• In January I wrote an essay for COMMENTARY occasioned by the simultaneous publication of new biographies of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination turned out to be a big, booming bore, so I went out of my way to mention in a footnote that Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, the best book ever written about American animation, had a Disney biography of his own in the pipeline. Now Barrier has delivered the goods. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, 424 pp., $29.95) is half the length of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and has twice as much to say about the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s cartoons. Because it is concise, wholly unpretentious, and gossip-free—and because an academic press published it several months after Gabler’s high-profile biography—my guess is that The Animated Man will be overlooked by most book-review editors. Pay them no heed. Barrier is one of the few thoughtful critic-historians to have taken a serious interest in animation, and The Animated Man is a superbly penetrating piece of work.
Having concluded (correctly, in my view) that Disney the man wasn’t especially interesting as a personality, Barrier devotes most of the book to a close but not numbingly detailed account of the breathtakingly rapid artistic development and subsequent decline of his animated films. He lays out his critical priorities with admirable clarity on the very first page:
Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist . . . The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have occurred without him. It is his animated films of the 1930′s and early 1940′s that make him uniquely interesting.
All true, and Barrier makes an equally striking point about Disneyland when he observes that its commercial success would help to “seal character animation’s identity as a children’s medium and thus make it more difficult to produce films comparable to those that had made Disney himself famous.” This seems to me exactly right.
I wish Barrier had said a bit more about Disney’s critical reception—that’s one of the few things Neal Gabler gets right—but otherwise The Animated Man tells you everything you need to know about Walt Disney and his work. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
• A few days after writing about the Library of America’s Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater in this space, I received a letter from Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew. I’d mentioned in passing that I hoped the Library of America would someday get around to bringing out a volume or two devoted to Wilder’s novels, and Tappan Wilder wanted me to know that all seven are currently available in paperback from Perennial. He enclosed a copy of Heaven’s My Destination, which I am now reading with enormous pleasure and fascination, both of which are greatly enhanced by J.D. McClatchy’s foreword and Tappan’s own afterword. More in due course, but for the moment I’ll mention that the other six novels are accompanied by forewords written by Russell Banks (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), Christopher Buckley (Theophilus North), Penelope Niven (The Woman of Andros and The Cabala), John Updike (The Eighth Day) and Kurt Vonnegut (The Ides of March). I’m still hoping for a Library of America omnibus, but these attractive editions will do quite nicely until then.