March 4, 2021


One irony of this latest cancel-culture episode is that Geisel himself was a man of the Left, a progressive who opposed fascism, decried “red baiting” in the 1950s, and devoted an entire book to educating kids about the budding environmental movement of the early 1970s, as described in a 2011 article, “Dr. Seuss’s Progressive Politics.” With the outbreak of World War II, Geisel even put aside writing children’s books and worked as an editorial cartoonist for PM, a liberal New York newspaper published during the war and noteworthy for refusing to accept advertising so as not to compromise its values. Geisel’s cartoons from that era revealed a man who vigorously opposed fascism, steadfastly supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s prosecution of the war, and lambasted the president’s congressional opponents, especially Republicans.

When Geisel resumed writing children’s books after the war, it was with an eye toward shaping young minds. As entertaining as the Seuss books are, you don’t need to be a literary critic to see the messages in many of them. Horton Hears a Who!, a book about an elephant who persuades his neighbors to protect a small, vulnerable group of people known as the Whos, is seen as a “parable about protecting minority rights,” a plausible reading of a book by a man who, in a 1947 university lecture, urged writers to avoid racist stereotypes. In Yertle the Turtle, an arrogant king of his local pond is indifferent to the suffering of his subjects, who complain, “I know up on top / You are seeing great sights / But down at the bottom / We, too, should have rights.” The Lorax, adapted by Hollywood as both a TV series and a movie, tells the story of the Once-ler, a creature who finds and cuts down a precious tree to sell and is warned by the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” of the consequences of a business built on using up natural resources. Geisel himself called the book, published in 1971 in the wake of the first Earth Day, “propaganda.”

Not surprisingly, social media became a battleground over the family’s decision to cancel the six Seuss books. One defender of the move said that it was time for critics to “evolve.” But Geisel has hardly had that opportunity himself. The academic attack on him in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature includes a section on cartoons he published during his college years in the 1920s deemed anti-Semitic and anti-black. It apparently counts for nothing that, for the rest of his life, he pursued progressive causes, decried the targeting of Jews in Germany, criticized the segregationist policies of the U.S. armed forces during World War II, and became an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. The Geisel episode is further evidence that, these days, anything remotely suggesting an unacceptable opinion by twenty-first-century standards, issued at any point in an artist’s life, is sufficient cause for cancellation.

As Steve wrote of another leftist superstar of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “I’d just add that perhaps the saddest part about Woody Allen et al. is that they never understood they’d become disposable once they were no longer useful to the cause.”

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