Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts
The beloved author’s most famous books, like “Green Eggs and Ham,” were untouched, but his estate’s decision nevertheless prompted a backlash and raised questions about what should be preserved as part of the cultural record.
In the summer of 1936, Theodor Geisel was on a ship from Europe to New York when he started scribbling silly rhymes on the ship’s stationery to entertain himself during a storm: “And this is a story that no one can beat. I saw it all happen on Mulberry Street.”
The rhymes morphed into his first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” about a boy who witnesses increasingly outlandish things. First published in 1937, the book started Geisel’s career as Dr. Seuss. He went on to publish more than 60 books that have sold some 700 million copies globally, making him one of the world’s most enduringly popular children’s book authors.
But some aspects of Seuss’s work have not aged well, including his debut, which features a crude racial stereotype of an Asian man with slanted lines for eyes. “Mulberry Street” was one of six of his books that the Seuss estate said it would stop selling this week, after concluding that the egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works “are hurtful and wrong.”
The announcement seemed to drive a surge of support for Seuss classics. Dozens of his books shot to the top of Amazon’s print best-seller list; on Thursday morning, nine of the site’s top 10 best sellers were Seuss books.
The estate’s decision — which prompted breathless headlines on cable news and complaints about “cancel culture” from prominent conservatives — represents a dramatic step to update and curate Seuss’s body of work, acknowledging and rejecting some of his views while seeking to protect his brand and appeal. It also raises questions about whether and how an author’s works should be posthumously curated to reflect evolving social attitudes, and what should be preserved as part of the cultural record.
“It will cause people to re-evaluate the legacy of Dr. Seuss, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Philip Nel, a children’s literature scholar at Kansas State University and the author of “Dr. Seuss: American Icon.” “There are parts of his legacy one should honor, and parts of his legacy that one should not.”
He added: “They may be motivated by the fact that racism is bad for the brand, or they may be motivated by a deeper sense of racial justice.”
Classic children’s books are perennial best sellers and an important revenue stream for publishers. Last year, more than 338,000 copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” were sold across the United States, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of physical books at most retailers. “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” sold more than 311,000 copies, and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — always popular as a high school graduation gift — sold more than 513,000 copies.
“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks. Putting the merits of the books aside, removing “Green Eggs and Ham” would be a completely different business proposition from doing away with new printings of “McElligot’s Pool.”
Dr. Seuss is perhaps the most beloved children’s book author to come under criticism for outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, cultural and gender differences.
I agree with Valerie Lewis’s comment included in this article:
Regardless of the content, books go out of print every day if they don’t sell, and indeed, some of the Seuss books would likely be in that category if they had been written by another author. Valerie Lewis, a co-owner of Hicklebee’s bookstore in San Jose, Calif., said that sort of attrition is perfectly sensible, but pulling a book altogether for political reasons makes her uncomfortable.
“I think when there is something in a book that you find offensive, what a great teaching opportunity,” Ms. Lewis said.
“We all have a choice as to whether we buy it or not,” she added, “but removing it kind of makes me want to shake my head.”