Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World WarII

By Bloom, Emily C. | WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World WarII


Bloom, Emily C., WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts


Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World WarII. Melissa Dinsman. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, $89.99, hardback, 247 pp.

Radio was an essential weapon in the war of words between the Allied and Axis powers during World War II; and yet, even if this fact has been firmly established, wartime broadcasting still remains poorly understood. Recently, scholars have taken up broadcasting as a subject of literary, rather than exclusively historical, analysis. Melissa Dinsman's Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II offers a recent example of such work, applying literary approaches to texts that have seemed fundamentally "unliterary"- propaganda broadcasts.

Although some propaganda broadcasts are explicit in their political content, extolling patriotism and national commitments and vilifying the enemy, others are subtler in their approach. Examples of this less overt propaganda include literary broadcasts by prominent writers; radio plays, literary reviews, and readings that seem distant from military struggle, and yet, represent another front in the battle for the hearts and minds of listeners. Dinsman agrees with George Orwell's claim that, "All writing nowadays is propaganda," but follows this insight with important questions about the relationship between propaganda and wartime aesthetics (qtd in 97). Surveying a range of writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, Orson Welles, Dorothy L. Sayers, Louis MacNeice, Orwell, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Thomas Mann, and P.G. Wodehouse, Dinsman identifies the reasons writers flocked to the microphone, their diverse range of techniques, and their often-conflicting conceptions of audience. One of the tensions running through this work is whether radio broadcasting was inherently autocratic and disposed towards "black" propaganda meant to mislead and obscure, or conversely, whether broadcasting could be a democratic medium, encouraging critical thinking, and thereby amenable to "white" propaganda presenting information and allowing listeners to choose for themselves. In Germany, for instance, the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote unambiguously about the power of radio to foster conformity and blind allegiance, while the playwright Bertolt Brecht believed that radio writing could promote active listening and independent thought.

The radio wars that Dinsman describes were often fought over American airwaves. The neutrality of the United States during the early years of the war was a catalyst for propaganda emanating from the United Kingdom and Germany alike. With the exception of a chapter on Orwell's BBC broadcasts to India, every other chapter circles back to broadcasting directed towards listeners in the U.S. or broadcast from U.S. stations. Dinsman begins with Orson Welles' famous The War of the Worlds (1938) radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. Listeners who panicked in response to Welles' representation of a Martian invasion, according to Dinsman, were not simply naïve listeners who fell for a fantastical narrative, but rather, responded to Welles' correlation of radio with war information and his warnings about the threat of fascism. Many listeners believed that they were hearing news of a German invasion-not a Martian invasion. In this respect, Welles' play sounds a similar note to another play that Dinsman discusses later in the book, Archibald MacLeish's The Fall of the City (1937), which likewise warns American audiences about the threat of fascism and uses a mock-reporting format to make this threat feel imminent to the listening public.

Although Welles' broadcast may be well-trod territory for some readers, the book moves on to explore two British radio plays that also reached out to American listeners about the threat of fascism but that have received far less critical attention. These, Dorothy L. Sayers' The Man Born to Be King (1941-1942) and Louis MacNeice's Christopher Columbus (1942), both created strong affective links between Britain and America in an attempt to emphasize the "special relationship" between the two nations. …

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