Last week I was mindlessly scrolling through instagram, late at night, as one does, and I came across a mention of Dr. Suess in someone’s stories. Little did I know that Dr. Suess would continue to pop up on my feed on multiple platforms throughout the next couple of days. I witnessed and experienced a lot of mixed emotions, similarly to many people I follow and am friends with. I don’t usually like to write anything remotely political; I prefer to have those discussions in person. Online disagreements, especially about race or other difficult topics, have little to no dialogue, and often these discussions lack kindness and compassion. However, thoughts rushed to me as I read people’s reactions to the Dr. Suess scandal, and I thought I might contribute some ideas from an artist’s point of view.
The first thing I thought about was the nature of heroes. I want my heroes in books to be flawed. I want my villains to be understandably evil. I think this is one of the great tools of literature—to help us see the complexity of human nature. I think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; it’s Darcy (the hero) that comes across as callous and cruel, while Willoughby (the villain) is kind and generous. It’s not until further examination that we see the true nature of these characters come to light. Things are not always how they seem. However, this is not how we like our ‘real-life’ heroes to be. Our real life heroes could be politicians, artists, foreign monarchies, actors, pastors, and anything in between. We want our real life heroes to be flawless, without blemish, and oftentimes we want our villains to be pure evil. Tune into the conservative media, Biden can do no right. Read some of the left leaning media? Ted Cruz is the antichrist. I’m more comfortable with this thinking too, either people are good or bad. No one is in the middle. However, that’s not how life works . . . and it’s not how art works either. Life is lived in the inbetween. Dr. Suess is one of those in-between people. Has he done good? Yes. Has he done evil? Yes. He does not fit comfortably into either box.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. We want our happy memories of being snuggled up with a beloved adult reading a Dr. Suess book to stay cozy. When we’re talking about Dr. Suess, are we protecting our childhood memories, or are we protecting our brothers, sisters, friends, aunts, uncles, mothers, and fathers who are hurting from these images?
Something else I thought about is how sometimes we love an artist or an author and we want all their work to be great, but it just isn’t. Just because an author wrote this book, which we should love, does not mean we should love all of his/her work. Why should we unconditionally accept every work by any author or artist or any kind of creative? Do we accept all of Shakespeare’s plays as great? News flash: not all of Shakespeare is great. Many of his works are great, but some of his works are good, and some of them are just bad (I would pontificate more on this, but that’s a different blogpost for a different time, but please understand that I deeply love Shakespeare). We don’t consider all of Da Vinci’s work to be masterpieces or Michelangelo’s. Picasso produced a great painting in Guernica, but a lot of his work, frankly, is sexist. Ever heard the phrase, “Women are either goddesses or doormats”? Picasso’s view on women (The Art of Love, Kate Bryan). We want all work by our artistic heroes to have no bad work either in content or in form. However, every creative has some sort of bad work (either bad in the way that it’s crafted or bad that it upholds harmful ideologies) that don’t deserve honor or recognition.
Years ago, I went to the National Gallery in DC. I stood for a while and studying a painting by a famous artist. I forget who it was by; I just remember that it lacked the characteristics which made the artist deserving of recognition. What a shame, I thought, that this artwork was included, when the artist had such amazing others. Wouldn’t it have been better to honor a great work by a different, lesser known artist than include a piece by one of the greats that wasn’t great? The same with Dr. Suess: some of his works are great, but as for his lesser works, wouldn’t it be better to honor another author than pretend that all of his work deserves love?
Something else to think about: Dr Suess expressed regret over his racist depictions later in life (You can read more in this article here). As the article states, Horton Hears a Who! is largely considered to be an apology for his earlier work. He tried to do better and make amends. If Dr. Suess considered these works in bad taste, shouldn’t we as well?
Is your head hurting? Mine is. I want to propose that we should see people as dynamic beings, a mixture of both the bad and the good. All of our heroes have flaws, and all our villains have, at least one, good quality (In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ recounts how her mom used to say even Hilter loved animals). What I’m trying to do is help us all think critically about how we view our creatives, and to strive to see them as complete people, viewing both their pleasant and despicable parts. I’m sure there’s more information about Dr. Suess and race out there, and I’ll personally continue to think and question what books I’m reading to my children and who wrote them.
BRYAN, KATE. ART OF LOVE: the Romantic and Explosive Stories behind Art's Greatest Couples. WHITE LION PUB, 2020.
Lin, Grace. “Dr. Seuss Museum Should Honor The Fact That He Outgrew His Racist Past.” New England Public Media, New England Public Media , 11 Oct. 2017, www.nepm.org/post/dr-seuss-museum-should-honor-fact-he-outgrew-his-racist-past#stream/0.
Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle: a Memoir. Scribner, 2007.