Question: GFT, I've enjoyed your thoughtful posts over the years, esp. on literary matters. Thought I'd tee something up to get your thoughts. You've read about the Dr. Seuss estate ceasing publication of some books b/c of outdated, bigoted depictions of some characters. For example, drawings and wording around an Asian character in one book. The estate presumably controls the right to the IP. If so, why not do a new edition cleaning up the bad parts and republishing the sanitized version? Is it an "artistic purity" thing?
Hhhmmmm.....I have no idea what the members of the Seuss estate who made this choice were thinking, or why. Neither you nor I can influence the individuals involved w the Seuss estate, nor the current tide of PC-ism running through our culture. I hope it’s not due to Dr Seuss’ political cartoons drawn before he wrote children’s books.....Not that they are great, they’re pretty awful actually, they have not withstood the test of time, but must be analyzed in the context of their historical moment. It seems obvious to me that Seuss’ greatest works indicate he moved on to imaginary animals and thus, beyond drawing specific ethnically imagined humans, grew in his personal sensibilities......But the entire issue requires more than just a “sound bite” answer. It is of course ironic that early 20th century books and toys, full of stereotypical depictions of assorted ethnicities spanning the globe, were in themselves an awkward attempt at being pan cultural.....the thought of inclusivity was there - just flawed execution.
Also, Idk what you mean by “artistic purity” thing. (Once you figure that out, let’s find another name for it, bc as you say it, it sounds kinda Nazi-ish.) Do you mean : Changing the author’s original text? Or illustrations? Maybe the editors etc realized that doing so just keeps the dialogue going - on the wrong topics.
But here’s what I do know:
I “get” that these are children’s books, and we want our children to grow up without the racist genderist views of the past.
I “get” that white privilege makes you and I oblivious to slights others see and feel. (As a woman though, I can share many interesting anecdotes on bs I have had to put up within my own life.) These slights are legit, and should be examined, discussed, and brought into the cultural dialogue as “not okay” any more. We need to use this moment as an opportunity to discuss civilly and teach others about the harm exclusion, stereotyping or over simplification, and hate speech (ideas, illustrations) can bring.
But rather than see a revisionist cancel culture take over, I’d rather see more open dialogue and learning take over. I’m generally against banning any books - even horrible evil wretched ones. Because once you start cancelling one author, artist, book - where does it stop? The vaguely Chinese dancing mushrooms in the 1939 cartoon “Fantasia”? Stereotypical costumed dancers, Russian, Chinese, African and more - in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”? The Madame Alexander collection of dolls from around the world? The “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland?
And of course : No one is asking unrealistic images of the female body that cause women to hate their own natural flawed human beauty be removed from pop culture. No one is asking misogynistic novels, movies, video games to be banned.
Three examples as food for thought :
“Huckleberry Finn”, the 1880’s novel by Mark Twain, contains the “n word”. It is a novel that has always sparked controversy : on one side, for use of the “n word”, on the other side, bc Huck (who’s white daddy is a cruel belligerent abusive drunk) turns to his runaway slave friend Jim as a surrogate father figure, instead. Huck has a chance to turn Jim in as a runaway slave, and doesn’t - and feels bad about it, bc his 1840’s southern USA world has told him that Jim is someone else’s property. So Huck feels bad for doing the “right” wrong thing. It’s a nuanced point that 99% of people on either side of the issue can’t process. So the novel remains controversial bc of its use of the “n word”, bc that is inflammatory and riles people up. They never look beyond that to what Twain is trying to tell us - or even to accepting the historical setting and verisimilitude of the word choice. So a parable, trying to teach us about deeper human relationships, is unacceptable bc of one word.
“Gone With the Wind”, a novel by Margarette Mitchell written in the 1920’s (as the generation of individuals who had lived through the Civil War were dying off), and published in the 1930’s (bc the research took her 10 years to complete), was written by a young southern woman about her grandmother, who lived in Georgia in the 1860’s. MM grew up hearing all her grandmother’s stories, and along with a ton of research about that period in Ga history (Civil War battle specifics, economic forces, train schedules, farming practices, cost of goods, what people ate-wore-did), wrote it all up in a “fictional” memoir. The only thing MM ever intended was to tell her grandmother’s biography. Publication of the novel brought it to the attention, made it a cause celebre of pop cultural forces during the 1930’s Jim Crow era. MGM turned the novel from a tale of how a dozen different female characters survived the Civil War, into a movie about a sexy bitchy she-vixen. Over 2/3 of the novel’s characters / events were cut from the film. Now both book and movie are deemed politically unacceptable - even though Margaret Mitchell took the “n word” out, at her publisher’s request - bc no one ever reads the book any more, only watches the movie - and the movie has characters in it that are stereotypes (even if true to MMs account of her grandmother’s stories.) So personal experiences, white southern people’s memoirs, are unacceptable, bc not currently “woke.” (But Hillbilly Eulogy” is “woke” so it’s ok.)
What about Steinbeck’s simplistic depiction of lower class caucasian migrant farm workers in “Of Mice and Men”? Conrad’s depiction of natives in “Lord Jim”? Pearl S. Buck’s overly archetypal peasants in “The Good Earth” ? Hemingway’s depiction of nobly suffering Cuban fishermen? Any story where Nazis, Communists, etc are bad guys? Complex analysis and discussion is required for consideration of each of these.
And yet, no one is talking about this at all:
But the third example is my personal beef du jour: My alma mater, Rice U, was founded by a man who made a fortune on cotton and sugarcane plantations in the 1800’s. Just like so many American universities, from UVA to Brown to UT and more.....the wealth that financially underwrote their creation was achieved via the exploitation of others. Slaves and migrant workers and native Americans whose land was taken, who were worked to death or just killed off in an intentional racial genocide - all suffered a loss as white European men did whatever they did to earn money. Britain and other European nations did it too - out of sight in the colonies. Yes, it’s horrible - akin to the Old Testament story of pharaoh subjugating Moses and the Hebrews, or Nazis exterminating Jews, Poles, gypsies, gays, etc in the Third Reich. But recent student protests at Rice prompted a meltdown on an alumni FB page, with younger alumni wanting a statue of the founder of Rice removed bc he had slaves. Apparently irony impaired, these same people felt it was ok though to continue to enjoy the “white privilege” of a super posh campus, lifestyle, and degree - all available from that money. My point in all this was that merely removing the statue (a special revered feature on campus, one that represents the esprit de corps of its denizens, much like the Statue of Liberty, or the Vietnam Wall) continues to “whitewash” history, literally, and does nothing to make amends or raise awareness for those who were exploited over 150 years ago. Demands to remove Willy’s statue offer a momentary “feel good we achieved something” moment, without bothering to explore the issue at all. What then? Go about yer business of getting an education on a campus, without the troublesome statue to remind you where it all originated? How does that solve anything? Better to turn the statue into a teachable moment, with some additional historical contextual information next to it.
I am sure you did not expect such a long winded answer, but my point is this : None of these issues can be resolved with a sound bite or knee jerk response. To truly move forward, we must preserve the old, so it is never forgotten, and offer tours or paratextual material that explains historical context - Just like touring Auschwitz, or slave auction buildings in the south. So history won’t forget, but will learn from it and grow.
What are your thoughts on the subject?