Love, Memory, and Children’s classics

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. [1]

____

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.

  1. 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.]

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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. [2]

____

In closing: Love and beauty, unredacted.

[From left to right, illustrations by Dr. Seuss, William Steig, and Ludwig Bemelmans.]

Notes

[1] https://readingpartners.org/blog/five-childrens-books-you-didnt-know-were-banned/

[2] 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.]

44 comments

  1. Projecting current concerns/viewpoints by adults onto children and children’s literature retrospectively will be mistaken in most cases. Did reading ‘Huck Finn’ make millions of children into racists (Huck uses the N-word when referring to Jim), or worse, supporters of slavery? I don’t think so. The reader is firmly on the side of Jim.

      1. If I recall The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a powerful message about how we need to struggle to think for ourselves and not cave to conformity. This sort of thing may no longer be fashionable.

        What is interesting is the moral condemnation of “bad words” seems to be stronger than ever. Of course I agree using certain terms in a hurtful way would be morally evil. But it seems even the uttering or typing of certain words – regardless of intent – has taken on a sort of magically evil aura. Anyone that grew up in the 80s and then tries to show their kids movies from that era gets the sense this change. It just seems like people have to find new things to be morally outraged about.

        1. ‘What is interesting is the moral condemnation of “bad words” seems to be stronger than ever.’

          Actually, there is a theory on this (outlined in the book What the F) that I find quite compelling. The argument is that it isn’t so much that we are more censorious of bad words today, but the bad words we are censorious of are changing. It used to be that the words you couldn’t say were words related to blasphemy, sex or bodily functions, but you could generally say words that were slurs and epithets. Today, it’s reversing. It used to be that you could say “the n word’ in polite company but not “the a word” or “the d word.” Now, “the a word” and “d word” are allowable on network TV, and if you stream private services, all the other words are fair game… except the slurs. NOW, the slurs have taken the place of the words you can’t say.

          Looked at that way, you can probably make better sense of why no one has much problem today with American Psycho but people are freaking out about Huck Finn.

          https://www.amazon.com/What-Swearing-Reveals-Language-Ourselves/dp/1541617207/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=what+the+f&qid=1617118931&sr=8-1

  2. You might be surprised to know that I largely agree with you, (surprised given that I think it is literally impossible in our current era to sustain such a capacious Millian liberal stance in terms of expression. But that proviso would be connected to my technology/infrastructure argument.)
    Where I agree with your positive evaluation of the 70s and 80s versus today is on the metric of aesthetics. That era was simply better at appreciating works of art and understanding the special nature of such, notwithstanding the particular ideology or politics that can be found in any work of art. Our climate today is outright hostile towards artists as well as the work they create. I have my own view of the reasons for that. So, the 70s/80s got that right and thus I concur with your sense of having been fortunate. however there were great many things that era got wrong and we have improved. It’s multidimensional and complicated.

    1. Count me as another one of those “you might be surprised by our agreement” people. I think there is a good case to be made that the best attitude for people to hold is the one Dan is describing, where we look at works from the past with that sort of understanding that they are, well, works from the past. I too prefer an attitude and world where folks generally have the attitude where we are not so easily offended by those works.

      I think the point of departure between Dan and I on these scores is that I cannot see how it is uniquely liberal to mandate or expect that everyone hold the attitude that I and he think is the best one to hold. I cannot see how it is uniquely liberal to tell black people, say, not to be offended at racist stereotypes about ‘their people’ in books of yore, booksellers and publishers what they have to sell, publishers what they have to keep (and what we will ‘allow’ them to edit) in works they deal with, and shoppers/readers to say “you either read the version we think is worth preserving or you read something else.” Even if I want a publisher to carry the older version of a work, or a reader not to wish that they could read a revised version, or a publisher not to want to make that revised “PC” version, the liberal course seems to me to be for me to allow them to do as they want to do short of direct harm to others. (And no, I don’t think that making it so that folks can’t read the original Dr. Doolittle without chasing it down at a library or doing an involved web search counts as a real harm.)

      I think it is also worth pointing out what I think ends up being a contradiction. Dan says that attempts to get offending books revised, censored, etc “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.” But if that is so, doesn’t that admit that his entire argument against folks attempts to do this moot? It can’t be that Dan is writing an impassioned plea against trends that he thinks will be entirely futile. Nor do I believe he really does think they are futile, in light of many allusions he has made in comments on my articles to all of this ‘cancel culture’ stuff leading us to 1984. None of that could likely come from a person who really does think that these ‘cancel culture’ trends will ultimately be futile. (If anything, I’m probably the one who thinks they are. If what Dan wants to do is preserve the classics in their original form, I can point him toward several libraries that actually do that sort of thing.)

      1. I made no argument from liberalism, so I don’t know why it features so heavily in your reply.

        I also made no prescriptions. I haven’t told black people or corporations to do anything. I simply have indicated why current inclinations and trends are foolish and ill advised.

        And there is no contradiction. That such efforts in fact are futile does not mean that activists don’t think they are or that they cannot do tremendous damage to our literary heritage, in thinking so. [And one regularly hears the refrain that we need to just wait until these atavistic old people die out, and we’ll finally gain the results we want.].

        Besides which, as I indicated, it is the inclination and trends that are worrisome, not the prospect that 1984 will be realized.

        As for your last remark, no thanks. I already own the originals. And given that the books remain in high demand, there is no reason why a normal person shouldn’t be able to go to their local Barnes and Noble or Amazon and buy them. And Certainly not because of a small number of loud, toxic activists. This is not a matter of markets but of cowardice and mendacity on the part of corporations.

        1. “I also made no prescriptions. I haven’t told black people or corporations to do anything. I simply have indicated why current inclinations and trends are foolish and ill advised.”

          Maybe it is me, but I am having a bit of trouble seeing how we make this distinction. Let me see if I can explain the confusion.

          Trends are made of people doing stuff. So, to think that a trend is “foolish and ill-advised” you must at some point think that the decisions people are making that, when aggregated, become a trend are “foolish and ill-advised.” SO, if you think the trend of people being offended by seeing bad racial stereotypes representing “their people” is foolish and ill-advised, on some level you have to then think that individual people who are so offended are foolish and ill-advised when they are so offended, or when they voice offense. If you think the trend of publishers deciding to rewrite sections of children’s books is foolish and ill-advised, you have to on some level have it in your head that publishers SHOULDN’T ever be deciding to do this. Etc.

          So, I understand that you aren’t making any direct prescriptions here. But if you think x trend is foolish and ill-advised, you have to (a) think that the individual choices that led to these trends are also foolish and ill-advised, and (b) that something should be done to move the trends in some right direction.

          1. I’m not going to play games. I have not “told black people” what you described in your earlier comment. Nor have I suggested that people not be offended. What I have said is not to bowdlerize children’s classics. Just as I would say not to re-paint parts of a Rembrandt or Monet.

      2. You make some decent points.

        I think another problem problem has to do with trying to over sterilize everything and coddling children. It is important that children learn that others will have different views than your own on issues you think are important. Children should understand this and learn to handle that in a rational way without melting down. And it also teaches them that people are a mixed bag of good and bad. I think these are important perspectives for children in a pluralistic society to have.

      3. “I think the point of departure between Dan and I on these scores is that I cannot see how it is uniquely liberal to mandate or expect that everyone hold the attitude that I and he think is the best one to hold. I cannot see how it is uniquely liberal to tell black people, say, not to be offended at racist stereotypes about ‘their people’ in books of yore, booksellers and publishers what they have to sell, publishers what they have to keep (and what we will ‘allow’ them to edit) in works they deal with, and shoppers/readers to say “you either read the version we think is worth preserving or you read something else.” Even if I want a publisher to carry the older version of a work, or a reader not to wish that they could read a revised version, or a publisher not to want to make that revised “PC” version, the liberal course seems to me to be for me to allow them to do as they want to do short of direct harm to others. (And no, I don’t think that making it so that folks can’t read the original Dr. Doolittle without chasing it down at a library or doing an involved web search counts as a real harm.)”

        In your earlier blog you said something similar about Amazon refusing to sell a book on transgender people. And I do want to defend what I consider to be a liberal perspective. I agree that Amazon or Dr. Seuss’s estate removing books is different than the state forcing the removal of the books. But I do think private entities can act in a way that is illiberal. And doing your part to prevent ideas from being accessed seems squarely illiberal.

        I’m heading out to my neighborhood book burning! But don’t worry we legally acquired the books we are burning we are just sending the message it is wrong for anyone to understand the ideas that are in these books. Is that not illiberal? I agree it would be illiberal to have the police come and tell me I can’t express myself by burning these books. I don’t think anyone is saying private people should be forced to do anything in particular. But I also think true liberals would say they do not support book burnings – even if it is private individuals doing the burning. Amazons message is the same message of those who do book burnings.

        As a parent I want to know what my kids read but when they are older I am ok with them reading any ideas they want. I do think it would be illiberal of me to try to suppress ideas I disagree with. That does not mean I need to be indifferent or cold to those who may be hurt by the ideas expressed. The ACLU supported the nazis right to march in Skokie Illinois. Skokie in particular had many holocaust survivors.

        https://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/rights-protesters/skokie-case-how-i-came-represent-free-speech-rights-nazis

        Such a march no doubt was horrible and hurtful for the people of Skokie. It saddens me that we put people who already went through so much hardship through even more. Nor do I don’t think all ideas or speech need to be promoted. But doing your bit to make sure ideas are never heard is illiberal – even when it is private people doing it.

        1. “I agree that Amazon or Dr. Seuss’s estate removing books is different than the state forcing the removal of the books. But I do think private entities can act in a way that is illiberal. And doing your part to prevent ideas from being accessed seems squarely illiberal.”

          Well, as I’ve said in previous articles, I think here, we have a good old clash of liberal values. Liberalism is great, but that doesn’t mean its values are internally consistent or will not conflict. And here we have such a conflict. Liberals value free access to information, and part of that means that liberals are sensitive to hints of censorship based on the content of ideas expressed. But liberals ALSO value free association, free conscience, and in general, the prerogative of the owner of property to decide what to do and not to with that property.

          So, here, we quite possible have an area where the rubber meets the road. I don’t particularly want to say that amazon’s (or Seuss estate’s) decision is itself liberal. I want to say that it lies within the perfectly liberal framework of free association, free conscience, and the prerogative of the property owner. But yes, that can conflict – when the associate, conscience, and property is that of a bookseller or copyright holder – with another perfectly liberal desire that information and media not be censored on ideological grounds.

          As it happens I think free association, conscience, and property rights are far more important to my kind of liberalism than I do a free flow of information that is made possible by diminution of those prior three values.

          Hence, my temptation to suggest that while I dislike book burnings, I can’t see them, when undertaken voluntarily in a way that doesn’t make it appreciably harder for people to get the books in question, as illiberal on their face.

  3. I do understand you concerns in the matter and in some ways agree with them. That said I can’t help but wonder if there is some shall I say middle ground of some sort. An example would be certainly if the work of an author is changed it needs to be clearly stated that it was changed by the publisher. Another example is in looking at some of the Seuss book illustrations I would not be happy to see them in the book either but prefer to have them redone with of course acknowledging that the new illustrations were not the originals rather than take the book out of print. A final example, although not about children’s literature, is TCM’s new introduction to “Gone With The Wind” that was excellent I thought. You can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DF2FKRToiQ I suppose what concerns me the most is how people are separating into warring camps. Just one more thing many can fight over in the culture wars.

    1. My concern is that this sort of society-wide enforced group think will lead to intolerance. Diverse societies should value tolerance in the true sense of the word. It is only if you think someone is wrong that you can tolerate them. We don’t “tolerate” people we agree with.

      What is wrong with the introduction? She tells us that this movie speaks directly to the racial inequalities that exist today. What if someone disagreed and thought this movie *contrasts* with the way we think of race today? I mean I have no view on the matter because I have never even seen the movie. But the intent seems to be tmc trying to cya and also an attempt to push a certain political view. Why does tmc feel that they need to push a political view to cover their butts? I think when political propaganda starts to invade all aspects of our lives from movies to sports we should take notice. An important part of our culture is that government/politics has limited power/influence over our lives. I realize this is a private company but it is concerning when private companies seem to think they need to start doing propaganda work for the dominant political party.

      1. Yes, intolerance is within my concern for the fighting and culture wars. Interesting reaction to TCM’s info prior to the movie seems to me. If you see the movie I suppose it would make better sense. I thought it was educational myself. What was said in the TCM has been written by historians/movie critics for a long time so it is not recent thinking. And, sure they are CYA ing to be sure. HBO MAX also has added a disclaimer that I
        have not seen. I have also watched Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith made in 2016 a couple of times. Now that is a very racist movie by today’s standards and was also denounced by some at that time. It was shown at the White House, endorsed by President Wilson and helped build the KKK to a major political power after WWI. Just some of the reason some want to “cancel” Woodrow Wilson.

        1. “What was said in the TCM has been written by historians/movie critics for a long time so it is not recent thinking.”

          She said it “speaks directly to the racial inequalities that exist in media and society today.”

          Are you saying a historian of, say, 1991 predicted the movie will speak directly to the racial inequalities that will exist in march of 2021? Or are you saying the historian of the 1991 said that the movie speaks directly to the inequality that existed at the time he wrote in 1991.

          Either way they are not doing history they are doing politics.

          We can all agree with the political view but let’s at least recognize it is a political view.

          1. Yes, some say “everything is political”. Thomas Mann and Bob Marley both said that among others. I am sure historians have their biases which include political ones. I would say you are also right that corporations are political animals given they fund a lot of political candidates of both sides and are concerned with not offending their target market and/or virtue signaling to their target markets. To clarify, I am saying that things like what the TCM person said have been said by others about the movie since before the movie was made/released (it was a best selling novel before it was a movie so people critiqued the book saying it was racist) up to the present time and people will probably say things like it in the future. I thought what was said was educational and informative on several levels. I am sure you are right it at least had elements of politics.

  4. A small remark: even in the past, children’s authors re-worked their books and comics. It’s not something new. Hergé (of Tintin fame) changed the name of one his characters, Blumenstein, because of the anti-semitic connotations (°°).

    However, what annoys me in the current canceling-craze is that it severely underestimates the young readers. Young people who love books – they aren’t that common, as every teacher can tell you – know that the 19th century is not 2021. They’re smart enough to understand that the N-word is a slur, but that it was commonly used in Huckleberry Finn’s time (and not always with bad intentions).

    (°°) In a Tintinesque twist of fate, the result wasn’t any better. Hergé often took words and expressions from his Brussels dialect to name places, people etc. Wadesdah, Khemed, dr. Krollspell, Borduria, “Eih bennek, eih blavek” etc. – it’s great fun to decipher them. However, in this case he replaced Blumenstein with Bohlwinkel – a “bollenwinkel” is a candy store in Brussels. Apparently, he didn’t know that Bohlwinkel was a jewish name too.

  5. You might be interested to know that, because the WWE library is going to be held by Peacock for the next five years, they have already set about purging offending content (e.g., you can no longer get access to the Wrestlemania 6 match between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Bad News Brown, where Piper painted half his body black, for reasons that are and were unfathomable. Like, no one even at the time knew what he was thinking).

    As someone joked, this will mean the WWE library will go from 100,000 to about 30 hours. It obviously won’t, but it’s not clear to me why certain things that offend today’s sensibilities will be available and others that are similarly offensive won’t.

    It’s also weird — I don’t quite get the instinct to purge the material. It’s one thing if it’s a straight-up power play. That, I get. But I gather that people think the bare fact that offensive things exist and can be accessed is itself something that is unacceptable. Do they think of them as scorpions that you might accidentally stumble upon and get poisoned by? In that case, why not just have warnings? After all, they’re not actually scorpions.

    I recall, in the 90s, liberals saying to conservatives, “if you don’t like [x], don’t watch it!” Now, the slogan seems to be, “if you don’t like [x], don’t watch it … and also make sure that as few people as possible *can* watch it!”

    1. “It’s also weird — I don’t quite get the instinct to purge the material. It’s one thing if it’s a straight-up power play. That, I get. But I gather that people think the bare fact that offensive things exist and can be accessed is itself something that is unacceptable. Do they think of them as scorpions that you might accidentally stumble upon and get poisoned by? In that case, why not just have warnings? After all, they’re not actually scorpions.”

      Forewarning: the following shall not be construed as an endorsement of the reasoning the author lays out. It is meant for entertainment purposes only, and maybe because while not endorsing the following message, the author finds it to be a plausible and likely response to your query. Proceed with care:

      “You can probably say that because you are a white/cis/straight person ensconced safely in a society where you do not regularly encounter messages that you are lesser because of your skin, sexual identity, etc. I am a black female, and growing up in a white society, I can tell you that I receive messages quite frequently – often without anyone’s intent, which honestly makes it worse – that I am lesser. I see little to no media depicting people of my skin shade as a love interest or someone possible of being loved. I played with no toys that looked like me, or that looked anything other than white for that matter. Etc. So, yeah, when you see a storybook in your local Barnes and Noble of Little Sambo freely available for anyone to buy because it’s such a cute story to read to kiddos, you will not experience it as I do. And sure, I will not buy that story. But the fact that the story is published, freely sold at the local bookshop and (I assume, because it remains in print) profitable enough to the companies selling it is YET MORE affirmation that I live in a society that cares less about people like me than people like you. You’re white, and that makes “So just don’t buy it ! What’s the big deal?” something you can say casually. I don’t really have that luxury.”

      1. My mother was in Bergen Belsen as a child/pre-teen. My father was smuggling Jewish refugees off of boats from German concentration and death camps, when he was 15 years old in Palestine, under constant threat of being shot by British soldiers. I’m really getting tired of your posturing on racial harm and offense and constant suggestions that others just don’t get it and are callous and indifferent to the suffering of marginalized people.

        I can count the living members of my *entire extended family* on two hands, because the rest were gassed or worked to death.

        And no, my parents didn’t go to the school board and demand that Oliver Twist and The Merchant of Venice be removed or accuse everyone of being racists if they didn’t remove them. I’m proud of them for that.

        I am going to bow out.

  6. But but but … Won’t somebody please think of the children? Won’t somebody please think of the children?

    The brittle & anxious ones are not the children. We are. And we are transferring all our brittleness and anxiety to our children.

    1. Well, the mental health data indicates that there has been an alarming increase in rates of anxiety and depression amongst young people.

  7. Made me pretty wistful, Dan – thinking of all those rainy afternoons in Tacoma, sitting up in my room with Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, Encyclopedia Brown, The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, etc. Coming across Lester del Rey’s Tunnel Through Time through Scholastic Book Services start a sci-fi binge that lasted for years. Thanks for posting this essay. I appreciate it.

  8. Keep in mind the images of small children of color who when asked to pick the more beautiful doll, chose the white one. Or, who is the bad one, pick the black doll.
    To me, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have always been symbols of good home cooked meals, nurturing parents and family warmth around the kitchen table. Disney’s Song of the South has also said goodbye because there were too many happy slaves going about their unpaid business. Two of my favorite stories as a child were Little Black Sambo and Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. (Dan, I’m sure you remember the ill fated Sambo pancake house in North Miami. I always thought that was a clever name.) Then again, as a Boomer, I grew up in a very integrated neighborhood and race and religion were not topics of interest in my household. But, why would I assume my experience was universal and that the same stories and symbols were not perceived as favorable or even neutral but were in fact drivers of insecurity, or reinforcement of bigotry and derision?

    What I hear from you and the majority of others who have commented, is the nostalgic, and intellectual musings of *Adults* presuming to speak for today’s children who have no conception or care about the original verbiage or characterizations of yore, that their parents so fondly and longingly remember. The children can still enjoy the newer versions of a less potentially insensitive fare that will be the foundation and bedrock of their own fond memories in a hopefully less fraught society. All things change and some for the better and most children are not as precocious a reader as Dan’s venture into Shakespeare and the most eloquent denunciation of antisemitism “If you prick us do we not bleed?” I think we concede that Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain are not quite the same age category as Golden Classics and need not be altered. It is always the adults and their experiences, insensitivities ,preconceptions and rationales that presume to know better, not only for their own children but other’s as well. True, one doesn’t have to buy and read certain books to their kids, they could be labeled like movies and records are or were but, I see this leading to a disjointed lack of social harmony with almost two different realities that schools and other public entities will have a difficult time navigating. I might be overstating this aspect.

    I’m as anti woke purity purges and hypersensitive racialism as anyone and don’t want to coddle a generation of snowflakes but, the insidious, subliminal cues that infest and infect children’s books from less “enlightened” times when most authors were white males, as caring as they were and oblivious to what potential harm a minority (minority in every sense, fat, handicapped, color, religion etc.) child might subconsciously inhale, must be examined with today’s greater insight of psychology and hitherto unspoken voices.

    I agree that in some instances, some of these socially outdated children’s books are literary and artistic classics and should in some manner be preserved for adult and mature perusal. If for no other reason than historical perspective and instruction. I have chosen to be somewhat of a Devil’s Advocate on this subject for truly, there is the other side of the coin to be contemplated. Dan, my heart agrees with you but my intellect tells me that there is more than one truth here and the young developing minds of our pluralistic society deserve diligent, concerned and empathetic consideration going forth on this subject.

    BTW, I’ve watched some of your classroom instruction and have read some of your works here and more formally at EA and I don’t think some of the regular commenters at Bhtv give you your earned due. This was an impressive and thoughtful disquisition.

    1. This is not an exercise in nostalgia for me. I feel very strongly about it, and I completely disagree with your take. I think that what we are talking about is even more terrible for the children on whose behalf it is being done. The way to honor and respect minority children is not to treat them like helpless, fragile flowers and to give them re-chewed, abridged versions of great classics. Exactly the opposite is the case.

      I ran exactly in to this issue, when I was teaching at a community college in The Bronx, back in the early 90’s. I was teaching a humanities survey — philosophy, literature, art history, and religion — as part of a remedial program designed to help students get up to speed, after terrible high school educations. I was told constantly by colleagues and admin that if I was going to do right by these underprivileged students, I needed to fill my curriculum with stuff that would “speak” to them: rap music; contemporary minority literature; etc. I told them all to fuck off. That the way *I* would do right by my students is by giving them exactly the education that the privileged kids were getting. That meant Plato, and Bach, and Milton. And the result was a cohort of students who were light years beyond the rest of the program; who succeeded to a far greater degree in the rest of their schooling; and who developed a lifelong love for arts and letters.

      Also, for the record, the Shakespeare and Dickens books were part of our regular junior high curriculum. And ours was a 90+% Jewish school. Shows how times have changed eh? And how much less we think of our young people and of their abilities, today.

      I am in the process of trying to put together an organization whose sole purpose will be to oppose these trends. Literary preservation and fighting revisionism and all the demagoguery associated with it will likely be a significant part of what I do, in retirement.

      Finally, I very much appreciate your kind words. It was a shame to have to leave BloggingHeads, and I am very grateful that you have come over here, so at least I can keep talking to some of the people I befriended there.

    2. “But, why would I assume my experience was universal and that the same stories and symbols were not perceived as favorable or even neutral but were in fact drivers of insecurity, or reinforcement of bigotry and derision?”

      I wondered about this too. Dan mentioned in a very brief sentence that “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.” That may be true (as a good amount of wokeness seems to be people getting offended ON BEHALF OF others. “I’m white, but if I were black, that would offend me!”) But Dan cites no sources for this ultimately empirical claim, and if the claim were true, it would be hard to make sense of the idea that a thing that actually harmed no one went on to capture so much social justice concern. I’d think that given that fact alone, we can safely say that images like these HAVE harmed someone. It’s probably that Dan doesn’t know about those people, so assumes that they don’t exist.

      I don’t quite know those people. But I do know my dark skinned nephew who, at the age of 7, has already learned that his skin makes him ugly and wants to wear a superhero costumer to school to cover it up. He has not read about Prince Bumpo or Little Black Sambo, but I can’t imagine that if he had, he’d be unscathed by it. And I further have to imagine that he is not the only black kid in a sea of white who has come to feel this way about his chocolate skin, and further, have to imagine that some kids in this situation HAVE seen these storybooks, maybe even had them read to them in school, and, well, you get the rest.

      So, we can say that no one has been harmed, but maybe that is because we don’t know people who have been. And maybe we can say “buck up, buttercup.” But that might also come from a place of privilege and the kind of ignorance that comes when we are several steps removed from the people who have dealt with these offenses in the most personal ways.

      1. Insulted? Sure. Puzzled. Why not. Offended? Perhaps. Harmed? In the sense that justifies doing what is being done? By reading something with talking animals and fanciful adventures? No.

        I definitely found the depictions of Jews in the books I mentioned offensive and insulting. I was not harmed by them. And my offense was not reason to remove these classics from the curriculum. It might be a reason to have a conversation.

        I am not going to get into personal exchanges about nephews. As for who I know and don’t, you can speculate as you like. I taught in the Bronx for years, back in the early 1990’s, and not a single one of my students was white.

  9. Dan and anyone else,

    Does anyone here know the backstory to why the original Dr. Doolittle was rewritten? I mean, the specifics. Who initiated the decision? Was it in response to customer complaints, market research, a threatened boycott, what?

    The reason I ask – and it is a sincere question, not rhetorical – is that I’m trying to think about what EXACTLY is wrong about these decisions. I get Dan’s case (and have some sympathy) that at a macro-level, censorious trends risk depriving people of information, foster intolerance, etc. BUT, if we review how and why these decisions get made, will it be at all obvious what is wrong abut the act of, say, a publisher listening to customer complaints and, in a quest to make their books as marketable to the masses as possible, write a more inclusive edition? I am not sure it will be obvious, but that may depend on the story.

  10. Apologies if this is too much of a tangent but I wonder, Dan and anyone else angry over these book cancellations, to what extent to you view conservative Christianity as responsible for this? One thing I consistently think when reading about the horrors of cancel culture is that I have no idea what this society that didn’t censor wrongthink looks like or is. For example: In second grade my teacher ripped by D&D Monster Manual from my hands, threw it in the trash, and told the rest of the class that I was on a path toward damnation. This was a formative (but not the only) experience in understanding the limits of what I could say or read in public. Until I moved to Indianapolis there had never been a time in my life when what I said or read in public couldn’t be held against me. Couldn’t ruin me and my family. People complain about younger Gen Xers and Millennials flocking to the cities – but is it any surprise?

    I’m feel like I *should* passionately agree with everything Dan said here – in principle. But I find myself unable to summon more than a shrug. Orwell’s words ring hollow with me because to a significant extent, I already grew up in that world. With the exception of the Muppets, I’ve only ever heard of these books, never read them. Part of me almost feels, for lack of a less victim-like word, abused. And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve even met people who have a very revanchist take on cancel culture as a: “Now it’s *they’re* turn.” sort of thing. And, to be fair, when it comes to the marginalization of many conservative Christian opinions my attitude does tend to be, “Now the chickens have come home to roost.” I’m sure that’s wrong of me but I’m not sure how.

    It seems to me like these books are unfortunate bystanders in a conflict that’s been going on for a while now. I’m supportive of any effort to preserve them from the broader war. But even still, I can’t help but view them as peripheral to what’s going on – what has been going on for decades now. I don’t have a righteous motivation behind this opinion, I’m sure it’s a bad way to view this. But I wonder, what are other people’s thoughts? And relatedly, how do we instill a love of free speech in people who don’t know what that is?

    1. As someone else who finds it hard to get worked up about the rewrites of Dr. Doolittle et al….

      Another reason (in addition to the ones you write) is that we are saying all of this literally in the age where it has never been easier to put out or get information. The internet has made production, reproduction, preservation, and information costs NEAR ZERO! So, it befuddles me that this age of the internet is the time when we are concerned that removing Little Black Sambo from bookshelves means that we will be deprived of the historical knowledge that there was such a book and such a time where such a book was seen as unproblematic and cute.

      Put it this way: had the Seuss books been pulled from the shelves in 1970, it would have taken some serious digging to find the books or maybe even find out that they existed. NOT ANYMORE. The information cost is literally the time and energy it takes to perform a basic web search.

      Warning: I DO NOT MEAN ANY SORT OF AD HOMINEM HERE. But this gets me thinking about how most of the critics of cancel culture in publishing and media are older folks who see themselves taking a stand against a trend of primarily younger folks. And I cannot help but wonder if partly, this is because older folks are used to – or at least remember – the age before the internet brought production, reproduction, and information costs down so low. Is it that the older folks are acting as if we still live in a world where the way to get books is to venture the fifteen minute or more drive to the local bookstore or library and hope that they had what you need, and if not, you’re out of luck? Fearing cancel culture makes more senses in that space. But today’s internet-fueled world simply doesn’t work that way.

    2. I addressed this in the essay. As I pointed out, plenty of censorship has been at the impetus of the Right. The examples I gave with Harriet the Spy and The Lorax are both examples of censorship from the Right. And as I indicated, my generation fell between two censorious impulses: the traditionalist and the progressive.

      Indeed, censorship traditionally is the province of the Right. Part of what is so depressing and incomprehensible about the turn it’s taking now, is precisely that it is from the Left. Though is it unsurprising given that the Left today is the New Left of the Frankfurt School and not the classical liberalism + safety net/collective bargaining Left of FDR.

  11. “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.”

    Your more-or-less independent reasons for answering, “They should not,” appear to be these:

    (1) The books crafted in light of our predecessors’ perceptions, values, and norms nonetheless teach us good things. (I wonder whether you might need the premise to be: they teach us good things *in a better way than*, or even *because they are not*, the aesthetically jejune offerings today.)

    (2) The perceptions, values, and norms of the past should remain visible today because if they weren’t, progress wouldn’t be visible, and we need progress to be visible.

    (3) If we rewrite your original question as “What’s bad about our sequestering children from the past in this way?,” this of your observations becomes relevant to answering it: in attempting to do so, we’re using our children as agency-less tools with which to wage our political and cultural battles (which we should not do).

    (4) The arguments for sequestering children from the past in this way are bad.

    Am I missing anything? I want to make sure I’m understanding your argument.

    1. This is part of it. But there are also other points regarding artistic integrity and especially the integrity of classics and other great works.

      1. I suspected there were might be other considerations having more to do with art-hood and aesthetics. (As I hinted in 1 in my paraphrase of your argument as presented in the OP.) I was just thinking about today’s bumbling, ham-fisted attempts to teach Very Important Lessons through purported artworks, not least because I just read this piece on middlebrow culture, one characteristic of which seems to be precisely its making such attempts: https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/who-do-we-think-we-are/articles/the-strange-undeath-of-middlebrow

  12. I want to say something, and it will be the last comment I write on this essay.

    My father is turning 93 and is very frail. I could get a phone call any moment that he has died. He was born in Mannheim Germany in 1928. He and his family fled the country in 1933, as the Nazis were coming to power and went to what was then Palestine.

    My mother is 89 and has Alzheimers. She was born in Koloszvar Hungary. [Now Cluj, Romania] Her father was worked to death on a chain gang, by the Arrow Cross. She, her mother and sister were deported to Bergen Belsen. The rest of her side of the family were gassed in Auschwitz.

    My father wrote a lengthy book about my mother’s family’s experience in the Holocaust, called “The Precipice Option.” He now is working on what probably will be the last thing he does: a semi-autobiographical account of his life as a product of “three cultures”: Weimar Germany; Pre-Israel Palestine; Postwar America.

    His condition is such that he cannot do this on his own. So, I am co-authoring/editing the book with him.

    In light of our conversation I thought I would share some of my father’s reminiscences about being a 5 year old Jewish boy in what was becoming Nazi Germany. Perhaps some of the people here would benefit from meditating on his attitude towards this experience and especially what he says in the last sentence.

    Theirs is what I mean when I speak of a “realistic, sober, mature view of human nature and of the human condition.” That increasingly it no longer obtains is to our shame and we are all the worse off for it.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    “Across the street from my grandfather’s house was a six-story corner building, painted a grey-green color, serving as the editorial offices for a socialist paper. In a display enclosure on the corner of the building, mounted on either side, the newspaper was displayed for anyone to read.

    Then one day, it must have been around 1933, a team of painters painted the entire building over in a brown, drew a red ribbon across the face with white circles and black swastikas on each end and the words ‘Das Braune Haus’ across it. The display cases showing the daily paper was painted in red, and on the top beam across, it said in white Der Jude ist ein Teufel in Menschengestalt. (“The Jew is a Satan-devil in a human disguise.”)”

    “The pomp and circumstance were very appealing to a young boy. Certain evenings, groups would assemble in front of the Braun Haus forming cadres to march up to the Planken and Die Breite Strasse, joining the torchlit marches of the Sturmabteilung (SA). There were glittering, marching brass bands and horses, and everyone wore the blazing red armbands with the swastikas in the white circle. It was so colorful and cheerful, and people on both sides of the sidewalk celebrated with unbound enthusiasm. The Manns – sometimes Fritz but mostly Annel, the daughter – would take me there, and I would stand and watch, holding the buckle of my belt in Hitler fashion, hand outstretched in the Nazi salute. Annel would buy me long hot dogs from the street vendor. When the marches were over, a small gaggle of policemen would always walk behind, making sure that everything was in place and no drunks were lying in the streets.”

    “One day my father was accosted on the street by two teenagers whose families we knew. They ripped off his glasses, threw them to the ground and stumped on them, grabbed his fedora and threw it into the gutter all the while calling him a dirty Jew. He was flabbergasted. Germany was a country where elders were treated with great respect by young people, who would surrender seats in busses and tramways, the moment an older person came on board. The society prized politeness and respect. For this to happen out in the middle of the street, bordered on the unbelievable, as it negated an entire way of life; a code of behavior. My father thought that it had come out of the blue, but unfortunately, it had not and would not cease anytime soon.”

    “It was 1933, and the anti- Jewish laws were in full swing in Germany. The daily efforts to separate the Jewish population from the greater public alongside whom they had been born, grown up, and educated, came into full force. It is funny how you retain these memories, even as a young child.

    One late evening we all drove back to Mannheim and I was sitting in the back between Annel and Emma. We were singing and joking. As we came to a roadblock, two SA guys stuck their heads into the car and asked if there were any Jews in it. Annel put her hand over my face as a precaution. Afterwards, no one said a word, but we all knew that our trip had been robbed of the fun it had held before. Tante Annel hugged me, and Emma squeezed my hand. I was confused. I could not contain myself. “But…Mommy told me never to lie.” “Only when it is necessary,” Tante Annel shot back. As I was going to open my mouth again in order to ask more questions, she kissed me, leaned back and closed her eyes.”

    “Suddenly it occurred to me that Germany was really behind us. We would not be returning there. “Ever,” as my mother said. “Take a deep breath,” my father told me, “this is the air you will breathe from now on.” It sunk in slowly. No Manns. No Hexe. No Tante-Annel. No Grandma Klara. But worst of all, no Grandpa. That hurt. I kept looking at the Jaffa port and became very quiet. It didn’t last long. Uncle Max, Jenny his wife, and his daughter Ruth, who already lived in Tel Aviv, came to welcome us. Waving his arms and with a wide smile, he called out to us “Shalom!” the standard greeting which we would soon learn to use for everything.”

    “As the 1930’s approached, a cloud of fear hung over Europe. As a young child, I felt it and was aware of it but did not know its origin; why it was there. A Martian visiting Earth would have seen an assortment of rulers clad in riding boots and breeches with no horses around except for one belonging to the goon, Mussolini. Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Franco, Mussolini, and an assortment of imitators from other countries kept strutting over the world stage in high style boots in what must have certainly been a boom period for boot makers. Except for Stalin, who just sat there, catlike, hatching his plots and consolidating his power by killing off any possible competition.”

    “I had been thrown out from one place, only to find myself in another place which I liked. Problem solved. Very lucky.”

  13. > I am in the process of trying to put together an organization whose sole purpose will be to oppose these trends. Literary preservation and fighting revisionism and all the demagoguery associated with it will likely be a significant part of what I do, in retirement.

    If there’s anyway I can help out from across the pond, please let me know.

    You left out of the canon ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, ‘Peter Rabbit’, ‘Curious George’, and ‘Babar The Elephant’

  14. I am continue to be baffled by why this group has their panties in such a twist about this subject. And the rose colored glasses about works written in the era of Jim Crow and colonialism seems to be a blind spot. I guess it was the good old day for folks here. Why must Doctor Dolittle must be kept in amber — with offensive material intact — instead of being updated so it can be enjoyed by all kids today, just as you did. Clutch at your pearls that the children will forever have a hole it their lives because they didn’t get to read that chapter about Bumpo! The tragedy of capitalism’s inexorable drive to make a buck, but trampling your cherished memories, is giving me the vapors…

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