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Like many of us, my introduction to the world of adult concerns came with a childhood viewing of Disney's horror classic, Bambi. I was probably five years old and it was the first movie my Mom ever took me too. An overly sensitive child, the death of Bambi's Mother left me sobbing, but my Father decided it would be a good idea for him to get in on the action, so he took me the next day. I'm still not fully recovered.

While we did eventually have one of those Disney picture versions of the book for kids, I'd never read the original novel and knew nothing of the author, Felix Salten. Don't know that I ever would have either, except that when I picked up a copy at a book sale I discovered that it is, improbably enough, translated by Whittaker Chambers, a Columbia classmate of Clifton Fadiman, an editor at Simon & Schuster which bought the rights to the book in the '20s. That confluence seemed so curious I bought it.

Well, brother, the curiosities were just beginning. First of all, the book is drenched in existential dread. It's not just Bambi's Mom who brings the possibility of death home to the reader; the threat is constant and often realized. There's one famous chapter with a pair of oak leaves in late Fall, wondering what happened to Summer, where everyone else went, what happens to you once you fall and preparing for their own. If I'd read it as a kid I'd have been a wreck. Here's a reading of it from a 50s radio show.

In another chapter, one of Bambi's friends come back to the herd after being taken by Him, the hunter who truly rules the Forest. The returnee is oddly quiescent and assures everyone there's really nothing to fear from Him. But it turns out he's been more or less domesticated to make him easy prey. This will remind many of the similar situation in Watership Down, where a hutch of rabbits accept that they will be culled in exchange for the easy life a farmer provides them. Things get hairier though when you read about Salten--the nom de plume of the Viennese Jew, Siegmund Salzmann--and discover that the author was a prominent Zionist and this portion of the story can be read as a warning against thinking that assimilation made Jews safe. Meanwhile, the whole novel serves as a warning about the many threats Jews face. Yikes!

Read more about Salten/Salzmann and it turns out his first novel was semi-pornographic and contemporaries compared Bambi favorably to the works of his peer, Franz Kafka. Kids book my foot.

Nevertheless, it is a powerful novel in its own right. You can see why folks have been known to quit hunting, or even eating meat, after reading it (though Salten was a hunter himself). Apparently Walt Disney's own interest in obtaining the rights was a function of his concern for animals. Both author and filmmaker certainly delivered works that make us all too aware of the power of life and death we exercise, often thoughtlessly, over wildlife.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Children's Books
Felix Salten Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Felix Salten
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Felix Salten (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Bambi, a Life in the Woods
    -WIKIPEDIA: Whittaker Chambers
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Bambi
    -ETEXT: Bambi
    -AUDIO EXCERPT: Winter (Excerpt from the Book Bambi) By Felix Salten (Radio dramatization of the chapter winter from Bambi by Felix Salten. Read by Ted Strasser in the 50's)
    -EXCERPT: Forward by John Galsworthy
-ESSAY: Felix Salten’s “Bambi”: A Prismatic Centennial (GINA NUTT, SEPTEMBER 28, 2022, Chicago Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Bambi’s mum had to die: Walt Disney was working through guilt and grief (Daniel_Kalder, August 31, 2022, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: “A Syrupy Love-Fest.” On the Blasphemous Disneyfication of Felix Salten’s Bambi: Jack Zines on the Great Shame of Diluting Salten’s Message (Jack Zines, January 31, 2022, LitHub)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: “Bambi” Is Even Bleaker Than You Thought: The original book is far more grisly than the beloved Disney classic—and has an unsettling message about humanity. (Kathryn Schulz, 1/22/22, The New Yorker)
    -ARTICLE: Bambi: cute, lovable, vulnerable ... or a dark parable of antisemitic terror?: A new translation of Felix Salten’s 1923 novel reasserts its original message that warns of Jewish persecution (Donna Ferguson, 25 Dec 2021, The Observer)
    -ARTICLE: Neglected creator of 'Bambi' celebrated in Vienna show (Agence France-Presse, June 11, 2021)
    -ESSAY: Bambi’s Jewish Roots (Paul Reitter, Winter 2014 , Jewish Review of Books)
Bambi first appeared in serialized form in Vienna’s stately paper of record, the Neue Freie Presse. The book version appeared in 1923, and by then the story had established itself as one that appealed to adults and children alike. The American edition was so hotly anticipated that the fledgling Book of the Month Club ordered 50,000 copies before it had even appeared. Translated into English by Whittaker Chambers, of all people, and published in the United States in 1928, the novel was both a critical and commercial success.

One American reviewer deemed it to be as “profoundly pertinent to the modern experience as The Magic Mountain,” and it impressed more than a few influential readers. Among these was the producer and director Sidney Franklin, who bought the film rights to Bambi in 1933—for $1,000. His plan was to adapt the book to the screen as a live nature film, but he couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Eventually, he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who, with his visceral dislike of hunting, had been genuinely moved by Salten’s novel.

Of course, that didn’t stop Disney from transforming the story Bambi tells. Captiousness, melancholy, and a sentimental streak count among the prominent characteristics of Salten’s animals. The animals in the Disney film, which premiered in 1942, are altogether more frolicsome, brash, and affable. The plucky rabbit Thumper, for example, is Disney’s creation, not Salten’s. In the film, more than in the book, the forest, while no Eden, has an initial tranquility that is shattered by the cruelty of man. Indeed, some viewers regarded the film as registering the trauma of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of America’s innocence. Salten, nevertheless, liked the film, though he always described it as “Disney’s Bambi.” What distressed him were the terms of his contract. In 1941, Salten, whose works had long been banned in Germany, complained, “I have been delivered over to Disney with my hands and feet fettered and a gag in my mouth.” Salten’s heirs would fare no better. In 1996, a senior district judge in California wrote that, “Bambi learned very early in life that the meadow . . . was full of potential dangers everywhere he turned. Unfortunately, Bambi’s creator, Mr. Salten, could not know of the equally dangerous conditions lurking in the world of copyright protection.”

Despite the fact that Salten’s Bambi appeared just before his book about Palestine, critics have hardly ever discussed Bambi in the context of his Zionism. They have spent more energy tracking the affinities between Bambi and Josefine Mutzenbacher (beginning with the mockers who ridiculed the sensual moments in the former book as the work of a “deer sodomite”). Which isn’t to suggest that critics have spent that much energy on Salten. He is a little like Max Brod: principally known now for the people he knew. Because of his role in important literary networks, as well as his enormous output, his name comes up a lot, but even his own literary friends—Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal—had their doubts about the seriousness of his efforts.

If the scholarly discussion of Salten’s works were larger, it is likely that we would have detailed interpretations of Salten’s animal stories as allegories of the Jewish experience. For they do lend themselves to such readings, even if Salten didn’t play as much or as artfully as Kafka did with the longstanding associations in German culture between Jews and certain animals (mice, monkeys). Consider The Hound of Florence, another work by Salten that has had an afterlife in American popular culture: It was—and was formally credited as being—the inspiration for Disney’s The Shaggy Dog film franchise. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of an artist who must spend every other day in aristocratic society as a dog. A central theme of the novel (and needless to say entirely lost in the Disney films) is the outsider as abject insider.

Much more central in the animal stories, however, is the theme of persecution. It was Karl Kraus who first linked this to Salten’s Jewish background, though not in the way you might expect, especially given that Kraus was writing just after the Nazi Party had achieved mainstream success. Writing about a Bambi spin-off in 1930, Kraus claimed to detect the sound of Jewish dialect—or “jüdeln”—in the speech of Salten’s hares. Salten was a hunter (a humane one, he always insisted), and, as it happened, he had just published a piece about his love of hunting. Kraus joked that Salten’s hares had adopted a Yiddishy tone of voice in order to blend in with a special type of enemy—the Jewish hunter. The hares were “perhaps using mimicry as a defense against persecution.” When Salten died in 1945, an American critic found a more straightforward connection between the plight of some animal characters and that of the Jews. In his obituary for Salten, the critic, having noted Salten’s “Zionist sentiments,” maintained that the fox in Bambi not only comes across as the rapacious “Hitler of the forest,” but also has a mentality of hatred and rage that bears similarities with Goebbels’ anti-Semitism.

It was not until a decade ago, however, that an actual reading of the “Zionist overtones” in Bambi was proposed. In an essay published in 2003, Iris Bruce argues broadly that the novel evokes the “experience of exclusion and discrimination.” But she also pays close attention to its language. Salten’s suggestive phrase for butterflies is “wandering flowers,” and Bambi describes them elsewhere as “beautiful losers” who have to keep moving, “because the best spots have already been taken.” Bruce stresses, as well, that the culture of the deer develops around the fact of their victimization: They tell their children tales that “are always full of horror and misery.”

    -VIDEO LECTURE: Bambi's Jewish Roots: Semitism in Felix Salten's Novel (Paul Reitter, Nov 12, 2013, Chicago Humanities Festival)
    -ESSAY: The Unlikely Kinship of “Bambi” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (Paul Reitter, December 28, 2017, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Man Who Wrote Bambi and Didn't Make a Dime From the Movie Was Born: Bambi learned of life's perils, observed the judge; pity Salten didn't know of the danger lurking in copyright protection. (Alona Ferber, Sep 06, 2015, Haaretz)
    -ESSAY: Why Bambi Is the Most Jewish Deer in Disneyland (Menachem Wecker, December 2, 2013, The Forward)
    -ESSAY: The Zionist Who Wrote Bambi: Felix Salten (Howard Zik, February 21, 2016, Jewish Press)
    -ESSAY: The Jewish Bambi (Stephanie Butnick, March 23, 2012, tablet)
    -ESSAY: 'I particularly recommend it to sportsmen’. Bambi in America: The Rewriting of Felix Salten's Bambi (Sabine Strümper-Krobb, 2015, Austrian Studies)
    -ESSAY: Before Bambi, There Was Josephine: Felix Salten's Erotic Literature (Kelsey Osgood, American Reader)
    -ESSAY: Bambi…and the Holocaust (Matthue Roth, Jewniverse)
    -ESSAY: What stories make a difference? ‘Bambi, a Life in the Forest’ (BENJAMIN PRATT, read the Spirit)
    -ESSAY: If You Think ‘Bambi’ Seems Too Mature For Kids, You’re Not Wrong: The popular novel was even a Book-of-the-Month Club selection (Kat Eschner, August 15, 2017,
    -ESSAY: 12 Twitterpated Facts About Bambi (Stacy Conradt, April 21, 2016, Mental Floss)
    -BIO: Felix Salten (RJ Dent)
    -ESSAY: How ‘Bambi’ Hoodwinked American Environmentalists: The Sentimental Disney Cartoon Cemented the Myth That Man and Nature Can’t Coexist (Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann, April 19, 2016 , what it Means to be an American)
    -ESSAY: King of the Forest: The Viennese pornographer turned critic who dreamed up Bambi (David Rakoff, June 12, 2006, Tablet)
    -ESSAY: The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature (Ralph H. Lutts, October 1992, Forest and Conservation History)
    -ESSAY: Christianity, evolution, and Bambi Theology (Peter Enns, 11/15/13, Patheos)
    -ESSAY: Thoughts on Translation, Whittaker Chambers, and Bambi (Muriel Vasconcellos, 6/20/14, finding My Invincible Summer)
    -ARCHIVES: Felix Salten (Internet Archives)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten (Mari Ness, Tor)
    -REVIEW: Of Bambi (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Elizabeth Spires, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Eyrie)
    -AUDIO BOOK REVIEW: of FELIX SALTEN'S BAMBI : Felix Salten, Author, Janet Schulman, Adapted by, Janet Schulman, Author , adapted by Janet Schulman, read by Frank Dolan (Publishers Weekly)
    -VIDEO REVIEW: of Bambi (Think Literary)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (journey and destination)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Ryan Harvey, Realm of Ryan)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Our Home on the Range)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (SciFi Catholic)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Linda Gorton Aragoni, Great Performances)
    -REVIEW: of Bambi (Shawn M. Thrasher, Book Discussions with Myself)
    -PLAY REVIEW: of Bambi______/Kaffeehaus (Cladia La Rocco, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Felix Salten (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Bambi
    -WIKIPEDIA: David Dodd Hand
    -ESSAY: Bambi vs. Bambi: A Life in the Woods (Disneyfied, or Disney tried?)
    -ESSAY: Circular Patterns Between Felix Salten’s “Bambi: A Life in the Woods” and Walt Disney’s Bambi (University of walt Disney, 9/20/13)
    -MOVIE REVIEW Archive: Bambi (IMDB)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (TIME, 1942)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (NY Times, 8/14/42)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (Brett Willis, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (National Catholic Register)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (Bill Gibron, Pop Matters)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (Noel Murray, AV Film Club)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: of Bambi (Andrew Collins, Radio Times)