Norman Corwin has died. He passed away on October 18 at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 101. Although a bit frail in his final years, Norman never lost his love of life and language, his sense of humor and wit, nor his compassion for his fellow human beings. He was traveling to do talks and book signings at 100.
Norman lived a life of superlatives. Acknowledged as the country’s foremost radio dramatist, he was also a producer, a playwright, a poet, a screenwriter, and a professor at USC. During World War II, he inspired millions of Americans with his radio broadcasts. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, more than 60 million Americans tuned in to hear We Hold These Truths. His masterpiece, On a Note of Triumph, was broadcast coast to coast on May 8, 1945, the day Germany surrendered.
From 1973–1980, he wrote a monthly column for Westways, “Corwin on Media.” In the late 1990s and in the early years of this decade, he returned to the magazine’s pages with stories about Hearst Castle and The Huntington Library, among other topics.
It was my great privilege to call Norman a friend. For me, a single anecdote captures the essence of his humanity. We were walking on a sidewalk in West Los Angeles on our way to lunch when an old woman approached us and asked for money. I hesitated, but Norman reached in his pocket and handed her a couple of dollars. As we continued walking, he said, “I’ve read that maybe 40 percent of them aren’t genuine. But why take the chance?”
Below is an interview Westways did with Norman Corwin in 2009 as part of the magazine’s centennial celebration, followed by excerpts from “Corwin on Media.” For more on his amazing life and work, visit Norman Corwin’s website.
Man of Letters
An interview with Norman Corwin from the March/April 2009 issue of Westways
Norman Corwin has been called America's poet laureate of the golden age of radio. During the 1930s and '40s, he wrote, directed, and produced some of the most eloquent, powerful radio programs ever broadcast.
Since then, Corwin has written numerous books, essays, poems, and screenplays and has taught journalism at USC. In October 2008, his play The Rivalry, about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, was broadcast on National Public Radio.
From 1973 to 1980, Corwin wrote a monthly column for Westways, "Corwin on Media." We talked with him recently about his experiences writing for Westways and his views on the media and the state of the world today.
How did you start writing for Westways?
Corwin: I knew Frances Ring, who worked as an associate editor for the magazine and later became its editor in chief. She recommended me. They asked me what I wanted to write about. I said the media, because that's everything: the press, theater, television, movies, popular culture.
I enjoyed writing for Westways because I had free reign. I could write about anything I chose to, and I never ran out of material.
What are you working on these days?
Corwin: I'm a writer-in-residence at USC. I write articles, interviews, and reminiscences that appear in any of a half-dozen USC publications. I've been given wonderful freedom by the university. Currently, I'm interested in interviewing the publisher at the art-publishing firm Taschen, which has put together a wonderful new book on van Gogh. It shows a completely different van Gogh-sane, with dozens of self-portraits.
What are your views on the media today?
Corwin: I think the media are flourishing. We have such a high quality of articles in The Atlantic, in Harper's, in The New Yorker. American audiences—literary, book-reading audiences—are intelligent. They support good writing and good writers. Throughout our history, we've produced great talents. We can go through wars and periods where we elect nincompoops to the highest office and still have strong theater.
Television is a numbing medium—that's hardly a new observation. But television's influence is more widespread today. I'm told that one of the most popular types of programs is wrestling—that's enough to give you the willies.
There was no phrase in radio that was the equivalent of "boob tube" or "couch potato." Listening to radio is a one-on-one experience, as is reading a book. When you read a good book, you're collaborating with the writer. He's drawing something from you. You're populating and fleshing out his characters.
You don't have that in television. The eye is a literalist. The ear is the poet of the senses. It's through the ear that we perceive music, the most abstract of the arts. And the ear has made emperors of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.
Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about our country's future? Corwin: Look, we humans are complicated animals. It's a constant struggle. We know what is better. This society of ours, since Jefferson, has known. This is the first government predicated on the principle of freedom.
The media can make a difference. In the days of the Grecian wars, Demosthenes wrote the Philippics, attacks against the power structure. He was alone. Today in our country, there are many voices more powerful than Demosthenes speaking out against the ills of society. And they do so without being shut up or hauled off to prison, as the Russians would do.
I'm also encouraged by today's young people. The students I've known want to live in a better world. They really mean it—they're not a disaffected minority. Each of us feels that we want to leave the world a better place than when we came into it, that we are contributing something positive every day.
Sometimes a lack of progress can be discouraging—that's to be accepted, as more colds and coughs are to be accepted as you get older. But good things are happening all the time that aren't credited as good things: acts of kindness and civility, goodwill, and optimism. Think of the opposite: dissolution and decay.
So many of our citizens are educated and want to learn, are energetic and ambitious, are engaged in doing good works. That's where we should put our focus. —JL
In His Words
Corwin once wrote a column consisting of 22 limericks, a specialty of his. They were about various crimes, followed by "the disposition of each case by the court which tried it."
Here are two from "Corwin on Media," July 1973:
A sleepy young chap from Salt Lake
Had great trouble staying awake
Until he shared space
In a very small place
With a fidgety poisonous snake.
Thirty days for disturbing the peace of a reptile.
There was a rich man of Northridge
Who owned both the third and fourth ridge
Of an Andean range
And what is more strange
A fifth of the Firth of Forth Bridge.
Ordered to divest bridge stock because of conflict of interests.
From "Tube Spray, '74-75," "Corwin on Media," September 1974:
The autumnal equinox is at hand; TV's summer replacement shows are gone, like the Popsicles of yesteryear, and we may now look forward to a brave new season. What riches will come to us in the electronic spray across those millions of acres of tube-faces in our living rooms and bedrooms?
You may, with the greatest confidence, look for football all over the dial, spreading from summertime all the way to New Year's Day, running overtime into other programs, being replayed on tape for those who may have missed it the first time around, and affording us clustered hours of numbing dullness for every game that has genuine tension and excitement.
Football is a great sport, and I have no quarrel with those who play it and enjoy watching it. I speak only of proportion. Enough is enough, and that goes for cops and killing and private eyes and knives and guns as well as punts and runbacks.
Kickoff at 2 P.M.
READ NORMAN CORWIN'S "MESSAGE FOR THE MILLENNIUM"
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