Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad.

--George Bernard Shaw

Authors and Books
for Children

She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain.

--Louisa May Alcott

Felix Salten: Deer Bambi


He was part of the Viennese coffeehouse culture that transformed the Austrian literary aesthetic, yet he was largely self-taught. He arrived in Austria during Vienna's Jewish renaissance and fled during the Nazi Anschluss. He made a splash with an obituary of Emile Zola. He was journalist and theater critic, writer of historical fiction and of animal allegories. His name was Felix Salten, and he wrote Bambi.

Felix Salten (real name: Siegmund Salzmann) was born in Budapest, Hungary, on September 6, 1869. When he was only three weeks old, his family moved to Vienna, Austria--part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants who flocked to Vienna after Jews were granted full citizenship rights there in 1867. The Jewish population of Vienna grew from about six thousand in 1860 to over forty thousand in 1870, and increased another hundred thousand by the turn of the century, a population explosion that engendered a backlash of anti-Semitism.

Because of his family's poverty, Salten had little formal education. A cousin offered him a menial job in an insurance office, and to alleviate his boredom there, Salten began to write, sending letters, poems, essays, and short stories to newspapers, using various pseudonyms. But it was an impassioned obituary he wrote following the death of French novelist Emile Zola in 1902 that brought him real public attention.

Also in 1902, Salten had married actress Ottilie Metzl; they eventually had two children. He continued to write for newspapers and periodicals in both Vienna and Berlin, including the progressive Neue Frei Presse; he was editor of Berliner Morgenpost and theater critic for Wiener Allgemeinen Zeitung. He wrote several books on theater, as well as plays and screenplays. Another obituary he wrote brought him additional notoriety. When Karl Lueger, the five-term mayor of Vienna, died in 1910, Salten attacked the popular Christian Socialist politician as an anti-Semitic demagogue (Adolf Hitler, who was then living in Vienna, considered Lueger a role model).

Salten had become part of the so-called Jung Wien (Young Viennese)--a coterie of Viennese artists, mostly Jewish, who were habitués of the Café Grienstedl and part of the so-called coffeehouse culture; their number included operetta composers Franz Lehar and Oscar Straus; tenor Leo Slezak (father of actor Walter Slezak and grandfather of soap opera actress Erika Slezak); literary lights Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannstal, and Hermann Bahr; and Zionist Theodor Herzl.

Salten began writing novels in 1910. In 1923, he published The Hound of Florence, a fantasy about a man who turns into a dog every other day (this was the source material for Walt Disney's 1959 film The Shaggy Dog). That same year, he wrote the story for which he is best remembered: Bambi: A Life in the Woods.

Immediately popular in Austria, the book reached the United States in 1928, in a translation by Whittaker Chambers (who twenty years later was the chief accuser in the Alger Hiss case, which brought Richard Nixon to national prominence).

Bambi is a classic coming-of-age novel, following a deer from birth (the name is based on the Italian bambino, meaning baby) to adulthood, realistically depicting the danger and harshness of nature and, especially, the looming cruelty of man the hunter. The story has been interpreted as both paean to nature and political allegory about the treatment of Jews in Europe.

In addition to a sequel to Bambi (Bambi's Children: The Story of a Forest Family, 1939), Salten penned two other noteworthy animal stories: Fifteen Rabbits: A Celebration of Life (1929), about a year in the lives of rabbits Hops and Plana, and Florian the Emperor's Horse (1933), about a Viennese Lippizzaner stallion after World War I.

The Nazis banned Bambi in 1936. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and in May, the Nazis rescinded civil liberties for Jews and shut down Jewish institutions. On Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), Jews were targeted for terror throughout the German Reich, and thousands were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Salten and his wife had been able to flee to Zurich, Switzerland, before the Nazi onslaught.

In the United States, German novelist Thomas Mann had brought Bambi to the attention of Walt Disney, who spent five years painstakingly refashioning Salten's novel into a memorable, heartrending animated film that premiered in London on August 8, 1942 and in the United States on August 13, 1942. The story has minimal dialog--only nine hundred words--relying mostly on visuals to advance the story of the young deer. Though some critics felt the film was guilty of over-sentimentalization, Disney retained Salten's focus on the primitive beauty of nature and the cruelty of man--indeed, the American Rifleman Association vociferously protested the film's depiction of hunters.

Because Salten had sold his rights to the book in 1933, he did not see much financial gain from the success of the film, which has had several theatrical re-releases and has been made available for home viewing.

Felix Salten died in Zurich on October 8, 1945, having given the world a beautiful, compassionate story that indelibly etches itself in the minds of its readers.

Copyright © 2001. All rights reserved.

Read more about Felix Salten:
Felix Salten (1869-1945)
Biographical sketch from the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library of the University of Southern California.
Bambi's Children: The Story of a Forest Family
Fifteen Rabbits:
A Celebration of Life
The Hound of Florence
Florian the Emperor's Horse

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