Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Norman Corwin, 1910-2011

Some sad news. Norman Corwin, a giant from the golden days of radio, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary, and a pretty swell teacher, has died. He was 101.

He was 90 when I was in his class for two semesters at USC. He was so genteel and still pretty sharp -- and he would prop his feet up on the desk and lean back in his chair in ways that seemed to invite danger for a nonagenarian. We should all be in such great shape at 90. In fact, it's surprising Norman went as
early as he did: his dad lived to 110, and his older brother, Emil, died earlier this year at 108. But Norman had this on his brother: He kept teaching until he was 100; Emil retired from the FDA at a measly 96, the oldest employee in the federal government (Bill Clinton feted him at the White House). Clearly these Corwins are a force of nature.

You should do yourself a favor and
read his obituary. He created what is probably the single greatest work in the history of an entire art form (more on that in a bit). His poetry earned praise from Carl Sandburg. Hell, he swung the '44 election for FDR with a single one of his broadcasts!

He was a living legend.

That was half the appeal of being in his class. It was like receiving wisdom from one of the ancients. Even though radio had died long before he did, even though he was perhaps
too supportive of our work when we could have used a tougher editor, even though few of us could fully appreciate the moral of the story in which he had told his good friend Aaron Copland that one of his new symphonies was crap, we recognized that we were learning under one of the greats, and that there had to be some value in that.

Of course, the time warp could keep him from fully understanding our era, too. He used to encourage me to submit pieces I wrote in class for publication (he jokingly said he was going to fine students 25 cents every time they used the word "interesting" in a piece -- he thought it was a limp adjective, and he was right -- and put it towards a postage stamp fund for me), and as his proof that publishing may not be as hard as I thought, he told a story about his first book. In the early '30s, he had a crush on this girl and schemed for a way to be near her more often. So he proposed that they write a book together, a book of quotations. She went for it, they wrote the book, and he decided to try to sell the manuscript. So he took the train in to New York, popped into a phone booth and looked for the nearest publisher to Penn Station. And then he walked down to the publisher's office, manuscript in arm, and sold the book. Easy!

Also, it's one thing to appreciate the reputation of your teacher. It's another to appreciate his work. I never really did that until years later, when I finally heard
On a Note of Triumph, his broadcast from V-E Day in 1945. Whoa, mama. The language is so rich, you'd think it wouldn't play, but it totally does. And on the biggest day of the war, Corwin dares to not only celebrate but also to ask, "Have we learned anything from this war, and is it going to happen again?" Powerful stuff. Such a rewarding listen, it's almost dizzying. (NPR has the whole thing: if you can't commit to the full hour, at least hear the first 3 minutes.)

Here's a sample:

"Lord God of trajectory and blast, whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent, so it withers in the sun for the just to see, sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names of nations writ on it, and assist in the preparation of plowshare."

See what I mean? That's the kind of stuff we won't get again.


Susan said...

I'm sure Mr. Corwin would have appreciated your eulogy. Well-written, humorous, touching, and, um, interesting.
What a remarkable man.

kunka. said...

Even I remember Corwin's influence and I wasn't in his class. I also remember you loving DOING the work for him probably more than any other work you did for anyone (where has that gone?). While we deinitely have our qualms about USC, having the "old guys" stick around wasn't one of them -- I can still remember being in Abe Polonsky's class and having a similar feel as Corwin's. Great piece by you.