Reading Dr Seuss – A Brief Critical Overview

Gabriel Duckels completed the MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at Cambridge in Summer 2018. He has been the Library Assistant at Homerton College Library since January 2017 and a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Education (DIALLS Project) since August 2018.

Sarah Burton is Deputy Librarian at Homerton College Library, on secondment from the Cambridge Judge Business School..

Dr Seuss, otherwise known as Theodore Seuss Geisel, was born 115 years ago in Springfield, Massachusetts. Seuss graduated from Dartmouth College in 1925 and began doctoral study at the University of Oxford where he met his first wife, Helen Palmer. Seuss did not complete his doctorate, returning to the US with Helen to pursue a career as an illustrator and cartoonist. His first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published in 1937, receiving praise from Beatrix Potter. Some of his most acclaimed titles were published from the 1950s onwards: The Sneetches (1953), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). Dr Seuss was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater in 1956, legitimizing the iconic title used in his pen name. He died in 1991 at the age of 87 having written more than 60 books.

Seuss’ work is seminally nonsensical. It brims with fantastical worlds, tongue-twister rhymes, and madcap characters. Since 1998, the National Education Association has held Read Across America Day on Seuss’ birthday, indicating his integral place in the canon of American children’s literature. School children are encouraged to read Seuss’ books, dress up as his characters, and make feasts that imitate the iconic green eggs and ham. However, Seuss’ place at the helm of the foremost children’s literary holiday in the US has been called into question by the direct and indirect use of racist caricatures in his work as a children’s author, newspaper cartoonist, and wartime propagandist. The racist history of Dr Seuss has received widespread exposure over the last few days thanks to an important new article in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature which has already been downloaded 20,000 times since being published on the 13th of February. With this in mind, we thought it would be useful to provide a brief overview of the trouble with Dr Seuss and some guidance for relevant further critical reading for those interested. Some critical works are listed at the bottom of this blog, while some scholarship and more general sources are linked directly throughout.

Seuss’ children’s books sometimes prominently convey social issues and values, such as the environmental message of The Lorax, the anti-Semitism allegory of The Sneetches, or the spirit of anti-consumerism present in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Seuss remains a controversial figure, both in his personal life and his political views. Seuss has been understood to represent a left-wing, anti-fascist and anti-racist agenda in his professional life. However, throughout his career, he published extensive racist caricatures of Japanese people and African-American people. The Cat in the Hat, arguably his most famous character, is inescapably informed by blackface and minstrelsy. For more information about these controversies, see this important, thorough post at The Conscious Kid. With this in mind, the Cat in the Hat sits in the problematic company of other famous figures shown to appear from a history of blackface. For example: Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny and the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. If these revelations prompt our surprise, we should second-guess that impulse, choosing instead to take a moment to reflect on the deeply entrenched role of blackface in popular culture. In this respect, the work of Dr Seuss shares common ground with – for one example – the contemporary manifestation of digital blackface in online visual culture.

Finally, for some food for thought for research angles on Seuss or other authors, here are a few different directions that Seuss studies have taken:

Held J.M. (Ed.). (2011). Dr. Seuss and Philosophy: Oh, the thinks you can think! Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

This edited collection explores the work of Dr Seuss within a philosophical context. The majority of the contributors come from a background of philosophy scholarship, rather than education or children’s literature studies. The effect of this is that each case study of Seuss’ work provides a primer in different aspects of contemporary and canonical philosophical thought, rather than elucidating the texts themselves.

Ishizuka, K. & Stephens*, R. (2019). The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books. Research on Diversity in Youth Literature. 1(2). Article 4. Accessed at: https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4

This article builds upon an article uploaded to The Conscious Kid to interrogate the role of racist caricatures in Seuss’ depiction of humans. Ishizuka & Stephens* discredit the accepted discourse of Seuss’ anti-racist work. They used their extensive research to encourage Read Across America to theme this year’s Read Across America Day around the celebration of diversity in children’s literature rather than (once again!) Dr Seuss.

Nel, P. (2017). Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philip Nel’s important work focuses on Seuss as part of a wider study of racist children’s literature. Nel provides a compelling study of The Cat in the Hat as “a conflict between White children and a black cat whose character and costume borrow from blackface performance” (p. 40).

Zornado, J. (1997). Swaddling the Child in Children’s Literature. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 22(3), 105-112. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.1173

Joseph Zornado’s critique of The Grinch takes place within a discussion of the didactic power play between adult and child in children’s literature, suggesting that Seuss’ tale is “abusive and coercive” (p. 111) towards childhood and its ideal. In this regard, it can be reframed through newer general perspectives on this relationship (e.g. Beauvais, 2015) but remains a compelling way to view the Grinch not as a victim, or even as a queer anti-hero of sorts, but as “a simulacrum of a simulacrum, posing as Saint Nick, as thief, as Satan the “old liar” (the narrator tells us), and as parent” (p. 110).

These are only a few of the articles, books, blogs, and so on, that critically engage with Dr Seuss as an author and phenomenon, or a symptom of the problems of representation. By understanding the breadth of ways that Seuss’ work has been explored in children’s literature studies, we are reminded of the ongoing need to robustly interrogate what we take for granted about children’s literature and its scholarship. As Seuss writes in I Can Read With My Eyes Shut: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

If you are looking for more reading pathways to explore Seuss’ impact on popular culture, consult the reference lists at the end of the suggested articles, or feel free to contact staff at Homerton College Library.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s