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Immaterial Culture

Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929–1954


Harry Heuser

Immaterial Culture engages with texts that are now largely unread and dismissed as trivial or dubious: the vast body of plays – thrillers, narrative poetry, comedy sketches, documentaries and adaptations of literature and drama – that aired on American network radio during the medium’s so-called golden age.
For a quarter century, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the introduction of the TV dinner in 1954, radio plays enjoyed an exposure unrivalled by stage, film, television and print media. As well as entertaining audiences numbering in the tens of millions for a single broadcast, these scripted performances – many of which were penned by noted novelists, poets and dramatists – played important and often conflicting roles in advertising, government propaganda and education.
Reading these fugitive and often self-conscious texts in the context in which they were created and presented, the author considers what their neglect might tell us about ourselves, our visual bias and our attitudes toward commercial art and propaganda. The study’s ample scope, its interdisciplinary approach and its insistence on the primacy of the texts under discussion serve to regenerate the discourse about cultural products that challenge the way we classify art and marginalise the unclassifiable.


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Chapter 3 “Yeah, hit’s jist like a library”: Broadcasting and Print


[B]efore long some Edison would make the true automaton; the prob- lem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption. — George gissing, New Grub Street (1891) In 1921, Russian avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov predicted that the wireless would one day be as essential to every village as schools and librar- ies were then, that “lessons and textbooks [would] f ly across the sky” and unite people under the “spiritual sun” of radio.1 As the convenience and inf luence of this message-radiating force was making itself felt in 1930s American culture, the application and implications of an open virtual library, its catalogue of transmittable texts and its curatorship in the hands of commerce-invested licensees, came under close scrutiny. Each year, aca- demics pondered such concerns at the Institute of Education by Radio, first held at Ohio State University in 1930. While few doubted the power of the medium to convoke individuals as masses, many educators questioned the wisdom of such leveling. Both the democratization and dogmatization by aural means seemed to count on rather than counter illiteracy. At the very least, the indiscriminate airdropping of authoritative or academically sound texts amid Cole Porter tunes and importuning colporteurs involved 1 Khlebnikov, “The Radio of the Future,” 1921, Radiotext(e), Semiotext(e) 6.1 (1993): 32–5. 54 Chapter 3 what one critic called “serious disabilities.” However “stimulating” to the “inert...

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