This is a piece of writing I have been working on this spring. I even managed to pull in J.R.R. Tolkien on this reflection, and had to restrain myself there. The way writers of the post-WWI age both resisted technological progress and set the stage for the future is worth deeper study. You can read an adapted, more focussed version on the L.M. Montgomery Institute website as a launch of the MaudCast, which I have had the pleasure of hosting. I’m a little more open here about my anxieties about drawing Montgomery up into our new technologies, but also hopeful. The MaudCast teaser at the bottom plays off the same theme.
L.M. Montgomery, the Radio, and Nostalgia in the Podcast Age
Reading L.M. Montgomery’s journals and thinking of our current COVID-19 season, I have wondered if the Spanish Flu spurred on the desire for the radio. In WWI, the radio was a piece of technology used only in war and industry. Word of mouth, letters, and the daily papers were the only ways that people at home could connect to the global moment. I think of Rilla of Ingleside, the final book in the Anne series and the most important piece of fiction for an at-home experience of the Great War. As the Four Winds children find themselves drawn into the conflict overseas, the Blythe family’s kitchen becomes a war room with maps and news clippings and dispatches to and from Prince Edward Island’s rear-guard action.
Yet, although we imagine the ‘20s as the age of jazz humming through every street, the decade began with nearly empty airwaves. As social distancing in 1918-1920 America kept people away from church and market and gossip from town, the need for news and entertainment at home becomes pressing. I do not know how many people believed the conspiracy theory of the time that radio waves caused the Spanish Flu. But in terms of technological adoption, everyday folk took up the radio almost as quickly as they did the Internet.
While L.M. Montgomery was not an early adopter of the radio, she records her initial encounter with the idea of it in her journal entry of Dec 16, 1922:
The papers nowadays are filled with radio. Dr. Shier has a set and he told me recently that last Sunday morning he heard a sermon preached in Pittsburgh, Pa. in the morning and one in Chicago in the evening (Selected Journals 3:105).
Montgomery’s reaction is quite mixed:
It is all very wonderful—and I find it a little depressing. Is it because I’m getting on in life that all these wonderful inventions and discoveries, treading on each other’s heels, give me a sense of weariness and a longing to go back to the slower years of old. Doubtless that has something to do with it. But I do really think we are rushing on rather fast. It keeps humanity on tiptoe. And all these things don’t make the world or the people in it any happier. But I think this will go on for two or three hundred years—I mean the flood of great discoveries. Then probably the Zeit Geist will get tired and take a rest for a few centuries and allow humanity to rest with him. But those of us living now have to speed on with him willy nilly (Selected Journals 3:105).
Nearly a year later, in October 1923, the Montgomery-Macdonalds drove to Uxbridge, ON to listen to the radio—music in Chicago, IL and a speech in Pittsburgh, PA (Selected Journals 3:150), almost eerily predicted in her previous entry. Montgomery thought it was “a very marvelous thing” that “will probably revolutionize the world in another generation” (150-1). As above, she admits to feeling unsettled about the idea of the radio more than the actual experience of it.
Montgomery was not alone among artists in resisting new technological development, which seemed to them to pummel on just for the sake of progress.
When told that factory chimneys and motor-cars were sings of “real life,” J.R.R. Tolkien mocked the idea. These inventions are “pathetically absurd” and “obsolete” compared with living things like elm trees and horses and even centaurs and dragons. Tolkien, like the Four Winds children in Rilla who are about his age, was a product of the war of progress and technology, WWI. You can feel the frustration Tolkien had with the dehumanizing result of endless progress in his poem, “Mythopoeia”:
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name
And, yet, technology frames Montgomery’s Anne series—even moreso than a later series like Emily. While Matthew’s buggy and the sorrel mare are part of Island culture from time out of mind, Anne Shirley arrives at Bright River on the 5:30 train—a technology that has changed the literal and political landscape of Prince Edward Island. Telephone wires in Charlottetown signal to the young Queen’s scholar Anne that she is far from home. The telephone becomes a lifesaver when Dr. Blythe practices in Glen St. Mary’s and the Four Wind’s Harbour—and it works pretty well for “news” of all sorts—whether from the war or the village.
Still, Montgomery wants to slow the progress down, keeping the radio out of her books until the ‘30s and letting the telephone sit at the back of the stories. These technologies are supposed to save time, but Montgomery says that instead, they “only fill it more breathlessly full” (Selected Journals 3:105). While the young may find some excitement in new technologies, as she approaches fifty, Montgomery looks back to the “old ‘90’s with a feeling that they were a nice unhurried leisurely time”:
But perhaps that is only because I lived in a remote little country place eleven miles from a railway. Even today life is very unhurried and peaceful in Cavendish. Yes, I daresay that is the explanation (Journals 3:105).
Anne recalls a similar feeling on a phone call to Diana:
“I can’t realize that we really have telephones in Avonlea now. It sounds so preposterously up-to-date and modernish for this darling, leisurely old place” (Anne’s House of Dreams 2).
“Realize” is Montgomery’s privileged word for what we might call “letting it sink in.” I have never felt this way about technology—never in awe or distant from it. I have felt, though, how time has become “breathlessly full,” and find myself longing some days for simpler times. I keep a small plot of land in New Glasgow, just south of Cavendish, with an escapist dream of disappearing from the world to the countryside. The time is not right–hobbit holes are not as cheap as you might imagine to build–but the longing is there.
Montgomery was right that rapid progress would increase in the coming decades as we have seen technological developments in communication, travel, warfare, engineering, and education. Until pretty recently, the escalation was escalating. Besides stale-dating our age of progress to two or three centuries, Montgomery also makes a prediction about how we will communicate in the future:
In a generation or two letters will be obsolete. Everyone will talk to absent friends the world over by radio. It will be nice; but something will be lost with letters. The world can’t eat its cake and have it too (Journals 3:105).
If we can tint her looking glass a bit, we can see how Montgomery is prophetic. Letter-writing is a thing of the past in many places in the world and for most people—though I do send my nephew old postcards from time to time to make him smile. However, it is an intensely tech-based age, isn’t it? Digital natives are comfortable connecting through screens, so that thumb-texting does what letters used to do, creating a stand-in for the in-person experience. Letters are gone but not the experience of letter writing, it seems (see here for “The Art of Letter Writing in the Digital Age“).
And if we can extend Montgomery’s image of “radio” to digital spaces, our Zoom and Skype generation has gone far past what ham radio operators ever could have imagined. I think this is what has made podcasting as an art form grow so rapidly. Blogs continue to grow, there is still a place for print media, and I still want to read a good old-fashioned book. But even in an age with fingertip-ready video content, there is a return to the voice in the podcast world. Perhaps this is, in a sense, an attempt to “talk to absent friends the world over by radio” that Montgomery predicted.
It is partly because of this connection that we have decided to launch the MaudCast, a podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute. Recognizing Montgomery’s warning that technology in and of itself cannot make us happier, we want to make good use of the “airwaves” a century after her discovery of the radio. In the MaudCast’s quest to discover innovative scholarship about the life and works of Lucy Maud Montgomery, we welcome to the microphone leading academics, emerging scholars, local researchers, and imaginative readers and writers from around the world.
Given Montgomery’s yearning, I wonder what she might say about this endeavour. As the host of the MaudCast, I must admit that it is a worrisome question!
Our hope for this podcast, though, is to bring the best of Montgomery’s created worlds to lovers of her stories throughout the world. In this way, I hope it is a kind of slowing down, a going back and a kind of rest as much as it is a moving forward with the times. Because the airwaves of the 2020s really are, to use Maud’s terms, “marvellous.”
Thank you–fascinating and insightful! I look forward to the Maudcast, even to the point of looking for it at the app store on my iPhone. When do you think we will be able to subscribe, Brenton?
Hi Allacin, I just don’t know when that will happen! They have a more complex procedure, but we’ll get that done soon. I’m doing an interview today for a show later this month that you’ll love.
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It’s fine to have those diary entries contemporary with the experiences of radio! I may have mentioned this before, but if so, perhaps it bears repeating as it is interesting to compare what M.V. (Mary Vivian, nicknamed ‘Molly’) Hughes (1866-1956) writes in the fourth and last of a series of memoirs she published with the Oxford University Press, giving vivid and often humorous glimpses of everyday life from her own distinctive Anglican perspective: A London Family Between the Wars (1940). .” It begins when, in September 1920, as a widow “crazy with grief”, she moved, with her three sons, to the village of Cuffley – then still very much in the country, though St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London was visible from high ground, there. Soon after she arrived in Cuffley, the wife of an old German neighbor with “a flair for mechanics” invited her over to hear “some sounds coming over the air”: “They pressed some instrument on my head and ears, and I certainly heard some strains of what was no doubt distant music” – but she “for a long time paid no more attention to the talk of this new invention.” However, within a couple years, wireless radio broadcasting “had been gaining ground, and had been installed in some houses of the élite”, and the family was “invited to come and spend Christmas afternoon, ‘to hear the wireless’.” But to the discomfort of the group of friends and relations who “assembled in the large drawing-room, and sat round a loud speaker”, “it turned out to be some kind of afternoon service. This was a new experience, and we had no idea what to do – to kneel for the prayers, to stand for the hymns, or just to sit solid. We chose the last, each dreading to catch the eye of another. We endured to the end, for it seemed irreverent to turn it off.
“When I described our experience to the local lady a few days later, she exclaimed, ‘My dear, that’s nothing to what I endured the other day. I was invited to dinner, having no idea of this fiendish invention. Just as the fish was being served to me, a voice burst forth from nowhere with “Lord, have mercy upon us”. The family had got used to the thing, and went on with their dinner and talk all through prayers and exhortations.’”
It is striking that both Montgomery and Hughes had early experiences of Church broadcasting – perhaps the more so to us with our experiences of lockdown and the proliferation of religious broadcasting in the widest and most varied sense.
Meanwhile, my good wishes for Maudcasting!
P.S.: Interesting to compare Montgomery’s fictional attention to the blessings of the proliferation of still photography to her attention to the sonic media. I can’t remember whether ‘the movies’ feature in any of her works – whether silent and/or ‘talkies’…
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This is a super cool note and a great comparison. You are right to make the connection and it fills it in for me in new ways!
Personally, I have never gotten used to people loud-talking on cell phones in restaurants or texting while I am talking to them. I don’t like TVs on in the background. Some tech we get used to, some we don’t.
Montgomery was an avid picture taker, but she hated the 1919 film of Anne of Green Gables–and was fairly cheated out of royalties (though it is partly her fault). She liked the 1930s version. I can’t remember if there are many film moments. I’ll know in a year or so.
Thanks for the cinematic details! I just ran into a quotation from New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway (NY: Columbia UP, 2016), ed. Edna Nahshon, though I’m not sure if it’s by her or another of the contributors. It’s about a poster of Thomas La-Rue billed as “Tevya, the Black Cantor”, and notes, “Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, LaRue performed across America, and appeared on radio programs […]. The theatrical novelty of a gentile black singer performing cantorial music must be seen within the context of the synergy between the Yiddish stage and synagogue music. It also reflects the show-business star status enjoyed by America’s great cantors, who were also recording artists and offered cantorial concerts in secular venues.” I’m not sure if among the implications are that there were Synagogue service broadcasts in the 1920s as well as Church service ones, but cantorial music on the radio in the 1920s is striking in its own right – as is its performance by a singer both non-Jewish and black.
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Oh, interesting question…. Given the tech capabilities of big centres like New York and Montreal, perhaps.
I went to brush up my home-town radio history – and ran into this interesting article at once, with a lot of national detail – and international, with respect to having “to build a directional antenna system to reduce its signal strength toward a Toronto, Canada, station”!:
The brief reference to ‘Fats’ Waller got me curious for more detail, which his German Wikipedia article supplied – his 1933-34 daily 15-minute ‘Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club’ show was so successful it got expanded to half-an-hour, then after nine months he got a better offer and moved it to CBS’s network in New York (where he had started off playing the organ in the Baptist church where his father was minister, when he was ten!).
This was super cool, and had me reading when I should have been working! Oh well. I suppose there is a whole nerd history here.
This is Edna Nahshon.
The text is mine, I found the poster at the YIVO archive and was fascinated by it. I did a bit of research. Clearly, the performances were theatrical and obviously live. It’s all in the text.
Thanks for noticing!
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Brilliant, thanks! David will be interested in this.
Yes, thanks a lot!
I haven’t read any of your works for a while, but I’m so glad you still write.
Not every subject you cover is relevant to my interests, naturally, but when you do strike upon one that is, you cover it so emphatically that I’m perpetually left grateful.
On this occasion, this piece is so insightful and thought-provoking I simply had to take the time to thank you for putting it together.
I hope this finds you well and you keep up the writing. Because even part-time, largely ungrateful fans like myself do actually need it and enjoy it immensely.
Thanks for the note!
Thank you for sharing that bit by Montgomery on radio…how funny to learn that people were already exhausted by the pace of technological progress even then!
Yes–it almost seems quaint!
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Early radio history seems to be following me around, even when I’m not looking for it… Reading John M. Bowers’ Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (OUP, 2019), I learned that Lewis’s old tutor and Tolkien’s benefactor, George S. Gordon, while Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, became “an early ‘media don’ broadcasting talks on BBC Radio” (p. 30) as early as 1925 (p. 62) with various of “his fifteen-minute radio talks […] included in the volume Companionable Books” (p. 64) published in 1927 – with a reprint scanned in the Internet Archive!:
Gordon’s German Wikipedia article says he was also Chairman of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English, set up in 1926 – which is the subject of a recent book:
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“media don” is pretty cool. Those talks are available in recording I suppose. The printed (free) version is cool.
And I have been wanting to get to Bowers’ Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. Anon, another on the list.
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Just ran into another bit of early radio history – Lenin’s promotion of radio, from a 30 July 1919 decree for a radio station, to the 28 February 1922 completion of the 160-meter Shukhov Tower (after the engineer who worked on it), to the 19 March 1922 commencement of broadcasting, “more powerful than any radio station in Paris, Berlin or even New York City”, to decreeing loudspeakers be installed in places of public gathering: “‘Every village should have radio!’ he said. ‘Every government office, as well as every club in our factories, should be aware that at a certain hour they will hear political news and major events of the day.'” This, thanks to K.V. Turley, who notes an hommage to (might one say, the ‘hideous strength’ of) the project and its anti-religious broadcasting in the ninth issue of 1924 of the magazine, ‘Godless at the Machine’, with “an image of the avant-garde tower dwarfing the ancient Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow — then the largest church building in Russia. The accompanying text describes the radio tower soaring ever upwards, while the image presented is of the tower gripping, vice-like, the cathedral below it, and, seemingly, by so doing, crushing any life out of it”:
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