'The Cat in the Hat' turns 65 and lives 'somewhere in between offensive and inoffensive'

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One day long ago, a fiercely mischievous feline showed up at the house of two young children. Chaos ensued. Despite the high-pitched protestations of the home’s pet fish, the cat would not leave.

“'But I like to be here, oh I like it a lot,’ said the cat in the hat to the fish in the pot. ‘I will NOT go away, I do NOT wish to go!’”

Sixty-five years later this Saturday, Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” is still with us.

That longevity can't be taken for granted of late. The expansive and long-beloved Dr. Seuss canon has taken a cultural hit in recent years on racial insensitivity grounds, with six titles pulled by the Seuss gatekeepers last year.

During 2021's Read Across America Day – traditionally held on author Theodor Geisel's birthday, March 2 – President Biden did not mention Dr. Seuss, long a staple of that day. That White House mention did return for the 2022 festivities.

Related video: 'Read Across America Day' 2021 shifted focus away from Dr. Seuss

The dapper cat himself may need to avail himself of his nine lives. He has, according to scholars, a problematic heritage rooted in minstrelsy, this despite the progressive messages found in many of the 60-odd books penned by illustrator/writer Geisel.

“The cat is somewhere in between offensive and inoffensive,” says Philip Nel, Kansas State University professor of English and author of “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.

Nel says that telling aspects of the cat clearly are derived from racist blackface performers popular a century ago, performers, who, like the cat, often wore white gloves and neckwear. But that stands in stark contrast to the fact that Geisel went out of his way during his long career to write stories that celebrated diversity.

To put "Cat" into context, it was written in 1957 before a surge in the Civil Rights Movement that heightened racial sensitivity across much of the nation. By that point, Geisel had been writing his children's books for 20 years. After "Cat," he produced his anti-materialism holiday classic, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."

“I’m not anti-Seuss, I just have a more complex relationship to him than I once did,” says Nel, who also calls Seuss a “poet” who changed the English language. “He was simply not immune to the prejudices of his day and he does not operate outside of history.”

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The theme of Nel's 2017 book was later echoed by a 2019 study published by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens titled "The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books." That work concluded many Dr. Seuss books degraded people of color.

The intense spotlight now being trained on all manner of cultural totems and icons has at times brewed a “cancel culture” storm that has in turn drawn its own backlash.

Last year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, or DSE, proactively announced it would stop publishing six titles – including “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo” – that included depictions of people from Africa with grotesque features and Asians with slanted eyes and chopsticks.

DSE also said it would create new books using never-used Geisel illustrations and hire writers of color to guide the text. Some praised the decision, while others felt the move would signal open season on more children's books. DSE declined to comment for this article.

Reacting to the DSE decision, "The View" co-host Joy Behar said "I do not like erasing art, I do not think it's wise or smart, that is my position. I think that these books are teaching tools... If I were teaching a class now I would bring them right into the class so that people can see what he was thinking."

Educators in the meantime try to walk a fine line. They want to promote exposure to a wide array of views and ensure that insensitive content does not alienate impressionable young readers while also being aware of the historical value of all books.

Maria Franquiz, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, says, “Our group seeks to grow professional knowledge about children’s literature among its members so that children and adolescents have optimal opportunities to see their own backgrounds, identities, interests and aspirations valued and respected.”

Franquiz did not comment specifically on Dr. Seuss' works and whether they might impinge on her organization’s mission.

Across the nation, some libraries did pull the offending titles, but others chose to move them to research-only collections, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

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She says her organization has fielded fewer than five complaints about “The Cat in the Hat” over the past four years. The ALA has concerns about issues broader than Seuss.

“There is definitely a heightened awareness among library professionals that books be inclusive and welcoming,” she says. But, Caldwell-Stone adds, what librarians try and steer clear of is “any form of censorship being used as a tool to address political agendas of any kind.”

She says examples include some conservative groups wanting "The 1619 Project," a look at the origins and legacy of slavery in the U.S., removed from libraries, based in part on grounds that it makes white students ashamed of their roots. She says the Dr. Seuss debacle was pointedly not censorship.

“That was the rights-holder making a choice about not publishing certain titles, not government action,” says Caldwell-Stone of the Seuss titles, adding that some libraries opted to keep those books on shelves until they wear out. “This close look at Dr. Seuss is emblematic of the general reevaluation of many works that simply reflected the attitudes of their times.”

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Seuss scholar Nel notes that Geisel, who was born in 1904 and died in 1991, was “not really aware of the racist era he grew up in, so that is reflected in some of his works.

“These days, you’re either on team racism or team anti-racism, but in many ways, Seuss appears to be on both,” he adds, noting that in contrast to those racist cartoons there are plenty of Seuss books that champion the underdog and decry bigotry.

But there's another reason Nel suspects DSE isn't likely to invite more scrutiny of that cat in the white-and-red striped hat.

“The Cat is an icon,” he says. “He’s the brand for the beginner line of books. You get rid of him, and you’re literally taking your logo and throwing it out.”

Two co-stars of
Two co-stars of

While not downplaying some of the more vexing aspects of Geisel’s work, Nel says it’s important to also remember that “Cat in the Hat” exemplifies what makes Seuss so compelling, namely an innovative use of verse, surreal illustrations and unique word-play that all have helped millions of children develop a love of reading.

And it's not just the cat who's a celebrity. The co-stars of "The Cat in the Hat," the ambiguously humanoid Thing 1 and Thing 2, have even become popular Halloween costumes. So yes, says Nel, it's still OK to love that high jinks-prone kitty.

“Some of Dr. Seuss is problematic, sure,” he says. “But if you look closer, quite a lot of what he was writing were parables that said, don’t judge people based on appearance.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dr. Seuss' 'Cat in the Hat' turns 65, survives ongoing culture wars