In 1985, at age 41, I visited Disney World for the first time. I remember the experience for two things: the endless lines so cleverly organized that you never knew how long they truly were and the Hawaiian Luau dinner I attended. Yes, a genuine Hawaiian feast that reminded me of American Chinese food circa 1953 and the unforgettable “entertainment” offered by “native” Hawaiian dancers with spears who smacked their weapons on the ground and rhythmically advanced on the diners glowering fiercely. Whoever those dancers were, they were quite skilled at playing “primitives” from elsewhere, also circa 1953, objects of fear, wonder, and scorn. (Oh yes, and Disney World was the place that first taught me this country had an obesity problem — along with some of the most fattening food on the planet.)
I must admit that my grown-up’s eye view of Walt Disney’s fantasy universe left me a little shocked at the time, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, a decade or so earlier I had absorbed How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Matellart, an unforgettable exposé of the true nature of Disney-style American “innocence.” It was a document that had emerged from the democratic Chilean revolution of Salvador Allende, just one of the governing experiments of the twentieth century that the U.S. helped do in. (In fact, I still have my copy of that British-produced book from the mid-1970s, which, in its Spanish version, had quite literally been consigned to the flames and later in English was impounded by U.S. Customs. It was a work that no American publisher would put out at the time and so my well-worn copy has become a remarkably valuable collector’s item, as Dorfman points out in today’s post.)
Keep in mind that I had been a typical Disney kid of the 1950s. I read Walt’s comics and raptly watched Walt Disney’s Disneyland on our black-and-white TV. That weekly extravaganza included such gems as “Our Friend the Atom,” a paean of praise to the all-American power source that, only a decade or so earlier, had obliterated two Japanese cities. Above all, though, the show was a living ad for the wonders of — you guessed it — Disneyland, which was partially constructed with money ABC paid to air it. (“Each week, as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you: Frontierland, tall tales and true from the legendary past! Tomorrowland, promise of things to come! Adventureland, the wonder world of nature’s own realm! Fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all!”) I can still remember yearning to visit Disneyland and see the guide on its “African” river at Adventureland shoot his pistol directly into the voracious maw of a hippopotamus. Of course, Uncle Walt’s showcase had been built in distant California at a moment when air travel wasn’t the commonplace of today and the farthest west I had ever been was Albany, New York.
Still, I do have something to thank Walt for. In the spring of 1980, in exile from his native Chile (then in the hands of its military), Ariel Dorfman walked unannounced into my office at Pantheon Books in New York City. Fortunately, thanks to Disney’s favorite duck, I already knew his work well and so was prepped to become the editor of his first two books in English. Now, another set of decades down the line, he completes the circle of our lives as he looks back by torchlight (so to speak) on his own experiences with Walt Disney and what they mean in the age of Donald Trump.