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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Art and Entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s
An Interview with the Town Mail Clerk and Philosopher

Radio provided an array of entertainment options in the 1930s and 1940s. Soap operas, concerts, comedies, sermons, and political commentary were among the programs offered. In 1939, a member of the Federal Writers Project interviewed Charles Monroe in Hill Town, Massachusetts. The interview is from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . The writer identified him as the "town mail clerk and philosopher." Monroe was willing to talk on many subjects, including radio. What kinds of programs does Monroe enjoy? Why? What do you think of Monroe's views of music and censorship? Do you think his fear of censorship was justified? Why or why not?

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". . . Of course because of cars and radios, a great part of our social life is gone, and we don't look at one another nearly as much as we did twenty-five, or even ten years ago. I'm a radio fan myself - have been one ever since I bought my first set back about nineteen twenty. Must have owned nearly a dozen sets altogether and I don't know how many hours I've spent listening to them and tinkering with them."

"What sort of things do you like to listen to?" I asked.

Mr. Monroe's face broke into a very broad and lasting grin.

"Don't think that I'm trying to jibe you - but I like to listen to announcers while they are trying to sell something."

"Just what do you mean by that?"

"I mean that for real drama I've never found anything that entertains me more. All the finest shades of human emotion are expresses in their voices. At first most of the selling talks were crudely presented, but now, selling by radio is almost an art. I'll admit that it's probably very hard to do a good job of radio -selling. A speaker must feel somewhat like a man on a tight-rope who is trying to perform half a dozen tricks at the same time. He must think of his sponsor, read his script carefully, keep at the proper distance from the microphone, and finish with a second or two of the allotted time period. But that is the easiest part of his job. To really succeed, he must keep under control every vibration of his voice. He must not sound nervous nor over-anxious to do well; he must . . . make . . . absurdities sound reasonable; he must sound sincere even though he knows that the product he is advertising is a harmful drug or an actual poison. . ."

"what do you like in the way . . . of . . . radio programs?" I asked.

"Good news commentators and musical programs, mainly. Kaltenborn is my favorite commentator at present, and as for music, I think I've got a fairly good musical education from listening to good concerts. I still listen to Walter [Damrosch's?] music appreciation hour, and I can identify most of the music he plays. Then there's Alfred [Wallenstein?] and his good concerts on station [?]. O. R. but perhaps the philharmonic concerts on Sunday afternoons please me as much as anything."

"Is music your favorite form of art?"

"Possibly - yes, I suppose it is. And aside from the pure enjoyment I get listening to it, I'm very much interested in its social suggestions that, in spite of this era of nationalism and censorship are still allowed to go free. It seems to me that music is far more revolutionary then words are, and I woildn't be...surprised...if the time comes when it will be censored as books are censored. of course in Germany the works of composers with Jewish blood have already been banned; but that isn't the kind of censorship I mean. I mean it may actually become unlawful for composers to write music that goes to emotional extremes.

"Do you remember the 'Blue Monday' song that came out in Europe - Austria, I think - a couple of years ago? Many people committed suicide, they were made so depressed by it. If one song can make people kill themselves, isn't it very likely that other songs often control many actions of men in their daily life? - turn normal citizens into tramps, philosophers, or non-voters? The fact is, any beautiful and perfect work of art makes our daily existence seem very drab by comparison. Do you see what I mean?"
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View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.