Powers, Ron 1941–
Powers, Ron 1941–
(Ronald Dean Powers)
PERSONAL: Born November 18, 1941, in Hannibal, MO; son of Paul Sidney and Elvadine Powers; married Honoree Fleming (a professor), 1978. Education: University of Missouri, B.J., 1963.
CAREER: Journalist, television critic, writer, and educator. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, MO, sports writer and reporter, 1963–69; Chicago Sun Times, Chicago, IL, reporter, 1969–70, television critic, 1970–77; WMAQ-TV, Chicago, critic-at-large, 1977–79; WNET-TV, New York, NY, critic, beginning 1979; CBS News Sunday Morning, media critic, 1983–88; Middle-bury College, Middlebury, VT, assistant professor of creative writing, 1990–96. Senior staff member, nonfiction, Bread Writers Conference, 1980–96.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize, 1973, for television criticism; Emmy Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Chicago chapter), 1978, for spot reporting; Emmy Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (national), 1985, for commentary; fellow, Salzburg Seminar, 1994; Christopher Award, 2000, for Flags of Our Fathers.
The Newscasters: The News Business as Show Business (nonfiction), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1977.
Face Value (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1979.
Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Good-Bye (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.
Supertube: The Rise of Television Sports (nonfiction), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1983.
White Town Drowsing (nonfiction), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1986.
The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s (nonfiction), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1990.
Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns (nonfiction), Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
The Cruel Radiance: Notes of a Prosewriter in a Visual Age (nonfiction), University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1994.
Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(With James Bradley) Flags of Our Fathers, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Robert Morgan) The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.
Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2001.
Mark Twain: A Life, Free Press (New York, NY), 2005.
(With John Baldwin) Last Flag Down: The Epic Journey of the Last Confederate Warship (nonfiction), Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor of articles to numerous periodicals, including Gentleman's Quarterly.
ADAPTATIONS: Flags of Our Fathers has been adapted into a children's book by Michael French, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2001, and into a film, directed by Clint Eastwood, Dreamworks/Warner Bros., 2006.
SIDELIGHTS: Early in the 1970s it became a popular trend to present television news in a more relaxed fashion. Instead of the traditional no-nonsense portrayal of the news, news anchors were encouraged to lighten the tone of the broadcast by interjecting their own personalities and comments and by stressing "upbeat" stories. According to network executives, this practice led to a warmer and more personalized presentation of the news. Reporter and television critic Ron Powers, however, likened the new format to "Romper Room."
Powers, himself a television journalist, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his efforts in examining television as a social phenomenon as well as an entertainment medium. His interest in the sophisticated audience-manipulation techniques used by television executives formed the basis for his expose The Newscasters: The News Business as Show Business. Washington Post contributor Joseph McLellan explained that The Newscasters is "about the triumph of image over reality in contemporary America, about the substitution of the celebrity for the person who actually does something as a focus for our national attention and esteem, about the trivialization of our minds and the degeneration of life for most of us into a spectator sport."
The Newscasters was followed two years later by the author's fictionalized treatment of the same topic, the novel Face Value. The novel chronicles television journalist Mark Teller's fall from grace when he fails to cover what is considered the biggest story of the year: the death of a pop music star. In order to regain favor in the eyes of his superiors, he "discovers" an unknown comic as a fresh face for the network to market. Although the comic possesses no talent other than falling on the floor, which comprises his entire act, he is an overnight success. It is at this point, observed Jeff Greenfield in the Chicago Tribune that "the plot thickens (indeed, it gets lumpy)." A right-wing political group becomes interested in the comic and plans to set him up as their next candidate for the U.S. Senate. "If you're looking for a finely crafted novel," remarked Greenfield, "this ain't it. But if you'd like to see an act of vengeance committed with enthusiastic malice on the enterprise of local television news, you will chuckle appreciatively at Powers's salvos. He's on target a good amount of the time."
Powers, born in Hannibal, Missouri, takes the title of White Town Drowsing from a quote by Samuel Clemens, Hannibal's "most famous son" due to his writing career under the pseudonym Mark Twain; Clemens once referred to Hannibal as "a white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning." Powers returns to Hannibal "to try to reenter the last system of life that had ever made sense to me; to regain an old quotidian passion for the ordinary, and to see whether the town, the river and the bridge still held their power as guardians of the moral coordinates—the values and assumptions that cast Hannibal as an extension of my own identity." When he attempts to come "home," however, he finds instead, according to Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book World, "a town caught up in the manufactured excitement of Twain's 150th birthday, and trying to cash in on the occasion."
The resulting White Town Drowsing, Yardley contended, "is in fact two books: one is a nostalgic attempt to recapture the Hannibal the author knew as a boy and to evoke the atmosphere of small-town America, the other is a straightforward journalistic account of how Hannibal tried, and failed, to turn itself into a theme park." In Yardley's assessment, Powers is more interesting when he abandons his attempt to "invest Hannibal with mythic dimensions" and turns to "plain journalism," with his account of the 1985 attempt by a "handful of opportunistic outsiders and gullible natives" to "turn the Twain Sesquicentennial into a bonanza … and, in the process, throw … the town into turmoil." As Clarence Petersen noted in the Chicago Tribune: "Alas, the title, Twain's phrase, is ironic. Hannibal is experiencing a nightmare, a familiar one made intensely personal in Powers's details." Roy Reed, in the New York Times Book Review, elaborated: "One of the best parts of the book is a serial essay on the theme-park craze in America. Various experts see Hannibal potentially as some kind of Mark Twain park. One suggests, quite seriously, turning the place over to the Disney corporation. Another says in a fit of dreamy ecstasy, 'Hannibal could be another Williamsburg!' An especially interesting tidbit of horror is the large number of obscure actors who apparently earn a living impersonating Mark Twain; Mr. Powers met at least half a dozen." Reed went on to note that the success of the work was Powers's "juxtaposition of two narratives: his own growing up in Hannibal, and the town's refusing to grow up." Reed added: "In a last burst of lyricism the story is left suspended, fittingly, from the arch of the Mark Twain Bridge, high above the Mississippi." Writing in the New Yorker Reed noted that "Powers has given us an admirable book, a book of warmth and truth, and a vigorous call to arms against a world of ignorance and sentimentality." In the words of Jason Berry, reviewing White Town Drowsing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "The more timeless story, of a slick entertainment-development industry exploiting authentic American traditions, makes for a work of surpassing eloquence."
In the Chicago Tribune, Robert Olen Butler saw Powers's Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns as returning to the "concerns" of White Town Drowsing. In Far from Home Powers uses what Butler called his "eloquence and clear, Midwest-rooted compassion" to interweave and mourn the stories of Cairo, Illinois, and Kent, Connecticut. As reviewer Mark Caldwell explained in the Voice Literary Supplement, "the two couldn't be more different. Yet between them, Powers argues, they represent the Scylla and Charybdis threatening to wreck similar towns everywhere in the country." Butler added: "If Cairo faces death in its traditional guise, a scythe-wielding skeleton wreathed in the door of rot, Kent seems to be meeting it in the unlikely but no less lethal shape of Ralph Lauren."
In the New York Times, Andrew Malcolm noted that "Powers is a skilled, thought-provoking writer. His transitions between what might seem two too-disparate communities are inevitably smooth. And he has a professional's keen eye for relevant history, for the telling modern detail and for some lovely, pinpoint phrasing, even if you haven't spent a childhood in such towns." Jane Holtz Kay put forth in her Nation review that the "nagging question" of the book is: "Can American towns survive our modern era?" The reviewer wrote that Powers "sighs for the 'troubled cities, generic suburbs and interstate macadam' that wrap the continent."
In The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s, Powers returns to the subject that won him a 1973 Pulitzer Prize—television. A contributor to the Washington Post Book World commented on the author's message: "He sums up the '80s as the decade in which TV 'finally fulfilled the worst nightmares of a half century: It devoured its host culture.'" Commenting on this collection of columns from GQ magazine, the Washington Post Book World contributor described Powers's position as "fulminat[ing] against TV violence and sadism, 'corporate arrogation and corporate will,' the omnipresent (for a few minutes) 'celebrifaces,' and the 'cretinous vulgarities' of [controversial talk-show host] Morton Downey, Jr." Rick Kogan added in the Chicago Tribune that "what he has to say about television in the 1980s is not all that could have been said. It may not be all that should have been said. But for any one who cares about what's on television and interested in what it might mean, The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child is a grand book."
In The Cruel Radiance: Notes of a Prosewriter in a Visual Age, Powers continues his critique of television through a collection of essays from his speeches at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, his columns for GQ, and excerpts from his novels Face Value and Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Good-Bye. A Publishers Weekly contributor found The Cruel Radiance "a provocative and thoughtful collection."
Powers returns again to his home town of Hannibal for the subject of Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain. The book covers the first twenty-three years of Twain's life and includes information on the writer's forebears' journey to and settlement in Hannibal, where Twain was born in 1835. Powers seeks to show the deep influence Twain's youth had on his work; a Publishers Weekly contributor characterized this period of his life as "a melange of horrors, pleasures and difficulties" that included Twain's father's financial troubles and the deaths of relatives and friends. Also, Hannibal itself—an exciting but rough river port in the nineteenth century—becomes almost a character in the book. Powers makes both Twain and the town come "completely alive," in the opinion of Choice contributor D. Kirby. The Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Powers sometimes overemphasizes certain events, but on the whole "regularly draws convincing links" between Twain's boyhood and his writings. Kirby was even more enthusiastic, calling the biography "a more complex, more human portrait" of the youthful Twain than any other account, and "the best book about Twain since Bernard De Voto's Mark Twain's America."
In Mark Twain: A Life, Powers accessed various writings housed at the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, California, to provide a comprehensive look at the great American author's life. For example, Powers examines Twain's little discussed but well known cruel treatment of his brother later in life, as well as his decision to pay off all of his debts. Powers also explores Twain's individual works. C. Charles Nash, writing in the Library Journal, called the biography "a scholarly but refreshingly lively story." Spectator contributor Ferdinand Mount noted that Powers "does render brilliantly … the anger of Mark Twain." Mount went on to write that the author "really does get the hang of Mark Twain, the way he somehow lies hidden in plain sight, never quite what he seems and never quite the same from one moment to the next, either on the page or in person, unrivalled chronicler and embodiment of all the boundless energy and secret desolation of America."
Powers also collaborated with James Bradley to write Flags of Our Fathers, which Aerospace Power Journal critic Gary Pounder called "the definitive book on flag raising and, more importantly, the men who made it possible." The book follows the lives of the six men who appear in Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of five marines and one navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima during a bloody battle with the Japanese. Pounder went on to call the book "a fascinating and moving account of the event, cast against the awful spectacle of combat in the Pacific theater."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Powers, Ron, White Town Drowsing, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Aerospace Power Journal, spring, 2001, Gary Pounder, review of Flags of Our Fathers, p. 112.
Booklist, December 1, 1994, Denise Perry Donavin, review of The Cruel Radiance: Notes of a Prose-writer in a Visual Age, p. 651.
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1979, Jeff Greenfield, review of Face Value; September 28, 1986, Clarence Petersen, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 3; November 15, 1987, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 5; June 17, 1990, Rick Kogan, review of The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s, p. 6; July 21, 1991, Olin Butler, review of Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns, p. 6; January 26, 1992, review of The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child, p. 8; September 27, 1992, review of Far from Home, p. 8.
Choice, November, 1999, D. Kirby, review of Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, p. 540.
Library Journal, August 1, 2005, C. Charles Nash, review of Mark Twain: A Life, p. 86.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, Jason Berry, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 4.
Nation, October 14, 1991, Jane Holtz Kay, review of Far from Home, p. 454.
New Yorker, December 29, 1986, Roy Reed, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 96.
New York Times, September 2, 1991, Andrew Malcolm, review of Far from Home, p. 15.
New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1986, Roy Reed, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1990, review of The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child, p. 107; April 12, 1991, review of Far from Home, p. 50; August 23, 1991, p. 57; November 21, 1994, review of The Cruel Radiance, p. 62; May 17, 1999, review of Dangerous Water, p. 62.
Reason, February, 2006, Nick Gillespie, review of Mark Twain, p. 57.
Spectator, February 11, 2006, Ferdinand Mount, review of Mark Twain, p. 34.
Voice Literary Supplement, September, 1991, Mark Caldwell, review of Far from Home, p. 16.
Washington Post, August 6, 1979, Joseph McLellan, review of The Newscasters: The News Business as Show Business.
Washington Post Book World, January 11, 1984, Jonathan Yardley, review of Supertube: The Rise of Television Sports, p. D1; October 12, 1986, Jonathan Yardley, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 3; November 22, 1987, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 12; August 5, 1990, review of The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child, p. 13; July 21, 1991, review of Far from Home, p. 12; September 27, 1992, review of White Town Drowsing, p. 12.