Sanctity of Published Work

Unlike writers who work for the stage, screen or television, published authors have the security of knowing that their books will forever remain the same, the purest form of expression untouched by others.

Until now.

We are living at a time when certain groups have sprung up who serve as surrogate word police, alerting publishers of words or images from past books that should be changed to reflect today’s sensibilities.

First there was the cleansing of Dr. Seuss books in 2021 whose books have sold more than 700 million copies.  The estate of Ted Geisel (Seuss) expunged six of his 60 books due to racial stereotypes.  The only way to find them is at a library or by buying overpriced used books.

People easily forget that during the time when these artifacts were created, they were acceptable in that society.  When understanding history, one is supposed to see it through the eyes of those who lived during that time period, not the present time.

The most recent children’s author under attack (by the way, why children’s literature is the epicenter of such scrutiny is anyone’s guess) is Roald Dahl, another popular author with more than 300 million books sold.

Among the hundreds of changes, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the boy who gorged himself on chocolate and ended up falling into a river of chocolate, will no longer be described as “fat” but “enormous.”  By the way, “fat” and “enormous” are not exact synonyms. 

Also, the Oompa-Loompas will be called “small people” instead of “small men.”

What triggered this whitewashing of Dahl was Netflix which owns some of his titles and is interested in dramatizing them for their streaming service.  That’s when Inclusive Minds, one of the word police groups, combed through Dahl’s works and found offensive material.

The group emphatically denies on their website that they “do not edit or rewrite text,” yet this is exactly what results from their findings..  Such irony is one Dahl would have relished if he were alive today.

Unlike the Dr. Seuss situation, a compromise was recently announced by Puffin who publishes Dahl’s books.   Due to the intense pressure of notable people like author Salman Rushdie, who himself has been a victim of censorship, and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said that “works of literature [should be] preserved and not airbrushed,” Puffin will continue publishing the original versions as well as the censored version.

This reminds me of what happened back in 2011, when a version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published with the N-word replaced with the word “slave.”  The earthquake of such a controversy rippled through op-ed pieces across the country.  However, the original version was never threatened, and continues being published today.

If there is material in a book from the past, the wrong way to deal with it is to erase it as if it never existed.  Instead, use the offensive material as teachable moments.

That’s what I did when teaching Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  The villainous thief Fagin is a Jewish stereotype.  Dickens mostly ignores using his name, dehumanizing him by referring to him as the Jew.  A Jewish acquaintance of Dickens pointed this out to him and so, on his own volition, he went back and removed most of those references.

Sharing this story with my students opens up an opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism.  However, we still read, study and discuss his important novel which mainly focuses on society turning a blind eye to childhood poverty—an issue that still resonates nearly 200 years later.

When I taught literature, I would get my students excited at the notion that Charles Dickens is talking to them from 150 years ago.  This is how he saw his world, a vision that was captured and forever sealed.  There are no video or audio recordings of his voice.  The vocabulary and sentence structure represent his voice.

And now strangers from another century want to alter author’s voices.

I was watching an old Dick Cavett show with Groucho Marx from 1971. The two were talking about the word “lady” and how inappropriate some felt it was, especially those in the Women’s Liberation movement.  “Woman” was considered a more appropriate word to use. 

Today, however, “woman” has become a dirty word for some, to be replaced with “they” to eliminate any whiff of gender.  Who knows what people will think of “they” come 2073? 

If one must examine every artifact from the past and judge it on current trends, then put a disclaimer next to the item, but leave the original work alone, as is. 

I see much to criticize in our culture today.  Let’s work on fixing the way we live now.

One can’t change the past, but one can change the present.  That’s where the focus needs to be.

Oh, the Books You Won’t Read!

When people cry out against a film or book’s contents, often those critics never saw the film or read the book.

So, upon hearing the news on March 2 that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, who controls the publication of Ted Geisel’s (his real name) books, would no longer print six of his titles due to racist images, the first thing I did was reserve them at my local library so I could see for myself the controversial drawings.

Let’s take a look at all six books in order of publication date and the questionable material.

And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937)

There is a drawing of “a Chinese boy who eats with sticks.”  Don’t some Chinese use chopsticks?

One image not labeled as offensive is a Rajah who is pulling a wagon of seven musicians, all white.  Does that indicate that the white men are enslaved by the Rajah?  I guess that’s okay.

What makes this book’s demise worse than the others is that it was Dr. Seuss’s first book.

McElligot’s Pool (1947)

I had to research the offensive image since I couldn’t find one.  It turns out that on the page which reads “Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay” the fish appear to have oval not round eyes.

If I Ran the Zoo (1950)

This is the only book on the list that I would agree has two troubling racist drawings:  one of Africans and another of Asians.

Scramble Eggs Super! (1953)

An Arab-looking man in a turban.  Don’t some Arabs wear head coverings?

On Beyond Zebra! (1955)

An Arab-looking man sitting on a camel.  Don’t some Arabs sit on camels?

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)

On page 11, a question asks, “How old do you have to be to be a Japanese?”  Answer on p 58: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born.”   What’s wrong with this?

On page 28, “Do the Japanese eat with pogo sticks or joss sticks?”  Answer on p. 58: “Pogo sticks they jump on.  Joss sticks they burn.  They eat with chop sticks.”

Seuss does draw the Asian characters with narrower eyes than Caucasian’s.  So, what should a cartoonist do?  Draw Asians with Caucasian-like round eyes?

By the way, in none of these images are the characters portrayed as villains.

And who is picking up on this so-called offensive material?  The kids?   You mean, a child is going to ask his parent, “Mommy, why does this man eat with chopsticks?”  And if this ever did happen, the parent has a teachable moment that is now never going to be there because that book from 1937 with the one image will no longer be there.

Also, why aren’t those who are supercritical of Dr. Seuss books concerned about the non-stop gutter language and other images that permeates all media these days?  Surely, that is causing more damage to young people.  Think of how many parents don’t monitor their children in their own homes using cell phones and laptops and the content that they are absorbing.

Another criticism of Dr. Seuss is that he mainly drew white people thus perpetuating white supremacy.  First of all, these are not history books but fun, light-hearted children’s books. All the characters are drawn in fantastical ways not meant to resemble photographs.

Second, Dr. Seuss was white so it makes sense that most of the humans in his books are white.  How does make him a racist?   If the illustrator was black and drew only black characters, would that artist also be viewed as a racist?

Seuss drew mainly men with very few women. Does that mean Dr. Seuss was a sexist?

The absence of certain sexes and races does not denote a sexist and racist person.  Like any good writer, he wrote based on his experience.

 What the publisher should have done is followed the lead of companies like Warner Brothers who have disclaimers on DVDs of old cartoons, some of which were propaganda during World War II, but allow the uncensored material to be seen in its original form.

Look, we all can do better when it comes to treating all people with respect and dignity.  But for critics to seek out in all the nooks and crannies every dot of possible insensitivity and to obliterate the book, the movie, the statue, such action is doing much more harm than the image itself for those who are “woke” are determining what future generations will know about the past.

And then do you know what you are left with?  Nothing.  No history of how people lived in a certain time period, or insight as to what people were dealing with in that moment.

What is preventing future generations from destroying the concentration camps in Europe so that the German people don’t feel victimized?

Sounds farfetched?  Not when Dr. Seuss books are being canceled.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises has caused more damage to Geisel’s reputation than these few images ever did.  Plus, they are benefitting financially at the expense of his reputation since once people heard about the banned books, they became hard to find items. 

What the publisher should do is collect all the money that is pouring in for these six titles and donate it to groups promoting tolerance such as the Anti-Defamation League. 

But I wouldn’t hold your breath of this ever happening.  It turns out that Dr. Seuss earns the most money of any deceased celebrity except for Michael Jackson; according to Forbes, in 2020 he earned $33 million, with more coming in for 2021, I’m sure.