Within the Context of WASP Context
Assessing the legacy of George W. S. Trow.
Every generation or so, a disappointed preppy marvels at the demise of the Protestant ascendancy he took for granted in his childhood, and out of an embarrassed mix of pride and self-reproach, writes a masterpiece. A line can be drawn, in attenuated blue blood, from Henry Adams to Robert Lowell, then extended out to include George W. S. Trow, the New Yorker writer who died last week at the age of 63. Trow made his name in the irreverence industry, as part of the set that founded National Lampoon, but his claim on posterity lies elsewhere. He was an Eastern establishment elitist confounded by the near-death of Eastern establishment elitism; and growing up in the early '60s, he found himself stuck between a stable old world of privilege and a new world so chaotic in its power allegiances that no one confidently knew, well, anything about anything. Trow's ambition as a serious writer was to display his, as he once called it, "informed confusion" over this condition, through a pastiche of autobiography and gonzo postmodern epiphany. In 1980, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to the summa of that confusion, Trow's "Within the Context of No Context," an essay ostensibly about the corrosive influence of television, but really about the odd, draughty attic that was George Trow's own head.
"Children are the beneficiaries—and also the victims—of the theater of various moments," Trow wrote in an introduction to the 1997 edition of "Within the Context of No Context," and rereading the essay, one sees that Trow is something of a life-landmark fetishist. That is, he is constantly resurveying the territory of his past, in search of evidence that his own personal quirks are more than just personal quirks. For Trow, this meant linking his own propensity to elegize to a momentous and historical decline in American manners. Where his father wore a fedora as a matter of course, Trow himself can only wear one in quotation marks, as it were. "Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned—not out of any wish of mine," he confesses, "but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me." Ah, but a fedora, mind you, is not merely a fedora. It's an emblem for a lost seriousness of purpose, and of the demise of an elite that had largely controlled the American mainstream since, as Trow suggests at one point, George Washington. They golfed and tennised, sure, but they were not effete, not in the least; they participated in the "commercial reality of the 1950s, and the 1960s up to 1966, let's say."
For all their murmuring confidence, however, their authority over the American mainstream could never remain unchallenged. Operating alongside the cotillions and Henry Luce's Time were the petty hustlers, the little showbiz grifters, the gossip merchants; and what they existed for wasn't the mainstream, established and maintained according to the normative modes of adult behavior, but a limelight, there for the grasping. For Trow, the hustle was a vicious thing. Its seeds lay in the '20s; they effloresced in the '50s; and as Trow observed in the late '90s, had by the end of the century finally come into unchallenged cultural dominance. Sweet Smell of Success, the classic 1957 film about the soft-core fascism of the gossip industry, "chronicles exactly the unattractive dominance system of the 1950s," Trow wrote. The film was meant to be appalling, but in the 40 years since its release, something had happened: "Men and women under thirty-five, I happen to know, watch this film with wonder and awe: how can I get a piece of that, they ask themselves, and one another." In Trow's view, the hustler's ascendancy represented a sustained assault on normal, self-respecting adulthood. Conversely, any tradition of any strength, as a bearer of cultural memory, stood as a threat to the hustler's regency. The best friend of the hustler-elitist, then, was television. "The work of television," Trow famously wrote, "is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it."
As a vivid example of the operations of no context, Trow selected the cover of People magazine. The cover of an old issue of Life, Trow reminded his readers, featured austerely minimalist headlines and a black-and-white photograph, and the photo on the cover was framed. The frame was important to Trow. It suggested that the editors of Life constituted an authority, and they decided what deserved to appear on the cover of their magazine. By contrast, the cover of People—then a new magazine, spun off from Time—had no frame. This was a subtle but crucial shift in unannounced priorities, Trow felt. The cover of People "is a foreground that suddenly appears—like a shout, or like a teasing whisper building to a shout—and then vanishes. Its attempt is to create a foreground so powerful by being intimately connected to what one already loves that one picks up the magazine to find the secret of one's own affections." Trow doesn't say this outright, but the implication is clear: The cover of Life magazine, in its formality, implied a transaction between equals. Our editors are adults; our readers are adults. By effacing all pretense to authority, the cover of People implies something else altogether: The art of the come-on, disguised as a transaction between equals, and heavily implying—Our editors are cunning; our readers are infantile.
In the 26 years since The New Yorker published "Within the Context of No Context," you could say we've acclimated to the changes Trow thought would erode away the American character altogether. Next to its competitors, People is the very paragon of editorial probity; and speaking more generally, infantilism has matured, if such a thing is possible, into inside dopesterism, and on a massive scale. The media industry is now most deft (Entourage, Studio 60, and on and on and on) at chronicling itself, and so we no longer even know to long for organic community, as Trow might say; we just want to get a piece of that! (Light me, Sydney!) The hustler-elite, meanwhile, converted the old WASP hegemony into a pair of useful minstrels: the preppy and the yuppie. The preppy is the old country club nonstriver who never got the memo and so recluses stupidly within a set of dead social conventions. For her part, the yuppie is all too happy to play by the new rules. After mastering semiotics at Brown, she puts to use her new knowledge by creating content … well, by, for, and about the exciting world of content!
Was Trow a prophet, or that spoiled child who wishes that the prerogatives of his upper-middle-class upbringing were more universal? My allegiances are here beginning to show, so I might as well announce them, and with an anecdote of my own. A few years ago, around the last gasp of the "how can I get a piece of that" '90s, I was sent a book to review that was so surpassing in its degrading badness that I reached for Trow's essay, the better to bludgeon it into oblivion. The book under review, and more frankly its author, appeared to me to represent the triumph of everything Trow-the-prophet had foretold, and at just the moment we were being sold, en masse and by the forces of no-memory, the idea that George Bush's tax cuts were compassionate, and that his war in Iraq would send liberal democracy rippling throughout the Middle East. (Ah, the sweet smell of success!) My resulting hatchet job, ironically, to say the least, put my name on Page Six. When I called my father, who was no doubt sitting in a leather armchair on Park Avenue, to tell him, he paused, then said, "The Post. That's the evening paper, isn't it?" As Trow, the life surveyor and lover of synecdoche, would have said, this moment pretty much encapsulates my life.
Put simply, I guess I am a vulgar Trovian. I believe the mass media place under attack our capacity for self-reliance by emptying out our capacity to experience our childhood as our own; that is, a childhood that provides us with memories and associations that take total precedence over the fabricated nostalgia of movies and television. But a vulgar Trovian only up to a point. That my father represents a lost world, in which the Post is not manipulative right-wing trash, but still "the evening paper," is important to me only because my father is my father. The lost WASP hegemony he represents may have once included a certain elegance and disinterest in its stewardship of the American mainstream, but it was built on one thing, and one thing only: the power of exclusion. The failure of Trow's essay is its failure to note the following: The old boys club had to be blown up. It had to be. And if it had to be, then the resulting world, a world of more equalized life chances and stiffer competition, would of course result in less continuity, more yuppie striving, and a more vulgarized pop culture. Like many jeremiads, "Within the Context of No Context" is a cost-benefit analysis in which the benefits have conveniently been left out. Trow finally failed to make the tougher case: that the right to a childhood of one's own, and thus to a moral and aesthetic compass with which to reject the hustler's come-on, fully transcends the circumstances of one's birth.
Nonetheless, if it occasionally takes a spoiled child of the upper middle classes, masking himself as a prophet, to remind us of what we are in danger of losing, well then, so be it. George W.S. Trow, rest in peace. You shored your fragments beautifully against your ruin, and you remain, for what it's worth, my principal literary hero.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of George W. S. Trow on Slate's home page by Lynn Davis/Pantheon Books.