Tuesday, 13 October 2009

George W.S. Trow: 1943 - 2006

I find George Trow a fascinating writer, since his attempts to reconcile his WASPy aspirations with his intense attraction to black culture and the lifestyle to be found in New York gossip columns and his repulsion by the predations of mass media on the mainstream consciousness means that there is an intensity and dislocation to his writing that is possibly unique.

from “National Lampoon”, December 1971 – “Editorial Fantasies”

George W.S. Trow (to rhyme with “grow”) wrote for the early “National Lampoon, but had a longer career at “The New Yorker” where he wrote assorted social reportage and some lengthy cultural criticism. Trow is rarely remembered as one of the founding members of the “National Lampoon”. Doug Kenney is remembered as the genius of Baby Boomer nostalgia. Michael O’Donoghue was the master of violent, nihilistic comedy that wittily and surrealistically obliterated everything in his path. “National Lampoon” grew out of the successes of the “Harvard Lampoon”. Trow had been Kenney’s mentor at Harvard, setting an example of how to manoeuvre through the world of Eastern establishment mores and preppy manners. Trow’s family were only low on the WASP hierarchy, but Trow appeared to effortless possess the WASP trademark of social superiority. Yet, Trow was also attracted to its subversion, and at his prep-school had been a devotee of r’n’b and the beatnik writers. Trow was forever split between wanting to belong to the social security of the WASP order and also recognising its inadequacies and deterioration in the modern world.

After graduating from Harvard, Trow met Michael O’Donoghue in New York City and they became friends. Again, O’Donoghue found a model in Trow, a social and artistic persona to help contain his furious satire. When the “National Lampoon” was founded, Trow was one of the first brought in because of his previous experience and facility as president of the “Harvard Lampoon” and Trow brought O’ Donoghue with him. Just before “National Lampoon” Trow and O’Donoghue wrote the script for an early Merchant-Ivory film “Savages”, released in 1972. Modelled on Bunuel, it follows the spontaneous evolution of a tribe of mud people to high society epigones when they discover an uninhabited stately home, and demonstrates sophisticated high society manners can be just as vicious. Trow and O’Donoghue shared a taste for the Art Deco and the style of the ‘30s. It had been Trow’s idea to set this story within the confines of a weekend houseparty. Trow wrote much of the social scene, catching the undercurrent of bigotry and hierarchical oppression while O’Donoghue wrote most of the subsequent reversion to barbarity.

If Trow’s contributions to “National Lampoon” are less well-known it was partly because for the first year he was careful to efface any evidence from the actual magazine using pseudonyms. Trow had already been working at “The New Yorker” for several years and he did not want to jeopardise his position there. Because his set had associated with Wallace Shawn at Harvard, they had attracted the attention of his father, William Shawn, the editor of “The New Yorker” and been adopted en masse as new writers for “The New Yorker”. If Trow’s personal style is a little less distinctive then others at the time, it may because he was often writing in collaboration. When he wrote on his own, his subject matter became more evident. Each “National Lampoon” writer had his special subject contributing to the magazine’s broad view, and Trow’s proved to be his WASP inheritance, subverting its high tone and impenetrably snobbish manners. For “National Lampoon Radio Hour” he played the part of Mr Chatterbox, imploring his listeners "Do try to mix with a better class of people", bringing WASP society to earth in “White-sploitation” films, or simply mocking the mediocrity of middle American taste. The titles of the three issues he edited of the magazine read in retrospect like a manifesto for the critical essays he wrote at the height of his career: “Post-War” “Boredom” and “Stupidity”. Trow was only involved in “National Lampoon” for the first 51 issues, though some also give him credit for introducing P.J. O’Rourke to the magazine. In the mid-70s; he also wrote a few parodies for “Harper’s” but the overwhelming majority of Trow’s work from thereon was to appear in “The New Yorker”.

from “National Lampoon” March 1972

from “National Lampoon” April 1973

Trow was temperamentally suited to the magazine. It was a continuation of the aspiration to elite privilege which had marked his life up to that point. It was a continuation of his family’s tradition of working in New York newspapers and magazines. “The New Yorker” in itself also represented a continuation of a certain cultural and social ideal. Whether it deserved it or not, there was a feeling at the magazine that Mr Shawn (as the editor was knows) was defending the highest values of civilisation and literary traditions against the vulgar commercialism of the modern age. In Mr Shawn, Trow found a mentor:

“The New Yorker is a place where an honourable man is teaching other men who are trying to be honourable . . . What is remarkable about it is that it exists in the real, commercial world as a magazine that sells copies, that sells advertising, at the same time that this other thing, of honourable people who are looking out for you, is going on. That used to happen a lot. But The New Yorker is one of the last places that happens.”

For the first decade all of Trow’s contributions were to the “Talk of the Town”, the opening section of the magazine with its unsigned reports and comments on contemporary New York life. “The New Yorker” was smart ,both socially and also intellectually, and the elegance of Trow in person and style was a natural fit. Beside the usual run of parties for exhibits and new advertising campaigns, Trow staked his particular territory of rock n’roll culture and also the emergent black social scene and its arts. “Whatever it is that some white Americans suspect they have lost, they seem to suspect, further, that they can find it in black music” (23 December 1972). “Talk of the Town” normally cast a bemused interest on the products and lifestyle of New York City, but the object of Trow’s attention was new to the magazine’s usual audience. So Trow’s beat moved between formal parties and Dina Vreeland of Vogue magazine, the Fillmore East, the Warhol scene and Max’s Kansas City East. He introduced “New Yorker” readers to Sly and the Family Stone, James Taylor, leading drag performers, and recommended the black “Amsterdam News” as possessing possibly the most interesting columnists in New York. Yet for all their wit, Trow’s pieces have only an historical interest today. There are hints of Trow’s later angular style as he explains new styles, the emergent youthful counter-cultural standards and their meaning, but these pieces rarely escape the gravity of the “New Yorker’s” manner. Trow brings rock n’ roll within the authority of “The New Yorker”, he does not want to indulge in New Journalistic pyrotechnics. Trying to fit black styles and rock n’ roll into that format is less productive than being the debutante and polo correspondent for “Rolling Stone”. Livening up the feuilletons of “Talk of the Town” is akin to dispensing ecstasy at a retirement home – there’s not enough movement to get the chemicals flowing.

In all this, there is a larger process at work. Social order and taste are disintegrating. At this point it is barely hinted at. It is more a sense of amusement than anguish. Trow reports on parties where rock artists mingle with old money, and there is some puzzlement as to who defers to which style, and so Trow can write of the usefulness of “protective ironic clothing”. Trow’s old WASP society of elegant Manhattan dissolves into the world of Diana Vreeland and Studio 54. People are often described in terms of their Effective Style, what their taste in shirts, coast, hats and dress reveals. Trow is effectively “The New Yorker”’s black culture correspondent at this time, as he finds that the emergent black culture has a glamour and energy because of black people’s ruthlessness about fashion and what they like. The editor of Vogue, Diana Vreeland, likewise fascinates him, because of her sense of authority, her emphatic manner in judgement and handling people, asserting her taste, and sometimes shocked at other’s ignorance. Trow starts to focus on the style and affective methods used to sell commercial products and the means of communication (McLuhan meets Marx). Usually it is all written in a tone of equilibrium and confidence, yet very, very occasionally, sometimes there is a comically fearful intimation of the senseless of modern society, such as when he tries to parse the nonsense of a US celebrity journal.

The idea of the fragmentation of society was first seriously expressed in his lengthy profile of the music mogul Ahmet Ertegun. All the disparate social scenes and styles of his “Talk of the Town” pieces are brought together here. Trow is entranced by Ertegun, how he functions, and what his success means for contemporary society. “I began to understand that it would be his style (eclectic, reminiscent, amused, fickle, perverse) that would be the distinctive style of the first years of the new decade.” Ertegun presents a restlessness attempting to unite or at least reconcile disparate elements by an internal authority and then exert this taste over others. Ertegun’s allegiance is neither to white nor black culture, but his success has required study of them both. A description such as “Even in his adolescence, Ahmet was made restless by the thought that he had missed it, that authority had drained from the figures he most admired and from the aesthetics he most wanted to master” could almost be autobiographical on Trow’s part. In this essay Trow is concerned to identify the powers and choice involved in this eclectic idiosyncrasy.

As a child, Trow’s father had impressed upon him the need to understand and integrate every element, and that the whole of them together would constitute George W.S. Trow. His newspaperman father had trained him in analysing media meanings, subtexts and processes. Trow admitted that his power of interpretation was his means of survival. “I have made sense of my life by developing an ability to analyse Mainstream American Cultural Artefacts.” The assumption was that this would allow him to ascend to the top of the natural WASP hierarchy. However this training and social induction came at the very time that the WASP idea of civic and cultural order was collapsing. So Trow found himself consumed by conflicting feelings of “entitlement” (that he was part of a social continuity) and “feverishness” (that the social order was all cracking up). Similarly Trow moved between high and low society. There was Trow the ultra-WASP, the fetishist of black life (his boyfriends were often black or working class), the gay man, and the nightclub socialite. These different selves could never cohere together at the same time, as some were in direct opposition to the privileged authority to which he had been taught to aspire. He enjoyed black and gay social scenes that could only exist and flourish with the demise of the repressive mainstream society of the 1950s. Yet it was the cultural authority of Ivy League country club assumptions that gave him the confidence to infiltrate every aspect of New York City life.

The latter part of Trow’s career is marked by his desire to identify the cause of the collapse of organised society and its civic ties and values. The failed world view and cultural authority under which he had grown up he called the “Collapsing Dominant”. Trow truly believed America had been at its apex culturally, spiritually and materially in the immediate post-war period and could describe Eisenhower as the “guy of guys” who inhabited and exercised the power of the zeitgeist. His essay “Within the Context of No Context” opens with this paean: "Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder." The subsequent anger and despair that infuses his essays stems from his perception of America’s terrible fall from dignity. America has lost its sense of adult responsibility and is obsessed only by “pleasure with an edge to it”. “The mode of authority in America, the mode that deals with real experience, the mode that is neither dead (as the adult mode seems to be) nor compromised (as the childish world of television seems to be), is the adolescent mode—the mode of exploration, becoming, growth, and pain.” Trow attributes America’s fall to a deformation and infantilisation of the American mind which he blames on television.

History had provided people a sense of order, and a scheme of references to organise their place and the significance of their actions. People no longer had a sense of history or order, only a tremulous subjectivity which made them vulnerable, anxious and therefore easily manipulated. America had become a nation of unrooted adolescents wanting affection, for whom television was the “third parent”. For the Baby Boomers growing up in the post-war period History had been reduced to a preference for styles. Society had become Sophomoric, hungry for new styles, new experiences, and concerned only with what is popular. TV panders dis-ease and false solutions of fashionable approval, delivering immediate hits of “pseudo-intimacy” where problems and feelings are presented to be solved without context or Authority. Trow foresees a world where Oprah is the supreme cultural icon and arbiter. The need for TV to deliver hits means it can never properly explain, and so “TV is the referee and has won the match”. TV only delivers more TV. "The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it." A report on violence in television is oblivious of its context in history, society, and independent of human values; it is only concerned whether the violence is gratuitous within the context of programme, not the context of its place in history.

TV has reduced America to a nation of lonely individuals. There is the grid of 200 million - the entirety of America - and the grid of 1 watching the TV, but no intermediate civic organisation or structure. People don’t have a history, only shared characteristics and demographics. TV has usurped Authority. His father’s instruction taught him that every newspaper had possessed an Authority of point-of-view for its particular readership. In a good magazine or newspaper a rhythm and trust was established between editors and readers leading to a natural formation of a certain Authority over the history of the relationship (hence Trow’s overweening respect for Mr Shawn). Yet even as his father explained the identity of the different newspapers, there was an implicit undermining of the Dominant WASP p.o.v., since these papers offered alternative views and status consciousness. By the end of the ‘70s the Dominant Mind that is TV is evident since a magazine such as “People” or a newspaper like “USA Today” can only follow TV’s lead.

Others have made similar arguments. Trow stands out because his employment of style and organisation is almost as fragmented as a night spent hyperactively flipping between cable channels with an occasional blizzard of frequency static. Unlike almost any other “New Yorker” pieces, Trow’s cultural critical essays are experimental nonfiction, almost gnomic in expression and eccentric in arrangement of material, whose foci of argument never stop wandering. His essays are bricolage, examining the meaning of magazines and items to hand, to make larger arguments about the history of society. Phrases and images are repeated again and again. An explicatory analogy is reused until it becomes a metaphor of society’s (or Trow’s) madness. Words are capitalised to emphasise their importance. Brief sequences of paragraphs come with their headings like “The Cold Child” or “The Authority of No-Authority”. Elliptical as it often appears, he directs his abstractions like formations in a sheep dog trial. It is easy to envision some of his pronouncements as giant slogans plastered on the wall of an installation piece. Even as he attacks the fragmentation of modern culture, his work is fractured and would not look out of place in a textbook of post-modern literature. There is a brisk rapidfire referentiality which Trow makes explicit in “My Pilgrim’s Progress” when he tells his readers “You’ll have to trust me on that one”.

Trow also turned to fiction and drama, finding new ways to demonstrate that he was an end of history writer, for whom society was no longer whole and unified in any sense. In works such as his play “Tennis Game” and his novel “City in the Mist” Trow found metaphors and settings to reveal society evolving from the 19th century into a contemporary display of frenzied competition. The short stories he wrote for “The New Yorker” (some of which are collected in “Bullies”) are bitter assaults on the characters and society he covered in “The Talk of the Town”. They owe a little something to Barthelme’s own short stories for “The New Yorker”. But like his essays, Trow’s short stories are oblique, telegraphic, aphoristic, postmodern collages of images, icons and significant phrases. There is an overwhelming sense of distress and social anxiety, expressed through characters whose minds have been colonised by media, business and self-help jargon-gabble. Various critics picked up on “the mentally disturbed repetitions that Trow sometimes used for weird characters”, but it is evidently the same style Trow employed in his essays. Possibly a tutelary spirit may be Gertrude Stein. A useful contrast might be Tom Wolfe, possessed of a rat-a-tat style and a conservative interest in all the specifics of contemporary culture.

In 1994, when the new editor of “The New Yorker” Tina Brown brought in Roseanne Barr to oversee an issue about women Trow quit in protest. After that he wrote “My Pilgrim’s Progess” and there was a collection of previous criticism, but otherwise Trow was quiet until his death in 2006. The subsequent years of his life seemed devoted to removing the net of support he had previously established. A man who had made his rapid rise in his 20s because of his social connections, cut off his friends one by one in later years. Friends speak of a loneliness. It’s obvious that his work is concerned with the loss of a shared community. He can write of “the sense of loneliness that is a condition of life” that TV so expertly exploits. Trow and TV both share a view of humans as weak and willing to be deceived. Trow believed that an authoritative culture was the net for almost inevitable failure, and his later years are proof of the consequences of having “to face some near infinite pain about delusion, about lack of protection, and about abandonment”. In the later ‘70s he writes little satires about businesses which sell friends as a commodity or as guaranteed consumers on demand. Trow ultimately rejected the spectacle of modern America. “The message of many things in America is ‘Like this or die’ . . . Suddenly the madness of death begins to seem attractive”. He spent time hospitalised for mental illness, travelled America, living in Alaska for while, occasionally shocking remaining friends with an unexpected sexual frankness, then died while in residence in Naples, Italy.

Trow’s last story for “The New Yorker”, though published as early as 1990 proved prophetic. In “Are We Kids or What?” William Akers Framner, is disturbed by the AIDS-related death of a contemporary, rejects his identity as a “Framner", quits his job, travels as “Billy” while he becomes obsessed with pornographic videos. Trow’s fluid social identity was mirrored by a myriad of alternating names: George Trow, George W.S. Trow, and George Swift Trow, besides being known to friends as “Swift”. Like his prose, there was a dazzling shifting of surfaces about the man, but no proper reconciliation, and so there was always the threat of slipping between those surfaces. If Trow is sometimes so fascinating to read, it is because there is often one view point too many, so that even when writing at his smoothest, there is always some elusive extraneous element of interpretation that catches and pricks because it doesn’t quite belong. That sense of tortuous personal contradiction, excluded from something for which he was purposely trained because of too much knowledge, is epitomised by his conclusion to “Within the Context of No Context:

“Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned - not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me...It turns out that while I am at home in many strange places, I am not free even to visit the territory I was expected to inhabit effortlessly. To wear a fedora, I must first torture it out of shape.”

Trow's profile of Ahmet Ertegun - part 1

Trow's profile of Ahmet Ertegun - part 2

opening sections of "Within the Context of No Context"

excerpt from "my Pilgrim's Progress"

Is Dan Mad? - a savaging of TV news

parody of Princess Diana

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