Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Michael Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on Public Memory

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Michael Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on Public Memory

Philip V. Scarpino
Indiana University
Wallace, Michael. Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. 336 pp., 16 illus. Paper, US$22.95, ISBN 1-56639-445-7.

1 Michael Wallace has had a notable and productive career as an observer and critic of the role of history in American culture. Heretofore, most of his publications have appeared in article-length pieces scattered in a variety of journals and edited volumes. Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on Public Memory pulls together and presents a rich smorgasbord of Wallace's work, published and presented at conferences over a fifteen-year period. His examination of attitudes towards the past, of why people remember and why they forget, and of the relationship between past and present plays out in a language of struggle; his are stories of skirmishes, wars, combat, firefights, disputes, and attacks. Much of this conflict, he asserts, "has taken place outside academia, on the terrain now known as Public History" (p. xi). This volume, which is part of a series, Critical Perspectives on the Past, edited by Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, deserves a wide readership among people interested in the interplay between public scholarship and material culture.

2 Most of the selections in Mickey Mouse History deal in a substantial way with the public interpretation of material culture. Thomas Schlereth often uses a definition of material culture coined by archaeologist James Dietz: "that segment of man's physical environment which is purposely shaped by him according to culturally dictated plans." Wallace engages the culturally dictated plans embedded in material culture and the cultural conflicts that characterize the public interpretation of material heritage in the present. He is an advocate and an activist; his examination of history in the public arena employs a model of analysis that blends hegemony theory with more traditional Marxism. Thus, Wallace is critical of the influence of capitalism and corporations and right-wing politicians, and he champions history that gives voice to the perspectives of working people, minorities, women, and other under represented groups. All of us make sense of the past through the prism of our own cultures and in the context of our personal experiences and ideological outlooks. Michael Wallace is a bit more transparent and honest about that than many professional historians, a fact that in the end adds depth and commitment to his narrative.

3 Following an Introduction tided "Battlefields of Memory," Mickey Mouse History is divided into four sections. Section I, which comprises over one-third of the volume, ranges broadly across several topics related to history museums: memory, urban museums, immigration, science and technology, industry, deindustrialization, and conflict. As with much of the book, the examples are heavily American and northeastern U.S., such as Ellis Island, but the issues embraced by the examples should be of much broader interest. Section II, which supplies the tide for this volume, critiques the Disney Corporation and corporate-sponsored, commercialized history. Two chapters in this section examine the dispute over Disney's America and track the transformation of "Original Walt" into "Corporate Walt," along with a corresponding shift in the presentation of historical information. Wallace's ability to combine humour with insight and analysis reveals itself in passages such as: "Mickey Mouse, that noted historian, has been extremely productive over the last decade. His passion for presenting the past seems to have been intensified by a near-death experience he and his parent company underwent ten years ago" (p. 160). Section III deals with struggles to save the built environment, and the two chapters in Section IV take on the recent culture wars: "Ronald Reagan and the Politics of History," and "The Battle of the Enola Gay."

4 There are certainly things about Mickey Mouse History that invite critique. As is so often the case with edited volumes, the essays do not always fit smoothly together. Even though Wallace did some editing of his original publications and presentations, they do reveal the developmental trajectory of his own thinking over a long period of time. The physical and intellectual integration of essays in an edited volume will rarely be as seamless as the chapters in a monograph. Even so, the essays in this volume do add up to a significant and greater whole that informs, challenges, and entertains. The relationship between memory and history is a "hot" topic in current historical literature, and at times Wallace is as unclear about the definition(s) of memory and its relationship to history as many of the other authors who have written on this important subject.

5 When all is said and done, any shortcomings that this book contains are overshadowed by its strengths. Separately and collectively the essays in this volume do what any really good book should accomplish; they inform, and more importantly, they make the reader think. Mickey Mouse History is a good read, and it engages issues and ideas that are of considerable moment in public history and material culture studies.