Emanuel Leutze Washington
Grant Wood Parson Weems' Fable, 1939
Jacques-Louis David The Oath of the Horatii, 1784
Paul Revere The Boston Massacre,1770
Thomas Cole The Oxbow, 1836
George Inness Lackawanna Valley, c.1856
Albert Bierstadt Yosemite Valley, 1865
Thomas Moran Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881
The restored Governor'sPalace in Colonial Williamsburg
Sketch of the original
Ruined foundations of the Governor's Palace before restorations began
Colonial Williamsburg garden
Saturday Evening Post edition inscribed by Rockwell to Walt Disney with a close-up of Rockwell's inscription
The Four Freedoms
After the Prom and Saying Grace
New Harmony, Indiana
Two views of the Pullman Arcade
The Hotel Florence
Celebration is a place that is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is its synthesis of two major American cultural phenomena. When I asked him about Celebration, the only thing that architect Jaquelin Robertson, one of the partners with Robert Stern in Celebration's design, would say to me about the town was that it was "new." But Celebration is not new. In fact, it represents the convergence of two of the oldest ideological forces in American history, the dream of utopia and the idealization of the past.
Recently on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, several journalists were debating the release to the public of the Zabruder film, which captured the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Since that time, the film had been available to the public only through the National Archives, but it has now been reproduced and is available for distribution. During the debate between journalists and historians over the propriety of this distribution by the film's owners, one of the journalists made a comparison between the film and the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), calling them both images of important American historical events.
The film is, in its essence and purpose, documentary. Mr.. Zabruder was not employing any filmic techniques on November 23, 1963. He wasn't trying to shoot the scene in such a way that it would provide any sort of editorial commentary. He was merely trying to tape the President's motorcade as it went by, and tragically, he filmed some else entirely. But the painting in its essence is a work of art, a fabrication, the artist's rendering, some 70-odd years after the event itself, of an aesthetically pleasing version of Washington crossing that river. Washington did not stand up in his boat in 1771. Huge chunks of ice were not floating in the Delaware. And yet, a journalist, on a respected news program, claimed that like the Zabruder film, Leutze's painting is accurate representation of a historic event. Perhaps if asked, the journalist would acknowledge that, in fact, this was not the truth, or that he was simply trying to make a point about historic images in general. That is not really important. What is important is what this situation represents.
Wendy Greenhouse, in her essay for the exhibition catalog of the exhibit Picturing History, discussed the phenomena out of which such statements come. In her essay, Ms. Greenhouse speaks of "the impulse of writers and painters alike to conceive American history in grandly epic terms. Only this approach," she writes "the product of a history now amenable to romantic generalization, can explain the respectful enthusiasm with which Americans embraced the patriotic bombast of such works as...Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware" (Ayers 62). The idea of Washington, sitting in his boat as it crossed the river, does not fit the heroic image that we have of him, and it does not make a very exciting painting, either.
Ralph Ellison, quoted in the same catalog, gave another explanation for America's romance with its own history. "It is well to keep in mind," he said "the fact that not all American history is recorded. And in some ways we are fortunate that it isn't, for if it were, we might become so chagrined by the discrepancies which exist between our democratic ideals and our social reality that we'd soon lose heart. Perhaps this is why we possess two basic versions of American history: one which is written and is neatly stylized as ancient myth, and the other unwritten and as chaotic and full of contradictions, changes of pace, and surprises as life itself. Perhaps this is to overstate a bit, but there's no denying the fact that Americans can be notoriously selective in the exercise of historical memory." (Ayers 14)
The idea that Washington in that boat is stylized seems an important one. His posture takes on one reminiscent of ancient heroes in the European paintings like those of David and Poussin, which themselves built on the works of earlier classical artists. Washington has become a type in Leutze's painting, the heroic warrior, an image that neatly parallels the intellectual construct that Greenhouse described.
Whether it is the impulse of writers and artists to create an epic history, or a product of the difficulty of reconciling reality and fantasy, the undeniable fact remains that not only have Americans created a romantic idealization of their own history, but that they are apt to accept that idealization as fact, to believe that the image that they carry around in their collective memory of Washington majestically crossing the Delaware River, standing at the prow of his boat, is just as true as pieces of history that we can watch recorded on film.
American history and art is full of such examples, going back to before we had even officially become a nation. Paul Revere's famous woodcut of the Boston Massacre provides one of the earliest examples of this phenomena. The Boston Massacre represents a pivotal event in pre-Revolutionary history, one that was key in helping many colonists down the road to rebellion against the British Government. But the public was offered a less than factual account of what had actually happened on March 1, 1770. The text of the version circulated to colonists was written by Samuel Adams, and the illustration accompanying it was created by Paul Revere.
Certainly, Revere and Adams were serving political ends in their retelling of the events at hand, but they were indeed creating the truth for their own purposes, a truth that included courageous Americans, standing up to tyranny, before being brutally assaulted, as opposed to an aggressive and angry mob throwing ice and wood and taunting the British officers with insults and dares to shoot them, as was the case in fact. It is Revere's image of brave Americans, standing up for what would become their constitutional rights that forms our national memory of that event.
Similarly, images of the American West by artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran contribute to the strong ties that Americans feel to the West and the place of its open, Edenic landscape in our cultural character. Nature has always played an important part in America's understanding of itself, both as a characteristic that separated it from Europe as well as proof of its special relationship with God. The earlier Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and George Inness painted the landscape much as it appeared to them. In certain paintings, like Inness' Lackawanna Valley, they even included the technology that was beginning to encroach upon that landscape.
By the time that Bierstadt and Moran were painting, during and in the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans were interested in landscapes that portrayed the West as they wanted to imagine it, as a place of pristine beauty and renewal that offered hope that the horrors of the war in the East could be transcended and that America could resume her place as God's chosen land. This was complicated by the fact that when Bierstadt and Moran arrived in the West to paint their grandiose landscapes, there were railroads and towns established in the very places that they wanted paint as untouched by the hand of modern man. So they simply painted those details out and provided viewers in the East with what they wanted to believe about the West. The site that Bierstadt grandly captures in Yosemite Valley (1865) actually had a railroad line running through it. And Moran's Green River Cliffs, Wyoming (1881) was the site of a town, complete with saloon and general story when he painted it. Both artists paid careful attention to the rendering of detail, and this technique, along with the overwhelming size of their canvases, leant veracity to their work. It is not surprising that we regard their paintings as truthful renderings of the Western landscape. They are, to paraphrase Greenhouse, epic and grand, and they help us to believe what we want to about our history.
We have carried this romantic habit into the 20th century. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia provides a good example, one that in some ways foreshadows Disney theme parks and Celebration. Reconstructed in the 1930's on land secretly purchased in the late 1920's by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.., Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, was intended upon its restoration to provide the country with the best example of colonial American life possible. At its dedication, Franklin Roosevelt called its main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, "the most historic avenue in all America."
And yet, Williamsburg is filled with contradictions. Foremost, its buildings were not all restored to a specific date. Several of them had undergone various incarnations during the colonial era, due, for example, to fires, and each building was restored to its most aesthetically pleasing design. Streets were lined with trees and gardens that were part of the suburban model of the 20's and 30's, not the colonial era.
The interiors were filled with antiques made by Virginia craftsmen, as a way of honoring them, although the houses and public buildings in truth would have also been furnished with pieces made in England as well as other regions of America. Williamsburg was restored with a great deal of care and a desire to bring each building back to its colonial state. But it was the marketing of the whole package as representative of the colonial community that rang false and was infused with a certain degree of showmanship.
The Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, the Episcopal rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg and the man who had envisioned the whole project and solicited Rockefeller's help, wrote to Rockefeller of Williamsburg's future visitors: "They will see it not so much through pure intellect and reason as they will in the light of stimulated imagination. To them the Restoration will open vistas that will beckon fancy and inspire dreams. To these the touch of the theatrical will be an inspiration." His words reflect the desire of Colonial Williamsburg's modern creators to provide their visitors with not a purely truthful rendering of colonial life, but with an idealized, "theatrical" version of that life which would fit into the pantheon of theatrical images of American history that they already possessed.
Norman Rockwell also contributed to this pantheon of images. Painting most prominently during the 1930's, 40's and 50's, he provided Americans with an idealized version of American life that many people accepted as fact. His art, including over three hundred covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine, reached millions of viewers across the country, giving them a huge set of shared images with which to inform their imaginations. Rarely were his subjects controversial or issue oriented, although his series on the Four Freedoms and his moving Civil Rights paintings stand apart. He depicted the simple details of American life, some comic, others more sentimental, the kinds of details that many would argue make life worth living. Young children at play, couples getting their marriage licenses, young people going to dances, families praying and eating dinner together. They were simple and sweet, and in their meticulous attention to detail, provided a type of realism that was created by the totality of his vision.
Disney take over were these efforts have left off. In fact Disney was a great fan of Rockwell's, traveling to his studio in Stockbridge, even commissioning Rockwell to paint portraits of his daughters. Rockwell apparently returned Walt's admiration.
In some of its earliest marketing releases about the construction of Disneyland in the 1950's, Disney claimed that "Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America. And it will be equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world." But Disney also said of Disneyland that he "didn't want the public to see the world they live in while they are in the park...I want them to feel they're in another world."
Alexander Wilson quotes Disney in his book The Culture of Nature, and he also quotes one of Disney's "Imagineers" who wrote that "The environments that we create are more utopian, more romanticized, more like the guest imagined they would be. For the most part, negative elements are discreetly eliminated, while positive aspects are in some case embellished to tell the story more clearly." More clearly, or falsely? How can the story be "hard facts" and "embellished" at once?
In providing first theme parks and now an actual community infused with an enormous attention to detail and realism, Disney has created another seemingly true but actually misleading representation of American life and have asked Americans to incorporate it into the pantheon of equally false images that they believe to be representative of the American experience. And because it fits in so nicely with the other images that they already possess, it is easy to believe that what Disney is offering to Americans in Celebration is the truth, an honest and truthful recreation of how America used to look, and by extension, to be.
But the romantic view of history is not the only ideological trend that Celebration incorporates. It is also the latest expression of the search for a utopian life in America.
Beginning with some of the first Europeans to journey to the New World, Americans sought to establish in the New World societies that would redress the societal corruption they saw around them in Europe. The New World offered them the physical and philosophical possibility to start over again, putting Europe's failures and thousands of years of history behind them.
John Winthrop, in his famous sermon A Modell of Christian Charity, delivered aboard the ship Arabella in 1630, echoed Matthew's Gospel, when he spoke the words that have been quoted untold times: "We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Winthrop's words signified the importance he placed on the spirit of the experiment with which he was involved. Generations of Americans since have taken Winthrop's words as signifiers of America's special place as the first among nations, endowed by God with special status and special purpose.
From the pre-Colonial era forward, a succession of communities emerged that have in one way or another built on Winthrop's idea of a City upon a Hill, both in philosophy and physical arrangement. Their guiding tenants have been both religious and secular, but are usually the constructs of a single persuasive individual who others then follow. From the Shakers, the Mormons, Oneidans, and Fourierites to residents of Brook Farm, Sunnyside and Reston, thousands of Americans have found it desirable to move away from the general population. The new communities that they have constructed have been intended in their very difference from the rest of society to provide it with an example of a better way to live, the proverbial City on a Hill.
For example, to help bring about the moral life of the New World, 17th century Colonial cities were laid out so that all citizens lived within sight of the church. Not only did this place them close to the visual representation of the guiding principles of their communal life, and give them a certain amount of safety, but it also made them observable to one another. The community was organized physically to reinforce the ideology of the community. It is not surprising then, that the majority of women accused of witchcraft in Salem had moved with their families out of the center of Salem in the hopes of establishing a second church. Their accusers may have been alarmed in part by the threat of an ideological break in the community signaled by the physical one.
Celebration several ways bares similarities to 19th century company towns. Pullman, Indiana in a good example. Mrs. Doty Duane, who lived in Pullman, wrote in 1883 "Pullman is the only city of the world built artistically in every part, and from a central thought within one man." Like Celebration, care was taken to create in Pullman an environment singular in its completeness, providing its own version of reality. And as with Disney's vision of a modern worker's utopia, Pullman was entirely the vision of one person with the money and power to make that vision a reality.
George M. Pullman, owner of the Pullman Place Car Company purchased a large pieces of land outside of Chicago in 1880. There he built not only his factory, but also a complete town, with houses, a bank, a multi-denominational church, parks, a library, hotel, school, post office and theatre. A large structure in the center of town called the Arcade housed privately owned shops and businesses.
Like Celebration, Pullman was meticulously landscaped and provided residents at all parts of the socio-economic scale with the most modern conveniences and technologies, such as indoor plumbing, excellent sewage control, and gas works. Like Celebration, there were strict zoning regulations. Houses could only be dark green and red. Pullman was organized similarly to Celebration, with houses in similar price ranges grouped together.
Pullman's residents also had to sacrifice certain rights in order to live in Pullman. Drinking was strictly forbidden, and anyone observed drinking was evicted. Pullman's residents had no elected representation, and in fact were not allowed to own property. Their rent was deducted from their paychecks, which led to the violent and precedent-setting strike of his workers in 1894 when Pullman cut wages in response to the depressed economy but refused to lower the rent.
There is a striking similarity in the way that Pullman and Celebration were conceptualized. Pullman's brochure in 1884 claimed that it was a town where "all that is ugly and discordant and demoralizing is eliminated, and all that inspires self-respect is generously provided."