Earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they included several drawings with racial stereotypes. As the press release put it, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”
The New York Times published opposing responses. Columnist Charles M. Blow celebrated the news, linking the books to the racist stereotypes in Tarzan and Our Gang that had damaged his self-esteem growing up. He argued that these images should be weeded out because they lead children to internalize a sense of inferiority. His conservative counterpart Ross Douthat, on the other hand, described the decision as evidence that companies are abandoning free-speech principles in order to protect their image from progressive attacks. This self-censorship has frightening implications as they have unfettered control over major cultural franchises and landmarks.
As one might imagine, Fox News was less restrained. Tucker Carlson conflated the six shelved books with the entire 60-plus book Seuss oeuvre, claiming that the overarching goal was nothing less than “to eliminate a very specific kind of mid-century American culture, a culture that championed meritocracy and color-blindness and the superiority of individual achievement over tribal identity.” Meanwhile, Shree Paradkar at Canada’s Toronto Star upped the ante on the left. She likewise conflated the six books with Seuss’s entire career, which she said promoted “racist, misogynistic, ableist, [and] transphobic ideas.” (She also referenced an excellent recent debate on the subject of free speech, in which she and a Quillette editor were panelists, which I’d urge you to watch.)
The Seuss debate is a variation on the ongoing controversies around classics aimed at older readers, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet while the arguments remain predictable, progressive and conservative positions have flipped over the last generation. Once, Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee were liberal icons, championed for preaching equality and inclusion; and, in the case of the latter two, hailed for their gritty portrayal of racism and other tough subjects that challenged genteel assumptions. Today, the progressive Left charges that their books promote racism by, variously, drawing racial stereotypes, putting the N-word in the mouths of characters, and promoting white-saviour narratives.
Meanwhile, conservatives now support the teaching of books they once condemned: Mockingbird for its rape and profanity, and Huck Finn for its vulgarity (as with Little Women author Louisa May Alcott’s famous denunciation: “If Mark Twain can’t think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them”). In keeping with the role reversal, conservatives who staunchly defend capitalism are up in arms over the business decision of a private corporation. The fight is fierce because the stakes feel personal on both sides. We think about culture as if it’s outside us. In fact, it’s the expression of our identity.
The irony is that Lee, Twain, and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) all shared a vision of an inclusive world where people are valued no matter their background. But they were writing that vision in different eras. Books are brain babies. No matter how universal their themes, they’re birthed from the imaginations of individuals who, like all of us, live in a specific time and place. The best of us try to think outside our world, but none of us can fully escape it.
The context in which Geisel (1904–1991) wrote his books was the world of my own childhood. I was born in 1951, six years before publication of The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Back then, hardly anyone travelled abroad. International flights were only for the rich and glamorous. If you were middle-class and ventured to Europe, you went by boat. Anywhere else was like going to Mars.
That’s what made To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) such a progressive hit: An ordinary young boy on an ordinary street riding a horse and wagon dreams that his environs are filled with a fantasia of wondrous creatures and people from around the Earth. The book encouraged children to think about a world without horizons, even if they might never leave their state or province. For over 80 years, it’s remained a popular classic because it celebrates the power of imagination.
But exception has long been taken to one of the characters the boy imagines: a Chinese man with slanted eyes who wears a changshan and conical hat, and is shown running with chopsticks—which is why the book is on the list of six problematic books that will no longer be published. Opponents call it a case of negative stereotyping that harms children of East Asian descent. Conservatives say that’s nonsense: It’s visual shorthand, as innocent as pictures of Frenchmen in puffy chef hats, Swiss in lederhosen, or white Americans who look like Peter from Family Guy. Some note that the changshan was China’s traditional dress for men when Mulberry Street was written. (The style was banned by the Communists in 1949.) Arguably, Geisel was demonstrating respect for Chinese culture since suits were a Western colonial import. And in any case, the illustration isn’t intended to be realistic but rather a kid’s fantasy.
Easy to say when you’re not on the receiving end, say critics. Slanted eyes are as loaded an image of hook-nosed Jews or limp-wristed gays. It’s long been a signifier of East Asian villainy in everything from wartime propaganda to Fu Manchu comics, and the term “slant eyes” is itself a racial epithet. It doesn’t matter if this wasn’t Geisel’s intent. Who cares if Shirley Temple just wanted to entertain when she tap-danced in blackface?
If Geisel were around today, I’m pretty sure he’d side with his critics. He was a man who moved with the times, and actually revised the image himself in 1978 to deal with the same issue of negative stereotyping. “I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a ‘Chinaman.’ That’s the way things were 50 years ago,” he said. “In later editions, I refer to him as a ‘Chinese man.’ I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail.”
This drawing and the others in dispute—especially an egregious depiction of two African men in grass skirts—are irrelevant to the books’ stories and themes. His work has been translated into 45 languages. And his books are popular in China, Korea, and Japan, despite our own anxieties about racist depictions. (Context likely explains it. Kids in East-Asian classrooms aren’t bullied because of the caricature because they’re surrounded by peers; it’s the boy with dots for eyes who’s different.) Intersectional activists deny that universality exists, claiming that each of us is a prisoner of our identities. Geisel’s hundreds of millions of diverse fans would disagree.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises foolishly thought that pre-emptively canceling a few titles would protect the larger brand. In my view, it should have kept the books and followed Geisel’s lead by publishing new editions with altered illustrations. As things stand, activists are gunning for the entire catalogue, since one of the core principles of cancel culture is that it’s never enough to destroy bad apples, you have to cut down the entire orchard.
The ironic consequence is that sales are spiking, with sellers asking low-to-mid three figures for discontinued titles on eBay (before eBay delisted them). Nobody likes to be told they can’t read something. As Mark Twain once enthused, “The Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!” Or ask Jordan Peterson, who still might be an obscure academic if the Left hadn’t insisted that he was the most dangerous Canadian alive.
The controversy over the Seuss books has locked its adversaries into the same zero-sum positions that define the debate over the study of Huck Finn and Mockingbird in middle-grade and high schools. That’s a shame because the actual issues are far more nuanced and centre on how the meaning of a book changes depending upon its readership and the context in which it is read.
As it happens, I have a personal, lifelong connection to both sides of the argument. Although I’m a writer whose work will never be in the canon, a play I wrote in 1980 has remained in international production these past 40 years and my young-adult and children’s novels appear in 20 languages. So, I have a vested interest in free expression, and know the importance of an author’s intent, but also understand how the meaning of a work shifts over time and place.
I also happen to have grown up gay in the 1950s, a period that, by comparison, makes today look like an LGBT nirvana. I was beaten, shunned, and once chased by a gang with hockey sticks—all of this in that bastion of tolerance known as Canada. I understand first-hand how negative stereotypes affect minorities.
A few years ago, I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of The Wizard of Oz. The Cowardly Lion was played as an over-the-top sissy. Early on, he took a mincing step toward the Tin Woodsman. The Woodsman paused, his eyes widened, and he took a large, deliberate step away. It’s old schtick, dating back to stock vaudeville “nance” routines from the interwar period. Sure enough, the audience roared with laughter. But I froze, angered on behalf of the secret gay boys in the audience, as everyone, including their parents, howled at the Lion’s rejection. I imagined the straight kids, too, receiving the obvious, if unintended, lesson.
But here’s where things get complicated. Despite my emotional reflex, I knew that most of the people who laughed were decent and tolerant, and would never condone ostracising gay kids. They saw the bit as a harmless joke, whereas I saw my life. But if they had a blind spot, so did I. (If we need to check our privilege, we also need to check our sensitivity.) The audience ultimately loves the Lion; he and Tin Man become friends. So, what’s the final message to kids?
* * *
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are among the classics of American literature. But they’re not the only classics. Before deciding whether they should be studied in schools, we need to ask: Do Huck and Mockingbird pack the same punch as when they were written? Are the classrooms in which they’re taught the same as when they were introduced? Will they be read the way the author intended? Most important of all: Are they still the best books to turn kids into lifelong readers?
Huck Finn was published in 1885. The Civil War was recent history and the Ku Klux Klan, whose ranks then included leading politicians, terrorized blacks throughout the United States, as it would for generations to come. Social sensibilities were so sensitive that New York’s Brooklyn Public Library banned the book because Huck “not only itched but scratched.” Twain shocked bourgeois pearl-clutchers with the tale of a boy seeking freedom and adventure in the company of Jim, an escaped slave. Over the novel, Huck comes to see through the hypocrisies of his society, and to understand that Jim is a human being like him, despite what he’d been taught.
Twain intended to challenge the prejudices of white society. But what people intend and what people hear isn’t always the same thing, as we know from fights with our nearest and dearest. We can offend without meaning to, and we can take offence where none is intended. That makes it difficult to teach modern teens with a book about race written from a white perspective a hundred and fifty years ago. Twain’s themes of freedom and generosity are universal, but his book requires readers with a keen sense of irony and historical context. As current discourse makes clear, both concepts can be in short supply, even for adults.
I read Huck Finn, age 12, in the early 1960s. Blacks in the United States were living under Jim Crow; there was no Voting Rights Act; the Klan openly burned crosses; politicians said the N-word on television; and Martin Luther King, soon to be assassinated, was vilified as a violent provocateur. On the language front, society was so prissy that words such as “kids” and “cops” were frowned upon. We were only to use “children” and “police,” and you’d catch “heck” if you said “damn.” Schools were segregated: In America by law and housing practices, and in Canada by demographics. In 1961, only 0.2 percent of our Canadian population was black.
For white kids who read Huck Finn back then, privately or in school, the book was on the right side of history, and played to our budding liberal sensibilities. We shared Huck’s desire to escape our claustrophobic rules and decorum, and rooted for Jim, already knowing what Huck was learning—that racial inequality was wrong. We also felt righteous, knowing that the characters who use That Word were ignorant or worse.
Today is different. What was provocative in the past is now quaint. Edgy language like “a’int” is cutesy. The question of whether Jim is a human being is so yesterday. Black anger at Jim’s minstrelsy is understood by whites thanks to years of exposure to black viewpoints through interracial dating, marriage, friendships, schooling, professional life, television, movies, and books. Back in the day, the appearance of the N-word in a book gave teachers the opportunity to discuss the destructive power of a term that was still commonly heard in public. Now, that message is so embedded, that decent people know to code the word in casual conversation. Why make black students uncomfortable so white students can be taught the obvious?
A 2011 school edition of Huck Finn attempted to fix things by replacing the book’s 200-odd appearances of the N-word with “slave.” But that’s wrong, too: You need raw words both for historical accuracy, and to fully expose the ugliness in the narrative. Moreover, bowdlerizing the language wouldn’t change the two other major study problems that afflict Huck Finn.
The book is a “white saviour narrative.” It’s not a story about a slave heroically escaping to achieve his freedom; it’s about the white boy who rescues him. The history of civil rights featured white people acting virtuously—and sometimes even heroically, as with Lyndon B. Johnson, who sacrificed his party’s fortunes to create landmark civil and voting rights laws. But to make white virtue the primary focus of the struggle is morally wrong, in literature as in life.
It also violates one of the basic truths of story construction: The most compelling narratives are those with the highest stakes. And there’s simply no comparing a slave fleeing for his life and a kid running off on an adventure. It should be noted that the context in which Twain wrote offers a sterling defence. He wanted to convince 19th century white readers to shed their prejudices. Making his hero a relatable white boy was a great strategy for getting them to lower their guard. But that strategy hardly applies to the readership in a 21st century mixed-race classroom.
The other problem with Huck Finn concerns the relationship of reader to text. Each of us approaches a book from a different place. But, as much as possible, a work selected for group study should have as common a point of entry as possible. Rare exceptions aside, kids are on the same footing with The Lovely Bones, for instance. None of them (one hopes) have been kidnapped, but all of them can imagine it. That’s impossible with a book such as Huck Finn, in which a portion of the class sees itself as the hero, and another portion as the hero’s subservient follower. This position can be especially awkward for black kids studying race from the perspective of a white author writing for white readers taught by a white teacher surrounded by white classmates.
I’m conflicted about that last point. As a 1960s liberal, I believe in MLK’s vision of a world in which we’re judged by our character rather than our characteristics. So, in a perfect world governed by pure principle, I think background should be irrelevant to curriculum. But that’s not the world we live in.
I remember my grade-nine English class, in which we studied The Merchant of Venice. It was taught as a romantic comedy, focused on Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia and her triumphant rescue of his friend Antonio from their enemy, Shylock. Feminism was in the air, and Porta’s smarts proved that women were men’s equal. (My interpretation was a little different. I saw Merchant as a romantic tragedy. I had a huge crush on Antonio, who offered up his fortune and life as proof of his love for Bassanio. The tragedy was that once Bassanio was married, they’d have less time together.)
Even though I loved Merchant, I kept thinking about Barb Novak. She sat in front of me and was quiet and kind, and one of only two Jews in our school. I didn’t know her well at the time, and would have been too embarrassed anyway, but we became writer friends later on and I finally asked her what it had been like to be in that classroom. Hard, she said. Worse, because she felt people were staring at her. And worst of all because she had no one to talk to, she was only 14, and didn’t want her distress to upset her parents.
Adolescence remains the most awkward and self-conscious period in a person’s life. Not every minority kid will feel centred out when their race, religion, or other traits are under discussion by a room full of people from other backgrounds. But a lot will. They’ll understandably be defensive, resentful, angry and/or humiliated. And for what? Why should we make things more difficult for kids under stress when there are other options?
Huck Finn is a great book with important, universal themes. It should certainly remain in school libraries (along with Dr. Seuss, for younger readers), and students who want to should be encouraged to read it both for fun and to see how societies change. It should also be taught at the university level, when people have acquired the armour that comes with maturity. But at the elementary or secondary level? Today?
Mockingbird comes with similar problems, and an additional one as well. The novel was written for adults. It’s a long book with long chapters. And the mass-market paperback that schools can afford is printed in a tiny typeface with a tight interline. I taught for a couple of years in the ’90s. I can’t begin to describe the look on my students’ faces when they opened the cover and saw its never-ending walls of words. Anyone with a reading disability was a goner. Ditto for those wading through lyrical descriptions of magnolias and moonlight and Miss Maudie’s garden. Mockingbird is a great book for adults, but I can’t think of a better way To Kill a Teen’s Love of Reading.
Some argue that removing such books denies young people access to the classics. But these books are taking the place of countless other classics. And the main reason curricula has stayed the same in many school districts isn’t always because of high standards or an unassailable canon. It’s often because of budgets: It’s cheaper to replace a few damaged copies than buy a new class set.
One of the options I’d suggest for high schools that want a tough book on race without contextual problems is the 1999 classic Monster, by black American novelist Walter Dean Myers—a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Michael L. Printz Award. It’s a gripping story about a robbery gone wrong. In addition to dealing with race, the novel covers identity, peer pressure, teen crime, and masculinity. The structure is also terrific, engaging readers with questions about shifting perspectives and truth. Myers doesn’t shy away from the N-word, either. But, of course, Myers is a black author telling a story about black teens and their black lawyer which makes all the difference.
For Middle Grade, have a look at anything by Christopher Paul Curtis, but especially the deeply moving Elijah of Buxton, set in a Canadian settlement of runaway slaves at the time of Jim Crow. And for younger kids, The People Could Fly, black triumph tales during slavery, by Virginia Hamilton. Other suggestions, from picture books to young adult, include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Field Guide to the North American Teen by Ben Philippe, A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, Punching the Air by Ibi Aanu Zoboi, It Began with a Page by Kyo Maclear, and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.
In the end, what’s important is that we choose books that will engage readers and make them eager for more. Taste in books is as individual as taste in friends. The greater the selection of points of view, the greater the chance of finding authors that are right for each reader—the opposite of cancellation. That’s why, like Dr. Seuss, I believe in imagining worlds that lie over the rainbow. And I want to encourage young readers to do the same.
Featured image: Segment of poster promoting 1960 film adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.