Reading The Cat in the Hat Through an Innate Justice Lens

Photo: Sam Sloan — Attribution 2.0 Generic

Theodor Seuss Geisel, most commonly referred to by his nom de plume Dr. Suess, wrote the Cat in the Hat because William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division, wanted a more engaging story for early readers (Nel, 2017). What was born out of this assignment was one of the most well-known picture books in American history.

Over the next seven decades, the book–along with many other Dr. Seuss books and cartoons from before his entry into the world of children’s literature–received mixed reviews for its racist caricatures. The titular cat, itself, was believed to be inspired by minstrel caricatures (Lynch, 2017; Nel, 2017). While the Cat at hand is a more abstract expression of this harmful stereotype, there are other examples in Seuss’ works that are not as easily overlooked.

Sophie Gilbert wrote in the Atlantic:

It’s more than a little baffling now to see Geisel, who’d railed repeatedly against racism, Jim Crow, and anti-Semitism in his cartoons, proffer up such bigoted depictions of Asians both in the U.S. and overseas.

Indeed, it is strange, although not totally inexplicable. “[Richard H.] Minear also points out that such sentiment was common in the New York circles Geisel moved in at the time” (Gilbert). Does this excuse Seuss’ racist artwork? No, absolutely not. In some cases, there is an opportunity for learning. In other cases, there is not.

Flint Advertisement (1930–1940). From Special Collection
& Archives, UC San Diego Library. Art by Theodor Seuss — Fair Use

In 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they will cease publication on six books for this reason: And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), McElligot’s Pool (1947), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), and The Cat’s Quizzer (1976).

The company told the Associated Press that “ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” Despite this, though, Dr. Suess remained one of Forbes’ highest-paid dead celebrities just the year before in 2020, when he earned $33 million.

Amanda Fisher-Katz-Keohane