GREG BOTTOMS

ON GEORGE W.S. TROW’S THE HARVARD BLACK ROCK FOREST AND HIS FORMALLY UNIQUE CULTURAL CRITICISM

A TAPE-RECORDED MONOLOGUE,
WITH ANNOTATIONS

DISCUSSED: WASP Civilization, Spalding Gray Channeling Adorno, National Lampoon, Frederic Jameson vs. Gap Jeans, Neo-New Criticism, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Hardy, Donald Barthelme, The Hudson Highlands, Susan Sontag, James Wolcott, Literary Postmodernism, Gifford Pinchot, Silviculture

Texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly… The same implications are undoubtedly true of critics in their capacities as readers and writers in the world.

—Edward Said

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

—Samuel Beckett

First, some background: George W. S. Trow was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, on Sept. 28, 1943, into a printing and “demographic” family.[1] He was an Exeter-Harvard kid, privileged and connected. His father, George Swift Trow, was a powerful newspaperman, a higher-up at the New York Post, a creator of culture and a preserver of “the traditions of the upper-middle class,” a man with his hand in the making of “WASP civilization.” The younger Trow writes extensively about his father in his sometimes brilliant, idiosyncratic, and occasionally maddening 1998 work of cultural criticism, My Pilgrim’s Progress, which reads like Spalding Gray channeling Adorno—a personal/critical monologue about media life from 1950 to 1998, large portions of which were spoken into a recorder and then transcribed and edited, a technique I’ve borrowed here. That book proceeds, formally, like an experimental novel as much as anything else—slangy, lapidary, syntactically playful, full of ideas but in no hurry to arrive anywhere at all.[2] In its message, though, My Pilgrim’s Progress is an old-fashioned liberal arts lament, à la the old-school, pre-post-structuralist art/cultural criticism of Christopher Lasch, Paul Goodman, or Clement Greenberg, for a time with a context beyond the babble and self-referentiality of media life, one less illiterate, narcissistic, and incapable of seriousness. Trow, since his days as one of the founding editors of the late, great National Lampoon,[3] where he worked from 1970 to ’74, and through his long stint as a staff writer at the New Yorker, which ended in 1994, after disagreements with Tina Brown[4] about the editorial direction of the magazine, has always used what I’ll call an experimental/formalist tinkering and affect in his (new) journalism, criticism, fiction, and playwriting[5] to critique the cultural condition of postmodernity, by which I mean—and forgive the gross oversimplification—the breakdown of all organizing narratives, i.e. history, politics, religion, art, etc., and this free-floating, vapid, anything-is-as-good-as-the-next-thing-as-long-as-it-makes-money-and-fills-a-need, consumerist place where we now find ourselves.[6] He’s a cranky conservative in a way, a modernist at heart, some kind of neo-New Critic trafficking in the language and outré fragmented and self-conscious structures of “literary postmodernism,” especially its accent on how narrative and meaning are constructed, in an effort to take grand swings at the mores and effects of postmodern culture, as if it were a smiley-face piñata. And I’ll just add that the main subject of this recording, Trow’s criticism—something I’m going to call Formally Unique Cultural Criticism, or FUCC—is, has been for twenty-five years, groundbreaking. Not so much intellectually groundbreaking, but stylistically and formally groundbreaking, a serious critical impulse taken out of a purely academic arena and personalized and popularized, albeit, I assume, mostly for aesthetes and literary folk—not a huge American demographic,[7] to be sure. Trow thinks about the container in which to hold a cultural critique, about criticism as a literary art form, and about being an artist-critic.

  1. Trow discusses this at length in his essay “Collapsing Dominant,” the long introduction to the 1997 reprint of Within the Context of No Context, his fragmentary, aphoristic work of criticism about the social and psychological effects of television. By “demographic” he means his was a family involved in the production of cultural information and entertainment, the making of meaning, and in knowing what people think and want and why they think what they think and want what they want. Demography is more complicated than that, obviously, but for my purposes, and Trow’s purposes, we can leave it there and move on. As Trow says often in My Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ll have to trust me on this one.
  2. Here is an example of what I’m talking about [p. 101]: “In looking at the Mainstream American Cultural Artifact I’m about to introduce—and I haven’t picked it up yet, and I haven’t looked at it for ten years, and I don’t remember what I saw when I looked at it ten years ago, but my very strong guess is that as we go through this artifact, we will find nothing of what we’ve been talking about in discussing the New York Times of February 1950…” This sentence continues, in all its dash and dependent-clause glory, for twelve more lines to include mention of the actress Faye Emerson, “our first personality known for being a personality,” Kafka, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
  3. At National Lampoon Trow was contributing editor, then senior editor, then executive editor, before leaving in 1974. Some of his colleagues there included writer/actor/comedian Tony Hendra (who played manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap and recently published the memoir Father Joe), journalist P. J. O’Rourke, and writer/comedian Michael O’Donoghue, who later became the head writer for Saturday Night Live.
  4. About Trow’s rancorous quitting, Tina Brown said something to the effect that it would be a terrible loss to the magazine—if he ever wrote anything.
  5. In the late ’70s Trow wrote three well-received, satirical plays, Prairie Avenue, The Tennis Game, and Elizabeth Dead. I haven’t seen or read any of them. What? I’m busy.
  6. Frederic Jameson’s title Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism says it all. I haven’t read this book, actually, because each sentence, in the first twenty-five or so pages, was as dense and messy as a medieval disembowelment. I threw the book on the floor and shopped for a new pair of Gap jeans online.
  7. If you want to aim at a large demographic for your book, here are a few suggestions: People sad about their weight; wives of young service men now in harms way; children under ten taking anti depressants and spending at least four hours a day watching television or playing video games; recent plastic surgery success stories; people who would describe their personal problems as “really big”; Top-40 country music listeners who think America “kicks ass.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greg Bottoms lives in Burlington, Vermont, and is the author of Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness (University of Chicago Press). His essays on writers and artists have appeared in Bookforum, the Oxford American, Salon, and Utne Reader. He is writing a book about Christian Fundamentalist outsider artists.

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