Corwin, Norman (1910—)

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Corwin, Norman (1910—)

Throughout the 1940s, Norman Corwin elevated the fledgling medium of live broadcast radio theatre to its artistic zenith in America. Regarded as radio's poet laureate by fans and contemporaries, Corwin's earnest prosody adapted naturally and easily to radio broadcast, and he wielded the medium to its utmost, celebrating the American citizen during World War II, elucidating the dread of war with a journalist's precision, impugning despotism, or merely lending credence to the vox populi with his intellectual, imaginative use of words, music, and dramatic interplay. Corwin's dramatic use of radio defined an era and an art form. Though Corwin was revered and admired during radio's Golden Age, his popularity ultimately paralleled that of network radio.

Born May 3, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts, Norman Lewis Corwin was the third of four children in a Jewish Russian-Hungarian family. He was a prankster and a storyteller, and his grades in school were uneven, though teachers discovered early his talent for writing and appreciation for poetry. Upon graduating from high school, Norman wrote for the Springfield Republican covering human-interest stories. When infant station WBZA requested that the newspaper provide a radio news reader, Corwin was assigned, and soon he was producing a poetry program—Rhymes and Cadences —while writing newspaper articles and radio copy as well as his first (failed) attempt at a novel. But at twenty-one, Corwin was restless and traveled to Europe with his brother and a friend.

In Germany, in the shadow of World War I, Corwin reflected on the senselessness of war, the ethnic hatred growing in the Weimar Republic, and the political pessimism spreading into adjacent nations. When Corwin returned to the States, his idealism resolved into a sense of purpose, a defiance of inevitability. In 1935 he began reading news on WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio. Less than three weeks later, though, he was fired for challenging a managerial memo forbidding the announcement of a local labor strike. He returned to the Republican, but not for long.

Arts, education, and social service organizations were accusing commercial radio stations of polluting the airwaves with a huckstering orgy, serving their own financial interests, and neglecting the quality of their programming. Faced with losing their licenses in a proposed decentralization of frequencies, many stations began hiring writers and directors to expand the formulaic format of commercial broadcasting with "sustaining programs" for discerning audiences.

After a brief stint as a publicity writer for Twentieth Century-Fox, Corwin was hired by the Columbia Broadcast System in 1938 and immediately proved himself a considerable talent, writing (in verse) and directing a fanciful play called The Plot to OverthrowChristmas on his new program Words without Music. Later he impressed even the venerable CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow with They Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease, a sharp response to the indifference of Italian bombardiers. Corwin went on to produce and direct the Columbia Workshop, showcasing some of the finest writers, actors, and musicians available.

In 1941, Corwin wrote, directed, and produced a live broadcast each week for the eponymous 26 by Corwin series. With unprecedented autonomy—network censors literally had no time to review his scripts prior to broadcast—Corwin spun each whimsical, fantastic, or dramatic tale, often reminding listeners of the war a horizon away. Later, Corwin produced a celebration piece for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights ("We Hold These Truths") to be aired on all four networks simultaneously and starring Hollywood luminaries James Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Marjorie Main, Orson Welles, and many others, as well as president Franklin D. Roosevelt. On December 7, 1941, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught the nation by surprise, and Corwin retooled the program into a galvanizing documentation of American political determination. Eight days later, more than sixty million people heard "We Hold These Truths" as America's position on the war became clear: we would fight.

Throughout World War II, Corwin churned out poignant dramatizations of patriotism and thrilled audiences with his candor and eloquence. His series This Is War! (1942) was considered radio's first all-out effort at wartime domestic propaganda, and his series An American in England, coproduced on location by Edward R. Murrow, brought the human faces of shell-shocked Britain into American homes. In 1944, CBS broadcast Columbia Presents Corwin, a collection of war-inflected plays similar to the 26 series.

When the war in Europe ended, Corwin had prepared a special broadcast for V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Refraining from wild celebration, as the war was still alive in the Pacific Theatre, "On a Note of Triumph" asked tough moral questions of both citizen and government in a relentless prose poem equally evaluating America's losses and victories punctuated by sound effects and a powerful score by Bernard Hermann. For V-J Day, after the first atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan subsequently surrendered, Corwin created a solemn closure piece called simply "14 August" (1945), "a fistful of lines" delivered by Orson Welles.

After the war, Corwin received the first Wendell Wilkie One World award and traveled the war-torn globe recording his impressions, producing from these tapes the series One World Flight (1947). Corwin's association with CBS ended in 1948 when the network began to compromise his artistic integrity. He joined United Nations Radio in 1949 amid a national obsession with Communism in which Corwin himself ironically was suspect and created Pursuit of Peace (1950), a series which espoused the unity of the world's nations.

As radio became less lucrative and as the medium of television captured America's imagination, Corwin faded from public view. Though he authored more than seventeen books and wrote numerous screenplays, he could never recapture the immediate glory of radio's Golden Age. His programs have long been in circulation among old-time radio enthusiasts, however, and in the 1990s National Public Radio rebroadcast many of his works to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II and even commissioned new plays created by this bard of the airwaves.

—Tony Brewer

Further Reading:

Bannerman, R. LeRoy. Norman Corwin and Radio: The Golden Years. Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Dunning, John. On the Air: Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Maltin, Leonard. The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age. New York, Dutton, 1997.

Stuart, Lyle. 13 for Corwin: A Paean of Praise for Norman Corwin, the #1 Writer-Director-Producer during Radio's Golden Age. New Jersey, Barricade Books, 1985.