Dr. Seuss has achieved what few artists have: his sixty-one children’s books, from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1938) to Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990) have captivated millions of children’s hearts—and their parents’ too. Dr. Seuss’s characters are charismatic, entertaining, and imaginative. Who doesn’t recognize the Grinch, the elephant Horton, or the Cat in the Hat? Their names evoke fond memories of some of our favorite childhood two-dimensional friends and cozy reading time with family. In these children’s picture books, Dr. Seuss’s world is bizarrely fun and yet outlandishly harmonious. It’s the place where Whos, elephants, tigers, kangaroos, monkeys, and eagles can cavort together, all within the span of a few pages.
The fact that his picture books are imaginative and fun, however, does not ensure that Dr. Seuss’ books lack serious substance. On the contrary, they carry important messages for their young readers. His picture books accomplish a two-fold purpose: teaching words to beginning readers and moral lessons to young citizens. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, for instance, after the Grinch has successfully made away with all the Whos’ Christmas gifts and decorations, he does not succeed in actually stopping Christmas. Instead, “every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all!” Their joy cured his “two sizes too small” heart, and he returned all the stolen goods and joined the Whos’ merry party. Beneath the otherworldly plot, then, are accessible messages of communal joy and forgiveness.
Among these positive messages, though, embracing diversity is perhaps the single most salient one embedded in many of Dr. Seuss’s books. In The Foot Book, Dr. Seuss lists all kinds of feet, including “red feet, black feet…slow feet, quick feet, trick feet, [and] sick feet.” This may be a convenient way to introduce some basic descriptive adjectives, but it’s also a means to show children that feet are feet no matter how they look—a lesson easily extrapolated to people. As Seuss observes in Horton Hears a Who!, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” In this case, even if a person is invisible to everyone but Horton, with effort they can make their voices heard by all.
However, Dr. Seuss had more than one audience: he also drew cartoons intended for adults.
Before becoming a world-famous children’s book writer and illustrator, Dr. Seuss landed his first jobs as a magazine cartoonist and ad illustrator in the late ‘20s to ‘30s. During World War II, as the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM, and a writer and illustrator at the humor magazine Judge, he drew over 400 cartoons promoting America’s political interests. He even joined the Army in 1943 and led the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit for the Army Air Forces.
Recently, I visited the online digital collection of Dr. Seuss’s war-time cartoons. Clicking through hundreds of his political cartoons, I was outraged, saddened, and confused. Many of his drawings depicted the Japanese people in a way that, most people today would agree, is extremely offensive. In a cartoon published on August 4, 1941 in PM Magazine, for instance, the Japanese are depicted as silk worms under the direction of an evil looking, pig-faced then Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. In another cartoon that appeared in PM three days after the Japanese Navy attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were depicted as vicious alley cats poised to attack. It’s true that these images of the Japanese were only intended to be of the soldiers who participated in the war with the U.S. But in his February 13, 1942 cartoon titled “Waiting for the signal from home…”, the generic image of the Japanese was extended to all the people of Japan. All of them wore the same slanted eye sneer, an identical caricature of Tojo, as they lined up to receive explosives. This implied a direct threat to America by all who looked Japanese, even those within the U.S.’ borders.
Art, it’s clear, can prompt moral panics, especially during wartime. In wartime cartoons like those drawn by Dr. Seuss, the Japanese people were deprived of their individual identities. They were instead assigned a collective, stereotyped identity that reflected the fear and hatred many Americans directed against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. They were guilty by ethnicity. When we recall the Holocaust, the unspeakably hateful actions enacted by many ordinary people, we can also look back to the anti-Jewish propaganda art created by the Nazis in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The dehumanization and stereotypical depictions of Jewish people sensitized people to a mindset that would allow systematic killing by the millions years later. Art aided in the war effort against innocent people even more effectively than bullets.
What’s most disheartening, perhaps, is that Dr. Seuss’s depictions were deliberate. Even though Germany was allied with Japan against the U.S., Dr. Seuss’s portrayals of Germany were, to be sure, comparatively subdued: the evil Hitler was portrayed as acting alone, with no other German clones assembled near him in the drawings. There was no indication of German Americans’ being lined up in order to blow up American cities. The alienation of an entire country’s people was not present in the cartoons. The care Dr. Seuss took to distinguish Hitler from German Americans was absent in his treatment of Japanese Americans.
Moreover, Dr. Seuss included racially discriminatory slurs and harmful stereotypical terms toward Asian Americans in his many such cartoons. A cartoon printed in December 1941 depicts a sinking cat labeled JAPAN holding onto a sign that reads, in all caps, “Beware! I can be velly dangerous when aroused!” Another depicts French politician Pierre Laval saying, “Doc, give my eyes a bit of a slant, I’ve joined the Japanese Navy.” Throughout these cartoons, Japanese people were consistently referred to as “Japs”, and their words written in broken English. Cartoons like those created during the war helped garner popular support for policies such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Seeing these cartoons was like stepping into a nightmarish perversion of Seussville. I wanted to look away and never think about them again. That was what many people did, even scholars of Dr. Seuss’ work. Many books on Dr. Seuss’s works devote all of their pages to his children’s books and other paintings without any mention of his racial cartoons. But we should not look away just because what we might see is ugly. In fact, even a sideway glimpse is simply not enough. In The Seuss The Whole Seuss and Nothing But The Seuss, Charles D. Cohen explains Dr. Seuss’ rationale for these cartoons as a reflection of what “the populace” was doing at the time. This explanation is unconvincing to say the least.
In Richard H. Minear’s 1999 book about Dr. Seuss’s WWII editorial cartoons, Dr. Seuss Goes to War, we are reminded of Dr. Seuss’s anti-Fascist PM cartoons in 1941 and 1942, of which it has been said, “if they have a flaw, it’s an absolutely endearing one: they’re funny.” But we know today that the racial cartoons Dr. Seuss drew are not so funny after all. The fact that Dr. Seuss never publicly apologized to the Japanese people only adds insult to injury. It is said that in 1954, Dr. Seuss did make an indirect attempt to apologize to the Japanese through his book Horton Hears a Who!. Like many of his children’s books, Horton championed tolerance and sticking up for those whose rights are not recognized. However, his only reference to the Japanese people was a scrawled dedication to his “Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”.
Examining these racially charged cartoons is important. They are emblematic of the types of portrayals of Asian Americans that lent credibility to harmful, problematic stereotypes that persist today. Dr. Seuss’s powerful penciled lines and brushstrokes lent his cartoons even more clout in the political sphere, and to harmful effect. They remind us, in short, of the interplay between art and politics.
Yet something fundamentally changed in Dr. Seuss’s artistic works after the war. His wartime political views did not seep into his children’s books. The reason for this paradigmatic shift is unknown. However, questionable racial expressions can be spotted here or there, e.g. in If I Ran the Zoo, Seuss writes the line, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and in And To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, “a Chinese man who eats with sticks.” The accompanying image similarly depicts a generic Asian man in some version of what is supposed to be traditional garb, with slants for eyes. Can drawings for children serve to purify what an artist chooses to portray?
For Dr. Seuss, the answer is yes. In a 1949 writer’s conference at the University of Utah, Dr. Seuss elaborated on his creative process:
A man with two heads is not a story. It is a situation to be built upon logically. He must have two hats and two toothbrushes. Don’t go wild with hair made of purple seaweed, or live fireflies for eyeballs…Children analyze fantasy. They know you’re kidding them. There’s got to be logic in the way you kid them. Their fun is pretending…making believe they believe it.
Dr. Seuss nominally aimed to create a fantasy world that was different from the one in which he lived. That world was supposed to be a far better one, a world for children’s eyes, but still, a world that made sense. We do not know whether Dr. Seuss approached his later work with the intention of absolving himself for his wartime propaganda, yet there is one certainty: racially tinged remarks could find their way into that world, but they belonged on the sidelines, if at all.
Now, when I open my favorite Dr. Seuss books, I will myself to imagine a more conscientious Dr. Seuss, pencil and brush in hand, staring at the canvas with resolution—a Dr. Seuss who would be committed to purging racial prejudice from his art at all costs. That Dr. Seuss would draw a line and never cross it.
Image credit: Wikimedia