“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”