by Daniel A. Kaufman
All history was palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.
Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made.
“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
–George Orwell, 1984
I am fortunate for the era in which I was born and raised, a period that saw the creation and widespread dissemination of the finest children’s and young adult literature ever to be produced. From around the time of the Second World War through the 1970’s, a remarkable group of writers of the caliber of E.B. White, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, E.L. Konigsburg, Madeline L’Engle, William Steig, Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, Ludwig Bemelmans, Miroslav Sasek, Astrid Lindgren, George Selden, Louise Fitzhugh, C.S. Lewis, and others, all wrote for and were widely read by children and young adolescents. They followed an earlier, equally impressive – though sparser – tradition that included Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Grahame, Hugh Lofting, and several others. Taken together, they represent a body of artistic creation for children that is unmatched and which, in terms of its quality, rivals any such comparable body of work written for adults.
Beyond their literary excellence, many of these books were equally memorable for their original illustrations. In some cases, as with Bemelmans, Sasek, Seuss, and Steig, author and illustrator were one and the same, while others featured legendary writer/artist collaborations: Roald Dahl and Joseph Schindelman; Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, C.S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes, and of course, Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel.
[From Left to Right: Pippi Longstocking, by Ingrid Vang Nyman (1945); London Underground, by Miroslav Sasek (1959); Tommy Stubbins and Polynesia, by Hugh Lofting (1920).]
This extraordinary combination of writing and visual art exercised a profound and positive influence over the imaginations and sensibilities of generations of young people, and there has been nothing comparable since. Harriet the Spy (1964) taught us about independence, friendship, and loyalty. We learned about love, devotion, perseverance and character from Abel’s Island (1976). Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970) and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971) helped generations of us through the early stages of adolescence. Pippi Longstocking, the remarkable protagonist of Astrid Lindgren’s novels (1945-48), demonstrated female empowerment, gender non-conformity, and youth rebellion, decades before they became the shallow fashions they are today. And all the while, Doctor Seuss was teaching us to read; to rhyme; to hear and to love the music of language and of words; and to stretch our imaginations to their limits. The superlative quality of this combined literary and artistic heritage is an indication of just how much a society can respect and care for its children; so much so as to give them the very best that its best artists and craftsmen can produce.
What can one say, then, about the ongoing and escalating vendetta against these great classics of children’s literature and children’s entertainment, more broadly? What should we think when Disney affixes warning labels to episodes of Jim Henson’s and Frank Oz’s Muppets? Or of the decision no longer to publish or sell six Dr. Seuss books, including two that rank among the top selling children’s books? How should we understand the wholesale rewriting of several chapters of Hugh Lofting’s original The Story of Doctor Dolittle for the 1988 edition? Or feel about the fact that this edition is the only one you can buy from a bookseller today?
The case involving Doctor Dolittle was my first introduction to the sordid world of censoring and bowdlerizing children’s literature. Several years ago, I was going through my substantial collection of children’s and young adult books – most of which are my childhood originals – in order to determine which volumes were sufficiently degraded or damaged to warrant replacement with new copies. [Beyond their age, they also had been extensively handled by my daughter when she was young.] One of the books that was in particularly fragile shape was my copy of The Story of Doctor Dolittle. [I also retain my original copies of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922), Doctor Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures (1952), and Introducing Doctor Dolittle, which included portions of some of the other books in the series, like Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan (1926), Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office (1923), and Doctor Dolittle’s Circus (1924).]
The edition of the first Doolittle book that I own is the 1973 edition, which is identical to the original 1920 version in both its text and illustrations. But to my shock, when I tried to buy The Story of Doctor Dolittle at my local Barnes and Noble, I discovered that the book has been heavily redacted; that entire chapters have been retroactively rewritten and illustrations removed or replaced. Even more shocking was that there was no indication that this had been done: no Editor’s Note announcing and explaining the changes, and nothing on the cover or inside to indicate that one is holding an abridged version of the book. If one goes on the book’s Wikipedia page today, there is no indication that The Story of Doctor Dolittle was ever touched at all. The plot summary provided there is from the original book – i.e., the one that you no longer can buy from booksellers – and one has to go to Gutenberg to find an un-bowdlerized version of the text and perform internet searches to find out which parts were redacted and why.
As will probably surprise no one in light of the book’s age, the reason for its expurgation and rewriting has to do with dated plotlines and depictions. Specifically, the offending chapters in The Story of Doctor Dolittle involve the Doctor’s efforts to escape from the clutches of African Prince Bumpo, by exploiting Bumpo’s dreams of being a white prince. [It is worth observing that in subsequent books, Bumpo goes on to become a dear friend of Doctor Dolittle and is a hero in the Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.]
Like Doctor Dolittle, many of the other books and illustrations currently under attack are old. Some are very old. It is in the nature of classics to be both. One thing that this means, of course, is that they are the products of earlier generations’ perceptions, values and norms, and this cannot be changed, regardless of how much or in what ways one defaces or tries to “cancel” them. The question, then, is whether children and young adolescents should be sequestered from their predecessors’ perceptions, values, and norms, by censoring, bowdlerizing, or otherwise “canceling” their predecessors’ books. They should not. And it should be pointed out that even if one thinks they should, attempting to do so is fruitless, for unless one also is going to silence or otherwise “cancel” our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc., their perceptions, values, and norms are still going to be visible and part of our sociocultural — and political — landscape. Our history, after all, is living and does not exist only in records. [A similar derangement infuses the current turmoil involving historical monuments, which I wrote about (among other things) here.]
I said before that I was fortunate for the era from which I come, and this indicates another way in which I was. Mine was an era in which a far more realistic, sober, mature attitude regarding the human condition and the human good prevailed. Though they were no strangers to social justice-oriented activism, the adults of my childhood and adolescence understood not only that there is an arc to progress, but that it is ever-ongoing and may sometimes even reverse itself; that contrary to the smug, juvenile confidence one finds in those today who justify and effect literary vandalism in the name of virtue, while there may be places where the old classics represent values worse than our own, there also are places where they represent better.
It follows from this that we should be hesitant in standing on our own virtue and denigrating that of our parents and grandparents; that it is essential that we remember and understand their perceptions, values and norms, if we are even to make sense of the ideas of progress and regress; and that we must have access to the past, as it was [as close as we can get], in order to do so. Ours was an era in which to a good extent — probably as much as is possible — we were educated with neither the revisionism of earlier traditionalists nor the “progressive” revisionism of today, and in which, more generally, adults did not overprotect children and especially not for the purpose of assuaging their own hurts and fears.
That so many see no problem today with bowdlerizing or otherwise vandalizing or “canceling” these great classics of children’s literature is unsurprising, given that even the most casual survey of what we currently produce for children – whether food, popular entertainment, literature, clothing or what have you – reveals that not only do we not care to give them the best that our society can produce, but that we’d rather give them the worst. What are we supposed to think of people who, after creating and maintaining a pornography-drenched, sexual-boundary-violating, violence-infused, junk food-and-junk entertainment-ridden world for their kids, express such intense concern about what they might find if they are allowed to read If I Ran the Zoo or The Story of Doctor Dolittle unredacted or watch The Muppets without a warning label? And what can one say of people who, like those horrible parents who use their children as proxies in their personal conflicts and struggles, employ their kids as surrogates in the political and cultural battles they are waging against one another; conflicts about which their children have no understanding or interest and in which they can exercise no agency?
One can only marvel at the sheer blinkered stupidity that one finds in so many progressive activists, who seem forever to operate under the delusion that they, their friends, and their values will inevitably and always prevail. I mentioned Harriet the Spy earlier, but what I didn’t say was that it too was censored in its day, primarily in the American South. Why? Was it because of the classism of Harriet being rich and having a governess? Is it because of the cisheteronormative portrayal of Harriet’s parents, with their traditional gender roles? No, it was because it was alleged that Harriet and her defiant attitude and behavior would undermine children’s respect for their parents. And what about Dr. Seuss? You might think that today’s activists are the first to uncover and expose the villainy of the beloved author/illustrator, but you’d be wrong. The Lorax was banned in California schools in 1989. Why? Because it would turn children against the logging industry and because of its negative portrayal of American capitalism. 
There are any number of defenses of these censorious inclinations and trends, some of which are trotted out pretty regularly. I will entertain a few of the most common of them here, but only briefly, as none seem to me worth more than a few sentences by way of reply.
- Circulating these old books unredacted harms minority children and children belonging to other marginalized groups.
Not a single person on the planet has been harmed by reading about the adventures of Dr. Dolittle, Gub-Gub, Dab-Dab, Prince Bumpo, and their friends. Or about Sylvester’s magic pebble. Or by seeing pictures of “Eskimo Fish” in McElligot’s Pool. Or while watching Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the Muppets on TV. Just as I was not harmed by reading The Merchant of Venice or Oliver Twist, despite the fact that when I first read them, I was about twelve years-old and the son of Holocaust survivors and despite both featuring explicitly anti-Semitic tropes. [I expressed some exasperated thoughts about this sort of cynical abuse of the Harm Principle here.]
- It is a good thing that major corporations like Amazon are demonstrating a commitment to social justice and children’s safety.
Given that Amazon is more than happy to sell Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Marquis de Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, rape/revenge exploitation pictures like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, and flat-out torture-porn like Hostel and Saw, the idea that the company is motivated by concern for the psychic and moral well-being of its customers is clearly a pile of you-know-what.
- Nothing to see here! You can still find all of these books online!
What is concerning and must be opposed is the inclination to cancel and bowdlerize children’s classics and the trends we are seeing in that direction, not some hypothetical future in which these classics have disappeared altogether off of the face of the earth.
- Private companies have the right to do what they like! Copyright holders have the right to do with their property as they wish!
The point is not that they do not have the legal right to do what they are doing. It is that they ought not do it, regardless. 
In closing: Love and beauty, unredacted.
[From left to right, illustrations by Dr. Seuss, William Steig, and Ludwig Bemelmans.]
 Try to imagine what the Cancel-Dr. Seuss crowd would say were a copyright holder to cease publication of a book for which there is commercial demand, on the grounds that its positive portrayal of a gay-led household was offensive to a significant number of its readers. Then try to imagine defending this decision by invoking the copyright holder’s legal right to do with their property as they wish. [And don’t lie to yourself, while doing so.]