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George W.S. Trow, 63; Writer, cultural critic spent 30 years on New Yorker staff

December 08, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

George W.S. Trow, a writer and social critic whose dry humor and coruscating intelligence defined a 30-year career at the New Yorker, where he was a favorite of legendary editor William Shawn, died Nov. 24 in Naples, Italy, where he lived for the last five years. He was 63 and died of natural causes.

Trow, who joined the magazine in 1966, was best-known as the author of "Within the Context of No Context," a scathing analysis of contemporary American culture.

Originally published in the New Yorker in 1980 and later issued as a book, it was a collage of riffs, each identified with a subhead such as "History," "Gossip" or "Celebrities," that wryly displayed Trow's mortification at the ignorance of a generation reared on television.

"Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history," he wrote.

"No good," he concluded, "has come of it."

"Within the Context of No Context" quickly attained a cult following for its originality and prophetic insights.

"People passed that copy of the New Yorker from hand to hand," recalled Martin H. Kaplan, a media expert and director of the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, who knew Trow. "It was one of those early and prescient works of cultural criticism which ... conveyed how troubling it was to live in the brave new media world."

It was also intensely personal and heavy with yearning for a bygone social order, when adults were adults and trivia were actually viewed as trivial.

His lamentations focused on an idiosyncratic array of what he called "Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts," such as People magazine, the 1964 New York World's Fair and the 1970s game show "Family Feud."

Civilization had declined to the point where, Trow wrote, "a man named Richard Dawson, the 'host' of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman." To Trow, that millions of viewers could be engaged by such puerile entertainment -- guessing what others had guessed, with nary a fact in sight -- was alarming evidence of cultural anemia. With some disdain, he described this "important moment in the history of television" under the heading "No Authority."

Authority was one quality Trow (pronounced like grow) possessed in spades. His pronouncements were godlike, as well as abstract, bordering on mystical.

In reference to an America that had gotten too big and impersonal, for instance, he wrote: "The middle distance fell away.... Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy." But, as Trow saw it, the intimacy was a television-induced illusion. Loneliness loomed.

"What made George's piece great was the deadpan minimalism of the style, a freaky-deaky, I Ching-like idiom that made it seem like a text carved on some future, unearthed Rosetta stone .... It was a gag, but a gag about how everything you've ever cared about was just destroyed in a flashfire," Donald Fagen, the musician and songwriter who met Trow in the 1980s after co-founding the band Steely Dan, wrote on his website this week.

"He was a kind of genius in the way he saw the world," said author Jamaica Kincaid, who joined the New Yorker staff in the 1970s through Trow's ardent sponsorship.

Born in Greenwich, Conn., Trow was well-grounded in the rituals of the upper class, even though his old New York family was not rich.

He knew, for instance, where a New Yorker should go to buy a proper summer suit, a pair of patent leather dancing pumps or a fedora. But he viewed that world of upper-crust New York from a writerly distance. "A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me," he once wrote.

His patrician heritage stood him well through Exeter and Harvard, where he became president of the Lampoon, the club that produces the world's oldest humor magazine. "He was a key figure in the transformation of the Harvard Lampoon from a stuffy clubhouse that put out a not-very-funny magazine into this farm team for 'The Simpsons,' " said New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg, a former Harvard classmate who knew Trow for 45 years

Trow graduated from Harvard in 1965; in 1970, though he was already writing for the New Yorker, he helped fellow Harvard alums Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney found National Lampoon, the magazine that became a launch pad for a panoply of writing and comic talents. (Kenney, for instance, went on to co-write the scripts for "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "Caddyshack," while other Lampoon colleagues provided the creative juice for "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons.")

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