“That’s where it all started,” begins Steven Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.” Inspired at such a young age, the MU professor of history pursued his interest in American history. Concerned with the emergence of capitalist culture, Watts’ early research explored ideas about profit, success, and “the shaping of Victorian culture in the 19th century.” About 15 years ago, however, Watts became more interested in modern American history and eventually completed a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
While many of his colleagues prefer to teach more specialized courses in their specific areas of research, this 1995 winner of the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching award prefers freshman-level courses such as “Survey of American History.” Watts also teaches a series of upper-division classes in American culture. Perhaps the most “fun” course he offers is, not unexpectedly, on Walt Disney.
Originally specializing in American cultural and intellectual history, Steven Watts’ first books addressed aspects of the American republic in the late 18th and early 19th century. He later became more interested in modern American history and began a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
Watts’ most recent research resulted in a biography of Hugh Hefner—Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2008). “Hefner has been a very significant historical figure in American popular culture.” At the front edge of the sexual revolution in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Hefner signified liberation—sexual and otherwise. “In that sense,” explains Watts, “in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hefner became a kind of foil for the Reagan administration; the Meese Commission on pornography went after him very strongly. He became the bogeyman in the age of Reagan.”
“Most people look at Disney as merely a kind of entertainer, as the creator of children’s entertainment,” Watts notes. “What I found really interesting about Disney is that his creations were connected to some very serious historical issues and the American experience.” Likewise, he discovered that the theme park “connects to broader issues and developments as well. In this very creative way,” says Watts, “Disney spun this picture of happiness that was connected to the American way of life and material plenty.”
The fate of black economic development in Columbia, Missouri, represents a microcosm of national trends. “For a variety of social and economic reasons,” Weems observes, “we literally see black businesses disappearing from the landscape of America.” Looking at the economic dimension of desegregation reveals a bitter irony that has animated much of Weems’ work. As a result of so-called desegregation, “on one level, we see white companies making great inroads among the African-American consumers,” he explains. “But we don’t see black companies being able to make similar inroads in the mainstream community.” In economic terms, this one-way situation is not true desegregation.