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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 8 “This is Norman Corwin”: Voice and Vocabulary


Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town – in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837) “A singular gift to the arts,” Elissa S. Guralnick has argued, radio alone “yields appropriate conditions for releasing the music in language: namely, a performing space at once empty and dimensionless, from which words can emanate free of any material associations.” Unlike stage and screen, which “must subvert their true nature,” their “appeal to the eye,” so as to “accom- modate words that make music,” radio “need only be itself.”1 Yet as it is the nature of any medium never to be “itself ” – to be used or neglected by messengers who may be constrained in their use of it – a “singular” gift may well become the plaything of those to whom art is a secondary concern. In American broadcasting in particular, in which the performing space was often rendered concrete in the theaters of the air, language, liberally dis- persed yet far from free, was forced into distinct and decidedly materialistic associations from which even the networks’ most distinguished playwright, Words without Music creator Norman Corwin, seemed at a loss to release it. A CBS contract artist who entered broadcasting with a background in journalism rather than theater, Corwin understood commerce-driven...

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