“And actually, if you could see close in my eyes,” Walt Disney said, “the American flag is waving in both of them, and up my spine is growing this red, white, and blue stripe.”
Walt Disney is perhaps a consummate example of the American Dream. The stories popularized by Horatio Alger in the generation prior to Walt’s birth — where protagonists struggle valiantly against poverty and adversity, gaining both wealth and honor by leading exemplary lives — informed the culture of Walt’s Midwestern upbringing.
In his fashion, Walt avoided the crisis and tragedy of what Hemingway called “The Lost Generation,” and became an influential mind and guiding spirit to what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation.”
For a kid from hardscrabble roots and limited means in the American Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, there was nowhere to go but up, and an innate ambition and spirit in Walt embraced equally the tough challenges and one-of-a-kind opportunities that his country presented.
Walt’s father was born in the rural village of Bluevale, Ontario, Canada, and moved to the United States in 1878. “And he lived a life of a good American,” Walt recalled. “He was a very good American. But he was one that I learned a lot from, and a lot of his words have stuck with me.”
The political ideals that Elias shared with Walt were certainly influential and helped to shape young Walt into a dyed-in-the wool patriot — a man with loyalty to his country, but not blind loyalty; with affection and appreciation for America’s past, but with even greater fervor for what that past could stand for as a means of moving the culture of the nation forward.
“As I see it, a person’s culture represents his appraisal of the things that make up his life,” Walt said. “And a fellow becomes cultured, I believe, by selecting that which is fine and beautiful in life and throwing aside that which is mediocre or phony. Sort of a series of free, very personal choices, you might say. If this is true, then I think it follows that ‘freedom’ is the most precious word to culture. Freedom to believe what you choose and read, think and say, and be with what you choose. In America, we are guaranteed these freedoms. It is the constitutional privilege of every American to become cultured or to grow up like Donald Duck. I believe that this spiritual and intellectual freedom which we Americans enjoy is our greatest cultural blessing. Therefore, it seems to me, that the first duty of culture is to defend freedom and resist all tyranny.”
The public patriotism of Walt Disney is well-known and well-documented. As a youngster at Benton Grammar School, Walt dressed as Lincoln and recited the Gettysburg Address to his class, and was so impressive that he was asked to repeat the performance to every class in the school. Apart from his enjoyment of the attention, this event affirmed an admiration of Lincoln and his values that he carried the rest of his life.
He served in France with the Red Cross at the end of World War I, and his work in support of varied efforts during the Second World War both consumed the resources of and, in many ways, saved his Studio.
Time and again, Walt recognized the story and entertainment value of American folk heroes, and how these stories fit perfectly into his personal ideals of perseverance, honesty, generosity, equality, liberty, and fellowship. Disney created films featuring Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Casey Jones as their heroes; and purely American tales such as “Casey at the Bat,” “Ben and Me,” and even “Little Hiawatha.”
As Walt entered the domain of live-action filmmaking, historical fiction became a staple of the Studio, with such classic Americana as “Johnny Tremain,” “The Great Locomotive Chase,” and “Westward Ho! the Wagons,” burst onto the big screen.
On television, a “who’s who” of American historic figures and folk heroes saw new life in Disney productions, including Frances Marion in “Swamp Fox,” John Clem in “Johnny Shiloh,” and tales of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Texas John Slaughter, and Elfego Baca.
“There [are] many moments in American history that I think would be good for us all to understand, appreciate,” Walt said.
Disneyland Park is a virtual love letter to the United States. “Disneyland would be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination—a place of warmth and nostalgia, of illusion and color and delight,” Walt said. Main Street, U.S.A., Frontierland, and New Orleans Square evoke American history (and its affectionate cousin, nostalgia). Plans for the unrealized Liberty Street and Edison Square have been looked upon wistfully and with longing by generations of Disney fans.
In his Tomorrowland, Walt created a future vision that might seem bafflingly optimistic today: a tomorrow almost wholly dependent on a special, and at the time, fully comprehensible and American notion of a balanced cooperation between the citizen, the corporation, and the government, to envision a holistic and mutually- beneficial vision of society based on the desirable notion of “progress,” the advancement of an entire people through application of not only technological but cultural improvement.
Walt’s own story is emblematic of this notion of American progress. Like the Horatio Alger heroes, he struggled against adversity, time and again. One of the most interesting — and American — traits that Walt possessed was that of reinvention. At several conspicuous moments in his life and career, Walt went through a distinct process of removing debris, retaining assets, and starting over. “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles have strengthened me,” he said.
He failed in Kansas City and moved to Hollywood, where he founded the first independent cartoon studio in that town. With the loss of Oswald, he created Mickey Mouse. Although he was warned that it was “folly,” and that no one would watch a feature-length cartoon, he made “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” When war decimated his staff and stalled his plans, he used the projects of the war effort to learn, diversify, and stabilize during the crisis. When the war ended, he used the lessons learned to reinvent the projects and product of the Studio, and to examine rational realms of diversification — leading to a second Golden Age of Disney animation, Disney television, and Disneyland (also derided as “folly”).
“I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young,” Walt said. “I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never had the feeling I couldn’t walk out and get a job doing something.”
These are the fundamental aspects of the American experience that set the stage for Walt Disney’s ability to become a pervasive influence in the lives of millions in the United States and around the world, over decades. The characters and culture that Walt Disney created have become global (and in many ways a sovereign entity, a “Disney Land” all their own) — but Walt Disney was a uniquely American creation.
With typical humility, Walt reflected, upon receiving the George Washington Medal of Honor from The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, “I’ve just been going along doing what sort of comes naturally to me. I might say, I’ve been selfishly indulging myself as an American … as a United States citizen .. enjoying all privileges that one has as a citizen, and it’s only times like this that you sort of wake up to … what it really means to be a citizen.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”