On George W.S. Trow

I’ve just finished reading a couple of books by George W.S. Trow: Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998, and I’m sort of brimming over things I want to say about them, and about reading them, and about what-all else they connect to in my own life.
Is it that I want you to read them? Not really… I mean, who has the time to read stuff unless there’s a really good and clearly personal reason to read this instead of the many thats which compete for one’s eyeballs. Or is it that I want you to think good thoughts about me reading them? That’s probably closer to the mark (sez: I’ve just read a couple of books that were extremely meaningladen for me, amn’t I a good boy? and don’t you wish that you could feel the weight of the meaningladenness?). But really it’s that I want to try to sort out for myself why these books mean, why they reach me in unique ways, and just what those ways are.
That needs some background. George W.S. Trow [Wikipedia article] died this past November. Among the obits are three I’d like you to scan: Hendrik Hertzberg’s in the New Yorker:

From adolescence on, George William Swift Trow was a cult figure of sorts, whose fame, though for a time considerable, was a lagging indicator of his influence, which made itself felt through his personal and literary impact on other writers and on certain institutions, notably but not exclusively this magazine. He was an essayist, aphorist, journalist, satirist, and analyst (and annalist) of what he once labelled, with characteristically arch capitalization, Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts…

and Stephen Metcalf’s “Assessing the legacy…” from Slate:

Every generation or so, a disappointed preppy marvels at the demise of the Protestant ascendancy he took for granted in his childhood, and out of an embarrassed mix of pride and self-reproach, writes a masterpiece. A line can be drawn, in attenuated blue blood, from Henry Adams to Robert Lowell, then extended out to include George W. S. Trow…

And while you’re at it, also take a look at Mark Feeny’s take in The New York Observer:

..the Harvard class of 1965 was the one Eustace Tilly fell on. Its members included Trow, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jacob Brackman, Jonathan Schell and Wallace Shawn (who qualifies as a legacy, if not a hire)…

You might also take a look at Dennis Perrin’s blog reminiscence of an interview with Trow.
Now, George W.S. Trow is an exact contemporary of mine (born in September 1943), and I’m at a point in life where contemporaneity means a lot more than it used to, partly because there’s a noticeably diminishing stock of it, as contemporaries shuffle off, Stage Right. Furthermore, he’s a college classmate, though I certainly never knew him in those years. I knew of him (he was president of The Harvard Lampoon, and moved in circles more exalted than those I found comfortable), and I’ve followed his writing for a lot of years in the New Yorker, always marveling at his way with le mot juste. So it’s like I know him, but he didn’t know me.
Still, there are these overlappings. We share an abiding fascination with the Nacirema, one of the wilder and woolier of the world’s cultures. He studied them up close, mostly in the urban belly of the beast; my vantage points were Borneo and Nova Scotia. He’s a student of media, and of the clothing of emperors. Here’s an example of his observational acuity, in a context that’s especially meaningful for me:

New England is history. Step One. Step Two. Do this. Do that. This happened. That happened. It all adds up to New England. It doesn’t break down from something else. It is no share of anything larger. History takes a certain course, and it adds up to New England. Of course, once it does, you can work it in other ways. New England as a phrase means a certain thing, because certain things have added up to mean New England. But once a phrase means a certain thing, you can abuse the meaning and twist it: refer to the sense of what “New England” means to suit your purposes, which may not have correct reference to the history of New England –which may, in fact, directly oppose the essence of that history. SHOT OF FABULOUS OLD NEW ENGLAND INN. Look at the clapboards. So white. Look at the porch. Why, Mrs. Martin you’re pouring Silt-Whip over that old New England cherry cobbler. Of course it’s Silt-Whip; nothing else is good enough for Martin’s Inn.
(Within the Context of No Context, pp 58-59)

Now, this is ethnography in a New Key, no doubt about it. It’s allusive and witty and telegraphic and committed, whereas the traditional pedestrian mode of ethnography is stodgy and ‘objective’ and inoffensive and, well, tired. And the passage is exemplary of Trow’s style: he’s forever picking out details that one wouldn’t have noticed particularly, and foregrounding them, making them the focus of the point he’s making. He’s a genius of juxtaposition, illuminating linkages which are invisible until he turns the light upon them.
He says in several places that he thinks and sees “demographically”, which is to say that he thinks of population phenomena, and is especially sensitive to the analytical frame of age cohorts (though he doesn’t use that term) –he does the mental calculation to ascertain when the actors in his stories were born, how old they were in [e.g.,] 1950, who their contemporaries were. I’ve been doing that same thing myself for as long as I can remember, being aware of age cohorts and the perspectives their inhabitants share with other members, and/or don’t share with members of other cohorts.

Each one of these social generations –from the ’50s, from the ’60s. from the ’70s, from the Reagan era, from now– thinks of its social aesthetic as definitive. In fact, they are all in a process: encouraged toward, and beyond, hubris, by demography.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 12)

Both books are full of dates,most of them serving as place markers in people’s lives and tied to the vaudeville of Cultural Artifacts and to specific examples of the always-shifting Zeitgeist.

In 1958, the people I had moved next door to not only were universally considered to make up the ruling group of the country; they owned the rituals: the schools, the clubs, the ladders. Part of their style was to say, “But of course, we’re just ordinary Americans.” Five years later they were just ordinary Americans, and their rituals –including the dogs and the horses, maybe– were burdens, and were so perceived by their children.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 23)

I dimly remember the original form of a big chunk of one week’s New Yorker in 1980, but I didn’t manage to read it then –it was in too new an expository form, and I just didn’t spend the time to get it, didn’t recognize its relevance to my own pursuits. A lot of Within the Context has to do with the powers of television, and I’ve spent most of my life with my back turned to television (though not to film, and not to serials originally made for television… but that’s another story).

Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there. In the place where this scale has its home, childish agreements can be arrived at and enforced effectively –childish agreements, and agreements wearing the mask of childhood.

Television has a scale. It has other properties, but what television has to a dominant degree is a certain scale and the power to enforce it…
The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.
It is bewitching.
It interferes with growth, conflict, and destruction, and these forces are different in its presence.
“Entertainment” is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible.
No good has come of it.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 45)

It was back in October that I spied Within the Context of No Context [the 1997 reprinting, with an added introduction assessing the 17 intervening years] in one of the used bookstores I frequent, and I picked it up and leafed through it… and put it back on the shelf. A month later I read that George W.S. Trow was dead, and went back to the shelf and there it was, so I bought it, thinking that I really did finally have a reason to read it. I’m really glad I did.