Scribbled Out: The Curious Case of The Cancelled Collection

You may have missed it. I would have if I hadn’t looked at my phone this afternoon. A cry of CANCEL CULTURE rose up from a groundswell of concern over the discontinuation of a handful of Dr. Seuss’s lesser known children’s books:

  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • The Cat’s Quizzer
  • Scrambled Eggs Super
  • And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street

The estate of Dr. Seuss (Dr. Seuss Enterprises) decided to end the printing run on these titles, over concerns that certain images would offend readers. On March 2nd (his 117th birthday) Dr. Seuss Enterprises released a statement which said, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Portrayals like this one, from If I Ran The Zoo:

An illustration from If I Ran the Zoo.
(swiped from The National Post)

Mixed into all the whimsy and charm of Dr. Seuss’s wordplay and illustrations are the artifacts of stereotypes originating from racism. His living kin decided, for the sake of his overall catalog of books, to end the reproduction of six titles that probably weren’t selling all that great anyway. Theirs was as likely a fiscal decision as an ethical one. That’s my opinion, even after I read this article from the A.P.

A mini-storm of cute Cat-In-The-Hat memes spruced with pithy poems about the heresy of cancel culture has squalled all over social media feeds like mine. No one on my feed who posted their protest named a single book on the list, or what any of them meant to them, personally. No one really teased out why Dr. Seuss’s next-of-kin would have some obligation to his readers to enshrine these illustrations.

Of all his work, his depictions of non-white people are the most contrived and derivative examples of his craft. They lack the originality we typically ascribe to Dr. Seuss. The disappearance of these illustrations would no more detract from his portfolio than would my folks’ discarding of the macaroni I glued to a plate in kindergarten and called art from mine.

If the argument is for the historical value of Seuss’s work, I guess, first, I’d say they’re only out of print. Find some of those existing copies. Put them in a museum where we can reflect on the negative impacts of stereotypes in illustration. Give Dr. Seuss the dignity of not only these tasteless drawings. Put them alongside the anti-racist themes that appear in some of his other words and work.

If the erasure of an important cluster of cultural artifacts rises as a concern for the upset parties, it seems only to do so about as much as the knot on a waterlogged tree might sometimes break over a river’s surface – – if the river was nostalgia.

I think what’s really going on here is some folks are conflating their worth – the worth they receive from the estimation of others, with the value (or lack of value) assigned to things they loved as children. What’s more, they feel judged because they want to pass on these loved objects to the loved ones in their life. And to top things off, now they’ve got me creating a pretty one-dimensional caricature of them. Sheesh…

Dr. Seuss is bad. The liberals say I’m bad for liking Dr. Seuss. Also, I’m bad because I’m going to pass on this bad thing to the beloved children in my life, so now they’re bad, too. And you know what? I’d also resent the hell out of such a simplistic, linear ethos. It’s flimsy as hell.

So, maybe let’s not be so simplistic.

For starters, let’s accept the decision of the people closest to Dr. Seuss to make decisions about his estate. That’s the free market, people.

Next, go ahead and have a complex relationship with the objects and symbols of the past, from the vantage point of the present. Raise children in a world of nuance and layers of meaning. Many of the illustrations Dr. Seuss drew were inhumane, and he even said so himself, when he looked back. He also used his gifts to challenge people, and some of those challenges still stand as kinda righteous. He had glimmers of greatness and the taint of folly. In these ways, he’s as human as all of us.

Not everything we idolized as children stands the test of time. We weren’t stupid for liking what we liked. Neither do we owe our child-selves the indignity of holding onto what we’ve outgrown. For the sake of our neighbors, who see themselves reflected poorly against the backdrop of histories that cared nothing for them, we can let go.

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