Feb 22

Corporate Periodization, INCS conference preview

The Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies conference is March 10-13, in Asheville, NC, and I’ll be presenting part of my current book project about the Victorians and the Walt Disney Company. The paper argues that literary and corporate periodization are analogous, each stemming from particular institutional objectives, and demonstrates the analogy by examining the history of the Walt Disney Company.

In fitting the paper to its necessary length I wrote two sections that don’t fit exactly into the argument, and I decided to post them here as a preview of (or complement to) the paper. The first part explores the imagined contrast between making art and making money. The second very briefly identifies different periods in the management of the Lyceum Theater, which I see as a historical example of the kind of periodization I’m claiming for Disney.

Making Art and Making Money

The imagined corporate ethos is encapsulated in an internal memo written by Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. The memo is famous enough that it has become a meme:

We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. - Michael Eisner

I first encountered this memo in Henry Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared. Giroux argues that Disney is a cultural icon, but its profit-centered motivation makes it a threat to Democratic values (Giroux 25). For those who value making art, history, and statements over making money, Eisner’s memo raises eyebrows. And it’s easy to imagine a corporate executive spouting claims like this. It’s a too-perfect encapsulation of the neoliberal values we fear are encroaching into the university.

But the next sentence of the memo changes things a bit, at least for me. And it tends to be left out of the memes. Here is the slightly extended version:

We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, to make some significant statement. (Stewart 23; Eisner)

Eisner is a corporate CEO, and clear about his priorities. But he is also aware of the kind of company he’s leading. In his 1998 memoir he doubles down on the idea, and claims to be riffing on Woody Allen’s claim that “if show business weren’t a business, it would have been called ‘show show’” (Eisner).

It’s the contrast between these different values that interests me most, and the way they are too often framed as a zero-sum game. Professors are often caricatured as being out of touch, as if our only objective is to teach students and produce research. And I don’t necessarily disagree that that is our objective as faculty. But imagine a university president adapting Eisner’s words:

We have no obligation to make money. To make art, to study history, to make statements is our only objective. But to make art, study history, and make significant statements it is sometimes necessary to make money.

I don’t think that statement is a slippery slope that leads all universities to become like Corinthian Colleges. To insist on a contrast between universities and corporations is to insist on different priorities. It doesn’t mean we remove ourselves entirely from the financial system. When we push for state or federal funding, for student loan reform, for alumni donations, or for higher wages for contingent faculty, we recognize that universities do need to be funded. My paper takes seriously the shared motivations among academics, artists, and corporations.

The Lyceum Theater

The division between corporate and academic ethos is less stark than news coverage makes it out to be. But it nonetheless exists, and does affect the moves we make in our own scholarship. In her book on Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, Carolyn Williams argues that

Genre formation is not only an aesthetic and historical, but also an economic, process, and genre was important to Gilbert and Sullivan’s effort to carve out their own market niche. They distinguished their productions from other theatrical fare through their genre parody and their particular treatments of gender. Their success at capital accumulation supported unusually high production values, which led, in turn, to further capital growth. (Williams 5)

That’s an insightful point, recognizing the link between profit and aesthetics. Williams then emphasizes that capital accumulation “does not reduce the aesthetic dimension of their success” (6). Even when acknowledging the link, she recognizes the need to guard against a backlash that would insist on a divide between art and the marketplace. In arguing that English departments and the Walt Disney Company follow similar institutional drives to periodize, I aim to further bridge that divide.

Theater scholars tend to be especially attuned to financial questions: Williams is just one example, and Shakespeare critics have long been invested in learning about his financial involvement in his companies. For my purposes, the Lyceum Theatre provides an index to theatrical trends, and its operational history demonstrates how an institutional brand can turn a profit by keeping up with the rhythms of popular culture. Built by the Society of Artists in 1772, the Lyceum hosted a variety of exhibitions in the late eighteenth century, including “astronomical demonstrations, air balloons, waxworks, ‘philosophical fireworks,’ boxing matches, circuses, programs  of humorous recitations, and concerts”  (Altick 54). The site took advantage of fads like waxworks and tableaux vivants as they emerged: Madame Tussaud began her British career at the Lyceum in 1802 (Altick 333) and William Dimond’s The Peasant Boy (1811) featured one of the earliest tableaux (Altick 342).

After hosting operas and fairy extravaganzas around mid-century, the Lyceum later came to be associated with Henry Irving, and especially with Shakespeare: Irving’s 1874 Hamlet has been called “one of the most influential and talked about theatrical roles in the latter part of the nineteenth century” (Young 3). As these examples demonstrate, the Lyceum shifted its strategy to keep up with popular culture, its different stages analogous to literary periods. Today, I would suggest, the Lyceum continues its Victorian legacy: since 1999 it has hosted Disney’s The Lion King, an adaptation of Hamlet that takes combines two distinct trends of twentieth-century pop culture: the animated musical and the Broadway musical.

In the INCS paper, and in the book towards which these arguments are building, I continue developing these analogies to explore how a global media corporation can helps us understand Victorian culture and its reception.

Works Cited

Jun 15

Victorian Vogue and Disney’s Alice

On Wednesday I head to Richmond for the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference, and this post previews what I’ll be talking about.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. The Lewis Carroll Society of America is hosting a series of events, including an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, and Harvard’s exhibition is viewable online. In the century and a half since its first publication, Carroll’s book has been adapted for television, theater, film, and even board games and soap. And of course, advertising. If you watched television in December, it was hard to miss this commercial:

Once you know the commercial is a riff on Alice, the tea party and the size-changing marshmallow fit the theme. But the Alice-ness is first established by the entry into the Target logo, the head-first dive after the White Rabbit (here replaced by Target’s canine mascot). Alice-white-rabbitThat visual doesn’t allude to the book — Carroll doesn’t tell us the precise manner in which Alice enters Wonderland. Alice follows the rabbit and is “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.” Then “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” The illustrations aren’t much help. Tenniel’s illustrations show the rabbit checking his wrist-watch, and in the next image Alice is already down the rabbit-hole, opening the curtain to reveal the tiny door.

In Disney’s 1951 adaptation, though Alice enters the rabbit-hole head first. (You can see the scene on YouTube, if the clip hasn’t been taken down). That image has entered the public consciousness, and Target counts on shoppers to recognize it.

I take the phrase in my title, “Victorian vogue,” from Dianne Sadoff, who argues that we must consider “the production, distribution, and exhibition situations of films that adapt classic novels” . In other words, the context in which an adaptation is produced matters. Understanding an adaption requires more than just comparing it with the original. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is no exception. Walt Disney’s interest in Alice started early: he produced “Alice’s Wonderland” in Kansas City, and brought it with him to Hollywood. He eventually produced 57 Alice cartoons, De Alice's Abenteuer im Wunderland Carroll pic 03though they have little to do with Carroll’s story, beyond the title: mostly they’re a vehicle for the novelty of blending live action with animation. Disney also screen-tested Mary Pickford for a live-action Alice in the early 1930s, abandoning the project when he learned of Paramount’s competing film. But Disney secured the copyright for the Tenniel illustrations only after the release of Snow White in 1938 , and that’s when studio really got to work on Alice. (It’s plausible he hoped to get a film together by the 75th anniversary in 1940, though I haven’t seen anything particular to suggest that).

By the early 1940s, of course, the world had more important things to worry about. To understand the context in which Disney’s 1951 film was produced, we’d have to consider Disney’s films supporting the war effort, and how World War II changed the relationship between England and America (and consequently how an American film based on a much-loved English text would be received). And of course, we’d want to think about the role of the Alice books in American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Sadoff adapts her title from F. R. Leavis, who felt that Victorian novels were particularly “in vogue” in the 1940s. So that’s a lot of historical pressure affecting the production and reception of Disney’s film.

But this week I will look at a smaller, parallel history: the company’s story meetings and drafts of the film. Meeting notes and research reports from the archives show Disney’s storywriters responding to public perceptions of Alice in Wonderland and even considering biographical and scholarly works. Walt Disney was supposedly mystified by “the symbolic meanings people kept finding in The Three Little Pigs,” and responded with a phrase that’s quoted in most of his biographies: “we make the pictures and then let the professors tell us what they mean” . In that statement Disney seems dismissive of academics, of whom F. R. Leavis is a fine prototype (Leavis wrote one of my favorite academic sentences: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad” . Such confidence). But the archives show something different – Disney did care what “the professors” said. As I will argue this week, storywriters responded to contemporary events and the cultural reception of Carroll’s Alice books, and knowing that fact should shift how we think about Disney’s adaptations.

Works Cited

Jun 11

Down around Biloxi

This weekend I’ll be traveling in Jimmy Buffet’s footsteps, and will find myself down around Biloxi for the Children’s Literature Association conference. I’m presenting another section of the project I’ve been working on, about psychology, pedagogy, and literature in the nineteenth century. I’ve been thinking mostly about fact-based learning and prior knowledge, and that’s that the conference paper is about, adding readings of Peter Parley and the Alice books, on top of what I earlier wrote about Peter Pan. The abstract is pasted below.


“Now what I want is Facts,” says Thomas Gradgrind in the opening sentence of Hard Times. Dickens satirizes the Gradgrindian mode of education, and surely we reject Gradgrind’s claim that “Facts are all that is wanted in life.” Our educational system values experiential learning, such as learning through play, more than the rote memorization that Dickens caricatures. So why does Gradgrind remain such an appropriate caricature of a teacher? Why do we ask students to learn facts? In other words, to borrow a question faced by teacher at all levels, why do students have to learn that? These questions – especially relevant today as states seek to standardize education and testing practices necessitate a focus on information that can be conveyed in multiple choice – have a history of their own, which this paper will explore.

Psychologists have long recognized that facts are an essential component of critical thinking: higher-order thinking requires a context and a background, a network of prior knowledge in which to process new information. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham stresses this point in Why Don’t Students Like School (2009), and as early as 1898 William James, in his Talks to Teachers, recognized the necessity of prior knowledge. E. D. Hirsch makes the case in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them that a standardized national education would result in a more equal society, providing cultural capital to lower-income and migratory students who might not get it at home. If these were the main justification for teaching facts, few would resist.

But fact-based learning is generally associated with rote learning, and with conservative, outmoded education. And it has been since at least the beginning of the 19th century. This paper will address the history of reactions to fact-based education in two popular nineteenth-century children’s books: Samuel Goodrich’s Peter Parley books and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Goodrich’s series, published in America and widely pirated in Britain, rejected fiction and fairy tales in favor of true, factual information. He writes in his autobiography that Hannah More “had discovered that truth could be made attractive to simple minds. . . Did not children love truth? If so, was it necessary to feed them on fiction?” And as Alice falls down the rabbit hole she recalls a litany of facts, which follow throughout her journey: her reliance on her previous education helps her process the nonsense world she enters. Even as Carroll separates his child heroine from the adult world, she proves unable to process her surroundings without relying on her internal network of prior knowledge. I read the Peter Parley books as an attempt to bring literature in line with schools’ emphasis on factual knowledge, and the Alice books not as mere parodies of Victorian education but as genuine attempts to consider the role of facts in learning.