Most people standing up to give a literary reading announce the title of the work they are about to share with their audience.
Not so Professor Henry Jenkins at MIT's 17th annual Salute to Dr. Seuss.
When he stood up before the capacity crowd in Room 4-237 on Jan. 29 and opened a copy of "The Cat in the Hat," he just plunged in.
He knew that virtually every one of his listeners would recognize the story. He knew most of them would be able to picture the unforgettable Seuss illustrations.
And he knew that some would have to restrain themselves from reciting along with him as he read.
The Salute to Dr. Seuss is a campus tradition going back to 1991, the year Theodore S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) died. Jenkins, director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities, inaugurated and has sustained the event each year.
Seuss, the creator of the fantastic tale of the cat who drops in on a couple of children while their mother is out, clearly had a home in the hearts of the MIT community. Jenkins added, "In a place like this, full of imagination and creativity, it's not surprising that Geisel's work should resonate so."
Jenkins located Seuss at the intersection of some important trends in pop culture, politics and child-rearing.
Geisel adopted his famous pseudonym as a student at Dartmouth. Banned from writing for the "The Jack-O-Lantern," the campus humor magazine, he simply renamed himself "Dr. Seuss" and started writing again.
Early on, Seuss focused on pseudo-scientific discussions of such weighty issues as "How warm is 'luke'?" and "How big is a nook?" (The concern here is that one's breakfast nook may actually be only big enough to qualify as a "cranny.")
But Seuss was not uninterested in the important issues of life. He was a lifelong political progressive and outspoken anti-Fascist. He contributed to the progressive magazine "PM." During World War II, Geisel served in the U.S. Army and worked with Frank Capra on the "Why We Fight" films commissioned by the U.S. government.
Dr. Seuss was also an important voice in the 20th-century debate on child-rearing, according to Jenkins. Dr. Spock urged parents to trust themselves and their own instincts as to what was right for their children. Dr. Seuss urged parents to trust their children. This was Seuss's "permissive streak," Jenkins said. Children who were listened to, whose imagination was celebrated, would grow up to be the kind of democratic citizens the world needed, in Dr. Seuss's view.
The IAP program concluded, as the "Salute" has always done, with a showing of the 1953 live-action movie musical, "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T." It's apparently well on its way to cult status, at least at MIT. The film, for which Dr. Seuss provided story, screenplay and lyrics, might be thought of as "Leave It to Beaver" meets "The Wizard of Oz," by way of Marlene Dietrich and "The Blue Angel," with nods to Gene Kelly and "Lassie."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2007 (download PDF).