- Historic Sites
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
I tend to resist television history, especially when it’s on television. The narrator always says, “The Golden Age of …,” and there’s some grainy footage of a man dressed in women’s clothes tripping over a coffee table amid gusts of scratchy hilarity.
But of course, like almost any other American who was a kid in the 1950s, television history is my history. TV and I grew up together, and I’ve been most agreeably reminded of this by our three articles that chart television’s coming of age: John Leonard’s marvelous ode to Ed Sullivan and his works; Harry Matthei’s tangy veteran’s account of the making of the commercial; and Steven D. Stark’s succinct, perceptive look at what TV learned over one terrible weekend.
Two times during the course of assembling this issue, television history put me in mind of larger historical concerns, one cheering, one less so.
The latter has to do with the near-impossibility of ever getting any true sense of what things were like in the past. How can you hope to retrieve what Stonewall Jackson might have done at Port Republic—or, for that matter, what it was like to prepare a meal on a wood-fired stove—if you can have no accurate memory of something that all but dominated your own youth?
I’m thinking of television commercials here. While we were working on Harry Matthei’s piece, Peter Morance, our art director, Jane Colihan—who is protean, but at the moment was gathering the illustrations—and I watched an afternoon’s worth of ads from the 1950s and 1960s. We three are pretty much of an age, and we’d once watched most of these ads day in, day out, for months and even years. And yet we were amazed.
They’re so long.
I don’t mean just longer than were remembered; it was almost as if we were seeing something from an alien culture. Just when we thought a commercial was finally winding down, new characters would be introduced! We had a reassuring moment of recognition when a Chunky bar appeared in a brisk cartoon: the chocolate ingot was making its way under a drawbridge that of course had to be raised to accommodate such abundance. “There,” said Peter, “that’s a good fifteen-second spot.” But it wasn’t; it was the introduction to a commercial that went on to feature actors discussing the candy at an unbelievable—indeed, almost stupefying—length that Jane, Peter, and I not so very long ago had sopped up equably enough, thinking it perfectly reasonable.
The sunnier historical thought, however, is allied with this one.
One of the saddest seductions of the past is the sense it can give that things are getting worse. It seems to me that any candid study of television’s career belies this. Never mind the commercials: almost all television has gotten better. For instance, despite the increasingly ghastly balefire of self-love that coruscates about the members of the Seinfeld cast, everything that happens on that show is funnier than anything that befell Uncle Miltie. And the now almost venerable Simpsons are, quite simply, wonderful.
Sex and violence. If both are more explicitly present on television than they were a generation ago, people were just as disturbed about it then.
Yet then as now, there were those who weren’t worried that this machine was eroding their culture. In his 1957 book The Astonished Muse , the social critic Reuel Denney sniped at the people (they’re still around) who liked to boast that they “never watch television.” Toward the end of his study, addressing the same issues we’re struggling with today—Does TV murder the printed page? Does it turn our children into criminals? and so forth—Denney speaks of freshets of popular culture that alarmed other eras. “The vaudeville and the movie and sports arena of the twentieth century, seem preferable to the favorite fiction and pastimes, the sentimental and prurient vaporings, of the dominant middle-class culture in the nineteenth century. We might ask whether the miasma of American intellectual life in the nineteenth century, with its softening religion and hardening industrialism, would ever have been cleaned up without the emotional honesty, aesthetic dexterity, and plain clear-headed tolerance that grew up around the metropolitan city-desk, the cartoonist’s drawing board, and the movie lot.”
Denney was by no means certain of the future effects of television, but he was confident they wouldn’t be calamitous, and he suggested they might well aerate and revitalize our culture just as television’s predecessors had done. It is, of course, hard to assess the effects of so great a torrent when we are in the middle of it; but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Denney’s hopes for the new medium. Perhaps, after all, the gray light that began to play through our houses a lifetime ago was the gray light of dawn.