Semantic inflation is a widespread vice in American higher education: In the 1960s, development officers waved their magic state-legislature wands and suddenly Teachers Colleges became State U's.
Last year, when the unpronounceable pupa of the Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts suddenly took sweetly euphonious butterfly wings as the University of the Arts, I silently smirked at the onomastic hustle.
Wrong, overgeneralizer-breath. For if the international conference Design 88 is a fair indication of what's going on on South Broad Street, then hooray for the U of the A.
I've been subjecting myself to the ideological abuse of international design conferences since I represented the Annenberg School of Communication in 1958, and Design 88 has been eclipsed in my mind only by Osaka 83, where I found to my dismayed delight that the Japanese design establishment is motivated by the blue-collar idealism of the Bauhaus.
One of the saddest stories of good ideas pre-empted for mediocre ends is how the Bauhaus refugees who strove to bring the best design to the masses diminished themselves into minions of the Fortune 500.
Well, 44-year-old keynote speaker Hartmut Esslinger, bless him, still believes in the old Teutonic verities, delightfully seasoned for joy by a wanderjahr in the Milanese region of design funk.
He spoke with wit and passion of frog design, the Triadically-based firm that began in the Federal Republic of Germany but now has functioning footholds in Silicon Valley and Tokyo, thus leavening the always potential lumpishness of the Big Three of contemporary design--Europe, the United States and Japan.
He chided his host country for reneging on its ideals, predicting fiscal disasters from our bad habit of letting the hunger for growth each and every quarter force us to "balance" the always hot Christmas quarter by cutting back on R and D in January. And he shamed the U.S. as well for paying designers the worst and taking the cheap maneuver of hiring house designers instead of autonomous free agents like FROGdesign.
"Form follows emotion" is his update of the Bauhaus bromide, a formula brilliantly embodied in the colorful roller skates the firm donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can judge for yourself about the firm's ecumenical brilliance through December 3rd at UOA's Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Broad and Pine.
ID magazine publisher Randolph McAusland ended the first day of the conference where all significant change must begin: in the consumer's consciousness. He praised the Wall Street Journal for stepping up its coverage of design and for institutionalizing its "Form & Function" feature every two weeks or so.
We are so tied apart in tiny loops of almost hermetically sealed audiences that McAusland, having made a pitch for including design education in the elementary grades, was astonished to learn that Richard Saul Wurman, the Louis Kahn protege, has published an entire curriculum on the architecture of Philadelphia for elementary school children.
And fresh from a visit to the Munich Museum for Folk Culture, which has just opened an exhibition on a new prize for design in the European Community, I was puzzled that not one of the frequent-flyer headline speakers had so much as heard of the prize!
But the truly thrilling thing about Esslinger's practical idealism is that it has survived all the piffle and palaver that corrupt the Bauhaus idealism of good design for everyone--not just those upper-middles who can afford, say $500 for Robert Venturi's screwy new cuckoo clock, one of the tidal wave of status-conferring objects I bunch under the rubric of the Higher Goofy.
Postmodern ideologues don't just muddy the water of discourse with hemline haha objects. Jean Nouvel, who has in his right mind designed the wholly credible new Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, is responsible (and I use that term as a Savonarola) for the most disgraceful, misleading, meretricious exhibition I have ever seen in my life: "The Fifties," at the Centre Pompidou.
I started thinking about design in the 1950s--indeed, started to be a conscientious consumer then as well. So there is more than intellectual anger in my reaction to his jumbo sale of an exhibition. There is personal affront as well.
The first thing to greet my astonished eye was an Eames chair jammed upside down in a Bertioa womb chair, thereby destroying the aesthetic pleasure inherent in each classic. Those two icons just happened to be the first two investments in good furniture my bride and I made as young marrieds (a Nakashima end table was the next).
The moral of the stupid juxtaposition was to deconstruct both objects. The whole show was just such a jumble. And the level of documentation can be inferred from the fact that the press photo on a Las Vegas strip--which Venturi enjoined us to learn from--was identified as California.
We are asked to revere Louis Kahn's Richards Medical Center with no quibble about the fact that it doesn't properly exhaust the toxic gases from research. And the major slide show--Paris Match covers punctuating nostalgic takes of Elvis and others--operates on the fallacious assumption that a Miles Davis soundtrack compensates for intellectual emptiness.
All those mesmerized kids in their teens and 20s were lapping it up, as if they were really seeing the '50s. I was relieved to see that much of the French design community was outraged enough by this nonsense that the press kit included a formal (and totally unconvincing) reply to their cri de coeur.
The Pompidou has partly redeemed itself from the "Fifties" travesty by co-sponsoring, with the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a luminous gloss on Alvar Aalto (viewable until December 19th). The Pompidou covers the transition from his beginnings in the Finnish nationalist style (sort of frozen Jugenstil, if you know what I mean) to his conversion to the International Style around 1930.
There is an intro to his sanitarium, where he focused his theory that funcationalism must first of all take into account the psychological needs of putative users. Notice the gentle shape of the examination table. His goal was to use light and soft materials like wood to help the healing process.
At the Ecole itself, it was a kick to be allowed to sit in one of his chairs, to give it the buns test--something the Swan Gallery, surprisingly, let me do on the Frank Gehry cardboard chair in its window. It felt great--until they told me the Higher Goofy price--$1,200 without arms, $1,400 with. Hell, I needed a chair--any chair--just to absorb that cultural piracy.
Before Gehry stopped selling them abruptly after they became runaway best sellers at $200, he was in a Bauhaus track--good design for everyone. Then he Knoll-Internationaled it up.
I can hear architects and designers saying, "Who the hell does Hazard think he is, telling us how to price our designs?" The answer lies in another exhibition in Paris, at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs (through January 29th) on "Les Annees UAM, 1929-1958"--UAM standing for the Union of Modern Artists. If you can't swing a trip, get the catalogue.
It is refreshing to see these painters, sculptors, affichistes, jewelry makers, designers and architects fine-tune their idealistic visions when depression and war would give them every reason to cut corners.
I wish every chair designer would, for example, metabolize one of the aphorisms on the wall: The only, proposition a chair should make is repose. Take that, Gerrit Rietvald, whose bun-numbing centennial we'll be celebrating next year at the Dayton Institute of Art.
Good design has come on bad days, I believe, because the design community jettisoned its Bauhaus heritage of serving the entire culture for the megabucks of the upper-middle discretionaries. As America two-tiers itself further between a Nobel laureating thin-crust top and a metastasizing underclass bottom, it will take more and more character for a designer to take the road less traveled.
Esslinger will have none of them. And besides, he's teaching the Germans to smile. There's a miracle!
"Hazard-at-Large" from Welcomat: After Dark, November 30, 1989
You know the old saw about attentive teachers learning from their students. True enough. But what can you learn by rereading a Senior Thesis you gave an A+ to fifty years ago? Much more than I ever expected ! I speak of Stephen J. Harmelin’s 90 page paper for me at Penn in May 1960 in American Civilization 300, “The Mass Society”. Steve just pdf-ed it to me in Germany, I guess in exasperation at my constantly bugging for another look when he was otherwise “pro-bono-ing” me about my tangled legal affairs.
(He very gracefully parlayed his IQ and energy first into Harvard followed by an internship at the White House capped by becoming managing partner at Dilworth Paxson.) I had forgotten how canny he was at 21! He cites in his senior paper a conversation with the then new Annenberg dean Gilbert Seldes--on Finley Peter Dunne’s ambivalent attitude toward a fame deriving from mere dialect humor when he would have rather been esteemed by using the King’s English in proper editorials!
He even conned Anthony N.B. Garvan (then chair of Penn’s AC Department) into revealing details from his family’s papers about the generous gift Dunne received in the 1920’s when he had been reduced to penury at the end of a very ad hoc career. Self-confidence was not a forte of this lad at the bottom of his high school class whose father refused to send him to college, forcing him to wangle one newspaper job after another until he scored for almost two decades with his Dooley shtick.
What struck me most in retrospect was the status anxiety of early American media aspiring upwards: they professed to be intellectually upset by dialect humor. However across the Atlantic, well-established literary magazines laughed at Mr. Dooley’s antics with abandon. And when our bartending wit “explained” Pragmatism to his foil Mr. Hennesy, the philosopher William wrote novelist brother Henry that his fortune was made! And when Henry made his first trip in twenty years back to America, there only one writer he asked to see: Finley Peter Dunne! Naturally Mark Twain and he were buds: they played billiards whenever Mark visited New York.
More surprising is his sizeable correspondence with Teddy Roosevelt, urging Dunne from both the Governor’s Mansion and the White House to come and visit. Mr. Dooley teased TR about his individualistic heroism over “his” war in Cuba. He mocked that book by dubbing it “Alone in Cuba”! He also teased William Jennings Bryan about his bombastic speaking style, but that politico made nice with many invitations to visit. Critics suggested that was maybe sweet talk, but the real truth seemed to be that our political rhetoric had not slipped down to the ranting that now prevails. Mr. Dooley also got friendly letters from Admiral Dewey in Manila, even though our hero thought we were avoiding the white man’s burden by shifting it to the “coon’s”!
Harmelin shrewdly extrapolates the history of our political rhetoric through McCarthyism to “the nadir” of the ‘60s. One wonders whether a Dooley could thrive in a world of radio ranters. How low we have slithered in a mere 50 years. In the health care congressional fracas, Paul Krugman sees us sliding deeper. “First, there’s the crazy right, the tea party and death panel people—a lunatic fringe that is no longer a fringe but has moved into the heart of the Republican Party.
In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists. But those rules of no longer operative.” (International Herald Tribune,12/26-27.) Let’s hope somewhere a bright comer is writing a senior paper on Al Franken and our other political wits.
It was LBJ, in whose White House Steve served, who foresaw that his bold acceptance of black voting would cripple the Southern Democrats for a generation. The mean spirits of the McConnells of our crippled Republic are, hopefully, the last gasp of a superceded world view. There is a ring of desperation in their Obamaphobia.
Sam Smith traces our crisis to a corruption of Populist politics in his daily blog of what he calls Undernews. In no way are Rush et al. populists in the tradition of pro-unionist William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs. United States of Amnesia!
Stunned, the foreplay pheasants froze-- their displaying in disarray when unwittingly they danced in their swollen joy near one hollowed poplar where a bird like squirrel guarded his nest. Overlapping sex lives making April fools of us all.
Knowledge is not always power, but is the best insurance we have against powerlessness. And to be more effective than we have been in bending the mass media to our purposes, we must learn much more than we now know about our system of mass communication. It ought to be a basic prerequisite in all, but English teacher training especially ought to include at last a one-semester course in careful analysis of the scholarly literature about mass communication. For those already teaching, a bibliography of the best current literature is appended (A).
One note of caution about this literature. In the best tradition of science, it does not pretend to show cause and effect or claim the ability to predict and control on fragmentary or unrepresentative evidence. This is as it should be, and we can learn a great deal about scientific method from this very tentativeness, even diffidence, with which social scientists present their analyses of mass media effects. They insist that it is rarely if ever possible to show that a program caused a delinquent act, or even that long exposure to a certain admittedly trivial or uninspiring genre was responsible for what we generally consider undesirable behavior.
But what rarely is emphasized in such discussions is that media monopoly of time and interest may be keeping other agencies of judgment or instruction from so achieving their effects that the undesirable actions might be significantly displaced by personal and social growth. In other words, social science research is not very (if at all) helpful in discussing ignored alternatives, missed chances, unused opportunities for maturing. It is quite proper for social scientists to show us how selective perception keeps the media from significantly changing opinions (Democrats tune out Republican slogans; children don't hear Howdy Doody's one quiet appeal to read books because SKOOB ERA NUF, backwards). But this does not even face the larger issue of whether people would pursue more rewarding goals were they not transfixed by the media.
That is where the artist is still supremely valuable to us, for his intuitions outrace the slow methodology of the scientist, and sometimes his intuitions are all we (who must act now) have. For example, no social science study I know contradicts the essential truth of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty," in which the arrested adolescents go to any movie on Saturday night for sheer lack of anything better to do, or in which Marty's pals, brainwashed by those very movies, can't see why the hero would find anything to love in a plain and gangly high school chemistry teacher.
Social scientists also insist that mass communication doesn't affect people directly, but by a "two-step flow" process, affects them through the opinion leaders in their primary groups-family, church, neighborhood friends, classroom associates. But this phenomenon does not paralyze the imaginative teacher dissatisfied with the low standards of mass communication; he finds ways to involve parents in his media strategies by giving homework assignments, to involve church leaders by organizing community-leader watchdog groups to assess the level of local media, and by using the peer group relationship in the classroom to be productive of higher adolescent standards, e.g., by popular arts criticism written by students for bulletin boards and school papers.
So as much as we must respect what the social scientists have taught us about the process of mass communication in the past generation, we must never admit that their mode of apprehending the protean reality of mass communication exhausts our resources. We can still use our own judgment in assessing how media affect our purposes as classroom teachers, and we can search out the many different kinds of artists who use cartoons, essays, fiction, verse, and drama to judge the ongoing effects of massive communication on American values.
THE NATURE OF MASS CULTURE
Charles R. Wright. Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective. Random House, 1959. 95c. An unusually concise and lucid summary of what the sociologists have learned about the structure and process of mass communication.
Edwin Emery, Philip Ault, and Warren Agee. Introduction to Mass Communication. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1960. Although designed for future mass media professionals as part of their college training, this is a handy and competent handbook on the nature of mass communication, its historical perspective, and the various media industries. Revealing to the humanist is how the universities are transforming this vocational specialty into a responsible profession.
Edmund Carpenter and H. M. McLuhan, ed. Explorations in Communications. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1960. A gathering of the provocative essays published by the University of Toronto's interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication. Some thoroughly persuasive, some "far out," but always provocative. Important for the efforts of this group to use anthropological perspective to free us from the biases of a print culture.
"Mass Culture and Mass Media." Daedalus (Spring, 1960). Order from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. $1.25. Major background papers for a three-day symposium sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Tamiment Institute.
Culture for the Millions. Princeton, N. J., Van Nostrand: 1960. Transcripts of the same conference.
David Manning White and Bernard Rosenberg, ed. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1957. A useful gathering of humanistic and sociological analyses of all aspects of popular culture. Good bibliography.
Richard Hoggart. The Uses of Literacy. Fairlawn, N. J.: Essential Books, 1957-Penguin paperback edition imminent. This is the moving book of a working class boy who looks back at what the mass publicists have done to his boyhood culture in Midlands England from the perspective of a Ph.D. in English literature.
Poyntz Tyler, ed. Advertising in America. H. W. Wilson. The Reference Shelf, Vol. 31, No. 5, 1959.
Martin Mayer. Madison Avenue, U.S.A. Pocket Books, 50c, 1959. A sound survey of a business crucial to the quality of mass communication, except for the final "philosophical" essays on the added value theory of advertising.
Patrick D. Hazard, "The Public Arts and the Private Sensibility," in Lewis Leary, ed. Contemporary Literary Scholarship. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958. A summary of relevant literature up to 1958.
Another way to follow the periodical literature in this field is the annual bibliography on "Mass Culture" in the American Quarterly (American Studies Assoc., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 4).
Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man suggested a striking way of using the strategies of explication de texte for the analysis of popular culture. For many impressed young English instructors, McLuhan's imagination had discovered a way of using high culture to exorcise the devils of mass- and mid-culture. McLuhan explains that his anthropological approach to American popular culture almost forced itself upon him when he found himself teaching Midwesterners Freshman English after finishing a Ph.D. dissertation on the medieval liberal arts curriculum in England.
McLuhan, in effect, found himself in a "strange country" whose language he did not understand. He did his field work among homo boobiensis brilliantly, and The Mechanical Bride holds up solidly today despite McLuhan's disavowal of it as the product of "a victim of print culture." Indeed, the Mechanical Bride seems to me to provide the way to retain the achieved values of the Gutenberg revolution much more persuasively than The Gutenberg Galaxy. In fact, one must confess an increasing incomprehension of McLuhan's work, beginning with the later issues of Explorations, the now-terminated magazine on media problems, which was supported by the Ford Foundation.
Some supporters of McLuhan defend his unique approach by describing him as "prophetic." He is the intellectual frontiersman who blazes a trail for less sure-footed mortals who will then make a roadbed broad and level enough to carry the freight of civilization's institutions. The trouble with this defense of McLuhan is that he blazes away at every tree in the forest--and even the most dedicated road-builder refuses to macademize in circles. Still one has learned so much from McLuhan that one tries to follow the leader far beyond the point of too much exasperation. Pre-literate man communicates by speech in a world of acoustic space. Simultaneity and interdependence characterize this richly resonant tribal society. Writing, which follows the end of nomadism, and printing--to a much greater extent--transform the spherical "ear and now" of pre-literate man to the linear "eye am" of Cartesian and Newtonian man.
McLuhan's fearless symmetry now suggests a world returning to a retribalized global society based on electronics. This eerie cosmos of rock and roll and Telstar is "the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth" (page 135). Granted, but what, as C. S. Peirce might ask, do the differences mean for intelligent action? McLuhan promises another volume, Understanding Media, which perhaps will get down to cases. One hopes it will be more responsible than this one. For McLuhan's reading is so catholic, one needs to be a polymath to know when he is making sense and when not. But inevitably he mentions a book one has read as carefully as he expects his to be--and the result is shocking.
Television in the Lives of Our Children, by Wilbur Schramm and associates is much too complex and solid a book to be dismissed contemptuously--and on the shaky grounds of McLuhan's own incredibly speculative theory of the television image as made by "light through" instead of "light on" it surface. "When we see the reason for the total failure of this book to get in touch with its announced theme, we can understand (McLuhan argues apodictically) why in the sixteenth century men had no clue to the nature and effects of the printed word" (page 145). No one who has any acquaintance with the Schramm canon--and no one should presume to write on communications who does not have a thorough familiarity with it--can pretend that he is insensitive to media differences or to the history of communications. To so refuse to come to honest grips with Schramm's sociological mode of understanding media change is to subvert the conditions of academic discourse--and, incidentally, to put the whole "mosaic" theory of media comprehension in a strange light.
When McLuhan makes a hypothesis a minute and gives scarcely a shred of evidence--either his own or in the long quotations which constitute better than a third of the book--it is impossible to check out all his wild surmises. But when he touches an area where the reader is informed, belief unwillingly suspends itself. So when McLuhan speculates in a fast aside--"as today, the insatiable needs of TV have brought down upon us the backlog of the old movies, so the needs of the new presses could only be met by the old manuscripts" (page 142)--one wants to remind him that he is comparing the expedient of the American television industry with the way parts of western Europe responded in their various ways to the Renaissance and Reformation.
More prudent industry policy which understood American's real needs would have greatly increased the coverage of local reality on American television, leaving the competing movie, with its groaning archives of once-expended fantasy, unknown on television. Cuban television features four-hour harangues; Italian television instructs illiterates; French television teaches groups of farmers. the analogy between print and electronic media history, then, means nothing when looked at closely.
It is a pity that McLuhan has chosen to grandstand with chapter titles ("glosses"). For example: "Heidegger surfboards along the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode along the mechanical wave." To extend his metaphor, he forgets how hard the coral reefs that make surfing possible are on one's "sense ratio"--and that a pearl-diving surfboard is no fun even to the "audile-tactile" man. One suspects something like self-justification in one of his many asides, this one on his intellectual ancestor, Harold Innis: "There is nothing willful or arbitrary about the Innis mode of expression. Were it to be translated into perspective prose, it would not only require huge space, but the insight into the modes of interplay among forms of organization would be lost. Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of urgent need for insight. A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." (page 216).
Perhaps so, but why, then, does McLuhan so often cite the strictly linear--and brilliantly insightful--purpose of Chaytor, Diringer, Dudek, Goldschmidt, Hadas, Jones, Kenyon, Lowenthal and Wilson? Almost a third of "his" mosaic is their linearity. Indeed, for the student of media history, their various texts--and McLuhan's bibliography--are useful, even indispensable.
One of the most puzzling anomalies in my ten years of studying the works and pomps of the Bauhaus in Weimar is what I call architectural immunity. My puzzlement began when I first read Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders’ review in “Form” (1927) of Mies van der Rohe’s apartments in Weissenhof—from the point of view of a woman and mother.
She deplored the excessive glass which generated pneumonia-inducing winds for the tykes crawling on the floor. And that same wind blew out the gas flame when you opened the kitchen door! She also deplored the design of the exterior staircases which had lethally large openings threatening small children’s safety. And where, this mother wondered, was a room to change wet clothes?
In short, Mies wasn’t designing a human habitation: he was making a Work of Art! Capital A.
It was his obsessive status panic as the son of a mason in Aachen! He never got over it. When he had to report in 1910, in Peter Behrens' Berlin office, to upper class apprentice Walter Gropius, he smoldered! Lüders was another matter. The first woman Ph.D (in Politics, 1910), she directed woman’s work in World War I, expanding her responsibilities to child care, with their mothers in defense factories. She became a member of the Weimar Republic’s first parliament. (Alas, Hitler eventually jailed her twice for two much lip! Her inspiring autobiography is entitled, “Never Fear!”)
It took the Bundestag a long time to honor her (2005) by naming its new library on the Spree after her. The parochial paternalism of Kinder, Kirche, and Kuche doesn’t die easily!
But Mies succumbed in his hyperaestheticism to what I call the Crystal Palace Syndrome. That Cathedral of Industrialism just had to dazzle tourists for the short run of that first World’s Fair in 1851 London to serve it purpose. But its Dazzle became a bad habit! The Barcelona Pavilion (1928) was his first exemplar, but, alas, not his last.
When he built a weekend retreat in Plano, IL for his Chicago girlfriend, Dr. Farnsworth, everything was hunky-dory until their romance cooled—and she took him to court for excess energy costs: too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter! She lost. (And so did we all, lovers of great architecture.) For decades, various inheritors of the property tried to tame it. To no avail. Recently it was “demoted” to a Visitors Center, dedicated to Mies architectural genius!
Shortly after Corbusier’s concrete flat at Weissenhof suffered the same dishonor! (Mies wanted to establish his international rep by that cluster of over a score of Modernists outside Stuttgart.) Across the street was another pioneer settlement, the Friedrich Ebert Houses, sponsored by the local Social Democrat Party. They tried to collaborate with him on water and waste issues, but he told them to take a hike! He was after a rep not a communal neighborhood!
His last big mistake was the New National Gallery in Berlin. It amused me to learn from a visiting Cuban architectural historian that it was originally designed in concrete as a Bacardi rum HQ. But Fidel said NO! So Mies switched to steel in Berlin. Its dazzling top floor doesn’t work for lack of light and temperature control—unless you’re sponsoring a Harley Davidson bike exhibit. Incidentally, Phillip C. Johnson (a Mies buff if ever there was one) created his own famous Glass House in Connecticut which has just achieved National Heritage status. But Witold Rybcynski warns us in SLATE that it’s also a hot killer. (And only $100 a visit.)
Which brings us to Walter Gropius. In 1926, “His” Dessau complex had just opened. (How much of that design was his, or Adolf Meyer’s, his “silent partner”, or Ernst Neufert’s, the Bauleiter,we’ll never know.) But Johnson was cruising Europe, looking for structures that would eventually establish “his” International Style at MOMA, NEW YORK. Alfred Barr, Jr., the soon to be anointed director of MOMA (1929), was cruising Berlin looking for Modernists in painting and sculpture.
Phillip phoned him excitedly from Dessau to tell him he had just seen the greatest new modern building. He should have talked first to the professors and students! They found it freezing in the winter, a hot box in the summer. Even today, as I’ve overnighted sentimentally in the minihotel of the old Atelier House, I still find its temperatures erratic. It’s the old Glass Palace Syndrome all over again!
(Heh, it’s only 40 euros a couple.) Come to think of it, Gropius’s first big work (1911-4), the Fagus shoelast factory is pure GPS. He was praised for having the first glass wall that curved around its square corners!
As a native Detroiter who earned his Ph.D.fees working in Albert Kahn’s auto factories, I remember he used to sneer at the Bauhaus architects as “the Glass House boys”! In 1941 he convened a conference on defense factory architecture at the University of Michigan (he had designed the major buildings there!) for the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, and Mies and Pius (as they nicknamed him).
He chided them for the backasswards ways they designed factories: make fancy GPS fronts and then stuff in the crucial production works later. And he teased them by exaggerating that architecture was 90% business and 10% ART! During this 90th anniversary orgy of puffery about the Bauhaus, I flinch as a man who first learned architecture by visiting the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit at the filiopietism of the German press about the Bauhaus as the greatest art school of the twentieth century! It may have had the greatest vision (fusing art and technology to create good design for the working classes).
But it achievements were spotty and often contradictory. It was indeed a Grand Flop! And in the Hoopla over its founding 90 years, the idealism of Gropius has been trumped by 21st century Tourism!
But architectural immunities don’t end with the Bauhaus. Take my favorite building of all, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water”(1938). On my first glorious visit (1982), I was puzzled by the fact that I, a mere 5’8’’, had to scrunch down to go through the doors. Then I quickly recalled FLW was a Squirt, who wore a porkpie hat and high heels to dissimulate! His Nibs was the module. Then I discovered that the hearth at the heart of this home never got hot enough to cook the food in its giant container. Nor indeed could the crane move that container commodiously! Hmm.
I recalled that when he first showed his design to the department store magnate who was his client, he asked Wright if he shouldn’t have his engineers check Wright’s math. The genius was outraged! Now it turns out that as a Pennsylvania taxpayer I’m on the hook for keeping Fallingwater's cantilevers from falling into the waters! I have seen estimates from $11-23 millions. And it was not his only booboo. When I was making a pious USAirways odyssey at Taliesin West in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wisconsin Taliesin, I was puzzled by stretches of concrete painted to look like redwood!
Bruce Pfeiffer Brooks explained that Wright was dazzled by the way redwood irrigation sluices looked when wet. Alas, without water, the redwood planks simply deliquesced under the hot Scottsdale sun! So he had a substitute concrete and paint it!
But my favorite “immunity” story concerns Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish humanist. I was on another pious odyssey, this time in honor of the centennial of his birth, 1998. Whenever I overnight in Helsinki, I take a constitutional around his masterpiece, Finlandia. To my horror, the travertine cladding had been completely removed. I tracked down a hardhat to find out why. Easy, travertine can’t take Finnish winters. And frozen water seepages were dropping dangerous chards on tourists! Can’t have that. But the Finns are a sentimental folk.
It would insult the centenarian if they used granite, ideal for the cold. So they settled for thicker slices of travertine and a better adhesive, even though down the road they knew they’d have to do it over. After breakfast, I hiked over to the Finnish Museum of Architecture, where they were holding a centennial exhibition.
The epigraph was pure Aalto: NEVER FORGET THAT ARCHITECTS MAKE MISTAKES. It should be over the main portal of every architecture school. To avoid the GCS and other architectural goofs!
It’s taken me almost 83 years to understand that old chestnut about the New York editor who, contrary to a local Scrooge’s literalism, had to assure the young Virginia that, yes, there was an old bloke named Santa Claus. Things have suddenly become complicated because this old ex-Catholic agnostic lives in a German household where three year old Danny is a baptized Lutheran and his mother Hilly belongs to her church’s choir whose members recently gave Danny a five volume set of Bible stories for his third birthday (in German, and I am bilingual at a kindergarten level).
Mother sits by, occasionally correcting my shaky pronunciation or translating an obscure verb.
I stumbled along with the first episodes—on the flood, and David and Goliath (he loves every time Goliath gets stoned!) But with Book III we reached the Birth of Jesus. His Evangelical kindergarten, by the way, entertained their elders two days ago on the little stage of the local Hilton hotel. There were pseudo-scandalized adult titters as our young Mary and Joseph tried to comprehend the Angel Gabriel’s fertilization news.
Now the Bible is not a Catholic forte. I take it Luther took most umbrage at how the RC’s had replaced the Bible with Mariolatry and other fakelore. (I can still spout my altarboy’s Mass Latin, but I’d flunk the simplest SAT test on the Holy Book.) So I try to mask my skepticism from Danny as I repeat (and repeat, ad infinitum) those simple tales of the Augustan census, and the inns without rooms,and the shepherds and the Three Wise Men and their star. Even as I identify with compassion for the poor embodied in these tales. Long decades of reading philosophy intervene! I want Danny to learn compassion! But the old stories creak. How to tell those stories with conviction.
Thus was I thrilled serendipitously to read in the Christmas eve edition of the International Herald Tribune no less a spirit than Umberto Eco Op Edifying on an analogous subject: the spectacle of three teenage kids of nonbelieving parents in a secular culture trying unsuccessfully to comprehend great art in their ignorance: a 15 year old girl with a book of art reproductions and two 15 year old boys just returned from the Louvre, elated but uncomprehending! Eco groused that most Italian kids knew about the death of Hector but not of St. Sebastian.
“It’s impossible,” he continued, “to understand roughly three-quarters of Western art if you don’t know the events of the Old and New Testaments and the stories of the saints. Who’s that girl with her eyes on a plate? Is she something out of “Night of the Living Dead?” Come on: Your answer! Eco rails that “they cram students’ heads with the Stations of the Cross while keeping them in the dark about “the woman clothed with the sun” who appears in the book of Revelations.”
Eco concludes his sweet and highly credible harangue with the speculation that “the plight of those 15-year-olds who didn’t recognize the Three Wise Men, suggests to me that our vast information network conveys fewer and fewer facts that are truly helpful and more and more that are totally useless.” (IHT, 12/24-25, p.6.)
Twitter away, folks!
Reminds me of Thoreau’s reaction to New Englanders’ too enthusiastic about the newly laid Atlantic cable. “And what will be the first thing that comes into the broad flapping American ear? That the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough?” Heh, Henry, life here ain’t no rentless Walden. My Heine wife insists I translate my new Bible stories into English as we stumble along, so Danny at least can become bi-lingual.
Venturi Scott Brown (I think of them now as simply a hip brand name, when they gave up architecture for (s)peculation) are at US again. Forty years ago they dragged 13 unlucky Yalies to witness and connive about the ugliest (visually and sociologically) community in America, perhaps in World History. Never was sociological blather so mendacious about serious issues.
Now I grant I’m prejudiced: my father abandoned my mother and me when I was three to start a new life as a real estate tycoon in Las Vegas in 1930 with his office secretary. I didn't see him again for forty years until, doing cruising PR for the then new Annenberg School, I surprised him in his LV office where he had since become a millionaire. He too was full of glib BS about the greatest playground in the world.
Several tutorials later I remained convinced that he had simply and very profitably participated in the infantilization of a great country, aided and abetted by gangsters. Get the VSB’s 60’s hipness of uttering the paradox that architecture needn’t be solemn—it could be FUN (though he was still in his forties then, and should have been thinking more clearly.) Maybe Denise was a bad influence. But, hell, can’t a couple have some fun on their honeymoon?
Still and all I agree with Peter Blake (It’s an Anglified name of a Jew who fled Hitler) who became the best architectural journalist of his generation. He believes that Philip C. Johnson’s cynicism about worker housing finally neutralized the Bauhaus idealism that Gropius had tried to teach him. (He mocked him secretly, this parvenu that believed only ARTitecture mattered.)
The quasi-Nazi phase he went through in the late 20’s and early 30’s prepared him to easily acquiesce in every “Mannerist” wave that followed the defeat of Bauhaus idealism from the 1970’s on. Now the Dippy Duo is back at Yale insisting how prescient they were about LV’s cultural legitimacy. Have they been there lately? Are they proud of the newer and weirder Vegases going up in Dubai and Macau? Playpens for the meretriciously rich or their wannaboobies! Meanwhile half Africa is rushing towards extinction, architecturally and otherwise.
America’s infrastructure nears collapse. And the Duplicitously Dippy Duo still peddles its glib lies to another generation of Yalies who couldn’t care less about the architecturally abandoned. The leading design critic of our generation, IHT’s Alice Rawsthorn, estimates that ninety percent of our design professionals cater to only 10 percent of the world’s population.
The Dippy Duo have nothing to offer these abandoned. Oh yes, those smug Ivies at Yale can sign up for a special course this semester on VSB “wisdom”. Meanwhile, down at MOMA, they’re touting the Bauhaus on its 90th anniversary, those curators who curate only for the wealthy few, while our cities disintegrate.
The same slick fools who have wrecked our banking system temporarily play the same game. Now that Communism is defeated in Eastern Europe, we can all feel useful in sucking up to the equally rich. What the VSB “philosophy” sorely lacks is common sense: Cameron Sinclair’s “Architecture for Humanity” with its Bible, “Design As If You Gave a Damn,” says it all. Why are all the A Schools ignoring Christopher Alexander, and Malcolm Wells, while a complacent establishment toots a childish horn for the Dippy Duo? Because that’s where money is!
For Shame. When Pruitt-Igoe was blown up “because Modernism had failed”, the architects lied. It was racism not Architectural Modernism that had failed. The Dippy Duo ignore the crucial agenda as they simulate paradoxical complexity because the architectural faculties are airheads who feel comfortable “thinking” with Dippy Duo.
Pritzker, Pritzker. Anyone wanna buy a hotel chain?
Dear Editor: The brouhaha over university funding policies reminded this retired American Lit specialist what had been going on in our Academe over the same time period. In pseudo-egalitarian America, all hot shot Ph.D.s maneuvered to the Ivies, which dealt with a separate "country", Upper America.
Shortly after my Ph.Deification in 1957, I was Ivied with a Carnegie postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to create a new course in American Civilization on the Mass Society--first semester, Mass Communication (print, graphics, and broadcasting); second semester, Mass Production (industrial design, architecture, and urban planning). The strategy was simple: identify the most creative talents in these new institutions and urge our most promising students to emulate the best.
Alas, when we baptized this scheme publicly for the first time in 1960 at a Daedalus magazine symposium in the Poconos, the poet Randall Jarrell concluded the discussion thusly: "You're the man of the future, Dr. Hazard, and I'm glad I'm not going to be there!" (He soon wasn't, having committed suicide!)
This fatal abandonment of "those masses" (then new) after World War One occurred when the Modern Language Association sluffed off these new untutored patrons to the National Council of Teachers of English, viz. Schools of Education.
More recently, we observed the simultaneous emergence of $100,000 extinguished humanities professors and a compensatory plethora of part time adjuncts with no health insurance and multiple employers. The latest MLA report (2009) commiserates that new jobs for English Ph.D.'s are nowhere to be seen. Had we had the likes of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams assessing our emergent challenges, we perhaps wouldn't have buried our guilty sorrows in silly French mystifications.
I walked away from a tenured full professorship after thirty years to risk the imponderables of cultural reporting. I got more professional satisfactions advising Time-Life Films which BBC programs to import. (It took some serious arm twisting to get our American "managing director" to approve Monty Python!).
And summarizing American TV for the British Film Institute's "Contrast." Thirty more years later, I advise the brave to take such chances. The culture you save may be your own. I write criticism for The Broad Street Review (the on line site of the Philadelphia (my home town) University of the Arts. I have been living in Weimar, Germany for the past 10 years researching a book on idealism in the Bauhaus.
For the curious, try my blog. There is life after tenure!
Patrick D.Hazard, Seifengasse 10, Weimar,D99423 Germany.
When this department began in 1956, most teachers had not yet recovered from the shock of TV's becoming the dominant medium in American civilization. The first task in helping the English profession take advantage of the new medium at its best and not be taken advantage of by its worst was mostly informational: information about important programs, information about negative tendencies. That phase of our confrontation of the problem seems to me over. Week to week details are at a teacher's fingertips through the excellent "Look and Listen" feature of Scholastic magazines. That publisher's "Teleguides" on most promising productions and Studies in the Mass Media's TV issues (such as Hardy Finch's forthcoming November issue on the December 9 CBS-TV telecasting of the BBC version of Hedda Gabler) pretty well cover the field.
And the valuable monograph by Neil Postman of New York University, Television and the Teaching of English (1961), a joint venture cosponsored by the Television Information Office and the NCTE Commercial Television Committee while chaired by Louis Forsdale of Columbia Teachers College, attests to the importance of our profession's working on long-range goals with a communication industry. Scholastic's William D. Boutwell has edited a compilation, Using Mass Media (1962), which brings together a wide range of opinion and suggestion with a how-to emphasis.
Another NCTE committee on Motion Pictures and the Teaching of English under the able leadership of Dr. Marion Sheridan has been supervising the writing of a volume on film to parallel the Postman TV book. It should appear in the Fall of 1963. My reading of early drafts of this mature essay on the place of film in the English curriculum suggests that we are entering a new phase in media criticism. The emphasis is shifting from defending the new media and presenting audiovisualistic lesson plans for teachers just beginning to use new media to a more philosophical and far-sighted perspective.
This, it seems to me, is all to the good. I have been uneasy for some time about the ad hoc one-shot approach to media study. Now that we have won the battle for the modern media, we must integrate the study of these new languages with the older ones. This integration can be accomplished chiefly by forcing the new emphasis on linguistics to include the study of the latest media as languages. This will be good for linguistics, and it will also absolve media study of the last traces of parochialism.
Precisely because linguistics is cresting as a curricular wave, it is essential at this moment to look at its assumptions carefully. There are two that concern me most. I cite from The Science of Linguistics, prepared by the Linguistics Study Group of the Philadelphia Public Schools, 1961, for purposes of brevity and because of a belief that what finally filters down to the classroom teacher is a basic consideration. Consider these two tenets of linguistics:
Language is primarily and essentially speech-a human communication system made up of sounds articulated in the throat, mouth, and nasal passages. A completely successful study of language can only be carried on by a study of speech; the written language must be dealt with as a secondary development of the spoken one, and must continually be compared with the actual form of the spoken language, if it is to be clearly understood or analyzed. (p. 3) Change in language is evidence of life. It apparently cannot be stopped by an educational or other force. (p. 4)
To begin with the latter, it seems to me to embody what might be called the "vitalistic" fallacy. This, to use Philip Rahv's distinction, appeals to the Redskins of American literary culture as much as it alienates the Palefaces. It smacks, however, of the same fascination with Newness that infects our economy of obsolescence.
It is silly to fight change if such battles are foredoomed to failure. But are they? Printing stopped the flux of change in spelling, as well we know trying to teach long bygone pronunciations and a host of other irregularities strange to today's student. But in a larger sense the same emerging global technology underlying printing is making a worldwide community of meaning possible for the first time in history. Dialect is a function of isolation. Conflicting and changing meanings derive from dissimilar experiences. As regional communities begin to share more and more a transnational experience, we can expect a convergence of meaning in some areas of language.
It may even be that a conscious pursuit of commonness may accelerate the establishment of a world culture. A kind of Basic English as a lingua franca for a world society is highly necessary at this point in time. Just because languages have drifted with bewildering speed in pre-industrial eras does not mean they must forever. If the schools cannot stop all change, indeed should not want to if they could, there is still no reason why they cannot try to narrow the gaps of diverse meaning. Drift may well have been the salient characteristic of pre-industrial civilizations; mastery could become possible with the new leisure and resources we now have for creating a mature national speech community with the vision and desire to help create a transnational one.
Thus, while I'm perfectly willing to grant that change is often necessary and important, I see no reason why our professional policy should not include opposition to changes that unnecessarily complicate an already highly confusing linguistic milieu. I don't see why we can't, for example, massively resist the kind of confusion inherent in fusing the meanings of imply and infer. Basically, then, there's nothing in linguistics as a rationale which impels us to shrug helplessly before any and all change. If one argues that language has always changed in the past, we can reply that the very knowledge of how language has drifted in the isolated speech communities of the past gives us unprecedented resources for resisting changes that erode the foundations of a world culture.
The fetish of unstoppable change is partly due to another fallacy of the linguistics revolution: the notion that language is "primarily and essentially" speech and that writing is a "secondary development." Primary in the sense of time, surely. Essential in the sense that without the "uttering" of inner consciousness that speech is, none of the higher levels of consciousness would be possible, O.K.
But writing as secondary is full of opportunities for misinterpretation. In the same pamphlet referred to earlier, for example, it is observed that "the discipline of writing . . is a far more difficult one than that of speech, and requires a sharpening of the thought processes and a greater concentration of effort." (p. 7) This would imply, then, that speech is primary only in the sense of coming before. I suspect that there lurks beneath this apotheosis of speech the primitivistic romanticism of the anthropologist who, astonished by the difficulty of fully describing the complexities of an aboriginal tribe, admonishes us professionally never to use illiterate for what his profession chooses to call preliterate.
Well, I suppose this admonition is salutary if it reminds us of some of the larger ambiguities of Progress in our times, but when all is said and done it is literacy which has made both linguistics and anthropology possible. And I see nothing gained by excessive admonition of pre-literate complexity. What we need to do rather than harp on the pre-literate glories of speech is to expand the concept of literacy to include all the communications media that impinge on the consciousness of modern man.
We need to see man's linguistic predicament in a much more historical way. Surely it started with speech. But civilization became possible as writing accelerated the larger communities of cities. And printing undergirded the scientific revolution we are now trying to humanize. Photography and film, radio, and television have introduced immense new linguistic problems both for those who create and those who appreciate, produce, and consume such acts of language. To get fixated on the speechwriting dichotomy at this point is to miss the significance of our multi-media language environment.
The next step in media criticism is to integrate our concern with the later languages of still and moving image, sound and sight broadcasting with the older forms of speech, writing, and printing. A truly sophisticated language curriculum will study intensively the many ways meaning is transferred from the interior of one consciousness to the interiors of other ones. We must show our students how different media can communicate the same idea; we must show them how related literary genres take on different dimensions as they pass from one medium to another. In the heady sense of victory which now rewards the linguists after their hard fought battle for recognition, there is danger that the primary purpose of training in literacy may be lost in the proud exposure of a new scientific discipline.
That primary purpose I believe is to enable all of our students to see and to say as much as needs to be seen and said through all the media that at once complicate our modem world and make it at least partially meaningful. What we need, then, as the next stage in media criticism is a rhetoric that combines traditional wisdom, the new linguistics, and what we are still frantically trying to learn about the latest languages in man's communication repertoire. This synthesis is a frightfully demanding job. I shall be content this year if I can sketch the outlines of what I take to be the major dimensions of the problem of a truly contemporary rhetoric.
Source: The English Journal, Vol. 52, No. 6 (Sep., 1963), pp. 468-470 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
2009 was the Golden Anniversary of the Annenberg School of Communication. Faute de mieux, as a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellow creating a new course on the Mass Society for Penn’s Department of American Civilization, I was considered a “natural” as a gofer explaining the plans of the new school throughout the U.S. The first day we met in 1958, the future dean Gilbert Seldes (my mentor and successful nominee) had not yet been appointed. I arrived early to find President Gaylord Harnwell chatting with Walter Annenberg.
As their conversation flagged, I decided to liven the scene by teasing Annenberg. The day before, the Inquirer had grandly expanded the paper’s Sunday funnies. I asked Walter if that was his idea of raising standards in mass communication. He looked at me, puzzled, speechless. Harnwell looked like he was going to have a stroke! As I grinned Hibernially, Annenberg finally got the joke: I was kidding him. One of the deficits of being inordinately powerful is that the lower orders rarely have the chutzpah to tease their overlords.
What a dull life the powerful lead, I learned from this incident. 50 years later, back in Philly for my annual Veterans Administration physical, I dropped by the School to inquire about their jubilee plans. I sought out the associate dean who was attending a lecture: A black scholar reporting his new book on the way the media were responding to black consumers. I thought my experience on that very subject 50 years before at Annenberg as an assistant professor would be most timely.
I had just bought a house in Greenbelt Knoll, the first planned racially integrated community in Philly. My favorite neighbor, the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the so-called Lion from Zion (Baptist Church), was in a rambunctious mood as we lolled one Saturday at the community pool. “I don’t believe you Annenberg people are serious about raising standards in mass communication. I have organized a boycott of TasteeKake products by the Black Clergy. Hire us or we won’t buy your products. Not a word in the Inquirer!” Nor in the Bulletin or Daily News for that matter!
Bright and early Monday morning I was taking the elevator to Walter’s office, having bee frisked like a common criminal for weapons! I told Walter what Sullivan had charged. Again he was speechless.The he called in his lawyer Joe First, who added nothing to the conversation Finally he called in his executive editor, one A.Z.Dimmitman.
His response to the charge. “We hired a colored boy last summer but he didn’t cut the mustard!” I replied that was no response to a charge of censorship. Finally, I warned them that “The Reporter” magazine was breaking the story in its next biweekly edition, and that if they had any pride, they’d beat them to it. At which point I felt a firm hand on my shoulder, squeezing, which I took to be a cease and desist order.
That hand, alas, belonged to the Annenberg dean. My thrill at seeing a black scholar where there had been none before dissolved. And the black scholar didn’t have a word of comment to my most apposite comment on his book’s subject. Unhappy Anniversary. If academics can’t be brave and honest 50 years after a gift, what’s the point of higher education. Incidentally, my favorite curricular contribution was a weekly meeting with a media policymaker.
Alas, Charles Lee, the assistant dean turned it into Love Feast. No tough questions. No learning about media policy formation. Gilbert later told me that Lee and Annenberg conspired to deny me a promised return to Annenberg if my directorship of the East West Center’s Institute of America Studies didn’t turn out. (I discovered that my assistant had been a CIA agent since his Iowa Ph.D. 10 years before!)
More unsettling had been my visits to established J-Schools. Some mocked my mission. They sneered that thirty years before Hearst had tried to buy his way to their praise and they refused the money. Except for the new cadre of social science communications professor. They discreetly asked what the salary levels were. Hmm.
The burned out ME’s who ran most of those schools had better ethical standards than the bright arrivistes. It was no news that Moses Annenberg to whom Walter had dedicated the school had ended in the poky for income tax fraud. Or that his infra-legal circulation fights with Hearst in Chicago or his relations with Al Capone were notorious. And Walter dug cruising around with Frank Rizzo. Only when Harry Karakas’s frauds embarrassed him did he sell the paper as fast as he could find a buyer.
Heh, for a remarkably innocent ex-seminarian, being a gofer was not always a bore. Once when I was dispatched to LA to romance NBC television, their press officer invited me to lunch at a new restaurant run by Polly Adler’s brother. As a Detroit prole, I’d never turn down a free lunch! Ms. Adler was curiously obsessed with my academic training and current position. She was proud of having just earned an Associate in Arts degree at L.A. Community college. And she divided professors into Good Guys and Smucks.
After dessert, I learned I had earned the G.G. Award. She started to give me the standard Hollywood embracero when my Contaflex hit her right between her boobs. “Patrick,” she exclaimed, “you look like a goddam tourist!” “Polly,” I replied honestly, “I am a goddam tourist.” Only later did I learn that she had been Hollywood’s principal Madam! Her memoir is entitled “ A House Is Not a Home”!
And a graduate School of Communications doesn’t always communicate!
The way modern architectural reputations are formed confounds me!
Walter Gropius, Bauhaus founder, was so feeble an architect (he constantly complained to his mother that he couldn’t draw!) that he had a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, doing the heavy lifting! Mies van der Rohe made more than one Icon that was uninhabitable. More of Less! Philip C. Johnson was guilty of touting them endlessly in his quest to set architectural standards for MOMA (New York). He excitedly phoned Alfred Barr,Jr. from Dessau in 1926 to say he had just seen the greatest Modernist building, the new HQ for the Bauhaus.
No one is quite sure how much of it was “his”, backed up as he was by Meyer and Ernst Neufurt, the construction boss. Johnson should have asked the Bauhaus professors and students who found the excessive glass sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. But it looked great in black and white publicity photos. Meanwhile really great architects like Peter Behrens, Albert Kahn, Max Berg, and Timothy Pflueger remain known only to a few specialists.
And take the instructive history of Cherry Hill visionary Malcolm Wells who just passed away at 83. He never took a degree, building a new architectural vision from engineering courses he took in the Marine Corps and later. Outraged that the RCA Pavilion he designed for the New York World’s Fair in 1964 was demolished two years after he built it, vowed never again to build above ground.
Joining the environment defenders movement triggered by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), Mac as he was called advocated a “gentle architecture” that left the land unpoisoned. When “Progressive Architecture” touted him in 1965, readers flooded the magazine with “crazy” putdowns.
To soften the impact of architecture on the land, he decided to embed his buildings in Nature. Bury the structure and give it a planted roof, to be cooled by Nature. As design critic Inga Saffron put it in her obit (Inquirer, December 8), “Rather than the designs being cavelike, strategic skylights made them light and airy,” (Read his own charming obit on his own website.) There he records his epiphany that buildings cause environmental damage. “I woke up one day to the fact that the earth’s surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants.”
Weaned as I was by Bob Spiller’s ”Literary History of the United States” at 50’s Penn, the ungainly megabook from Harvard University Press, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’ ”A New Literary History of America” ($49.95, 2009) made me nervous. Almost 250 short takes, three to four or so 50 line pages, to run from 1507 to 2008? Ph.D. Tweeters? And one editor a rock critic and the other an ethnic revisionist from the Free University of Berlin. Risking hernia, I dug in.
I Googled Greil Marcus to test his bona fides, and I got “You Tubed” as he introduced his project to an academic audience really tuned in. No hipster here. Coherent. Penetrating. Beguiled!
The first “take” was Toby Lester’s, identified as an “Atlantic” contributing editor. Hmm. He tells how two Alsace scholars, in their fresh cartography of the newly discovered, feminized in 1507 the Americus of Vespucci to fit with the already recognized geographical parts of Europa, Africa, and Asia. The final take was Kara Walker’s wordless but exuberant six pages of graphic welcome to “Barack Obama” in 2008. If all the moving parts were this interesting I had a big read ahead of me!
Then I screened the list of contributors: a rough count revealed an astonishing 40 percent female. And reps from every continent but Antarctica! Holey Moley. This was what I had idealistically called for in 1968 in my chapter in Marshall Fishwick’s innovative book on American Studies. Spiller’s LHUS (1948) after all was meant to be “the bible” of the then new American Studies movement, quartered as it was at Penn under Hennig Cohen’s editorship. Spiller et al were trying to deal creatively with the uniqueness of Am Lit.
In the seventeenth century it was theology, in the eighteenth politics, and not till the middle of the nineteenth honest to god belles lettres. Harvard celebrated its tercentenary in 1936 by fielding the first interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies, freeing each future scholar to approach this subject with his own idiosyncratic choice of Prelims.
To illuminate the American Lit I wanted to teach, I chose American Philosophy and Its European Antecedents (I majored in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit), American Art and Architecture; Albert Kahn and Cranbrook had turned me on), American Economic History (as a Depression era Detroiter I was passing somewhat stormily from childhood Catholicism to Marxism!) and two fields of Am Lit (from start to Civil War; Civil War to the present.)
As I riffled through this humungous volume, I was pleasantly surprised to read a take on Henry Ford’s Model T factory in Highland Park which I passed each day on the bus trip from my home in Northeast Detroit to U a D, as we then called it colloquially! We see Henry Ford as he visits with Diego Rivera who did the River Rouge murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. (My first exposure to great contemporary art in situ!) Courtesy of son Edsel and William Valentiner, the German immigrant who made the DIA big time. THIS BLOG written by a Jebbie from my alma mater named John M. Staudenmaier! Heh, I was feeling more and more at ease in this strange collocation of small bits with wide perspectives.
I was enchanted by a fresh take on an old favorite, Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” by no less a witness than Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times! After slickly illuminating the ironies of the novel’s narrator, he goes up to date: "And Warren the ironist would have to appreciate the Washington of George W. Bush: a capital presided over by a rich fake-populist dedicated to the protection of the ruling class from taxation, and a powerful Stark-like vice-president who, unlike Willie, was perversely dedicated to punishing the working class from which he rose. Wy oh Wy did he ever leave Wyoming? Now I get it! ANLHOA is a collocation of Ph.D. bloggings.
Even gossip can illuminate. Take my old mentor Gilbert Seldes (then the managing editor of The Dial) squabbling in 1922 with T.S. Eliot over a stingy payment ($150) for a year’s work, ”The Waste Land”! In a piece by Anita Patterson (English, Boston U) on how Eliot and D.H. Lawrence were simultaneously shipmates passing unseen in the avant-garde night—T.S. to UK, D.H. to USA. Hello, Mabel Dodge. Howdy, Victoria!
And 53 years after being PhD-afied, it’s comforting to know it’s never too late to learn. About, say, Theodore Rosengarten, Jewish working class Harvard graduate student, with the same gear Richard Nixon used to tape his own mouth shut, invents oral history by interviewing black freedom fighter Ned Cobb’s heretofore unknown struggle, forty years after his white master in Alabama sold him into jail. “All God’s Dangers” (2000).
It took Robert Cantwell (American Studies, U of N. Carolina) to blog us this. Indeed, it’s the mesmerizing mix of old Chestnuts and unseen treasures that gives this communal blog its intellectual weight. And it triggers memories: take Warren and Willie Stark. I had been upset by the blatant racism of Warren’s chapter in "I’ll Take My Stand” (Vanderbilt, 1930) written when he was 29 and should have known better! It caught my roving NPR ear that Vanderbilt was celebrating a Golden Jubilee of the book’s publication of that Manifesto of the New Critics. I decided to enter their devil’s tent in Nashville with my trusty Uher recorder, going by way of Lexington where the University of Kentucky Library was celebrating Warren’s 75th birthday with a major exhibition. The NPR card persuaded the head librarian to lead me about.
About halfway through, he posed a riddle: “Which black American writer do you think Robert Penn identifies with today?” Mindful of his early racist rant, I replied “Langston Hughes.” (The Louie Armstrong of black American poetry.) He laughed. “Not even close!” “Well how about Ralph Waldo Ellison”? (I remembered how his father had named him after the poet!) “Naw!” “I give up! "Malcolm X!” “You gotta be kidding!” “No, Honest to God”. “He sure mellowed,” I concluded. “He’s a great soul, and he grew," explained the librarian.
When it came to make the NPR interview, I wondered how to approach his racial enlightenment. And I had a personal question to ask. One of my filmmaker son Michael’s first films was on the North Dakota Marxist Tom McGrath. He had studied under Warren at LSU. Tom was as far from AngloCatholic “last stands” as I could imagine. So I began with my Malcolm X experience the day before in Lexington. “How,” I inquired, ”did you move so far and so fast from your racist position in 'I’ll Take My Stand'?"
In that charming Southern accent, he allowed as how “Life is for learning! I would say black writers turned me on! Malcolm most of all.” He gave me a dazzling mini-lecture on 20th century black American literature.” I knew my NPR program director at Sewanee would be thrilled. I know I was! And then I asked this High Anglican what he thought of Tom McGrath. His eyes blazed! “Oh, Tom! He was the best student I ever had at LSU.” He wanted to know how to get my son’s film.
The next day I rented a car to drive down into northern Kentucky to visit his birthplace, Guthrie, population 1,449 in 2003. It was a Sunday morning, and not a creature was moving, not even a mouse. Except that there gas station/restaurant. So I took a break. A couple of coffees over the Lexington Sunday paper. After a refill, an old man decided to allay his longeurs by jabbering.
“Where ya from?” “Philadelphia.” “That’s a fur piece!” “Whatcha do there?” “Teach English.” “How’s biznuss?” “Slow!” “What brings you here?” “Robert Penn Warren.” “Penn Warren?!!” He was suddenly interested. “Why I gave Penn Warren his very first job. Carrying water to my construction crew. That’s was over sixty years ago! He’s the biggest thing to come out of this here town! Nice to meetcha, Mister. You see Penn Warren again tell ‘em Harry said hello!” So there’s my AM LIT blog: GO ANLHOA!
National Museum of the American Indian, designed by Douglas Cardinal
The passing of Tom Hoving at 78 reminded me of Andy Warhol’s cliché about fifteen minutes of celebrity. Rebecca Sinkler, onetime literary editor of the Inquirer, in 1980 threw a party for Hoving, then the editor of Connoisseur. She introduced me to him as an academic hoping to soon become a more demotic freelancer.
Gil Spencer was printing my Op Eds in the Daily News, Nessa Forman my art reviews in the Bulletin, and Becky (who held beer parlor court Friday afternoons, after putting the Sunday Inky to bed, with aspiring journalists like thriller reviewer Richard Fuller and then rising cartoonist Signe Wilkinson and me) had just published my tout of Garrison Keillor’s first book.
Restless in my Beaver College sinecure—I had just been a visiting professor for a year in San Francisco--where my Annenberg student John Bigby was media chair and I had a weekly NPR arts radio show, Museroom West, so I was contemplating the “folly” of dumping a tenured full professorship for the excitement of the marketplace. (It helped that I had recently inherited more bucks than I knew what to do with.)
So there I was, in a serendipitous fifteen minute palaver with the Metropolitan’s Mega star. We talked architecture, about which subject a passion for Frank Lloyd Wright had recently hooked my muse. I enthused to him about Charles Goodman whose prefab Cape Codder for National Homes ($6000, $400 down, $40 a month) had been our first house as young marrieds in Lansing. (I’d still happily be there had I not won a Ford grant to study media and English teaching in New York!)
Hoving said some brass at Disneyland had been harassing him about a prefab project they were promoting in Orange County. Would I look into it for him? Disney? Pause. My entire Am Lit shtick at Beaver was centered on what I called our losing battle between the two Walts. Disney and Whitman. Bad and Good! As simple as that. Disneyland? The Purgatory of the American Imagination?
But a Connoisseur assignment? I’d conned academics for less. Imagine writing about architecture for Tom. Real money. Not Philly tidbits. Fantasy trumps idealism! I bit my tongue and agreed to fly West. I must say the IQ level and esthetic savvy of the brass at Disney far outdazzled my local academic peers. But still I didn’t see a story there. Nonetheless I dutifully reported as charged to Tom’s fixer, Phil Herrera, a multilingual French/Guatemalan mix who grew up in Paris and was the most metropolitan man it was my singular blessing ever to know. (Sadly he passed much too early in 2008.) And he had a proposal I was eager to pursue.
A Brazilian named Jose Caldas Zanine (Who??) was getting his first exhibition ever at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Would I go? No less a voice than that centenarian ace Oscar Niemayer had lauded him to his face on his 70th birthday thus. (“Jose, you began as a humble carpenter from Recife when you made me the maquettes for Brasilia. Then you graduated to furniture. And now you’re a great architect.”) Unhappily great architects don’t award Prizkers and this Brasilian autodidact was known only to a few cognoscenti. (He didn’t get any exhibitions in Brazil until a decade after his death a decade later in Paris.)
I called PAN AM that very afternoon. My encounter with Jose was the greatest single day in my life as a journalist. He found me so eager an interviewer that he spent the entire day filling in the details of his strangely meteoric career. At supper time he made me a present of two slabs from” his favorite tree”, whose roots provided mosquitoes pools of water in which to breed, thereby preserving naturally all the more his threatened rain forests. It was a puzzle to explain my strange load of timber to the stewardesses on the flight home. (And visitors to my Louie Kahn home in Philly are always puzzled by its honorific position!) But my $2000 fee made perfect sense to my children who wondered where I had been!
Phil also nurtured my Conn trail on Douglas Cardinal, the Metis architect from Red Deer, Alberta, whose Museum of Canadian Civilization in Hull, opposite Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, clocked a million visitors in its first decade, making it the most visited building in Canada, he told me proudly at lunch there ten years after we had opened its premiere together. The University of British Columbia had flunked him at the end of his freshman year as being unsuitable for “the profession”. But he perfected his independence at the U of Texas where he worked nights for an architect for tuition money.
And when Prime Minister Pierre “Multi Culti” Trudeau delightedly discovered this unsung Indian architect, he gave him the greatest assignment in the history of Canadian architecture—and warned him against boreocrats. He as well as Zanine remain among the greatest underknown architects of our time. Douglas loved the title I gave my essay on his breakthrough St. Mary’s church in Red Dear: “The Ronchamps of the Prairie.” That earned me a whole day with him there in the new museum, explaining what he was up to: Phil loved my discovering such “nonentities”. And I discovered early on in my new career as a cultural reporter that there were more satisfying things than being a full professor with tenure.
Garden Seating, Reading, Thinking, by Kinji Akagawa in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Kinji Akagawa is a plump, friendly looking middle aged professor of Public Art from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His audience at the Autonomous Cultural Center in Weimar, Germany is more than eager to welcome his ideas in spite of a new Kodak Carrousel that makes it impossible for him to juxtapose images in his descriptions of what he and his students (and any curious specialist he can inveigle to expand his piddling budgets by their profi generosity). He points out that a visiting Baukunstler, Herbert Bayer, gave him his first inspiration in Japan to become a public artist. He first came to America to study at the Cranbrook Center outside Detroit, followed by another LA apprenticeship, and teaching residencies in Atlanta and elsewhere before settling in in Minneapolis.
His badly digested Heidegger doesn’t make for a clear introduction to his work. Basically he entreated his Weimar students from the nearby Bauhaus Uni to graduate from a primeval egocentric stance to an exocentric one. A dollop of John Dewey concludes his appeal for art working as experience that deepens the human community it is serving. One must say that he tries too hard to seem American, his Zen Buddhism heritage getting more and more raggedy the harder he tries to be a good guy, into a kind inZen Buddy. But once he starts working rather than philosophizing, his achievements are singular.
His first public commission was from the Minnesota Highway Department to create a highway resting place next to Lake Superior. Stone and wood, all the local variants, are his materials, and he really does make them into luminous exemplars. Through a range of commissions all across the Midwest, he and his students (and unwary observers who don’t realize this man is a budget multiplier who hornswoggles the innocent into helping him out!) have created a chrestomathy of exemplars to enhance public spaces. He is himself an innocent saintlike man, relishing that one of his design has proved irresistible to a flight of ducks. (No mention of the fact that duck shit is becoming a formidable problem in such installations).
And he is philosophical about the perishability of his creations. When the uptight head of the Walker Center tried to keep him from using wood for his seating in the Sculpture Garden (penknife sculptors could make a mess of things!), Kinji opted for the carvers. When it looks like his original Lake Superior wooden installations are shredding from time and wind and rain, he sends them authorization to remove it and replace it.
Kinji is much better with wood and stone than he is with words. His mad cap Germanic philosophizing is a useless distraction. He should realize that Reactions Speak Louder than Words. Show how the public relishes his creations. For example, he noted that in MultiKulti Minnesota, the users of his public spaces differed sharply, ethnically, in height, weight, and level of sociability. So he has created multi-ethnic spaces that account for such differences. He needs to forget what little he has assimilated of Martin Heidegger and concentrate on the simple German word, MUSTER, a model that can be emulated.
REACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS: Observe shrewdly and carefully how discrete publics respond to the various exocentric patterns he devises for them. And follow his publics’ differing wishes. And fuck the messed up Kodak Carrousel. He needs movies to show how people move in his devices. Kenji needs to ignore his painfully accreted philosophy notes and look for some hot shot undergraduate film makers to show his MUSTERS in play. One image of a restlessly contented sitter is worth fourteen paragraphs of obscurantist Germanic metaphysisizing. Kenji has already made himself the George Nakashima of public seating. No mean feat. For our feet. 12/13/04.
From Thucydides to Winston Churchill, history has been one of the prestige genres of literature. And so it is proper that we ask the position and prospects of this mode of knowledge on what has become the central medium of American civilization.
Television, like every other new medium, imitates older media while timidly seeking out its own aesthetics. This is almost a “law” of communication history: the first type faces imitated manuscript characters; the first lithographs copied the styles of earlier graphic media like the engraving and the etching; early movies sometimes tried to film stage plays whole, literally, without translation; the first television studies copied radio’s glass-enclosed, soundproof director’s booth, pane for pane, even though this hampered television directing.
So we should not be surprised if television has not completely discovered its own proper aesthetic in even any single literary genre during its first decades. It is precisely the responsibility of formal education to accelerate the search for more accord between media form and intellectual content, especially in the new media where commercial pressures work against open-minded curiosity.
History as a form on American television is particularly complex to understand because of the peculiar ambivalence of Americans to history as a way of apprehending reality. Henry Ford aptly symbolizes this ambivalence. His vision of a mass-produced car literally destroyed rural America in a generation; yet cheek by jowl with the great River Rouge complex is his nostalgic paean to rustic virtue, Greenfield Village. That bewildering array of half-classified memories might also be the best possible argument on behalf of that impatient activist’s philosophy of history: “History is bunk.”
Ford saw that America was a future-oriented culture, and “history” to such superficial observers was Europe’s established church, its status-frozen aristocracy, its regal trappings. History, to the innocent American Adam staring creation afresh in a Virgin Land, was exactly what we were trying to get away from. What was in fact happening, of course, as we see from the hindsight of history is that America was merely the place where the latent ambitions and energies of Europe found a congenial arena.
Just a few hundred years later, ironically, many Americans have already become “tired of the future”; too few of us can see the meaning of our revolution for the new one of rising expectations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If Europe’s trinity of limitations was church, king, and nobility, ours is the Establishment of Mediocre Aspirations symbolized by Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and Disneyland.
Lulled by trivial dreams, we desire the reassurance of a soft version of our history; a Colonial Williamsburg that celebrates the integrity and courage of eighteenth-century patriots in a Virginia that will not integrate its schools; a Civil War Centennial geared to tourism and pageantry—and the ritual fantasy of a Southern victory; and on television itself, massive escape from the arduous present into the pseudo-history of the American West as well as a fatuous celebration of our ignorant decade of moral failure in The Roaring Twenties and The Untouchables. Flabby fictions as well as distorted facts twist a nation’s sense of its past. This is an idea hard for popular culture entrepreneurs to accept, for it belies their facile division of programming into entertainment or information, fun or seriousness, diversion, or message.
To summarize, it takes a new medium time to find its own special aesthetic and this search has been complicated for history as a genre on American television because of the national ambivalence about its own past. In spite of this sizable handicap, history on television has a respectable, even enviable record. But there are problems and dangers that can be solved and averted if considered carefully enough.
There are several categories of the story that ought to be considered: the “past as present” tradition; the ”instant” history school; anthologies on the twentieth century—the “most interesting” of centuries; “history for the future” in interviews of statesmen recorded for posterity; biography; depth documentaries on the leading edge of history. A consideration of each will tell us a great deal about medium which specializes in actuality, that that knife-edge of awareness between what is irrevocably past and what is just about to happen.
“The past as present” tradition of television history attempts to capitalize on television’s powers of immediacy, the sense it gives the viewer of being “in” on Big Things. Building on Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear It Now sound anthologies of “historic” figures and events (FDR’s “the only fear” speech, London’s Big Ben in the Blitz, Churchill on “blood, sweat, and tears”), television developed See It Now, interpretive essays in very recent history, You Are There, an early series still available on film for the schools: The Murrow–CBS tradition is best considered a part of the final category—depth documentaries.
The You Are There series plunges the view into the middle of momentous events. At great turning points in history, or at typical occasions in bygone eras, Everyman has a front-fow center seat. This re-creation of a critical moment in human history is a great aid to sluggish imaginations, but it has dangers. It tends to over-personalize history: great men (they can be seen in dramatic close-up) overshadow great trends (who wants to look at a graph?). It tends to oversimplify causation and motivation: a half hour is not time for historiographical quibbling.
It tends to focus on surface exotica at the expense of significant explanation; the strange clothing, the odd custom, the telegenic detail—all these come to the surface of a television screen more easily than human motivation, social tension. Finally, violent action fills a screen more arrestingly than below-the-surface transformation. In spite of these limitations, “the past as present” tradition is of enormous value as motivation for school children. As long as a probing teacher is there to ask questions, this historical genre is of inestimable benefit, especially in a culture like our where the historical sense is either despised, underdeveloped, or satisfied with mere nostalgia.
“Instant” history is not nearly as impressive a television development. This too is based on television’s vaunted ability to be there, “soaking up history like a sponge.” This point of view suggests that television can chase history around the world and corner it for posterity. There is sure plenty of history in the making these days, and “historic” events do abound—from the national vigil for John Glenn to the latests jet-flown film from a global hot spot.
But history as reality (everything happening) must be distinguished from history as document (the raw material a historian has to work with) and the final stage of the historical creation, history as artfully displayed knowledge, is the trained historian’s explanation of the former events based on a careful and considered study of the latter remains. To create “history as an art,” one must have more than an ability to dispatch film crews to troubled areas of the world.
He must be able to sort out from the million possibilities, on the basis of background reading and independent thought, what to film to best illustrate trends that bridge the fitfully illumined past with an almost totally dark future. Then with these materials of “history as document,” he must create as balanced a picture of his interpretation as possible with the documents time and chance have allowed him to obtain. The closer his deadline to the event, the less room there is for thought, the liess likelihood that he will in fact create “history as knowledge.” The only way he can compensate for deadlines pressure is by reading more than thinking deeply. But deadlines keep him from doing much of that. Therefore his history skims. Its surface pictures give only the illusion of understanding—often worse than freely confessed ignorance.
Let me give some recent examples of “instant” history. On Mrs. Kennedy’s recent trip to India and Pakistan, Eyewitness host Walter Cronkite bragged about how quickly the jet has rushed the program’s opening film to the U.S.—it had been shot that very day. But what was this rush about? Cliché visuals, Jackie getting off a plane, Jackie shaking hands here, Jackie laying wreaths there. Jackie being photographed by scores of the photographers here. Precious little about what she was learning about the Indian people, what they thought of her visit.
One is reminded of Thoreau’s misgivings about the invention of the telegraph in Walden. Speed is no good at all if it doesn’t lead to understanding.
Lat year, when the public was still reeling from a two-plane crash over Manhattan, CBS put on a late night special a few hours after an Aeronaves de Mexico jet crashed on take-off at Idlewild. In their rush to cover a sensation event, the producers went on the air not really knowing what had happened. During the program itself, they scaled down the casualty figure from almost all the passengers to just a handful. Waiting for rush film, the narrator recounted the “vital” statistics of the last several crashes and marked time by discussing the high flash point of kerosene jet fuel. (All the promised film never did arrive.) What did, were trite visuals of firemen wetting down ashes. It is appalling to think of how much cumbrous and expensive equipment was put to such trivial uses.
Another incident with more claim to “historic” significance came about by accident when CBS was covering Adlai Stevenson’s important speech on the Congo “live” at the U.N. All of a sudden a mêlée between African factions broke out in the galleries. The on-the-air television cameras swung round and also recorded the fracas for posterity. So bemused were the network policymakers by their “seeing it now” that they re-ran that “fight” several times in its entirety during the day. It explained nothing about crucial history in the making in the Congo. It was sheer visual excitement, a kind of global television wrestling match. The network praised itself publicly on this historic coverage. It might better have asked itself in private whether its public affairs staff has a complex enough view of current events to guide its editorial judgment. The examples I have cited are no reflection on CBS to the exclusion of the other two networks; actually for a long time CBS has the most distinguished record in covering and interpreting current history; it is surely no worse than ABC and NBC, probably on the whole better.
Part of the trouble is television’s picking up yellow journalism by osmosis from newspapers; part is overplaying the “actuality” aspect of its own nature. Actually television’s vaunted coverage of conventions and space flights and congressional hearings is not nearly as “pure” as network press releases would have one think. When television decides to cover an historic event, its very presence changes what happens. Sometimes it can even give grossly misleading images of the event. For example, when Truman sacked MacArthur in Korea, MacArthur’s homecoming parade in Chicago was covered live. On television it looked as if everyone was having an exciting time; along the parade route, however, it was as dull as dishwater without Dash.
More ominously, there were complaints from the press that television cameramen tried to egg on teenagers at Little Rock when there was nothing exciting to the eye happening. No views is bad news, when you’ve carted television and technicians a thousand miles to cover “historic” events. The temptation is to make history, as indeed Meet the Press and other panels interrogating history-makers do when they aim to squeeze a Monday-morning headline out of their guests rather than probe for meaning.
Television had even tried to help the historian of the future by putting great men on film or tape. NBC’s Wisdom is a notable example of this fine television tradition. These kinescopes are all available to the schools too and should be used often, as long as the teacher is there to remind his students that seeing Robert Frost is not the same as reading him—more fun, perhaps, but not nearly as permanently satisfying. Still, a well-trained high school teacher should know of these new resources just as much as should know about good paperback series on poetry or the best editions of a particular poet.
Another television achievement are the anthologies on the twentieth century; chiefly NBC’s Project XX and CBS’s The Twentieth Century. For the most part these are also available on kinescope, the latter series free from its sponsor, Prudential. The NBC series had a tendency to show evil as something outside the U.S., making a good-guy-bad-guy melodrama out of the twentieth century. First it started with Russia in Nightmare in Red, then German fascism in The Twisted Cross, and only then did it give us a salutary dash of cold water in the face with The Jazz Age, a brilliant analysis of the flabbiness of the 1920s in America. Its documentary on Life in the Thirties was rough and reliable; not so its Bob Hope level survey of recent times. The series also has a tendency to nostalgia when analyzing America; for example, Mark Twain’s America, there is a great deal of Tom Sawyerism, hardly a whisper of “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” Its Meet Mr. Lincoln is also elegaic, but it deserves repeating every Lincoln’s Day as it has been for the past few years.
The Prudential leasehold on the twentieth century has always seemed to me too dependent on tracer bullets and naval bombardments, reminding us of the paradox that the exigencies of war reconnaissance leave our film archives heavily slanted in memory of Mars. The series also has a tendency to assume America is the turning point of the universe, as in its half hour on contemporary Sweden which almost assumed the Swedish middle way was guilty unless it could prove its innocence to us free enterprise Americans—as if planning was a concept foreign to an insurance company! Security, indeed. But, limitations of raw material and viewpoint aside, this series is a highly prized worker in the vineyards of Clio. Extensive classroom assignments are especially recommended because of the fine free study guides DeWitt of Teachers College, Columbia, has been preparing for years.
Finally, the depth documentary and experts forum are television’s best contributions to clarifying the “leading edge of history” for the teacher and his students. History moves faster in the twentieth century: more events are happening to more people with more irreversible consequences than ever before in the history of man. Historians can no longer take only geologic type time spans to periodize their subject. Five years may be as crucial as fifty or five hundred in slower, less explosive times. Textbooks lagging as they do, the curriculum must depend in part on CBS Reports, ABC’s Closeup, and NBC’s White Papers.
This is not a matter of “jazzing up the curriculum” or “motivating” slow learners. Television documentary is probably the only way enough Americans can get enough sense of their most recent history to make valid choices. This very dependence of the curriculum on television’s harried appointment book with history around the world makes it all the more important for teachers to add to the new medium’s coverage a Socratic needling that will wring out the illusion and cant about our part and our role in the world’s future.
In this way, the teacher can repay a serious debt to the television historian; the best kind of repayment, for a more mature audience, we have our best opportunity for more and better coverage of history on television. If television can resist its strong internal temptation to settle for “instant” history—which is to say for almost no historical understanding at all—then Clio’s uneasy alliance with the latest medium can become a most important source of insight for Americans who need more of a past to base their future on.