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Previously in American Graffiti:

"That's Entertainment" (December 2, 1998), by Sven Birkerts
Somehow, amid the celebration of Tom Wolfe's new novel, A Man in Full, there seems to have been a slight misunderstanding.

"Escape from Pleasantville!" (November 4, 1998), by Sven Birkerts
"Do the writers and concept people in Hollywood routinely take tea together, or are they all honing in separately on our most latent anxieties?"

"Symptoms of the Culture Wars" (September 2, 1998), by Scott Stossel
The much-publicized intellectual conflicts of the past decade may have lost their intensity, but they haven't lost their importance. A book like Marjorie Garber's latest reminds us why.

"The View from the Cheap Seats" (March 18, 1998), by Charles Hutchinson
Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation.

See the complete American Graffiti index.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
After the Fall
George Trow's media archaeology unearths a hidden narrative at the heart of postwar American life

by Sven Birkerts


January 21, 1999

pilgrbk picture He is as odd and elusive as they come, George Trow, gathering intelligence on our postwar period as a collagist might gather scraps and buttons, and then working it all together into a picture of our world. To read him is a challenge. We not only have to accept the mission of his prose style -- knowing, telegraphic, as intimate as the confidence of an eccentric uncle -- but we also have to make our way through the dense thicket of his cultural references, which take in everything from social-register minutiae to the facial iconography of Hitchcock's leading ladies to ... well, let's just say that nothing in the fabric of public life in the past half century is alien to him. Yet somehow he makes it all work. Indeed, his newest book, My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1997, is one of two books in recent memory that made me feel excited as I read. The other was Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997). If I can explain the nature of the excitement, I will have done my day's work.

To begin to understand what Trow is doing in My Pilgrim's Progress, we need to reflect for a moment on the title of his previous book of cultural criticism, Within the Context of No Context, first published as a long essay in The New Yorker in 1980. There, expertly, if also obliquely, the author pretty much anatomized our postmodern situation -- but in the Trow manner, which in its very essence resists summary. Summary, of course, flees from detail, whereas for Trow the details are the notes without which there is no song. Still, if we must abstract a point, it was that the role of television in our culture was to "establish the context of no context, and then chronicle it." The medium was so potent that it had almost by itself destroyed the core hierarchies and understandings that had given definition to public life. Henceforth, to our perpetual deprivation, we have been condemned to live without a sense of historical orientation.

My Pilgrim's Progress retrieves this immensely fruitful and important insight and creates a historical armature that allows us to think about just how we have turned our backs on a whole system of understandings and clarifying assumptions about public life. It's an ambitious venture, especially as Trow proceeds with no authorized historical perspectives or terminologies. He goes forth solo, walking into the jungle with his compass and knife, a bit of an old-school anthropologist. What amazes me -- and contributes to the true readerly excitement -- is that in many ways he pulls it off. He models the thrilling possibility that one can, from the stronghold of one's own experience and knowledge, decipher something of the world; that the murk of late modernity can be pierced and rendered at least partially comprehensible.

"Naturally, a moment matters." The first sentence of the book -- and the key to Trow's method. For Trow believes in the specificity of history, that it unfolds, everywhere and always, moment by moment. And while he is not so naive as to imagine that there was some single turning point, he does believe, like the sages of the I Ching, that every moment is part of a pattern, and that the pattern can be discovered -- not with a throw of the yarrow stalks but through vigilant inspection and creative juxtaposition.

So he picks a symptomatic date. At the core of Trow's purposeful miscellany is his close-focus study of the front page of The New York Times for February 1, 1950. This is a place to start. Trow is like Walter Benjamin's flaneur, who believes he can understand the true life of a city by gathering and reading seemingly random perceptions; it doesn't matter which street he walks first. Underneath everything is the faith that a sensible narrative can be disinterred from the clutter of impressions.

Trow's cumulative braiding of specifics is fascinating -- or, at least, it becomes fascinating. After giving the reader a spirited lecture on how to read the newspaper -- a discourse on the politics of placement -- he isolates his elements, what he calls somewhat gnomically his "Four Avatars of Kingship." Only three are in fact on the front page -- the fourth must be retrieved from the back of the paper. These avatars, or embodiments of the times, are, respectively: Winston Churchill (whose book The Second World War was being serialized in the paper); the threat of a national coal miner's strike ("PRESIDENT SEEKS SEVENTY DAY COAL TRUCE"); the hydrogen bomb ("TRUMAN ORDERS HYDROGEN BOMB BUILT FOR SECURITY PENDING AN ATOMIC PACT"); and television. Trow brings television forward because -- as we know from his previous book -- it was the force that would change our understanding of the very nature of event. Looking back on that historical moment from the vantage of the present, Trow asserts, "we don't have that country anymore, and the sooner we realize it, the happier we'll be."

The juxtaposition of four such "avatars" does not seem highly promising at the outset, but it is Trow's great art to study each one from a number of angles, and to follow the stories along for some weeks until each comes to signify in complex and profound ways. He is searching out the mind and the sensibility of the times, the better to understand why we are where we are now. He finds in Churchill the emblem of the aspirations of the old order, the "Edwardian aesthetic." The agitations of the coal miners, meanwhile, embody a whole set of assumptions about technology and manufacture -- indeed, they sketch the structure of pre-information-age America. The H-bomb stories encode "the astonishing newness of the nuclear threat." And television? We will get to that in a moment.

But first (taking a digression of the sort that Trow has turned into method itself), let me reconnect briefly with DeLillo's Underworld to remark how that massive novel, the author's most sustained effort yet at finding the buried narrative of our period, had an origin that was strikingly similar to Trow's act of media archaeology. DeLillo, by all reports, was reeling through microfilmed newspapers in his hometown library when he found himself studying the front page of the October 4, 1951, New York Times. Two adjacent headlines -- "GIANTS CAPTURE PENNANT" and "SOVIETS EXPLODE ATOMIC BOMB" -- gave him a sudden sense of possible configuration. To understand how these headlines connected would be to know a great deal else besides. The result? A fiction -- Underworld.

But I must leave this inviting side road and get back to Trow, who now makes some exhilarating moves. Looking at the opening minutes of Billy Wilder's 1955 movie, The Seven Year Itch, he discovers in the Tom Ewell character, who is taking his wife and son to the train station, an embodiment of the dominant mind of the white American male of the Eisenhower era. Having established this, he zeroes in on the scene of leave-taking:
So Tom Ewell says goodbye to his wife and son at the train station, and the plot of the movie is, will he now take the opportunity of the absence of his wife to be unfaithful to her? But there's another rather poignant aspect to this leave-taking ... which is that he doesn't seem to like his son all that much. His son is rambunctious and wears a spacesuit and a plastic helmet, and when Tom Ewell goes to kiss the son, the son wriggles away and says, "Mommy, Mommy, he's cutting off my oxygen." And ... then Tom Ewell goes home, he closes the doors of an old-fashioned 1955 television set, and says, "Thank God I don't have to watch any more Captain Video or Howdy Doodie."
Braid and twist, braid and twist. Trow moves on to some stunning readings of four Hitchcock films, tracing through key moments the slippage of traditional hierarchies. He next contemplates footage from a documentary titled Elvis '56, wherein the King is interviewed by an old avatar of pre-rock culture, Hy Gardner. And then, with a deft little twist, he is back to the Wilder movie and the real point:
It should be perfectly obvious to you that the young male child in The Seven Year Itch doesn't see any way that he could get to understand, let alone be, Winston Churchill; and that he himself would be very reluctant to become a mine worker and would probably be scared stiff of any mine worker he met, although impressed; and that the H-bomb -- well, what is a child going to do about the H-bomb? So, three out of four principal power vectors floating in the theater over the child's head are unavailable, impossible. The fourth avatar is not only available and possible, but geared toward him. He's gonna grow up with it. It's just as stupid as he is.
And that's it: the anatomy of historical change and the shifting mental climate that explains -- in part -- the arrival of the media age. Here Trow connects directly to Within the Context of No Context, which could run as a sequel rather than a precursor text.

Of course, this is only one set of linkages extracted from a cluster of five or six, all of which are pursued interdependently by Trow. The movement -- the crackle and pop of particulars suddenly signifying and connecting -- is heady. I read Trow as I read DeLillo, with hope: that these scavenging intelligences will take me where the more dutiful analysts of culture cannot. I love the sense of being on the inside track, receiving confidences at the corner table.

I feel slightly ungrateful, therefore, in suggesting that the book as a whole doesn't quite make good on its promise. But how could it? So many offbeat insights, so many strands pulled free and then plunged back into the weave -- there is no way that all of the accumulated energies could discharge in a single neat bang. That's not Trow's intent, anyway. Yet one waits for it, reads with the anticipation that the shift -- the fall from coherence into irony and decontextualization -- will be set before us in vivid relief.

It never is, really. The closest Trow comes is in his concluding celebration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He portrays the man as the apotheosis of all that has been lost; he is the true avatar of Trow's own youth. Eisenhower presided when America was at its postwar peak, when it was the authentic world power and moral stronghold. As Trow observes, "there can rarely have been a time in human history when so many men found themselves in vague or direct hierarchical reference to one man." Then came Nixon, the Kennedy assassination, the dot-dot-dot that leads to our present travestied state. The loss, never fully spelled out, is everywhere suggested; it pervades the book. One cannot really define a world of no context, I suppose -- one can only present the "before" picture and leave it to the reader to infer the extent of the damage.


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