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Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney

Ronald B. Tobias
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 320
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    Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature
    Book Description:

    With his square, bulldoggish stature, signature rimless glasses, and inimitable smile-part grimace, part snarl-Theodore Roosevelt was an unforgettable figure, imprinted on the American memory through photographs, the chiseled face of Mount Rushmore, and, especially, film. At once a hunter, explorer, naturalist, woodsman, and rancher, Roosevelt was the quintessential frontiersman, a man who believed that only nature could truly test and prove the worth of man. A documentary he made about his 1909 African safari embodied aggressive ideas of masculinity, power, racial superiority, and the connection between nature and manifest destiny. These ideas have since been reinforced by others-Jesse "Buff alo" Jones, Paul Rainey, Martin and Osa Johnson, and Walt Disney. Using Roosevelt as a starting point, filmmaker and scholar Ronald Tobias traces the evolution of American attitudes toward nature, attitudes that remain, to this day, remarkably conflicted, complex, and instilled with dreams of empire.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-226-8
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Raymond Williams concedes inKeywordsthat the word “nature” is “perhaps the most complex word in the language.”¹ For good reason. The word has gone to the core of much of Western philosophy and religion over the past two thousand years. And though the word pretends a certain naïveté, it is, in fact, burdened with complex histories. Every day we invoke the powers inherent in nature, and every day we employ it to serve a variety of ideological interests.

    Since the earliest of recorded days, humankind has sought guidance from nature regarding what is normal and proper. Augustine of Hippo,...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Tales of Dominion
    (pp. 1-18)

    Christian theology understood the power inherent within nature as the divine ordinance of God. St. Augustine chided the inquisitive who searched for knowledge about nature as violators the Lord’s sanctity. “This is the disease of curiosity,” he warned. “It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which man should not wish to learn.”¹ In other words, the righteous need only know that God was the Cause and nature was the Effect; further inquiry constituted heresy. But as science and technology made...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Plow and the Gun
    (pp. 19-28)

    In 1890, Robert P. Porter, the superintendent of the eleventh national census, made note, in the perfunctory style of a federal bureaucrat conducting the business of state, that “at present the unsettled area [of the United States] has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” Porter based his conclusion upon the federal definition of the frontier, which was predicated upon the statistical density of...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Picturing the West, 1883–1893
    (pp. 29-48)

    The foundation for Theodore Roosevelt’s image was his self-esteem. In his words, he had been a “sickly boy with no natural bodily prowess,” pampered by a household full of fussy women and dressed by them accordingly.¹ He suffered from poor eyesight, asthma, and a quirk of speech that made him blurt out his words impulsively, which made him insecure and shy with his classmates. By the time he enrolled at Harvard, he was five feet, eight inches tall and weighed a scrappy 125 pounds.

    Although his colleagues in the New York State Assembly respected Roosevelt’s intelligence and dedication to purpose,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR American Idol, 1898
    (pp. 49-64)

    In 1895 New York City mayor William Strong offered Roosevelt the job of commissioner of the New York City Police Board. TR resigned from the Civil Service Commission and refocused his restless energy on overhauling the New York City Police Department by rooting out fraud, waste, and corruption. When he wasn’t sitting in meetings, he would prowl the streets at night trying to catch lazy or crooked cops on the beat or shut down bars that defied the city’s Sunday closure law, a strategy designed to enhance his profile as a man dedicated to the reform of a corrupt system....

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The End of Nature, 1903
    (pp. 65-82)

    During a national promotional tour that took him west during the spring of 1903, Roosevelt asked the naturalist John Muir if he would serve as his guide during a visit to Yosemite. The grizzled Muir did not mince words with the president when he confronted him about his hunting exploits. “Mr. Roosevelt, when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” he asked. “Are you not getting far enough along to leave that off?”

    Sheepishly, Roosevelt conceded that Muir was right.¹

    “The older I grow the less I care to shoot anything except ‘varmints.’” Roosevelt wrote to...

  10. CHAPTER SIX African Romance
    (pp. 83-102)

    The year before Theodore Roosevelt left the White House for British East Africa, he dined with Carl Akeley, a taxidermist who for the Field Museum in Chicago had produced a series of dioramas of deer in their natural habitat calledThe Four Seasons. Roosevelt had already seen Akeley’s work when he’d awarded him first place in a taxidermy competition at the Sportsman’s Show in New York City in 1895. The president wanted to meet the artist whose groundbreaking work set animals dynamically into their environment rather than isolate them as stiffly posed specimens, which had been the style until then....

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Dark Continent
    (pp. 103-114)

    Both Selig’s spurious construction of Africa and Roosevelt’s more calculated construction of it trade on the myth of Africa as the Dark Continent. The myth of the Dark Continent was an elaborate social fiction created and perpetuated by Victorian England as a strategy for expediting the morality of its colonial enterprises in Africa. The incursion into Africa by prognostic agents of imperialism—men like Roosevelt and Akeley—shared much of the same colonial discourse as the British colonizers who preceded them. An ideational landscape converts the geographical spaces of Africa, or what Edward Said calls “the structures of location and...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT When Cowboys Go to Heaven
    (pp. 115-128)

    Even before Colonel Roosevelt had returned to the United States in 1910, another colonel was busy finalizing arrangements for a cowboy safari to Africa “to show the world how easy it would be for American cowboys to rope and subdue the fiercest and biggest of game.”¹ The idea of roping African wild game struck some contemporaries as outrageous even in 1911. “The idea that any one should seriously contemplate a journey to Africa for the purpose of lassoing such creatures as sportsmen to either shoot or photograph at the longest range possible, seems quite absurd,” wrote an editor ofEverybody’s...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Transplanting Africa
    (pp. 129-144)

    The natural history museum of the early twentieth century sought to capture and suspend the natural world in dramatic tableaux vivants—“living pictures”—that suspended time at a moment of ideological perfection. Major institutions such as the Field Museum, the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Oakland Natural History Museum actively sponsored expeditions to Africa during this period to collect specimens for public display. Recent advances in taxidermy that combined technical expertise with artistic temperament stimulated curators to think about a more dynamic presentation of their specimens. Instead of presenting a stiff, inexpressive representation of a lion,...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Of Ape-Men, Sex, and Cannibal Kings
    (pp. 145-156)

    The natural history diorama frames our way of seeing and knowing nature by telling stories. These stories graft social theory onto the material reality of the world in order to organize knowledge in terms of its value to society. Just as the Enlightenment preempted God’s authority over nature three centuries ago, so science of the early twentieth century sought to wrest power from nature in order to maximize production, as Barber Conable phrases it, “to make most of nature’s resources so that human resourcefulness can make the most of the future.”¹

    As a confederacy “between words and things, enabling one...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Adventures in Monkeyland
    (pp. 157-172)

    The interracial abduction fantasy about apes (and the black men who acted as their surrogates) had been simmering in Western society since the mid-nineteenth century, when a minor explorer from Louisiana by the name Paul du Chaillu showed up in London in 1861 with some gorillas skins and skulls that he’d collected in western equatorial Africa. It was the first time anyone had seen the fabled animal, and it sparked lively controversy in light of Darwin’s revelations two years earlier with the publication ofOn the Origin of Species

    Twenty years later, in 1881,Ward’s Nature Science Bulletinpublished an...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Nature, the Film
    (pp. 173-180)

    In 1973, Hayden White publishedMETAHISTORY,a systematic study of a nexus of aesthetic constructs that underpin the historiographical text.¹ White contended that the historian, conditioned by preconceptual layers of historical consciousness, selected and organized “data from the unprocessed record” of the historical field into a “process of happening” with a beginning, middle, and an end “in the interest of rendering that record more comprehensible to an audience.”² In other words, the historian, either consciously or unconsciously, unifies disparate elements within the historical field to create a rhetorically constructed prose narrative.

    Roland Barthes had broached the idea twenty years earlier...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The World Scrubbed Clean
    (pp. 181-196)

    The image of nature in the cartoons, animated films, and documentaries produced by Walt Disney was revolutionary not only because of its progressive animated techniques but also because they couched nature within a uniquely American moral code. Their structural and thematic components coalesced a loose constellation of techniques and thinking about nature into a standard—one might even say a template—for fiction and nonfiction films about nature that would serve as the hegemonic Western model of representation for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond. Writing about the effect that Disney had on the way Americans perceived nature,...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 197-230)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  20. Index
    (pp. 245-250)