The National Association of Scholars doesn’t normally write about Dr. Seuss. Even with the decline in academic standards, he doesn’t usually appear in undergraduate syllabi. But now cancel culture has come for Dr. Seuss. Various members of the NAS staff want to comment—partly because we all grew up with and loved Dr. Seuss, and partly because the cancellation of Dr. Seuss does make crystal clear the broader issues of cancel culture. What follows is a dialogue, where we talk about different aspects of the cancellation of Dr. Seuss.
The Dr. Seuss cancellation makes crystal clear how much the cancelers care about visual images. Dr. Seuss’ words are mostly not at issue—If I Ran the Zoo includes the line helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant, and there’s a few other such lines, but mostly the cancelers direct their opprobrium toward Seuss’ images. Some of the discussion has even been along the lines of, why don’t people just redraw the images and leave the words alone?
On the one hand, it’s astonishing how illiterate (technically) are the sensibilities of the cancelers. They hate what they see. On the other hand, I’m afraid that some of the defenders of free speech don’t give sufficient weight to freedom of artistry, freedom of imagery. The cancelers are right to recognize the power of the visual image—and that is precisely why it should be defended, because it is the heart of the artistic freedom of creators in the visual arts. We shouldn’t defend Dr. Seuss on the grounds that the words are innocuous and the visual images harmless. We should defend Dr. Seuss on the grounds that his images are an integral part of his artistry, and the words and the graphics of his books should be defended together.
(Are his images more important than his words? It’s easy to make fun of Dr. Seuss rhymes, but they are remarkably effective—and harder to do properly than the casual reader might think.)
But what is to be done?, as Lenin always said when confronted with questions about children’s literature. Everyone has noted that the Seuss estate has the legal right to withdraw publication of their books when confronted with a totalitarian mob. They need to lose that right—and so does every private company. We need to shorten copyright to 50 years from the time of publication, with no exception even for an author’s lifetime. That will immediately free into public domain all of American culture, all of Western civilization, up through 1971, and save it from the censors—if only in PDFs downloadable from foreign websites. The woke have taken over all our corporate purveyors of culture; limit their stranglehold to the recent past.
Consider that you can still buy Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo on Amazon, with the original illustrations. (I probably shouldn’t say so out loud; it might inspire Amazon to withdraw the book from circulation.) In fact, you can buy Little Black Sambo with any number of different illustrations, sometimes even with a slight edit of the language, not least by people who wanted to bring the lovely story to people who would shy away from the imagery. That’s the power of public domain—everyone is free to read Little Black Sambo precisely as it read and looked a century ago, and also free to change it to their heart’s content.
Free Dr. Seuss! – even The Lorax (1971) will be free with a 50-year copyright. And we’d only have to wait a year to liberate Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! (1972).
The decision on March 2, by Theodor Geisel’s heirs to stop publishing that it will stop publishing and licensing And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), McElligot’s Pool (1947), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953) and The Cat’s Quizzer (1976) benchmarked the spread of Anti-Racism into the nursery. Of course it has been next to the cradle for a while, I have a copy of A Is for Activist, a 2013 primer by Innosanto Niagara. It runs through the alphabet with multiple words for each letter. A is not only for activist, but also for advocate, abolitionist, ally, and “actively answering a call for action.” All this even before “action civics” was installed before naptime in pre-K. Q is for Questioning coercion. “Z is for Zapatista of course.”
But it is one thing for to create books to habituate young minds to leftist tyranny. It is something else to snatch away the inSeussiance of these charming books. Geisel in his later years became something of a scold. His environmental tract, The Lorax, the title character of which “speaks for trees,” and published in 1971 a year after the first “Earth Day,” could be pulped without my shedding a tear/ Seuss’s endorsement of Cold War moral equivalence, The Butter Battle Book, published in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration, was flatfooted propaganda for a bad cause. Dr. Seuss meets John le Carré. Instead of Smiley’s People we have the Yooks and Zooks facing off on either side of the cartoon equivalent of the Berlin Wall, with mutually assured destruction hanging in the balance.
His leftist leanings weren’t new. Before World War II, Geisel had worked in advertising, including work for an account that would seem straight out of Seussian story: promoting Flit Bug Spray for Standard Oil. But his Rooseveltian enthusiasm was hardening and during the war he lent his talents as a cartoonist to war propaganda, including attacks on American of Japanese descent. He lampooned Americans who worried about communist infiltration of the American government.
But by this time he had also discovered his ability to conjure fantastic worlds that appealed directly to a child’s imagination. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published in 1937, and there he first encountered his real muse: the license to invent outrageous lies that improve on pedestrian reality.
Of the cancelled books, I have my childhood copy (first edition no less, with dust jacket) of On Beyond Zebra (1955). Not quite remembering why the Geisel family cancelled it, I read it through twice looking for the offending words or images. I failed. No doubt this is an ill omen for the coming era of re-education camps. For those not as well read as I in the library of suspect literature, On Beyond Zebra begins with the boast of a small boy, Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell who has just learned the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and in good abecedarian fashion has an animal for each letter: ape, bear, camel. (He precedes by some years the tutelage of A is for Activist.)
The narrator of On Beyond Zebra is a slightly older boy who, though unnamed, looks a lot like Gerald McGrew of If I ran the Zoo. And, like McGrew, he has a whole ark full of imaginary creatures. McGrew tells o’Dell that there are letters beyond Z. “My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!” We are then off on atypical Seussian fantasia of weird letter corresponding to even weirder beasts. “Glikk is for Glikker who lives in wild weeds,” the Glikker pictured as an adorable two-inch primate who is juggling cinnamon seeds.
What in the world could cause him and the other phantasmagoria of this book to prompt its cancelation? It turns out to be the letter Spazz, used to spell Spazzim, which is pictured as a cross between a camel and an elk. Nassim of Bazzim is mounted on the beast, on whose antlers he has hung two alarm clocks, an umbrella, and what looks like an old-fashion corn popper. The Geisel progeny, it is reported, thought this image might be offensive to people in the Middle East, though the house in the background looks more like a pagoda.
David, I tip my hat to you for your comments about the importance of artworks and the advisability of amending copyright laws. I wonder whether in the wake of the astonishing success of pharmaceutical companies in conjuring multiple vaccines for COVID-19, we might set these great enterprises and brilliant scientists to work to discover a cure for stupidity. I have always wondered about Quan. It is needed to spell Quandary, “who lives on a shelf/In a hole in the ocean alone by himself.” It is the fate that awaits us all if we don’t stop this nonsense.
Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars. David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.