The Ghost Is More Important Than The Machine: Norman Corwin (1910-2011)

Though many still are reeling from the death of Steve Jobs earlier this month, the world might now mourn another visionary who made technology an intimate part of our lives. When Norman Corwin died this past week at the age of 101, we lost a man who reminded us that, whether the gadget of the moment was a crystal radio set or an iPhone 4, the ghost in all these machines—the human spark that gave them life—is far more important than the machines themselves.

For those of us who in the past twenty years have come to spend our waking lives with eyes fixed on glowing screens, it may be difficult to remember that there was an earlier refocusing of our culture’s collective attention that was no less revolutionary. Perhaps the previous century’s most important writer to be largely forgotten because of the medium he chose, Corwin once described radio with a phrase that today could be applied to any of the technologies that make possible our digitally connected world: “the miracle, worn ordinary now.”

When he wrote those words, it had been just nine years since a majority of Americans began to welcome voices from beyond into their homes, less than twenty since the earliest regional “radio-phonic” transmissions, and already it seemed perfectly natural for families to sit for hours in their living rooms, ears titled toward the hearth of a talking wooden box.

Corwin was more responsible than anyone for filling those talking boxes with words that mattered. When the National Association of Broadcasters began a campaign in 1939 to make listeners more “radio conscious,” it fell to the 29-year-old former newspaper reporter to raise awareness of the nature of the devices the nation had invited into its homes. With an odd, dramatic, and unabashedly lyrical piece called “Seems Radio Is Here to Stay,” Corwin took his audience on a guided tour of the airwaves, creating at once a rough primer on how radio works and a spell conjuring the sensation of what a “miracle” it truly was: “This microphone is not an ordinary instrument / For it looks out on vistas wide indeed,” he wrote. “My voice commingles now with northern lights and asteroids and Alexander’s skeleton / With dead volcanoes and with donkey’s ears… / It drifts among whatever spirits pass across the night.”

Corwin was the first radio scribe who wrote with full awareness of what this new medium meant and what it could do. He knew that radio—and all the broadcast media that would follow it—had nothing less than the power to make intimacy of distance, to allow us, somehow, to be together while alone.

“Seems Radio Is Here to Stay” made Corwin famous. Barely out of his twenties, he was given his own network program, Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music, and rose to national prominence at a crucial point in the development of American broadcasting. With the U.S. entry into the Second World War, the network system shifted its focus from entertainment to news, and Corwin was enlisted to take on subjects of global concern. His hour-long drama on the Bill of Rights, “We Hold These Truths,” became an accidental call to arms when it was broadcast eight days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the four years that followed, Corwin produced dozens of programs related to the war effort, many of which had been commissioned by the Office of War Information. His role as an occasional propagandist did not blinker his creativity, however. Playing a part in a communal enterprise seemed only to heighten his individual artistic aspirations, for the larger the assignment (first to strengthen Americans’ wartime resolve, then to explain what they had been fighting for), the larger Corwin’s ambitions became.

In his masterpiece, “On a Note of Triumph,” broadcast on V-E Day, 1945, Corwin put his skills as a deadline poet to work in the creation of secular scripture. Celebrating the Allied victory in Europe, he used the opportunity not for chest-thumping but introspection. He surveyed what had been gained and what had been lost in the war, and in the closing moments of the 58-minute broadcast, entwined the ancient tradition of divine petition with the technologies and politics destined to grant or deny the prayers of the future:

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes…
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend…

The broadcast gave Corwin a larger simultaneous audience than any writer had ever had before. It ran twice on all four networks and was heard by more than 60 million people—at the time nearly half the population. Out of a technology that seemed to some to breed isolation (it was no accident that church attendance had dropped as radio ownership rose), Corwin used his radio pulpit to reach the biggest congregation in history.

It would be going too far to call it a work of piety, including as it does a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger ditty “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” Yet “On a Note of Triumph” was also, in its own idiosyncratic way, deeply religious, making use of the rhythms of liturgy and a self-consciously biblical tone, which was made all the more surprising by the fact that Corwin was hardly a religious man.

A Boston-born Jew of Hungarian and Russian descent, he had spent Friday evenings in his youth not in a synagogue, but reciting poetry with his family. Asked about this seeming disconnect via email last year, he replied instantly (at the age of 100!) with a rush of Corwinian enthusiasm. “My religion is Jeffersonian and based upon personal freedom,” he wrote. “I am opposed to most organized religions, because they all have wicked origins and emphasize cruelty and godlessness and compete with each other, but I think that ethics are terribly important, and search for them in the Bible and elsewhere.”

His primary faith, however, was always in radio—a medium whose message was that humanity could indeed be united, if briefly, by the power of well-chosen words. At a time when the isolating qualities of the devices to which we are tethered can make “social media” seem a contradiction in terms, it is worth remembering the work of man who proved that technology could not only pull a nation together, it could create a community out of thin air.