Reviews by Robert Bly

My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998

By George W. S. Trow
Published by Pantheon, 278 pages, $24.

This book is mostly a witty and lively discussion of the cultural differences between the year 1950 and now. George Trow's year chooses 1950 as the ground year, so to speak, and measures our decline or advances from that year. In a way, that year was Dwight Eisenhower's year.

Trow adores Dwight Eisenhower. He sees Eisenhower as a genius in the disposition of power, both during the conquest of Europe and the administration of the United States.

Once Eisenhower was elected in 1952, Trow says, we had eight years to find out if we were intelligent enough to rule the world. The answer was no. The US won the Second World War not because it was superior to any given European nation, but because it was superior in turning out tanks and planes – in mechanization. But we "had sold part of our soul to mechanization." And since 1950 we have sold more of our soul to market forces. He is horrified by the changes market forces have made in the television that children see.

Don't read Trow's book if you are determined to let your children go on watching television. To solve the violence being summed up by the Littleton murders, we need much more than town meetings on television. It is television itself that is killing the children. Some children remain "warm" despite video games and violent TV; but some children survive physical abuse too. But all are marked.

Parents in the United States have already abandoned their children if they allow the market to decide what the children see. During the last 35 years, "Judgment was being drained out of every powerful situation, and marketing considerations were being pumped in." I like Trow's metaphor because it's mechanical, and it suggests contemporary medical procedures where a doctor may pump in radioactive fluids during a test without mentioning it to you.

George Trow says: "Culturally, life has to do with the education of children." Much of the education of our children takes place, as we know, after or before school. He believes the good form of child education is to bring them out to work in the garden and then take them indoors and read to them from Pilgrim's Progress. Trow, born in 1943, watched Howdy Doody and Captain Video after school. This stuff, he says, "was three levels down from the previous, horrifying, child-educating level" which was Shirley Temple or Batman. So we are talking of a thirteen-level descent even before 1955. How much farther have we fallen now, with the cynicism of The Simpsons and the cynicism of violent movies and video games? We are another 10 levels down. Violent video games now are accepted as a form of child education.

This is a thoughtful book with a maddening style. Trow is always saying things like, "I can read the front page of the New York Times for April 2, 1950 better than you can because members of my family knew all the main players," etc. etc. He's insufferable. However, Trow, who has worked at The New Yorker for years, is a masterful observer of cultural detail, the sort of thing the French are famous for. He notices movies that are prophetic – he is especially good on Hitchcock–and overall he is concerned with details that predict a decline in public discourse, in Presidential dignity, in care for each other, in coherence. Both the agricultural society and the hierarchical society brought a coherence into life; but industrial society, he says, does not cohere. Teach your child to work in the garden, and then read aloud to that child from Pilgrim's Progress. That is the advice of George W. S. Trow.