Seuss Museum: 'Premature' To Discuss Plans To Address Racist Cartoons

Sep 19, 2017

Since it opened in June, the new Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum has attracted thousands of visitors to Springfield. It features murals and statues of some of the author's most famous characters, like Horton the Elephant and the Cat in the Hat.

Boosters say it's a win for the local economy, and a fitting tribute to Ted Geisel, the city's famous son. But critics have complained that earlier, controversial work by Geisel was completely left out. 

During World War II, Geisel drew political cartoons, including of the Japanese. They are now thought to be blatantly racist but are nowhere to be found in the museum.

Suzanne Simard of East Longmeadow recently visited with her children. She didn't know about the earlier drawings and was unsure if they should be on display.

'A Missed Opportunity'

"I guess I'm torn," Simard said. "Maybe you could say that's part of history, but then on the other hand, it could offend people, so I don't know. I wouldn't want my children to see something racist."

Mia Wenjen disagrees. She's a Japanese American who runs a blog about parenting, children's literature and education called Pragmatic Mom

"I think it's a real missed learning opportunity, especially for children," she said.  "I think the important thing is to look at it in context. And to ask questions and to point out where the racism exists, and ask children what they think about it."

Shortly after the museum opened, The New York Times interviewed Wenjen for an article titled "Oh, The Places They Don't Go," which focused on the omission of Geisel's more controversial drawings.

The Times also talked to Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University. He said the museum is presenting an incomplete portrait of the author.

"I wish [the museum] had gone more into Seuss's politics, because that's a really important part of who Seuss was as an artist and as a person," Nel told us. "He wrote The Sneetches as a criticism of anti-Semitism, although it also, of course, works as an anti-racism parable."

Finding A Distinction Between Seuss and Geisel

The New York Times spoke with the head of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, who defended the decision to leave out the earlier cartoons by saying that the critical distinction is between Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, adding that this is a Dr. Seuss museum.

Since the Times article, the Springfield Museums has said little on this subject or how it would address critics' concerns.

The director, Kay Simpson, declined our request for an interview. She said in an email that it would be premature to discuss any ideas until they have something more specific to share.

"Waiting for the signal from home," a 1942 cartoon signed by Dr. Seuss and published by PM Magazine.
Credit Dr. Seuss Collection / UC San Diego Library

Seuss 'Trafficked In Racist Sterotypes' And Later Recanted

A spokeswoman for the Springfield Museums also declined to be recorded. But she encouraged us to speak with Professor Donald Pease at Dartmouth, who is an expert on Dr. Seuss and, it turns out, not exactly a defender of the museum.

"I do think they should have included some of his earlier cartoons, insofar as those cartoons appeared under the signature 'Dr. Seuss,'" Pease said. 

Pease's job is funded with a grant made by Geisel before his death, but Pease is hardly an apologist for him.

"Ted Geisel, as an adult cartoonist, trafficked in racist stereotypes of all sorts, directed against African Americans, against Scottish Americans, against Jews," he said. 

In one infamous cartoon, Geisel drew Japanese Americans waiting in line for explosives to carry into California. And that cartoon was signed, "Dr. Seuss."

Pease said that soon after, Geisel realized what he'd done, and that his later children's books make his more enlightened mindset clear.

"Horton Hears A Who! is an explicit act of recantation of the caricatures of the Japanese that he had constructed," Pease said.

There seems to be confusion about the Seuss Museum's next steps. The Kansas State professor, Nel, said he was invited to a symposium at the museum this fall to discuss Seuss' work. He said that was delayed, maybe to the spring.

The museum confirms it postponed a symposium on children's literature to allow time for more planning. As for when it could happen, the museum would only say "in the future."