The Grinch: Dr. Seuss' fall from grace leaves many wondering, 'Can people change?'

Dr. Seuss' darker and racist past was exposed, but before you ban his books, learn his story.

David Ono Image
Friday, March 3, 2023
The Grinch: The good and bad side of Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss was a beloved author of children's books who helped generations learn to read. Then, his darker, racist, past was exposed, but before you ban his books, learn his story.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- On National Reading Day, Eyewitness News is sharing a special edition of its FACEism series about a once beloved author who has fallen from grace: Dr. Seuss, whose greatest story may be his own.

Did you know "Read Across America Day" used to be called "Dr. Seuss Day?" March 2 was chosen as the date because it was his birthday.

He was a beloved author of children's books who helped generations learn to read. Then, his darker, racist, past was exposed, but before you ban his books, learn his story.

Perhaps, it is his greatest lesson. We call this episode "The Grinch"

For so many, The Grinch is lovingly-ingrained in our holiday memories, but is it time to lock him out?

The more we learn about Dr. Seuss, whose real name is Theodor Geisel, the more we discover how flawed he was ... and it's complicated.

"When he was starting out in the '20s and '30s, he did a great deal of cartooning that was undeniably racist," said Dr. Seth Lerer, an expert in the history of children's literature.

He's a professor at UC San Diego, which happens to be the home of the Geisel Library and the Dr. Seuss collection.

Lerer describes Geisel as a young man who had a lot to learn.

"Ted Geisel is not alone in having done things when he was young that we would want to remove from public libraries or that we don't want to talk about," he said.

In 1929, when Geisel was 25, he created a shocking cartoon for Judge Magazine. Your attention is drawn to one thing: the N-word. Then you notice the African Americans in the picture having a ghastly appearance, modeled from blatant stereotypes.

"It's very difficult to look at this stuff now. It's extreme," said Lerer.

In fact, many of Geisel's comics perpetuated insulting stereotypes. Black people were often portrayed as African natives while Asians had severely slanted eyes, glasses, buck teeth.

"I'm certainly not happy with the anti-Asian and anti-Japanese political cartooning of the Second World War," said Lerer.

That's when Geisel unfairly portrayed Japanese Americans as the enemy, showing them deceitfully "waiting for the signal from home."

Six days later, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt ordered 120,000 innocent people of Japanese descent locked up. Perhaps Geisel's heart was too small.

However, there's another side to this story.

"A lot of the challenge is how do you read the new stuff through the old stuff," said Lerer.

Even though he never officially talked about it, Geisel's later work is written with a kinder, more embracing tone.

"Running from the 'Star-Belly Sneetches,' through 'The Lorax', through 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!,' and all of these are books that are clearly designed to have a tolerance giving sensibility," said Lerer.

Yes, Dr. Seuss evolved. From respecting your fellow man, and the Earth, to exploring the world.

Some even suspect, 'Horton Hears a Who!' is an apology to Japanese Americans.

"I don't know if it's a direct apology, but I think it's very clear that through the persona of Dr. Seuss, Geisel had to confront that earlier legacy," said Lerer. "I think, 'Horton Hears a Who!' is a great example of it."

As we grow older, we often recognize our ignorance.

Is that what happened to Dr. Seuss?

One mind-blowing theory suggests "The Grinch" is actually autobiographical, though Geisel has never directly addressed this.

Could Geisel be writing about himself? Was it his heart that grew three sizes? So, what do we do now?

"Maybe 'The Grinch' is a story about saying, 'My heart has grown, but it's up to the people of Whoville to welcome him back.'"

That's quite the twist: A plot that puts you on the spot.

Yes, Geisel made mistakes, but he also tried to atone for them, teaching us the great lesson that people can learn and change. But is that enough?

"What is the half-life of stupidity?" asked Lerer. "What is the point at which we say, 'Alright, this is something we can excuse.'"

Just like The Grinch, Geisel is only part of the story.

The rest is up to you.

Will you - or won't you - welcome him back to YOUville?

Watch more episodes of ABC7's FACEism series on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and GoogleTV. Just search "ABC7 Los Angeles."