–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Love, Memory, and Children’s Classics

by | Mar 4, 2023

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 ay 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

In light of the recent vandalization of the works of Roald Dahl, this essay from several years ago seems as apt as ever.

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, and C.S. Lewis, 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 exceptional literary quality, many of these authors’ books were equally memorable for their original illustrations. In some cases, as with Bemelmans, Sasek, Seuss, and Steig, author and illustrator were one in the same, while in others one finds 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.

The quality of this literary and artistic heritage is an indication of just how much a society can respect and care about its children; so much so as to give them the very best that it can produce. That my mother cooked delicious and nutritious meals for me when I was a child was one way in which she expressed her love [and loving duty] to me. That she and my father worked to raise me with every possible advantage was another. That they introduced me to the best books written by the best writers was yet one more. And when it came time for my wife and I to raise our daughter, Victoria, we endeavored – to the extent that we could – to do the same.

What can one say, then, about the ongoing and escalating vendetta against the 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 complete 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 normal bookseller today?

It is this last example that was my first intimate introduction to the sordid world of censoring and bowdlerizing children’s literature. I was already well aware of the history of censorship of adult literary classics like Sons and Lovers, Lolita, and Ulysses, and I was personally involved in organizing local professors in opposition to a neighboring school district’s removal of Slaughterhouse Five from its curriculum. Several years ago, I was going through my substantial collection of children’s and young adult books – most of which are my originals, from childhood – in order to determine which volumes were sufficiently degraded or damaged to warrant replacement with new copies. 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 I own is the Dell 1973 version, 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 was heavily redacted; indeed that entire chapters had been retroactively rewritten, long after Lofting was already dead, 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 was holding an abridged version of the book. If one goes on the book’s Wikipedia page today, one could never tell that The Story of Doctor Dolittle had ever been redacted at all. The plot summary provided there is from the original book – i.e., the one 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 just which parts were redacted and why.

As will probably be surprising to no one given the book’s age, the reason has to do with dated plotlines and depictions. Specifically, the offending chapters 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 mentioning that Bumpo goes on to become a dear friend of Doctor Dolittle and is a hero in the subsequent 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, and one thing that this means is that they are the products of earlier generations’ perceptions, values and norms, something that cannot be changed, regardless of how much or in what ways one defaces or endeavors to “cancel” these works.

I said before that I was fortunate for the era from which I come, and this suggests another reason: it was an era in which a far more realistic, sober, and mature attitude regarding the human condition 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 of progress, but that it is forever ongoing and may sometimes even reverse itself; that contrary to the sort of smug confidence of those today who would justify literary vandalism in the name of their own virtue, while there may be many 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 trumpeting 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 idea of progress and regress; and that we must have access to the past as it was, neither built up nor torn down, 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 prior revisionism of the traditionalists nor the progressive revisionism  of today, and in which, more generally, adults did not overprotect children, 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 in the name of contemporary “culture-war” type struggles is unsurprising, given that 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 can one possibly think of people who, after creating a pornography-drenched, 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? And what can one say of people who, like those horrible parents who use their children as proxies in their personal conflicts and struggles, use their kids as proxies in the political and cultural battles they are waging against one another, of which their children have no understanding or interest and in which they can exercise no agency?

I should mention, in closing, that there are a number of defenses of these censorious inclinations and trends, some of which are trotted out pretty regularly. I will entertain some of the most common of them here, but only briefly, as they so stupid, cynical, irrelevant or some combination of all three that they deserve no more than a sentence or two in reply.

1. Circulating these old books unredacted harms minority children and children from 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 an early-adolescent son of Holocaust survivors and despite both featuring explicitly anti-Semitic representations and tropes.

2. 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 and rape/revenge exploitation pictures like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, and flat-out torture-porn like Hostel, 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.

3. Nothing to see here! You can still find all of these books online!

The inclination to cancel and bowdlerize children’s classics and the trends we are seeing in that direction are what is concerning and must be opposed. No one has ever suggested they will result in these classics disappearing altogether off of the face of the earth.

4. 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. [1]


[1] I also call b******t on this one. 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.