Redux: Responding to bigoted but famous texts—by Seuss and Doyle

The recent controversy over the decision of the literary estate of Theodore Seuss Geisel to stop selling six of his Dr. Seuss books because of their bigoted depictions of minorities reminded me of a somewhat similar situation. Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote the post Responding to Bigoted but Famous Texts about a Virginia school district and a controversy over a book featuring the beloved literary character Sherlock Holmes. The book was the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and the villains of the story were, of course, Mormons.

Like some news stories over the Dr. Seuss books, the few news stories over the Virigina school district and A Study in Scarlet misunderstood the situation. In the latter situation, one resident of Albemarle County, Virginia, suggested that if A Study in Scarlet is used in the school curriculum, it needs to be done with appropriate context and a thoughtful lesson, so that the bigotry against Mormons in the text is blunted. In response to my post 10 years ago, Jim Stern, one of the residents involved in the discussions, explained the situation in detail, and made it clear that there hadn’t been any attempt to censor A Study in Scarlet.

In retrospect, Jim’s statements helped me see some of the middle ground in these discussions. It’s very easy to make charges of censorship any time the availability of a literary work changes. But there are, I think, many issues that affect whether or not there is censorship, and what should be done when a text doesn’t fit the current worldview of a community.

 

Censorship and “Cancel Culture”

First, as many people point out when charges of censorship are raised, censorship is defined as when an authority (such as government) restricts access to a text. It doesn’t apply when the author or those who control the copyright withdraw the text from circulation. The author has the right to do that. So there is no censorship if the literary estate of Dr. Seuss declines to sell copies of certain titles again.

Of course, many of the charges in the case of the Dr. Seuss titles are about “cancel” culture. But exactly what that is, if it isn’t censorship, is much harder to define. Perhaps the most charitable definition is something along the line of pressure from the environment on the author or literary estate to conform with ideals that seek to hide uncomfortable facts.

And I must admit that I do worry that our culture has an impulse to hide uncomfortable facts. And, in admitting that, I have to suggest that those who are charging “cancel” culture are often the same people who have tried to hide uncomfortable facts in other situations, and have used censorship in schools to do so.

But, even accepting this charitable definition, I’m not sure what can or should be done other than calling the author or literary estate’s attention to it. Doesn’t the author have the right to control how his or her work is published? If the literary estate of Dr. Seuss gave into cultural pressure and pulled these books from circulation, they have the right to do so. You or I can try to persuade them otherwise, of course. But in the end, its their right to do this.

 

How the School Audience is Different

But there is a further wrinkle, I think. When it comes to books intended for children, and books made available through or taught in schools, we need give some attention to the audience and its needs. The conversation on my post, Responding to Bigoted but Famous Texts, and some of the conversation I’ve seen about the controversy over the Dr. Seuss books, makes this clear. Children are in a very open, and therefore vulnerable, state. They tend to accept everything they are told as is. And what we teach them and how we teach them matters.

In the case of A Study in Scarlet, the text has led to misconceptions and bigotry towards members of our religion—and much of what it says was simply made up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s head. I’ve run into Doyle’s account in the story that kidnapped young women jumped from the wall around the Salt Lake Temple into the Great Salt Lake (a physical impossibility) told as truth in newspaper articles in Brazil and elsewhere. If this story is used in school, shouldn’t these issues be clarified along with the story?

In the Virginia school district, the issue was not whether or not the story should be available. The issue was that the contextual information needed for children was NOT available. The schools either an edition needed to be published with the proper contextual information, or the teachers needed to write a lesson to put it in context. Short of that, they chose to not use the story in the curriculum, but still make it available in the library, where it could easily be found.

I think the Dr. Seuss books are similar. The audience for these books is young—by age 10 children generally find these books to be too young for them. Parents might be able to put the bigotry in the books in context, but maybe not—its very hard to make distinctions like this clear to children that age. While it might be possible to add to the books information for parents to help them explain the context, it sounds to me like Geisel’s literary estate found that either too difficult, or not worth the effort.

 

Duality or Nuance

Unfortunately, the controversy over the Dr. Seuss books has been quite binary. News stories have tended to make the issue into the duality of either this is censorship or this is authors rights. But my experienced with A Study in Scarlet 10 years ago demonstrated to me, at least, that there’s a bit more nuance to this issue than we seem to find. I don’t see any censorship in either case. Nor do I see “cancel culture” run amok. Instead I see human beings struggling with how to do best for children—how to give them access to what are unfortunately bigoted texts while giving them the context they need to understand. We would do well to take the same care with the many problematic texts we have in our own Latter-day Saint heritage.

9 comments for “Redux: Responding to bigoted but famous texts—by Seuss and Doyle

  1. “We would do well to take the same care with the many problematic texts we have in our own Latter-day Saint heritage.” You mean like the Book of Mormon?

  2. Wally, I think the Book of Mormon has relatively fewer of this type of problem in comparison with many other texts, including the Old Testament. For example, i’ll take problems that raise doubts over its provenance over problems of genocide any day. I think we have many other texts that are problematic — Mormon Doctrine comes to mind.

    BUT, I do NOT suggest that problematic texts be censored or edited to conform (as, unfortunately, some have done). Instead, we all should be willing to wrestle with the problematic in and out of the scriptures.

  3. Having been on a mission in both scotland and Ireland in the 1960s, it was common knowledge that the mormons had a tunnel under the Atlantic that came up in the Salt Lake Temple. Many of the converts at that time were young women, and they were expected to go down the tunnel. My wife did when she came to Aus with me.

    I am in 2 minds about censorship of this type, though do agree it would be good to have an impartial explanation to clarify. It is a bit like an interview with a liar, most people will see the lies. Not sure after trump if I believe this anymore.

  4. Chet,

    I don’t know about the song itself (not sure how racist vaguely tribal music is), but the pantomime that went with it when I was a kid definitely needs to go.

  5. Thanks for this. I remember, as a teenage fan of Sherlock Holmes, rolling my eyes at the stilted, wooden dialogue Conan Doyle gave Brigham Young et al. And then when the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, he had them set about draining the fields and planting hedges. Um, no….

  6. Geoff-Aus wrote: “Not sure after trump if I believe this anymore.”

    Nor I. It does seem like a large portion of the general public are fooled either one way or the other.

    Of course, I have to admit that I can’t tell for sure if I, myself, have been fooled…

  7. sba, I probably should have mentioned that years later, in a visit to Utah, Arthur Conan Doyle DID apologize for how he characterized Mormons in A Study in Scarlet. In the end he seemed to have a fairly positive view of Mormons.

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