The Looming Geisel Legacy

Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

Content warning: The following article references suicide.

Before intentionally swallowing a lethal dose of barbiturates, Helen Palmer Geisel wrote a note to her husband Theodor, stating that her “going will leave quite a rumor,” that he could say she was “overworked and overwrought,” and that his “reputation with […] friends and fans will not be harmed.” Although her note was never specific regarding her motivations, biographers have concluded that Helen believed her death would protect the legacy of a beloved children’s author from allegations of adultery and impropriety. In less than a year, Theodor Geisel would marry Audrey Diamond, who divorced her first husband mere months after Helen’s death, and to whom Theodor had dedicated a book edited by Helen.

As the story of Theodor Geisel’s two marriages tells us, an individual has an effect on the world beyond the effect of their publications. The singular biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel—entitled Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel—kept in Mandeville Special Collections adjacent to the Dr. Seuss Collection, contains scant references to his treatment and portrayal of women and people of color. Production materials for that book—which include documents and original interviews about the iconic bronzed figure on campus—are restricted from public access until 2020.

Such a public figure’s personal life is never an easy thing to analyze or criticize, especially given how widely and deeply social mores evolved over the 87 years Theodor Geisel lived; however, the students of UC San Diego owe it to themselves to consider the true full effect on the world left by its central figures, such as the namesake of our library. The university and the library have obstructed that pursuit, through either apathy or the purposeful concealment of their prestigious donor’s full story.

The Seuss Collection purportedly exists to educate students and the public about the life and work of Theodor Geisel. Along with drawings and drafts of his most famed children’s books, the West Wing of the library’s second floor displays some of Geisel’s cartoons from World War II. These are notably progressive in nature, satirizing topics such as discrimination against Black labor in the war effort.

Perhaps more notably, none of these cartoons demonstrate Geisel’s own penchant for employing racist stereotypes in his pursuit of humor, largely in anti-Japanese caricatures. As Jennifer Hewett describes in “The Logical Insanity of Theodor Geisel,” he “was willing to draw on racial stereotypes as it suited.” This can be seen in the first version of the 1942 cartoon displayed in the library, which bears the words “WAR WORK TO BE DONE / NO COLORED LABOR NEEDED.” Philip Nel’s Dr. Seuss: American Icon reveals that Geisel’s initial effort at that image—13 years prior—portrays “a white salesman inviting a white customer to consider purchasing one of two dozen thick-lipped black men.”

Geisel became begrudgingly more lenient in allowing revisions to parts of his works that were casually racist and sexist when first released, but become understood as outrageously racist and sexist as the 20th century progressed. But it wasn’t until 1978 that Geisel allowed for a line with the word “Chinaman” to be revised in future editions of And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street to say “Chinese man,” according to Nel. Even as standards changed for depictions of people of color, Geisel continued to refuse alterations to lines about women which were belittling to the point of being described by critics as “blatantly sexist.”

Rather than be transparent about Geisel’s transgressions in the context of his contemporary social climate, the university collection has elected to hide these cartoons from public view.

In lieu of a thorough dialogue considering the merits and flaws of this man, the university has created a narrative portraying Theodor Geisel as an icon. The panels in the library’s West Wing were constructed to “pay tribute to the Geisels for their generosity to the Library,” which came in the form of an initial $20 million donation, followed by substantial donations of artifacts and a few million more dollars. The panels in the library rejoice in the “impact of philanthropic support.” Even a plaque by the picture of Theodor Geisel next to the elevators thanks Audrey Geisel for donating the portrait.

Theodor Geisel’s legacy started as that of a complicated artist with personal impropriety and outdated social understandings. The Seuss Collection has elevated his stature to that of an unimpeachable philanthropist who provides for students. Such elevation implies that at this university—a place of learning and inquiry—one can purchase a reputation. Until the library curates a more transparent exhibit on the life and work of Theodor Geisel, a constructed ignorance casts as dark a shadow on the campus as is cast by the behemoth of a building which bears the Geisel name.

Patrick Grieve is a Staff Writer for The Triton.

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