You should be clear about this: You don’t read George Trow so much as you listen to him. In his newest opus, My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998, the former staff writer for the New Yorker so much as admits that all he’s doing is talking into a tape recorder. He talks (and talks and talks), then he transcribes, and what results—for you, the patient reader, who is recommended to sip a beer while listening—are often long, meandering, sometimes absurd, other times brilliant observations.

Case in point: “The other day I had a thought, and then after I had the thought, I thought, Well, this can’t possibly be true, and then I thought about it some more, and it was. True, that is. And my thought was, Well, the president of the United States and the secretary of state, Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright, don’t have any idea of the power base of Dwight Eisenhower—what it was, socially. Well, you might say, what does that matter? My answer to that comes in two parts …”

Actually, his answer to that comes in an entire volume, and if it reads like the longest conversation over a beer you’ve ever had, then it’s also one of the most energetic, insightful, and downright thrilling.

Trow wants to tell the story of how mainstream American culture got to where it is today from where it was in 1950. It’s important to remember that things weren’t just different in 1950; things were so different that we might as well have been living in a different country, hell, a different planet for that matter. Imagine it. We had just won World War II and hadn’t even heard of Vietnam. Other things we hadn’t heard of were web browsers, cable, women’s lib, Microsoft, Rosa Parks. Lots of people didn’t even own a TV. Imagine it! Figuring out how we got to this place we are now—and don’t be fooled, it really is a depressing, Ritalin-infected place—says a whole lot about who we are.

Which is why, Trow says, we need to remember Dwight Eisenhower. With unconcealed admiration, our author declares the former president to have been “the guy of guys” and “uniquely American.” He throws around phrases (always in non-threatening italics) like “civilized masculine dominance energy.” Be assured, though, it’s not (quite) as sexist as it seems. Rather, Trow is simply pointing out that in 1950, Eisenhower and the United States together stood in positions of unparalleled dominance—albeit positions that were uneasy and pregnant with misfortune. And in the president Americans had a point of reference that, as such, simply doesn’t exist any more. Eisenhower embodied a tradition (of culture, politics, war, peace, manhood, etc.) that, for all its problems, at least existed outside and independent of our television sets.

“We need to understand, for instance, that Dwight David Eisenhower (growing up also in the age of the telephone and the McCormick reaper) had his mind formed within the atmosphere that gave rise, also, to the oratory of William Jennings Bryan,” Trow asserts. “Bryan was Gilligan’s Island for Ike … Nowadays, children have their minds formed with the atmosphere of the Candice Bergen Sprint advertisements. Really, it’s as simple as that.”

In fact, there’s nothing all that simple about any of Trow’s arguments, as much as he tries to pretend otherwise. His points are highly nuanced, full of prophetic flourishes, and usually pessimistic. He bears them out through endless examples, what he calls “Mainstream Cultural Artifacts,” usually movies. A deft reading of the Marilyn Monroe flick The Seven Year Itch gives us a wonderful patchwork of observations concerning family, fatherhood, and sex and television. A chapter titled “Hitch and Elvis” takes us through four Alfred Hitchcock classics as a means of understanding the complications of good, evil, and manhood.

No one ever accused Trow of being unambitious. What he’s attempting to do, as he did in his 1980 essay “Within the Context of No Context” (recently republished with a long introduction), is show us the closed, image-driven, televised loop that has trapped our culture at the end of the millennium. We have become so self-referential, he argues, as to actually negate ourselves (or, put another way, to place ourselves within the context of no context). And if sometimes it’s easy to get lost, even frustrated along the curves of his restless mind, then even a few of his insights are more than worth the ride.

According to Trow, the hydrogen-bomb reality faced by post–WWII America was too terrible to face and into that silence walked TV. On a given day in 1950, the New York Times printed a history of the war by Winston Churchill and television listings, featuring a talk show starring a woman named Faye Emerson. Emerson, a precursor to Oprah and the antithesis of Churchill, became a celebrity (and this is almost taken for granted nowadays) just by virtue of being on TV. Trow draws a typically dark and yet compelling conclusion: “My overview of the civilization as presented in the New York Times of February 1, 1950, is that in World War II, the Germans lost, and Faye Emerson won.”

My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998 by George W. S. Trow (Pantheon, 288 pages)
Icon (Iowa City), May 1999