My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1997

My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1997

by George W. S. Trow

In My Pilgrim's Progress, George W. S. Trow gives us a provocative look at what's happened to America in our time — a guided tour of the media, the politics, and the personalities of the last half-century by one of our most persuasive social critics. Trow takes 1950 as the year the Old World gave way to the New: Winston Churchill had just been named The…  See more details below


In My Pilgrim's Progress, George W. S. Trow gives us a provocative look at what's happened to America in our time — a guided tour of the media, the politics, and the personalities of the last half-century by one of our most persuasive social critics. Trow takes 1950 as the year the Old World gave way to the New: Winston Churchill had just been named The Man of the Half-Century by Time Magazine; George Bernard Shaw was still alive, and so was William Randolph Hearst. But before the next half-decade was out, the world represented by these powerful old men had disappeared. To illustrate his points, Trow takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through The New York Times of February 1950, from the thundering front pages where the terror of the H-bomb is making its first appearance to the early, sketchy, amateur television listings. The son of a tabloid journalist from an old New York brownstone family, Trow was brought up in the Deepest Roosevelt Aesthetic — half FDR and half Walter Winchell. But he soon succumbed to the spell of Dwight David Eisenhower and the extraordinary/ordinary qualities of Ike's era. It is the thrust of Trow's book that both the Roosevelt authority and the Ike decencies are completely gone — and where are they now that we need them more than ever?

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Brookhiser
...[T]akes a longer look at the lost opportunities of the last 50 years — how we lost the models of authority that we had, and why we haven't found anything both good and new to replace them....[W]hy aren't we all happy? Because, Trow argues passionately, we feel the absence of what we lack.
National Review
Richard Bernstein
...[T]here is something interesting on every page and something brilliant on many of them....His tour of the media and the politics of the last half-century is solidly grounded in a moral tradition that we are in danger of losing...reason enough for lingering and contemplating this original, provocative and possibly prophetic book.
The New York Times
Library Journal
From a founding editor of National Lampoon and former New Yorker staffer comes this study of "how 1950 got to be 1997."
James Wolcott
...Trow has traded in his scalpel for a flyswatter, idly slapping at anything that draws his attention.
The New Republic
Gerald Marzorati
...[N]ot about media so much as it is about ...the social history of old-stock New York and what Trow thinks happened to it after world War II....[and about] Trow, a young patrician New Yorker coming of age...sensing not privilege but displacement....The memoirish book about the disappearance of Old New York is now something of a 20th-century American genre....the past is [usually] not about a group but about a someone...
The New York Times Book Review
Maura Johnston

Even the most casual observer of the media landscape may notice that things are not, now, the way they were 20, 10, even 5 years ago. Self-referential premises crop up in television programs from "Saturday Night Live" to "Sports Night"; newspapers are continuing to take journalism cues from their television counterparts.

George W. S. Trow wrote Within the Context of No Context in the early 1980s; in that long essay, he examined the increase of celebrity worship, rampant consumerism, and other trappings of the media culture of the time. In My Pilgrim's Progress, he "gives himself a little bit of credit" for predicting the television-led landscape that currently blankets the land, and then turns his focus to the legacy of the past and how the upheaval in mass communication over the last 40 years altered that legacy.

Written in Trow's offhandedly conversational style, My Pilgrim's Progress is both a critique of the world at large and a personal memoir. Of course, this is wholly appropriate for someone whose earliest memories of newspapers come courtesy of his father; before Trow knew how to read, his father would pore over the paper with him, offering opinions on every column inch. This world of newspapers became a lens through which Trow could look at the world; the evolution (or, he might say, devolution) of the newspaper since his 1950s childhood is the backbone for his reaction ("the Germans lost [World War II] and Faye Emerson won," he says) to the changes in popular culture, epitomized by the rise in stature of celebrity culture.

Trow's points about assumed consciousness in the media culture of today (just try to create anything today that is not aware of the constructs of the sitcom, he challenges) are made even more pointed by his blending of personal experiences with his opinions on the popular. It's a wholly appropriate structure for the book, given that in today's society, the two are truly intertwined. Where does one stop and the other begin? This aspect of reality — as sitcom-defined as it might be — is what truly defines American culture at the century's end. My Pilgrim's Progress grapples with its consequences.


Kirkus Reviews
A self-satisfied, arch tour of the weird and wacky world of Medialand. "Just try to avoid the aesthetic of the sitcom," taunts former New Yorker columnist Trow (Within the Context of No Context). "The sitcom is fact, just as Napoleon was fact in 1804." And sitcoms are now our lot the world around, no matter where we go — all because, Trow believes, the U.S. led the victory in WWII, putting the American media's stamp on the planet and making every corner of the globe safe for Jay Leno. Trow has for many books now sought to bring the frenetic pace of television into his prose, but perhaps not its emptiness, and in this book he wholly succeeds in bringing us both ("one wants this hyperactive quality of click, click, click, click, click to hold the attention, and the easiest way to get it is with violence; it's hard to get it through dialogue, since most people don't know how to write dialogue"). His "studies" of television are little more than passing observations, with none of the sustained rigor of Michael Arlen or even Bill McKibben. When Trow is writing about other media, especially newspapers, he is much better; he explains very well, for instance, why newspaper editors choose to play stories the way they do, and how difficult it is for workaday journalists to develop stories — on, say, civil war in the Congo, or the collapse of public education — so that they have some meaning, with the appropriate background and subtexts, when editors constantly want to move on to the next scandal. But Trow spends altogether too much of this book likening televised golf tournaments to pornography and home-shopping networks to cocaine addiction, altogether too much timeissuing McLuhanesque announcements like "Stupid television in the 1950s drove smart people crazy. In the future, smart television will drive simple people crazy." Call it an informercial in search of a subject.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.89(w) x 8.62(h) x 1.14(d)

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