Saturday, 5 January 2013

Two Geezers in Search of their Common Past

One of the unexpected joys of octogenarianism is the serendipitous replay of a brief life together. My first contact with him since leaving Penn in 1961 was my BSR review of his 13th book,”Imagining America in 2033”!That just happened to me, born 8 February 1927 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Herbert J. Gans born 7 May,1927 in Cologne, Germany. (I used to tease him as being older and wiser than him!)As Fate would have it, we both landed, newly crowned Ph.D.’s at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, he to study urban planning under Martin Meyerson, me, as a lucky Carnegie Post-Doctoral Fellow, to create a new course in Mass Culture for the Department of American Studies. 

My young family was based in Levittown, PA, he in Levittown, N.J. later named Willingsboro- to take away the sting of racism. (Herb was already at work on his classic, “The Levittowners,” which was to reject the snooty consensus of the misled American clerisy that those mass-produced communities were pisspots of mediocrity. Their fatuous contempt was embodied in new terminology. 

First was the pioneer touter of Americal Literature, Van wyck Brooks, “highbrow” and “lowbrow”, crudely politicized by Dwight MacDonald’s “mass culture”, “middlebrow culture” and “high culture”. Herb, the refugee from Nazi Germany in 1940, was the least snooty man I ever met (Gilbert Seldes and Studs Terkel were two other Jews almost as open-hearted mentors of mine!) Two or three categories were not enough for his classifying the multi-class America. He spoke of class cultures, each a summarizer of the humane potentials of different classes. But they were all deductive.

Mine was inductive. I had finished my Western Reserve University doctoral credits at Michigan State because my GI bill had run out at the University of Detroit and it was cheaper than out of state tuition. I even became the janitor of the East Lansing State Bank to finance my young family. In 1952 I started teaching English at East Lansing High, across the street from State. I had read Marshall McLuhan in Commonweal, the lay Catholic weekly mag, at the U a D. In fact his first book appeared there as chapters. 

And I was eager to apply his inductive style: find the best that was being created in the new institutions of Mass Culture (print, photography, broadcasting; industrial design, architecture, and urban planning) and persuade the consumers of the future that it was their responsibility to patronize the best and aspire to create more high quality human institutions. That meant Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal and Edward R. Murrow for my 10th graders, and Maurice Evans in “Macbeth” on TV for mytwelfth grade students.

Indeed, since Armand Hunter, across the boulevard at Michigan State, was inaugurating a UHF TV station we asked him if my students could stage a weekly series on Sunday afternoons called “Everyman Is a Critic” where their leisure activities was the subject matter, theme by theme each week, from TV to autos. The students loved it, and they also got used to writing overnight themes on assigned plays. I wrote this up as “Everyman Is a Critic” and Scholastic Teacher published it. That got me a Ford Foundation grant in 1955-56 to go to New York and see if I could nationalize “Everyman” critiques. And Bill Boutwell, editor of ST, asked me to do what I had been doing in East Lansing nationally. 

Their great humanist publisher Maury Robinson gave our aspirations total support. I kept that job until 1961 when the sociologist recommended I’d be appointed the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Our job was to explain America t o Asian students and let them relieve US of our ignorances of Asia! It was the most stimulating job I ever had! (But “Variety” our media bible could never reach us in time.) Incidentally, I gave a talk that spring to the Freshman English convention in New York, whistling my only tune, “Liberace and the Future of Critical Criticism” ( Cherish the fresh, snoot the mediocre!) Three tough looking cookies asked me if if I wanted to whistle that tune at their blue collar commuter college, Trenton State College. 

Why not? I finished my dissertation, and applied for a Carnegie. Got it, and suddenly I was Gans-ing it up with Herb at Penn. Gilbert Seldes’s “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) turned me on to the inductive approach to mass culture. He was the high IQ kid of a Jewish radical who had emigrated from Russia to set up an agricultural collective in New Jersey, but ended up running a drug store in Philly. He aced Boys Central, got an invitation to Harvard where he excelled, ending up editing the avant-garde journal, “The Dial” where he published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922 and supported other new writers. But his approach to mass culture was that it was not all a mess. It had its innovations, and he praised the good whenever it appeared. He made me an inductive critic, rejecting all the deductees like Brooks and Macdonald, not to forget the broadminded deductee Herb. I chide him to this day that the index to “Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (Perseus Books, 1974, 1999) does not carry the words “Gilbert Seldes.”

My next lucky break after the Carnegie was Walter Annenberg’s gift of 2 millions to found what became in 1959 the Annenberg School of Communication. Since Walter was something of an intellectual thug, we clashed at will.  Faute de mieux, I became President Harnwell’s “gofer”, criss-crossing the country telling the media brass and tired J school heavies how different and great we were going to be. At one leading Midwestern J School, I was told that in the 30’s William Randolph Hearst had tried to do a Walter A cash deal and they laughed him all the way to his San Simeon estate. Their meaning? Get lost, Hazard! Not the least advantage of having Harnwell’s prexy ear wa that I could praise Seldes to the skies. Bingo. I won that race. And suddenly I was Gilbert’s gofer. I ended up teaching media history at Annenberg.

The most disappointing times came when Gilbertz palmed off an assignment he didn’t want. For example, the FCC was holdinh a small conference on revising application forms for station renewals. There was little assistant professor without tenure discussing state matters with the heavy social science brass like Bernard Berelson and Ithiel de sola Pool. As the day developed it became increasingly evident to me that the Big Three hadn’t the vaguest idea that most broadcasters promised the world on their reapplication forms, then totally ignored them until the next renewal time. Total Ignorance. Herb would have been ashamed. I knew because after doing two TV series for WFIL-TV, Tom Jones urged me to shoot TV essays for Temple Gene Roberts weekend news slots. I loved it, and learned what went on in broadcasters’ minds, if you can call theirs that. As we were about to disperse, FCC honcho Newton Minow opened the door to thank us for our indispensable help. BLAH! Blip.

Finally, Gilbert asked me to take his 1959 slot at the Daedalus conference on mass culture in the Poconos. I did my usual inductive spree.The usual in-group of blind inductees reconfirming the collective ignorance of mass culture deductees. The conference literally ended with an internationally renowned poet intoning: “You’re the Man of the Future, Mr. Hazard, and I’m glad I won’t be there. He wasn’t. He soon committed suicide. I was sad because I used to cherish teaching the lyric about his life as a bomber belly machine gunner.

You can relive the whole farce in the Daedalus 1960 issue. The Humanist Clerisy lost themselves in polysyllabic European “philosophy” in the following generation. They were busy getting promotion and tenure instead of cultivating an inductive undereducated mass citizens. Their absence is the single most damaging failure of the clerisy that gave us morons like Rush Lamebough. I can still feel the cheerless fatuity of Norman Podhoretz’ putdown of me there by sneering aloud the Chayeksky and Vidal were kitchen sink dramatists. What useless,destructive hubris.

I guess Herb still wonders why I junked my academic career when I had made tenure and full professor/chair (1962) seven years after that invitation to Trenton. It’s because I’d rather be edited as a freelancer by an oddball naïf like Derek S.B. Davis than smugly connive with the academic upper class so that they can earn $100,000 while their 99 “associates” are peonized. For Shame.

I don’t mean in any way to associate Herb with this corrupt clerisy. He earned his Robert Merton professorship at Columbia with his indefatigable scholarship on behalf of the little guys and gals. Would that more free souls like him headed the American Sociological Society. When I asked him recently what his 14th book would be, he replied that he was more interesting in answering questions than writing more books. He set a high standard, and convinced that his peers needn’t be ignorant like the FCC advisers I stumbled upon.

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