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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

July 7, 2020: Presidential Medals of Freedom: Walt Disney and T.S. Eliot

[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to a weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
On a striking, telling pair of 1964 honorees.
After awarding Kennedy’s initial Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, Lyndon Johnson immediately chose a whole bunch more of his own: four in December 1963 (including Kennedy himself, posthumously); and then 30 more in 1964. That latter group included extensions of all the categories I discussed yesterday: Cold War diplomats like Dean Acheson and journalists like Walter Lippman (who coined the term “Cold War”); Civil Rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph; inspiring innovators like Helen Keller; and artists of Americana like Aaron Copland, Carl Sandburg, and John Steinbeck. Johnson also honored in 1964 a couple of my favorite early American Studies scholars, cultural critic Lewis Mumford and historian Samuel Eliot Morison, which I highlight here just because I think it’s pretty cool (as was their fellow 1964 honoree, theologian and President Obama’s favorite philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr). But by far the most interesting 1964 recipients, on their own terms but even more so as a reflection of a fundamental duality at the heart of the Medal, would have to be animator Walt Disney and poet and critic Thomas Sterns “T.S.” Eliot.
Neither of those men were particularly surprising choices for a 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom. By this time Disney’s film studio had released many of its most beloved animated films, California’s Disneyland was nearly a decade old (and Florida’s Disneyworld about to begin development), and the company and its signature mascot Mickey Mouse were already well established as defining American icons. Eliot was nearly five decades into his acclaimed literary career (which began in earnest with 1915’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and had received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature among countless other honors. But on the other hand, I’d like to push back a bit on Eliot as an obvious selection (which I know was my own framing, but I am large and I contain multitudes). Sure, he was already by this time quite well-established in the canons of Modernist poetry specifically and 20th century literary history overall; but this was an author who had abandoned the U.S. for England, renouncing his American citizenship in the process. While a few of the other early Medal honorees were not Americans (like 1963 recipients Pablo Casals and Jean Monnet), I don’t think any others were American ex-patriates. Not to mention: Eliot throughout his career painted pretty darn bleak pictures of both the United States and the world.
Both of those elements certainly distinguish Eliot from most of the other Medal nominees (in those early years and ever since). But I would nonetheless make a broader case that this striking pair of 1964 recipients reflect a central tension in how our collective national conversations (the kind of zeitgeist that a Presidential Medal of Freedom would always in one way or another reflect) engage with our cultural figures and works. There’s a reason why we often describe a cleaned-up, idealized narrative of American history and society as the “Disney version”; as I wrote in many of the posts in my long-ago Disneyworld series, that doesn’t mean that such spaces don’t include compelling ideas or perspectives, but Walt Disney made children his primary target audience, and then turned those kinds of childish stories (in the best and worst senses) into a dominant cultural brand. T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, consistently set out to upend his audience’s and communities’ idealistic or optimistic narratives, as reflected with particular potency by “April is the cruelest month” as the first line of a poem. While it’s fair to say that artistic recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have tended more to fall into Disney territory, folks like Eliot (as well as Steinbeck and Niebuhr in that same year) illustrate a collective willingness to recognize and honor the darker side as well.
Next Medal post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?

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