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Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature

Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney

Ronald B. Tobias

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

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pp. ix

For those who had the patience, the goodwill, and the enthusiasm—however guarded—I am indebted. To David Quammen for going to bat for me; to Bob Rydell for giving me support when I really wasn’t sure that what I was doing was on track; to the archivalists at the American Museum of Natural History for sharing their playground with me...

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pp. xi-xix

Raymond Williams concedes in Keywords that 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...

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1. Tales of Dominion

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pp. 1-17

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...

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2. The Plow and the Gun

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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...

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3. Picturing the West, 1883–1893

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pp. 29-47

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...

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4. American Idol, 1898

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pp. 49-63

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...

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5. The End of Nature, 1903

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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...

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6. African Romance

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pp. 83-101

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 called The 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...

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7. The Dark Continent

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pp. 103-113

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...

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8. When Cowboys Go to Heaven

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pp. 115-127

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...

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9. Transplanting Africa

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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...

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10. Of Ape-Men, Sex, and Cannibal Kings

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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...

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11. Adventures in Monkeyland

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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...

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12. Nature, the Film

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pp. 173-180

In 1973, Hayden White published Metahistory, 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...

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13. The World Scrubbed Clean

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pp. 181-195

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...


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pp. 197-230


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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-250

E-ISBN-13: 9781609172268
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860016

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011