Theodor Seuss Geisel

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum is devoted to Springfield native Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss!

Dr. Seuss has taught generations of children to read with such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat; Green Eggs and Ham; The Sneetches; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; and Horton Hears a Who! Dr. Seuss books have inspired young readers for decades and teach many life lessons, including the importance of being true to yourself, treating others with kindness, and the need for acceptance and inclusion.

Most of Dr. Seuss’s works are positive and inspiring. However, early in his career, Geisel also created images that are disturbing and upsetting. He used racially stereotypical images that were hurtful then and are still hurtful today.

Many parents, teachers, and experts have raised the question – was Dr. Seuss racist?

Dr. Seuss’s images and books do show an evolution. Later works, like The Sneetches or Horton Hears a Who!, emphasize inclusion and acceptance. Geisel himself went back and edited some of the racially inappropriate images, trying to depict his characters in a more respectful manner.

“Justice is not always about canceling someone and their body of work. Sometimes it looks like providing room for restorative justice to take place,” writes Danielle Slaughter for Mamademics. “In my opinion, Dr. Seuss using the remainder of his career to focus on writing books full of important lessons is an example of restorative justice.”

Slaughter also notes that three of Dr. Seuss’s most well-known later works, Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax, and The Sneetches, “teach about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of others and yourself.”

In his book, Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, noted biographer Brian Jay Jones says that “Dr. Seuss trafficked in racist stereotypes in his early work.”

“As I say in the book, it’s not a great look for him,” Jones told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “But he evolves.” By the end of the 1950s, Geisel had written Horton Hears a Who! which is dedicated to a Japanese friend and is seen by scholars now as an apology for the earlier cartoons. He’d written Yertle the Turtle, an anti-fascist send-up of Hitler, and he’d penned a magazine story that would become the anti-discrimination book The Sneetches.

“I don’t think you write a book like Sneetches if you haven’t evolved,” Jones said.

Geisel was born in 1904 and grew up in the early 1900s in Springfield Massachusetts—close to the current location of the Springfield Museums, including The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden.

Well before any of his iconic books were written, Geisel joined the World War II effort on the home front. At first, he drew posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. But by 1943, Geisel wanted to do more, so he joined the U.S. Army. There, he wrote pamphlets and films and contributed to the famous Private Snafu cartoon series. According to National Archives staff, the Snafu cartoons may have influenced Geisel’s career as Dr. Seuss. Geisel left the Army in January 1946, having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. He stayed in the filmmaking industry for a few years, even working on documentaries and shorts that earned Academy Awards, but he permanently switched to using his pen name, Dr. Seuss, to start writing children’s books.

When Geisel first began to write for children in 1937, many representations of people of color in books, radio, the stage, and more were unfortunately depicted through racial stereotypes. In his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, his work was no exception. For example, to represent Asian characters Geisel used what he saw as “traditional clothing” and chopsticks to depict his characters. In this book, Geisel originally referred to the Asian character as a “Chinaman” and showed his color as yellow. It is important to note that in a later reprint Geisel removed the color and changed the text to “a Chinese man.” With that change, Geisel began to indicate his personal growth in racial sensitivity.

Geisel’s great nephew Ted Owens recalled his uncle’s decision to make that change: “It was the first time he had changed one of his books.… Art and humanity are always evolving.”

Mulberry Street was written in 1937. By contrast, the much-beloved Star Bellied Sneetches was written in 1961, as the Civil Rights Movement was well underway. Geisel wrote The Sneetches as a parable about equality. By using characters that were not human, but bird-beings, he transcended the boundaries and pitfalls of using people as characters and allowed all readers to relate to the characters as they could. They could be the Sneetch with the star or without the star. In 2015, President Obama stated: “Pretty much all the stuff you need to know is in Dr. Seuss. It’s like the Star Bellied Sneetches, you know? We are all the same, so why would we treat someone differently just because they don’t have a star on their belly?”

Geisel’s later works show an evolution of values and beliefs. We believe that if he were alive today he would have welcomed the chance to be a part of the country’s evolving dialogue about diversity and inclusion. His mistakes should not be forgotten. Dr. Seuss’s body of work, as a whole, encourages personal growth, shared values, tolerance, and both compassion and kindness towards others. These are the lessons Dr. Seuss teaches children.