Lecturer uses Seuss to portray Cold War
Pulitzer-prize-winning author Louis Menand ? one of the great public intellectuals in the nation ? used Dr. Seuss rhymes to explore Cold War cultural theory on Wednesday. And as both an English professor at Harvard and a staffwriter for The New Yorker, he wasn?t fooling around.
Menand?s lecture, titled ?The Cat Who Came in from the Cold,? kicked off the second annual Humanities Center Lecture ? a three-day-long conference on ?The Humanities and Expertise.? The conference featured over a dozen speakers from nine universities and discussed topics ranging from ?The Humanities and Sciences? to ?From Critique to Vision.
CMU English Professor Jeffrey Williams introduced Menand, noting that while ?Louis Menand has been celebrated as one of our finest public intellectuals,? he also remained ?his own private intellectual? as someone whose work did not fall into conventional categories. Williams then shared with the audience stories from when Menand had been his composition instructor at Columbia University.
The anecdote appropriately framed Menand?s lecture, which sought to analyze the culture of Cold War America through the lens of a cultural historian with a touch of personal encounter and wit.
He began by speaking on the federal funding of cultural means in the name of national defense. The federal government, he said, began funding science and foreign language departments at institutes of higher education in response to the perception that American education was inferior to the Soviet model.
In addition to the federal government?s involvement with funding education, in the 1950s a public debate raged about how children should learn to read. The publication of Why Johnny Can?t Read argued for a new pedagogical method: phonics.
It was in this context that Dr. Seuss was commissioned to write The Cat in the Hat. Seuss was given a list of words found at the back of Why Johnny Can?t Read and told to write a book that first and second graders could read on their own. Menand pointed out that part of the work?s beauty lies in its simplicity. It contains only 220 unique words set to anapestic dimeter: a simple work whose strength killed the pre-phonic textbooks of Dick and Jane.
Having discussed the cultural elements at play in 1957, Menand provided an overview of intellectual history, discussing the intricacies of contemporary works such as Chomsky?s Syntactic Structures and Levi-Strauss?s Structural Anthropology. Menand spoke with ease on cybernetics, information theory, structuralism, and linguistics throughout his lecture.
Menand?s breadth of knowledge on cultural and intellectual history and his ability to explain complicated theory framed the ultimate object of his talk, The Cat in the Hat, and what it said about the culture of Cold War America. Menand described the work as dealing with issues such as ?what it means to have a body,? where a polymorphous cat with hermaphroditic tendencies tries to introduce the children to their libidos (Thing One and Thing Two). The book, he said, also deals with a repressive, castrating fish that represents order in the face of desertion by the children?s mother representing great themes of the late 50s: ?abandonment, transgression, and deceit.?
In addition to an intellectual analysis of the work, Menand talked about his own personal relation to the book, noting that it was The Cat in the Hat that taught him how to read. Menand himself said that he always identified with the fish, feeling supportive of the zaniness represented by the cat but uninterested in participating.
The audience present, composed mostly of professors, received the talk with what seemed to be great enjoyment. Timothy Haggerty, associate director of the Center for Arts and Society said that ?Louis Menand is a leading public intellectual of cultural history. I enjoyed the talk very much.? While Menand had published related essays in The New Yorker, he confirmed after the speech that this was the first time he had ever given this specific talk.
The Humanities Center is directed by English Professor David Shumway, who not only introduced Louis Menand on Wednesday, but also spoke before the first panel on Thursday, a discussion on ?What are the Humanities?? Shumway?s talk followed a trend that would be repeated throughout the conference: an analysis of both the history of the humanities and the state of the humanities within the modern university.
Menand?s lecture also transitioned from historical analysis to a discussion of modern culture at the end. ?Now we have the idea that anything goes, without the spirit. Cakes on rakes are everywhere; a thousand cats cavort for our attention; even the fish has been co-opted.? Menand finished the lecture with the same force that he had maintained throughout: ?Mother is not coming back this time. It?s just us and that goddamn cat.?