On George W.S. Trow’s The Harvard Black Rock Forest and His Formally Unique Cultural Criticism

WASP Civilization, Spalding Gray Channeling Adorno, National Lampoon, Frederic Jameson vs. Gap Jeans, Neo-New Criticism, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Hardy, Donald Barthelme, The Hudson Highlands, Susan Sontag, James Wolcott, Literary Postmodernism, Gifford Pinchot, Silviculture

On George W.S. Trow’s The Harvard Black Rock Forest and His Formally Unique Cultural Criticism

Greg Bottoms
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Texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly… The same implications are undoubtedly true of critics in their capacities as readers and writers in the world.                                        

—Edward Said

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

—Samuel Beckett

First, some background: George W. S. Trow was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, on Sept. 28, 1943, into a printing and “demo­graphic” family.1 He was an Exeter-Harvard kid, privileged and connected. His father, George Swift Trow, was a powerful newspaperman, a higher-up at the New York Post, a creator of culture and a preserver of “the traditions of the upper-middle class,” a man with his hand in the making of “WASP civilization.” The younger Trow writes extensively about his father in his sometimes brilliant, idiosyncratic, and occasionally maddening 1998 work of cultural criticism, My Pilgrim’s Progress, which reads like Spalding Gray channeling Ador­no—a personal/critical mo­nologue about media life from 1950 to 1998, large portions of which were spoken into a recorder and then transcribed and edited, a technique I’ve borrowed here. That book proceeds, formally, like an experimental novel as much as anything else—slangy, lapidary, syntactically playful, full of ideas but in no hurry to arrive anywhere at all.2 In its message, though, My Pilgrim’s Progress is an old-fashioned liberal arts lament, à la the old-school, pre-post-structuralist art/�cultural criticism of Christopher Lasch, Paul Goodman, or Clement Greenberg, for a time with a context beyond the babble and ­self-referentiality of media life, one less illiterate, narcissistic, and incapable of seriousness. Trow, since his days as one of the founding editors of the late, great National Lampoon,3 where he worked from 1970 to ’74, and through his long stint as a staff writer at the New Yorker, which ended in 1994, after disagreements with Tina Brown4 about the ­editorial direction of the magazine, has always used what I’ll call an experimental/formalist tinkering and affect in his (new) journalism, criticism, fiction, and playwriting5 to critique the cultural condition of postmodernity, by which I mean—and forgive the gross oversimplification—the breakdown of all organizing narratives, i.e. history, politics, religion, art, etc., and this free-floating, vapid, anything-is-as-good-as-the-next-thing-as-long-as-it-makes-money-and-fills-a-need, consum­erist place where we now find ourselves.6 He’s a cranky conservative in a way, a modernist at heart, some kind of neo-New ­Critic trafficking in the language and outré fragmented and ­self-conscious structures of “literary postmodernism,” especially its ac­cent on how narrative and meaning are constructed, in an effort to take grand swings at the mores and ef­fects of postmodern culture, as if it were a smiley-face piñata. And I’ll just add that the main subject of this recording, Trow’s criticism—something I’m going to call Formally Unique Cultural Criticism, or FUCC—is, has been for ­twenty-five years, groundbreaking. Not so much intellectually groundbreaking, but stylistically and formally groundbreaking, a serious critical impulse taken out of a purely academic arena and personalized and popularized, albeit, I as­sume, mostly for aesthetes and literary folk—not a huge American demographic,7 to be sure. Trow thinks about the container in which to hold a cultural critique, about criticism as a literary art form, and about being an artist-critic. So, I have in front of me on the desk Trow’s most recent book of ­cultural criticism, The Harvard Black Rock Forest, which is swollen with all the dog-eared pages and little yellow Post-its sticking out of it. The entire essay was originally published in the June 11, 1984, edition of the New Yorker. Sightline Books, a ­literary nonfiction im­print at the University of Iowa Press, recently issued the book as a paperback or­iginal. Looking at this new book stacked on top of Trow’s other books, I want to mention Gertrude Stein. I’m thinking about Trow’s language and style, the way his words get placed on the page,8 and I feel compelled to mention her. This would be the point, if I were writing this in my usual way—which is to write a few sentences and then look at the language on the page and cut and rewrite and then maybe go get coffee while talking to myself about an issue or problem and come back and look at those same sentences and then think about their relation to all the other sentences and then about their re­lation to thoughts I have about where this is going, in other words, to sentences not yet written—where I would be worrying about a transition, about how to smoothly introduce the aesthetic of Gertrude Stein, and how to do it and sound knowledgeable but not pretentious. I’m relieved to not have to do that. I’m saving time this way. Anyway, I’m thinking of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the abstract feel of that book, and particularly that good old Midwestern/Western flatness of voice, the plainspoken lack of floridity or lyricism or any kind of ornamentation, the deadpan American idiom—or is vernacular the right word?—in which it’s written, which, of course, is a highly stylized and self-conscious way of writing, when you get right down to it, but one that seeks to have the effect of straightforwardness and simplicity, à la minimalism in its many guises. Gertrude Stein seems a direct in­fluence on Trow’s prose style. Trow himself has mentioned being influenced by some mid-twentieth-century bohemian fa­vorites like Ginsburg and Kerouac and Na­thaniel West, as well as the ­nineteenth-century genius Thomas Hardy—which I can see in the big naturalistic themes of how celebrity and demography govern us, but not at all in form/style/execution: And I would have to add that he is definitely in­fluenced by—more influence by—Stein. He also (while I’m on this topic) reminds me of ­Donald Barthelme, another child of Stein, who was publishing stories in the New Yorker at the same time Trow was publishing stories there, the latter of which were collected in 1980 in Bullies, a book in which language and writing itself, as with Stein, as with Barthelme, is maybe the real subject. Since I’m just talking this through—“rock ’n’ rol­ling” with it, as Trow calls it in My Pilgrim’s Progress—I’m going to digress from what is already a digression (I haven’t forgotten The Harvard Black Rock Forest, and yeah, I did notice how long it took me to introduce the book) and pick up Bullies and read the opening of the story “Moon Over Alani Beach,” my favorite, to show you what I mean. Here goes: “It was unexpected, the way the moon appeared suddenly, after so long an absence, as though there had never been any clouds at all, as though the dust from the peeling hotels had not mingled with the gas steaming up through the land, had not risen to the low evening sky and hung there for months and months and months, producing a morose mood and physical danger and a distorted sense of time that was a feeling of per­petual twilight.” Good stuff here, I think—I admire it in all its near-rococo flourish—but the ­fiction of Barthelme, similar, is better than Trow’s stories and his one novel, The City in the Mist.9 Thing is, the stories and novel read like fictions written by a great cultural critic, which is what they are, read like criticism-as-fiction, texts existing purely for the import of their established critical subtext, a little “willed” onto the page, as the essayist/critic Sven Birkerts re­cently said to me in another context and about another writer en­tirely, but “willed” is his word, a perfect description of what I’m after, and I want to credit him for that. Another way of saying it would be “theorized”—art rising out of criticism, as opposed to criticism trailing behind and explicating the art, if you get me—which I’m not automatically against, because three of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, and Don DeLillo’s Players, are all, to some extent, “theorized.” Right. That’s probably a whole other essay. Moving on. So I’m reading Trow’s new book, The Harvard Black Rock Forest, for the third time because, though it’s only 109 pages (41 pages in the New Yorker in 1984)—and it’s also very physically small as I hold it here in my hand, maybe four by six or seven inches and, oh, I don’t know, a quarter of an inch thick—it’s a dense book in which Trow—using narrative, spec­ulation, complex exposition of economic, political, and environmental concepts, historical letters from Roosevelt and others, and just about everything else you can think of short of coming to your house and doing a PowerPoint presentation—essentially deconstructs the history of the forest and how the 3,800 acres in the Hudson Highlands of New York were donated to Harvard by benefactor Dr. Ernest J. Stillman in 1949 and came to be, under the guidance of the first official U.S. forester, Gifford Pinchot, the main protagonist of this book (main protagonist other than Trow and his language and formal conceits, I mean), one of the early silvicultural (or scientific, or demonstration) forests set aside for the study of sustainable forestry, and then how Harvard, which is to say the powers that be at Harvard, decided it was not “profitable” and wanted to get rid of it but still keep the money they had made from it. On page—hold on, where is that?—14, Trow writes: “It will be the purpose of this essay to consider aspects of an inheritance; I will try to determine what it was that came to Harvard with the Black Rock Forest.” When he says “inheritance,” he means the big, abstract stuff, the symbolic stuff, as well as the concrete, tangible stuff; he means history, environmental education, pro­gress, a sense of obligation to the land we inhabit, as well as trees and dirt.10 I’m going to find a passage here and read it in full, if you don’t mind, because I love the controlled anger in it, the indignation about the basic stupidity of a bottom-line mentality at the expense of all else, which is how America has worked forever—I’m not saying anything you don’t already know—but is now how America works—except in a few small pockets of resistance—exclusively. OK—wait a sec—here it is:

Of Harvard and its relationship to the Black Rock Forest, to the Stillman family of benefactors, to the science of silviculture (within a demonstration forest), it should be said that, in response to the new, tough reality in American life, Harvard University has been looking closely, ruthlessly at its assets. Where an asset does not perform, it is suspect. Recently, Harvard University decided that the Black Rock Forest, the tract of thirty-eight hundred acres within the Hudson Highlands given to it by Dr. Ernest Stillman (a benefactor from a family of benefactors), had not performed and should be sold. There were difficulties. It was not possible to say that the forest was a burden, for instance. The expenses of upkeep were light; there were no large buildings in the forest; runaway fuel cost and other such aspects of the new, tough reality were absent. Expenses had not outstripped income. Most em­phatically, they had not.

Here, in this deft bit of muckraking, we have classic Trow prose: ut­terly clear, specific, and rhythmic, with an accent on repetitions for the purpose of musicality and pro­pulsion; and, more important to his signature style, deeply ironic (his cheeky emphasis on business language—“the new, tough reality,” “had not performed,” “runaway fuel costs”—as well as his detached delivery). And the whole book has this tone, which is Trowist—or Trowian, or Trowesque, whatever—and which is, as has been said somewhere that’s escaping me at the moment, but it’s here somewhere in this stack of papers, similar to the tone of some other writing that was happening at that time, most notably Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” and her story collection I, etcetera, Renata Adler’s essayistic novel, Speedboat, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s journal/�notes/memoirish novel, Sleepless Nights. Oh, OK, I’m remembering now that James Wolcott mentions these books, or a couple of them, as part of a traceable aesthetic trend at the time of the New Yorker publication of the essay “Within the Context of No Context” in 1980 in his ripping of My Pilgrim’s Progress in the Feb. 8, 1999 issue of the New Republic, which was, in my mind, a sadistic review because Wolcott didn’t even attempt to understand what the writer and book were trying to do. It was like—let me think of a good example—OK, it was like someone reviewing a Beckett play and raging at the lack of action, or reviewing a Sonic Youth album and going on and on about the out-of-tune guitars and feedback and not realizing that that’s the point! Anyway, Trow, in The Harvard Black Rock Forest and in his other deeply penetrating FUCCs, Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim’s Progress, has made the demystification of power and prevailing cultural aesthetics/zeitgeists his real mission/subject. He wants to get to the heart of things and let you know that nothing is random, everything can be traced back to its origin if you’re willing to do the work. And he knows a lot about privilege and power and demo­graphy and is willing to do the work. He’s interested. Interested in getting to the bottom of things, in knowing and letting you know. “My idea,” Trow writes in The Harvard Black Rock Forest, “is that even the most difficult story (‘Atomic Energy in the Modern World,’ ‘New Frontiers in Micro-Biology,’ ‘Our Colleges in Crisis’) can be told as the history of the work of particular men and should be told that way.” He continues:

The reader will accept this de­vice. He is used to the idea that men, at their daily tasks, are oc­cupying a certain space in the foreground. I want to address the question of the background against which these men appear, and to try to suggest that this background should be understood as the accumulated result of knowable stories.

This is important, because it is important to set right a deformation in modern discourse, a two­fold mistake: the first part of the mistake is to think of the background against which the work of modern persons is juxtaposed as unknowable; the second part of the mistake is to accept it—whatever it is.


You might look at this new book and think, as I thought when I first received my “Dear book reviewer” copy in the mail, “Hey, that’s dif­ferent. Trow wrote a nature book, a book about the environment and con­servancy,” which is how it is ca­tegorized in bookstores and li­braries, I assume. And you’d be right, in a way—it’s a long “nature” essay, a work of “eco-criticism.” But what Trow does here, in Trow fashion, is lock onto an emblem­atic something—a scientific forest in the Hudson Highlands of New York—and then he goes about doing his thing, being an artist-critic, “analyzing Mainstream Cultural Artifacts,” getting to the bottom of things, taking apart hi­erarchies and the language of power, in this case Harvard and how it deals with being a research in­stitution working in the “cultural in­terest” when issues of money, of profit and loss, arise. Near the end of the tape. Had I written this as I normally write, I’d be thinking now of the right turn of phrase, some poetic, rhetorical way to bring it home and maybe say something kind of big and interesting about the power and artistic potential of cultural criticism, which, over the last many years, as consumer culture itself has rapidly become a weirder and weirder fiction, has started to seem to me like the most fertile ground for new American art, art capable of engaging us with the narrative form and phrasing of fiction and poetry, while also ­working hard to give a sense of what is—what might be—real. I’d spend most of my morning writing five or six sentences. Recorder saves time, no doubt.

1. Trow discusses this at length in his essay “Collapsing Dominant,” the long introduction to the 1997 reprint of Within the Context of No Context, his fragmentary, aphoristic work of criticism about the social and psychological effects of television. By “demographic” he means his was a family involved in the production of cultural information and entertainment, the making of meaning, and in knowing what people think and want and why they think what they think and want what they want. Demography is more complicated than that, obviously, but for my purposes, and Trow’s purposes, we can leave it there and move on. As Trow says often in My Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ll have to trust me on this one.
2. Here is an example of what I’m talking about [p. 101]: “In looking at the Mainstream ­American Cultural Artifact I’m about to introduce—and I haven’t picked it up yet, and I haven’t looked at it for ten years, and I don’t remember what I saw when I looked at it ten years ago, but my very strong guess is that as we go through this artifact, we will find nothing of what we’ve been talking about in discussing the New York Times of February 1950…” This sentence continues, in all its dash and dependent-clause glory, for twelve more lines to include mention of the actress Faye Emerson, “our first personality known for being a personality,” Kafka, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
3. At National Lampoon Trow was contributing editor, then senior editor, then executive editor, before leaving in 1974. Some of his colleagues there included writer/actor/comedian Tony Hendra (who played manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap and recently published the memoir Father Joe), journalist P. J. O’Rourke, and writer/comedian Michael O’Donoghue, who later became the head writer for Saturday Night Live.
4. About Trow’s rancorous quitting, Tina Brown said something to the effect that it would be a terrible loss to the magazine—if he ever wrote anything.
5. In the late ’70s Trow wrote three well-received, satirical plays, Prairie Avenue, The Tennis Game, and Elizabeth Dead. I haven’t seen or read any of them. What? I’m busy.
6. Frederic Jameson’s title Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism says it all. I haven’t read this book, actually, because each sentence, in the first twenty-five or so pages, was as dense and messy as a medieval disembowelment. I threw the book on the floor and shopped for a new pair of Gap jeans online.
7. If you want to aim at a large demographic for your book, here are a few suggestions: People sad about their weight; wives of young service men now in harms way; children under ten taking anti depressants and spending at least four hours a day watching television or playing video games; recent plastic surgery success stories; ­people who would describe their personal problems as “really big”; Top-40 country music listeners who think America “kicks ass.”
8. Here is a random sample of what I’m talking about from Within the Context of No Context: “So one or two of the babies began to experience a problem. Loneliness rose to the surface. It was a problem. No exit for the babies. Dead end for the babies. It was a problem. And new. ”
9. “What a ridiculously unsubstantiated claim!” you might be thinking. Well, OK, then. Go see for yourself.
10. Harvard sold the land in the late ’80s and, I’m happy to report, it is in fine scientific/environmental health today—a non-profit forest set aside for scientific study—thanks in no small part to the heroic efforts of George W. S. Trow and the 1984 publication of this essay in the New Yorker. He won’t be getting an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, however.
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