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Anatomy of Sound
By Norman Corwin, Media Authorship, Jacob Smith, Neil Verman
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
RADIO'S "OBLONG BLUR"
On the Corwinesque in the Critical Ear
In June of 1947, writer Philip Hamburger published a profile of Norman Corwin billed as "The Odyssey of the Oblong Blur" in the New Yorker, perhaps the most vivid article to appear in any national publication about Corwin during the years in which he was the most recognized radio dramatist in the United States. One of Hamburger's best-remembered profiles in a seven-decade career at the magazine, "Oblong Blur" was soon used as the title of his first published anthology, which set Corwin's life alongside similar pieces on Judge Learned Hand and UN Secretary General Trygve Lie, among whom the CBS broadcaster hardly felt out of place. But that stature would not last. Just as 1947 was a tipping-point year for cultural politics in the United States — something in which Corwin was personally and professionally bound up, as Thomas Doherty's chapter in this volume lays out — it was also a pivotal year for attitudes toward Corwin's work, coming at the tail end of an almost unbroken string of triumphs during the age of live radio (see chapters by Cummings and Crook) and near the beginning of a phase when he would adapt his values and styles to recording arts, film, and television (see Smith, Watson, and VanCour chapters) over an enduring career that took his sonic sensibilities into a variety of authorial situations across the creative industries. In 1947 Corwin married Katherine Locke; he aired his One World Flight recordings of the voices of people he met around the globe; he codirected and produced Hollywood Fights Back for the Committee for the First Amendment to fight the blacklist; and he also published a book of his radio plays, which would be the last such anthology to appear for sixty-eight years.
Who was Corwin to Hamburger and other critics around 1947? As Variety's radio editor Bob Landry noted at the time, the history of critical columns about radio during the golden age of the medium was largely the story of half-hearted efforts launched and then abandoned by a wide array of periodicals: PM, The Saturday Review of Literature, Life, Newsweek, McCall's, American Mercury, The Nation, and The New York Daily News among others. Combing through these for reflections on style turns up just a few essays about a smattering of shows. For Landry, a true radio criticism was not even possible. With 65,000 units of time technically for sale every day on American airwaves, sheer abundance prevented a discourse that could engage the narratives on the airwaves at a granular textual level, and any critical reflection would necessarily be retrospective — the show under review may already be over for good, disappeared into ether — and thus less useful to the public than a theater, book, or film review might be.
Corwin's work was a rare exception. His high-profile broadcasts were backed by CBS and the federal government, and his daring plays drew upwards of 60 million listeners from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, among them many reflective intellectuals. He was, at 35, in the words of Time magazine, radio's "boy wonder." His works earned frothy praise from the likes of Carl Van Doren, who compared Corwin to playwright Christopher Marlowe, and Carl Sandburg, who called Corwin's V-E Day show "On a Note of Triumph" one of the all-time best American poems. But such acclaim was not entirely universal. That same broadcast drew scorn from Harper's columnist Bernard De Voto, who called it a "mistake from the first line" full of "pretentiousness" and "bargain-counter jauntiness" in a review that repeatedly cudgeled the play's "bad writing."
Perhaps both assessments are right. After all, the notion that poetry belongs on the bargain counter (and the bargain counter in the poetry) might describe Corwin's whole literary philosophy. In a discussion with Douglas Bell, he put it this way: "I have very small patience with writers who need to be interpreted by a board of interpreters before you can understand what the hell they are talking about." Corwin went so far in the other direction that it sometimes comes across as a fault. In one of my interviews with him, Corwin insisted on an aesthetic of intelligent clarity in his approach: "You're talking to adults smarter than you, and one's obligation is to be understood. I have no patience for the obscurantists." In his 1983 book Trivializing America, he joked that Americans have a special capacity for oversimplifying in their writing, "since we are constantly inspired to keep at it by the examples of advertising and government."
The remarks of both detractors and devotees like De Voto and Sandburg also illustrate another point: for many of his contemporaries, it was awfully hard to react to Corwin's habit of excess without mimicking it. Hamburger's profile caught this bug. Shuttling between the satirical and the unctuous, "The Odyssey of the Oblong Blur" tells a gauzy tale of Corwin's first encounter with radio, when he and his older brother Al built a crystal set out of a box of Quaker Oats, and relates tall tales of Corwin's artistry, like the time he spent two days trying to simulate the sounds of depth charges and submarine control levers to the satisfaction of a Navy vet. The profile outlines how Corwin came to the CBS network in the heyday of experimental radio during the late 1930s; notes memorable plays like "The Plot against Christmas" (with various figures in Hades conspiring against Santa Claus), "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" (about a boy searching the afterlife for his dead dog), and "Ann Rutledge" (about Lincoln's lost love); and takes us through his career until the One World Flight project, which enabled him to travel to seventeen countries and fly 37,000 miles to record voices — "His object: to see if the postwar world was One World. His method: to record what he heard on a wire four thousandths of an inch in diameter," as Hamburger put it. But to the reader today, even Corwin's miniaturization of the globe is obscured behind Hamburger's own overdone literary exercise, for not only did he write the profile as a radio play, but he wrote it in the style of Norman Corwin. Here is the opening:
(Music: Introductory cue; violins super-agitato)
Leave us rip our cerebellums
From the skull itself
And fly as on a carpet magic
To Boston, Massachusetts
(Music: Reminiscently sentimental; with schmalz)
May 3, 1910!
Lincoln dead, Garfield shot, McKinley gone.
The carriage has lost its horse!
The lamp no more drools dripping wax!
Cyrus Field has long since laid his cable!
Aye! The Wright Brothers, silent and alone upon a sandy spit at Kitty Hawk,
Have some time previous sent skyward the fatal instrument of winged flight.
(Music: Full orchestra; tremendous paean.)
We're starting out this way,
Since it's a festive day.
A child is being born
As from a golden horn
And Heaven sings and sings
As Stork a Poet brings!
Little Guy (interrupting). Hey, Mister, this isn't clear.
Just what is going on here?
Narrator. Hold on, Little Guy, and you will see,
How Norman Corwin came to be!
Hamburger's mimicry of Corwin's style poses the problem of what that style is, how it came to be, and, most importantly, how we should conceptualize sonic style in the first place. Despite a revival in thought about narrative audio prompted by the recent rise of podcasts as well as a renewed interest in Corwin as an audio artist (perhaps the most important practitioner of narrative-driven audio in U.S. history), overt thoughts on the question of what we might call the "Corwinesque style" have been muted. One reason is style's intimate connection to authorship, the rusted old sedan of theory, one that is today all but abandoned at an impasse between poststructuralist skepticism on the one hand and stale auteur studies on the other, something this book tries to overcome by emphasizing a model of "sound authorship" that follows Corwin's blur of production through a variety of media industry architectures.
Another reason is that both the public and broadcasters tend to neglect audio heritage. Many admired practitioners of the audio arts today suffer from an amnesia about the origins and histories of their own techniques and sensibilities. Read the best-selling recent books on radio technique and you will find virtually no references by authors or celebrity broadcasters to Corwin or the hundreds like him who made brilliant radio in generations past. The "New Masters" of radio seem uninterested in the "Old" ones; it is as if no one had thought to tell radio stories before This American Life. Testimonials in the press that followed Corwin's death in 2011 also illustrate the problem. While many commentators celebrated his life and role in the war effectively, lauding Corwin as the greatest at his craft, none had a serious or precise way of talking about that craft. Few major papers carried quotes from his scores of hit radio plays, let alone serious explorations of what made them groundbreaking.
The result was Corwin without the Corwinesque. Obituaries lacked precisely the drama and literary vanity to which Sandburg, De Voto, and Hamburger all responded back in the 1940s. All three of those writers had an "ear" for Corwin, a sonic shorthand that underlies both the way they praise and blame him. The New Yorker piece, for instance, uses rapid-fire messages from contemporaneous literary figures from William Saroyan to Arch Oboler, as well as choruses of voices and anthropomorphized objects — cities, buildings, a crystal set — that deliver soliloquys. All that had a certain ring for Corwin's 1940s audiences and critics. But who would get the joke now? Collective experience of Corwin's sound has passed from living memory. All this is to say that the question of the Corwinesque — a term that appeared nowhere until producer Norman Lear dreamed it up in the foreword to a recent edition of Corwin's notebooks published by Michael C. Keith and Mary Ann Watson — only makes sense if we recognize its inherent historical and contextual contingency, its existence in a field that responds to its elements only selectively. The question of Corwin is thus the question of which Corwin matters to whom, when, and why, which is the only way any artistic legacy ever "comes to be." That is the central argument of this chapter.
So what was the Corwinesque around 1947? What is it nowadays? What might it become in the future? In this chapter, I focus on a few of Corwin's critics to explore the "critical earspaces" in which Corwin's work existed and continues to exist, the plural discursive-receptive worlds in which his sonic creativity becomes intelligible at particular moments in time. Rather than seeking a final theory of the Corwinesque style that fits all times, audiences, and situations, this chapter will propose that certain strains of Corwin's work are "hearable" only through the assumption of critical imaginary tuned to particular frequencies. To foreground that process, I'll use Hamburger's article as a starting point for three studies of how Corwin's aesthetics form the "anatomies of criticism" in which they come to be understood, assessed, and ascribed value. Only by attending to that process can critical commentaries undergird a modernized model of the media author, particularly one like Corwin, whose career crossed so many fields. In what follows, I take inspiration from Shawn VanCour's recuperation of Rudolf Arnheim's approach to style historiography outlined in his chapter in this volume, emphasizing that style is a construct of the historian that comes into being at certain levels of magnification, where the presence of a particular technique matches a perceived way of making that is conditioned by medium and subject. While VanCour follows this insight to see how style-concepts are applied in different times and media by authors, this essay follows another track, mapping how critical ears and minds select different levels of magnification with which to focalize the oblong blur of the Corwinesque.
A HIGH WIRELESS ACT
In its profile, the New Yorker evinced more irritation with one aspect of Corwin's style than any other: overwriting. Hamburger pokes fun at Corwin's unreasonable demands of sound ("Music: a universal theme, oscillator beneath, denoting pain of the world and bigness thereof, fading") and apes how he lets childish alliteration run amok, as when the members of the audience are called "Sons of a Sun spinning sadly through space." Many critics disapproved of what they saw as a lack of restraint, although Corwin actually restrained himself often. In the published version of On a Note of Triumph for instance, one finds unaired sections reflecting on gruesome firing squad sequences, even a vision of the riders of the apocalypse — "unblushing phrases" restored to the text "for the sake of my conscience," the author explains. Still, Corwin's penchant for overwriting was a widely understood issue. In his lifetime, the author neither denied it nor conceded that it required apology. "I was unafraid to give Apollo a good long speech in 'Descent of the Gods,'" he told Douglas Bell. It was Apollo, after all. Corwin might have always been this way. According to biographer R. LeRoy Bannerman, as a senior in high school he submitted to his English teacher an abstruse treatise of polysyllabic wordplay entitled "Words," simply so that he could be summoned to the front of the class to parse passages of Corwin for a teacher who had parsed passages of Milton for him.
But there is another way of thinking about Corwin's overwriting. Among many of his contemporaries in the industry, his verbal excess was understood as a challenge to technicians and actors just for the sake of it, launched in the spirit of the experimental era of broadcasting as an attempt to break new ground. In the script for "New York: A Tapestry for Radio," for example, a date scene contains this befuddling note: "Music: Love on brownstone stoop at three in the morning after an evening at the RKO Proctor Theater and a long walk in the park. It sustains, behind."
There is an even better example of an "aesthetic of challenge" in "The Undecided Molecule," a play concerning a particle that refuses to select his destiny before the Court of Physiochemical Relations. This sets up a verse play riddled with triple internal rhyming schemes and hurdles of enunciation. Here are some lines Corwin gave to a representative of the Minerals, making his case for why the molecule should elect to join his Kingdom:
Mineral Spokesman. If he wishes to be a worker, he
Can serve in a column of mercury,
If he'd rather be gay and giddysome,
There's radium, uranium, iridium.
O tantalum, tungsten, talcum, tin,
Ipsy, pipsy, bitters and gin,
Alto sax and carpet tacks,
Rackety rax borax —
Merrily, beryly, chalybite, chin,
Tripolite, zinc and kaolin ...
Judge. Are these football yells necessary?
Mineral Spokesman. Yes sir — Very.
Judge. What do they mean?
Mineral Spokesman. Well, amphibole, sphene and pyroxene,
Being amygdaloidally idiochromatic,
May create a stalactitic static
Affecting the schlenohedral speed.
Judge. That clears it up very well indeed.
Is the schoolboy still showing off? Perhaps, but to say the passage is overdoing it misses the point that when set in the live radio medium, lexical exhibitionism such as this takes on an aesthetic valence that it does not bear in schoolbooks.
Corwin's lines are deliberately composed to be easy to botch when vocalized, which is why it is impressive when they are delivered smoothly — listening to them is like watching a tightrope walker — particularly in a play that stands or falls on steadily paced delivery across the duration of the broadcast, with any flubs interfering with a smooth rhythm. The style doesn't resort to overworked literary calisthenics and tongue twisters; it depends upon them. It says at the sonic level, "Look at me trying so hard I might blow it." That comes through only if we read Corwin's words as fundamentally radiophonic rather than written for the page. Indeed, it may be incorrect to evaluate Corwin's aesthetic as poetic; on that matter both friend Carl Sandburg and foe Bernard De Voto are incorrect — Corwin couldn't have written "a great American poem," and his works can't be "bad writing" because they are not "writing." "So dependent is this poetry on the ear," wrote one critic in 1944, "that it seems almost a mistake to read it in the cold glare of print." Think of the Corwinesque as broadcasting rather than literature, and it transforms, with many of its liabilities coming across as dares.
Excerpted from Anatomy of Sound by Norman Corwin, Media Authorship, Jacob Smith, Neil Verman. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Michele Hilmes vii
Introduction: Anatomy of Anatomy of Sound Jacob Smith Neil Verma 1
A Corwinography Jeanette Berard 13
Part 1 Voice: Norman Corwin as Sound Auteur
1 Radio's "Oblong Blur": On the Corwinesque in the Critical Ear Neil Verma 37
2 Norman Corwin and the Blacklist Thomas Doherty 53
3 Norman Corwin and the Big Screen: Artistic Differences Mary Ann Watson 74
Part 2 Sound: Corwin and Transmedia Authorship
4 Norman Corwin's Radio Realism Jacob Smith 101
5 Corwin on Television: A Transmedia Approach to Style Historiography Shawn Vancour 127
6 Media Primer: Norman Corwin's Radio Juvenilia Troy Cummings 151
7 Fix Your Eyes on the Horizon and Swing Your Ears About: Corwin's Theatre of Sound Ross Brown 171
Part 3 Ear: On Corwin's Influence
8 Transatlantic or Anglo-American Corwin? Tim Crook 195
9 The Odyssey of Me and Norman Corwin David Ossman 211
10 Wondering about Radiolab: The Contradictory Legacy of Corwin in Contemporary "Screen Radio" Alexander Russo 233