hand re-tracing the familiar faces of a youth.

    I’m sorry, but there’s nothing like the bold, bullshitty mansplaining of Peter T. Hooper to make me howl, and if Scrambled Eggs Super gets canned, I for one will miss it:

    I don’t like to brag and I don’t like to boast,

    Said Peter T. Hooper, but speaking of toast

    And speaking of kitchens and ketchup and cake

    And kettles and stoves and the stuff people bake…

    Well, I don’t like to brag, but I’m telling you, Liz

    That speaking of cooks, I’m the best that there is!

    This is 1950s verbal theater, a concatenation of everyday objects transformed into temptation. It’s like listening to one of the great manic monologues of Brother Theodore or Irwin Corey. For that matter, it’s like listening to the Cat in the Hat if he had had a one-man show in some basement in Greenwich Village, on stage only with a glass of water and a chair.

    I won’t excuse the imagery of the early Seuss books. What I will say, though, is that they are part of a larger subversive and anarchic quality to Seuss-world as a whole. The Cat himself appeared in 1957: the same year that Elvis gyrated on Ed Sullivan, the same year that Allen Ginsberg declaimed “Howl” in San Francisco. To grow up with these figures of rebellion was to learn the arts of undermining authority. For my generation, the Cat in the Hat’s afterlife lay with the Merry Pranksters and the Yippies, turning the clean white snow of middle-class complacency into something almost unerasably pink. Racist humor — whether in the children’s book or the Marx Brothers — was always a form of anarchic resistance (even Ginsberg could indulge, perhaps ironically, when he announced in his poem “America,” “I haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance”). It isn’t good. But it was designed to say what could not otherwise be said. No one in polite La Jolla of the 1950s would have dared to “hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” They would have quietly denied them home ownership and had them knock at the back door after they had mown the lawn. Only in the space of fantasy can such things be said, and when they’re said in public, they become forms of terror. This is, I think, what the far right has figured out now: racism is a form of a performance art, gun-toting anti-Semites challenge our democratic norms, and some guy who lives with his mother and who puts on fur chaps and horns and paints his face is as much an escapee from Seuss-land as a dude on Ken Kesey’s bus might have been 55 years ago.

    I’m glad there is so much publicity about these Dr. Seuss books. The corporate decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises may have, at its heart, a commercial concern (i.e., do anything possible to keep the other books in print and selling and keep the Seuss brand marketable). Professor Nel’s exposure of the genealogies of Seuss’s characters is fair. But I would like to keep the conversation going, rather than to silence anyone. The question, in the end, remains: what is the place of racist imagery and language in the performance of childishness? Some may say that racism is learned: that when we’re children, we are innocent of difference and we welcome all. I don’t believe that. Racist taunts are at the heart of childhood abusiveness. My Brooklyn kindergarten playground blocked off the Jews from the Italians. Every awful word I’ve ever heard, I heard by the time I was six.

    Ted himself may have grown up. He did look back on what he’d done and tried to move, however awkwardly, with changing times. And yet, things rarely change. La Jolla lost its legal battle and now anyone can live here. But I don’t see many faces different from my own down in the village by the water, and our campus is stymied in its moves towards diversity and inclusion by the intuition held by every California high school student — that ours is not a town that welcomes Black and Brown.

    Geisel, it is reported, once said that his landscapes were inspired by the fauna here. Strange succulents and blooming cacti, feathery cycads and tall palms – all find their place in Seuss’s illustrations. My own back yard, with its purple-fronded trees and tumorous pomegranates, could come from one of his pages. To live in La Jolla is to live in Seuss-world — not just, though, for the palm fronds or the memories of Ted and Audrey but for the recognition that there is barely suppressed past age of discrimination. The old restrictive covenant may be gone, but its claims remain a living memory. La Jolla is upset today not just because a local icon has been tarnished, but because that tarnish is the town’s own, too. There are, both in the books and on the beaches, beautiful things, moments of sublime craziness or sounds of alliterative beauty. Let’s keep them. But let’s not forget the time when many, like myself, were stopped from looking at, listening to, and loving them.