The man often called the poet laureate of radio’s golden age died a few weeks ago at 101. His name was Norman Corwin, and he was a consequential figure who also happens to be unknown to most people.
Before television displaced radio, he was a household name. Starting in 1938, and charging his scripts with a kind of New Deal lyricism of his own devising, Corwin sent drama, poetry, fantasy, and comedy into American homes in shows such as “The Undecided Molecule,” “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas,” and a patriotic morale-booster called “We Hold These Truths.” Revered by media professionals, he was associated with the Great and the Good—or at least with institutions presumed to have those qualities: CBS; the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where he taught for decades; and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (he headed two Oscar-nominating committees).
“On a Note of Triumph,” his star-studded 1945 special celebrating the Allies’ defeat of the Third Reich, was heard by over 60 million listeners; Robert Altman once said that, as a boy, he recited the script as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. Other arts-and-entertainment bigwigs who spent their youths in front of the radio thrilling to Corwin include Philip Roth, Ray Bradbury, Charles Kuralt, Norman Lear, and Larry King. “He has a way of listening to the rhythms of tomorrow,” said a Corwin contemporary, and being in tune with the march of history was a high accolade in that time of the Popular Front, the coalition that Communists, socialists, and liberals formed to oppose fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. Norman Corwin epitomized the liberals of the Popular Front, whose curious character comes back to us when we review his life and work.
Not that the obituary writers undertook any such review. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times obits displayed a familiar logic: Because Joseph McCarthy was a demagogue it is impolite to sort through the good, the bad, and the ugly things the left did during the Depression and World War II. The fact is that, by 1941, when the United States and Russia joined to fight the Axis powers, Corwin’s antifascism had spilled over into infatuation with our Soviet ally. And like many liberals he harbored a faith in that country as a force for peace—a faith sharply at odds with his paeans to political and religious freedom, the Bill of Rights, and the American way of life.
Corwin-directed programs such as “Concerning the Red Army” (1944) had a strong Pop Front tilt. He often hired Red writers, musicians, and actors for his shows, like Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Millard Lampell, and Earl Robinson. And he delivered subtle touches of Bolshevism here and there: A radio opera produced for CBS in 1944, “The Lonesome Train,” had Abraham Lincoln talking up the solidarity of workers everywhere. Vincent Van Gogh—according to Lust for Life, the 1956 Kirk Douglas movie for which Corwin wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay—took up painting so that he could depict manual labor’s nobility. (Those sunflowers and nightscapes were apparently an afterthought.) These socialistic soupçons were applied with a light hand. Nor was Corwin, in any case, bound to stay on the Communists’ team forever. His most enduring piece, a Lincoln-Douglas play called The Rivalry (1959), is a history-based character study with no Pop Frontism at all.
The moment of truth for Corwin and Popular Front liberals had come in 1950 when American Reds, following Moscow’s lead, supported Kim Il-Sung’s invasion of South Korea. A horrified Henry Wallace dissociated himself from the Communists—breaking with the Progressives, the Pop Front party created expressly for him—as did other liberals, like Corwin. That he chose the side of liberty in 1950 is to Norman Corwin’s credit. On the debit side was his future tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to the likes of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov. And a certain obnoxious habit (now endemic on the left) stayed with him: He would frequently make out that Americans on the political right were a lot like Hitler. This can best be seen in “On a Note of Triumph,” where Corwin offers, as one of the lessons of the war, that “those most concerned with saving the world from communism usually turn up making it safe for fascism.”
The Red hunters spotted Corwin’s philo-Sovietism, but this did not cost him job opportunities, according to his biographer. By the end of his career he was a bleeding-heart liberal with correspondingly sharp talons. Well into the 1980s he was subjecting conservatives to Popular Front-style abuse, denouncing Ronald Reagan as everything from a moron to a racist to a Nazi.