Well, he deserved better than being barked at. For once, he had something of interest in his inky, pamphlet-sorting hands. The mailman, I mean. Among the bills and flyers I tossed aside, there was that rare specimen of posted correspondences: a personal letter. A missive that did not include the dismissive “sorry” or “unfortunately,” words frequently uttered by the publishers I approach regarding Etherized, my dissertation on American radio drama. Instead, it contained words like “remarkable” and “wonderful”—both, “remarkable” indeed, referring to just that study, of which this webjournal is an unacademic extension. And none now living is more qualified to make such an assessment (or pronounce such flattery) than the greatest of all American radio playwrights: the Old-time Radio Primer inspiring subject of a 2006 Academy Award winning documentary, Norman Corwin.
Researching about so-called old-time radio, I never contacted any of the people whose performances are discussed in my work. As I expressed it to Mr. Corwin, I was “desirous to let the words they had intended for publication and broadcasting—words so rarely heard—speak for themselves at last. It was a listener’s respect” for such words, I declared, “not a critic’s arrogance.” I treat radio plays as art, not artifacts. I approach them as such, rather than as occasions to wax nostalgic or opportunities to get at a factual past, however important it is to keep their historical context in mind.
When I write about listening to radio plays, I avoid phrases like “the author believed” or “the writer was trying to . . .” I am not a biographer; I don’t presume to know what anyone believes. Instead, I pay attention to an artist’s public utterances to discover what they can make me believe, what they convince me of—to express how their works stimulate my emotional or intellectual responses.
Recently, someone perusing this journal disagreed with my reading of a radio play by modernist poet Archibald MacLeish, arguing that I “misunderstood” the author’s “intent.” I appreciate any alternate interpretation of the works I discuss; indeed, I encourage and long for such dialogue, debates I generally have with myself. I just don’t believe that an author is the ultimate authority, that the creator of any work, once that work has been released to the public, can lay claim to any single, definitive interpretation. The brainchild has been given up for adoption, set free to dwell and flourish in the mind of foster parents the existence of which the one giving birth cannot conceive. Writing about literature and art means to adopt a reading, rather than return the presumably lost child to its cradle.
When a parent like Norman Corwin, curious to find out whatever happened to his child and how it fared in the world, finds traces of it in the adoptee’s home, there can occur a get-together of sorts, a reunion by proxy. I am pleased Mr. Corwin recognized his child and did not find me wanting in my care or amiss in my rearing of it. How elated I am to be commended for having produced, in turn, a response to radio that Mr. Corwin argues to be “leagues ahead of anything ever written on the subject in this country” (meaning, the USA). Perhaps, I ought not to have repeated it here; but, as in any such reunion, there is that moment in which pride, like the hot air in a much-damaged balloon, inflates the ego of the one privileged to have given rise to such a joyful occasion.
It is a moment to celebrate the life of a piece of writing, a life continual as long as there are eyes to read, ears to hear, and minds to create it anew. It is the hope I hear in this opening of “Daybreak,” one of Corwin’s many remarkable performances, which was brought to life again in a CBS production broadcast on this day, 10 July, in 1945:
A day grows older only when you stand and watch it coming at you. Otherwise it is continuous. If you could keep a half degree ahead of sunup on the world’s horizons, you’d see new light always breaking on some slope of ocean or some patch of land. A morning can be paced by trailing night. This we shall do, where we begin we shall return to, circling the earth meanwhile.
My mind has been going in circles today; and, for once, it still feels like morning.
One Reply to “A Letter to Make a Day”
Hello Harry, apart from your doctoral thesis , have you (or do you intend to) publish any general books on your favourite themes. They make great reading and I am sure that there is a viable non-academic audience for your work. I studied popular culture as a part of my Open University degree and I have always maintained an interest in it.