The Triumph of the American Imagination
By Neal Gabler
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780679438229, 880pp.)
Publication Date: October 31, 2006
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From Neal Gabler, the definitive portrait of one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American entertainment and cultural history.
Seven years in the making and meticulously researched—Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives—this is the full story of a man whose work left an ineradicable brand on our culture but whose life has largely been enshrouded in myth.
Gabler shows us the young Walt Disney breaking free of a heartland childhood of discipline and deprivation and making his way to Hollywood. We see the visionary, whose desire for escape honed an innate sense of what people wanted to see on the screen and, when combined with iron determination and obsessive perfectionism, led him to the reinvention of animation. It was Disney, first with Mickey Mouse and then with his feature films—most notably Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi—who transformed animation from a novelty based on movement to an art form that presented an illusion of life.
We see him reimagine the amusement park with Disneyland, prompting critics to coin the word Disneyfication to describe the process by which reality can be modified to fit one’s personal desires. At the same time, he provided a new way to connect with American history through his live-action films and purveyed a view of the country so coherent that even today one can speak meaningfully of “Walt Disney’s America.” We see how the True-Life Adventure nature documentaries he produced helped create the environmental movement by sensitizing the general public to issues of conservation. And we see how he reshaped the entertainment industry by building a synergistic empire that combined film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandise in a way that was unprecedented and was later widely imitated.
Gabler also reveals a wounded, lonely, and often disappointed man, who, despite worldwide success, was plagued with financial problems much of his life, suffered a nervous breakdown, and at times retreated into pitiable seclusion in his workshop making model trains. Gabler explores accusations that Disney was a red-baiter, an anti-Semite, an embittered alcoholic. But whatever the characterizations of Disney’s personal life, he appealed to the nation by demonstrating the power of wish fulfillment and the triumph of the American imagination. Walt Disney showed how one could impose one’s will on the world.
This is a masterly biography, a revelation of both the work and the man—of both the remarkable accomplishment and the hidden life
Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. His biography Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity was named best nonfiction book of the year by Time. He appears regularly on the media review program Fox News Watch, and writes often for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society in the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. He lives with his wife in Amagansett, New York.
“Mesmerizing . . . there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about this terrific biography of Walt Disney (1900-1966), arguably the most influential figure in 20th-century American culture. The research is astonishingly detailed . . . . About this superb biography, one can hardly be temperate. Gabler’s only obvious flaw is also his great strength–the sheer amount of detail and material he presents to the reader. But his engaging, unobtrusive prose, his passion for his workaholic subject (whom he regards as both genius and monster), and his steady march through an amazing career all inspire trust and gratitude. Here, then, is the definitive portrait of Walt Disney, the Dream-King.”
-Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (December 3, 2006)
“Illuminating . . . engrossing . . . . Gabler paints a vivid portrait.”
-Bruce Handy, New York Times Book Review (December 3, 2006)
“A thoughtful, incisive and largely straightforward account of Disney’s life and career.”
-Michiko Kakutani, New York Times (November 14, 2006)
“Masterly . . . . Gabler conveys the limits of Disney’s personal life with sympathy and objectivity. He gives a very careful analysis of the labor strike that changed the mood of the studio irrevocably as well as a nuanced discussion of Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism. By conveying the odds against which Disney struggled, Gabler makes his triumph all the more impressive.”
-Howard Kissel, New York Daily News (November 5, 2006)
“Gabler has put forth the kind of protean epic that Theodore Dreiser or John Dos Passos might have written with their all-encompassing vision, if in a less strident gear. It isn’t just the immense amount of detail Gabler deploys to give density and shadow to Disney, but the frames he uses to contain such detail that brings this biography perilously close to being its own work of art . . . . His previous books . . . ring with pitch-perfect intuitiveness about popular culture buttressed by scrupulous research and judicious tactics.”
-Gene Seymour, Newsday (November 5, 2006)
“[A] tremendously researched and eminently readable biography . . . at once vast and intimate, a skillful act of juggling enormous amounts of fact with equal amounts of rumor, myth, gossip, adultation and hype. Gabler sorts through the contradictions and gives us a coherent image of the man . . .”
--St. Petersburg Times (November 5, 2006)
“A richly detailed, often poignant, psychological profile of a visionary . . . ” —The Baltimore Sun
“Neal Gablers’ Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is a standout . . . [Gabler’s} vision of Disney and of Diseny’s vision of America is far more complex and shaded than most other authors’, and far more objective and reliable . . . He is a lively, thoughtful writer, easy to stay with over hundreds of pages . . . one of the most readable, enjoyable, and satisfying books of this year.” —Kansas City Star
“A poised and admiring portrait . . . [Gabler offers] rich detail and exhaustive combing of sources.” —Boston Sunday Globe
- John Hartl, The Seattle Times (November 3, 2006)
“Revealing . . . Fascinating . . . Fans of compelling biographies and of Disney himself will be thrilled to have this in their collection.”
-Library Journal (starred review)
“A revelatory portrait of a visionary . . . Disney examines its subject with a balance of insight, awe and empathy.”
-Pat H. Broeske, Bookpage
“Magnificent . . . an exhaustively researched and beautifully written work that is among the finest biographies I have ever read . . . Speaking of classics, this book is one. It should capture every award worth giving.”
-Cal Thomas, Gwinnett Daily Post
“Gabler’s remarkable biography lends Mickey’s creator new dimensions and sets the standard for future biographies.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] formidable achievement . . . Gabler’s restless eye invigorates each page.”
- Los Angeles Book Review
“Gabler has boiled down his years of study brilliantly . . . Walt Disney has been resurrected, not by medics, but by an extremely intrepid author.”
“Masterful . . . his book is not simply a recitation of facts. Rather, it offers clear-headed analysis.”
“Every period of Disney’s life is depicted in exacting detail . . . [Gabler’s] portrait is so engrossing that it’s hard to picture the entertainment mogul playing with his toy trains and not imagine him building Disneyland in his head.”
-Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“We’ve all been waiting for the perfect book on Walt Disney; it has finally arrived and Neal Gabler’s done it. Wonderful!”