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.
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”:
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).
“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.”