Another day, another cancellation.
Now Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, joins Alison Roman, Bari Weiss, the New York Times Opinion Page, J. K. Rowling, and Woody Allen, among many others, whose works or words so offend they must be cast into oblivion.
On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises stated that they were ceasing publication of six books by the good Doctor: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.
To be sure, the cancellation of these books could very well have been a business decision. Last year, Mulberry Street sold only 5,000 copies. Retailers dropped McElligot’s Pool and The Cat’s Quizzer entirely.
But lack of sales was not the reason given for this decision. Instead, the company stated: “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” In particular, the drawing of Black and Chinese people were deemed offensive, and so, the books must be removed from circulation.
Consequently, some libraries have removed these books from circulation (including San Diego State University, but I’m told the reason is to prevent theft, not ideology). A Virginia school district has stated “they will no longer connect Seuss’ birthday to the reading awareness day” because of “strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by him.”
No doubt, the illustrations in question are offensive. But do they rate cancellation? Especially since they were done a long time ago (Mulberry Street was published in 1937), and Geisel later created explicitly anti-racist works (The Sneetches). What would the famous English poet and intellectual John Milton say?
Why Milton? Because in 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, the book that starts every discussion of freedom of speech and censorship. Milton was far from a First Amendment absolutist. While he argued for the “free and open encounter” of differing views, and while he agreed that we should not “be of one mind,” Milton had his limits. After stating it’s best that “many be tolerated, rather than all compelled,” he drew his line in the sand: “I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition.”
But Milton set a high bar for censorship. We should never prevent the publication of books. But once a book gets out into the world, then we need “to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves,” and if the book causes harm, then we are allowed “to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors.”
So the question is: do the six books cancelled by the Seuss estate merit removal? Using Milton as our guide, the answer must be no. A book needs to do actual harm to earn “sharpest justice,” and being offensive is simply not enough.
Milton would ask: was anyone genuinely harmed by these books? Was there a racist incident inspired by the illustrations? Can one produce any evidence of psychic harm done by them? Dr. Seuss Enterprises says that the books are “hurtful and wrong.” No doubt, wrong. But was anyone actually “hurt” by them? The harm needs be concrete, not abstract or hypothetical.
In 2019, an article in the academic journal, Research on Diversity in Youth Literature asserted that “minimizing, erasing or not acknowledging Seuss’ racial transgressions across his entire publishing career deny the very real historical impact they had on people of color.”
But did Seuss’ “transgressions” really have an “impact”? Where’s the evidence? Can one draw an example of a racist “malefactor” who became a racist because of Geisel’s illustrations?
No doubt, this will be very hard to prove, and that is Milton’s point. The dangers posed by suppressing works you don’t like are very real, so censorship should be a very rare event, invoked sparingly and after careful deliberation. Plus, one can point to any number of examples of books thought harmful in one age now considered classics.
One can also point to any number of works and authors that express distasteful, even repellent, views, and yet they remain untouched by cancel culture. Pablo Picasso was hardly a champion of women’s rights, T. S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, and Ezra Pound a fascist. Yet their works remain in circulation.
None of which is to say that Geisel’s drawings are not offensive. But they are of a time and a place. The better option would be to situate these works in their context, and move on to reading The Sneetches or The Lorax.
Cancellation is not the answer.
Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).