- Erik Barnouw as Mentor
Mentor—Tutor of Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey.
A close, trusted, and experienced counselor or guide.
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I first encountered Erik Barnouw’s name in graduate school while writing about a group of radio news commentators and their impact on American foreign policy in the thirties. It was hard not to know of Erik’s History of American Broadcasting, whose volumes were published by Oxford in 1966, 1968, and 1970, the precise years in which I wrote my doctoral dissertation. Erik was an inspiration both as an historian of mass media, and as a stylist. It thus surprised me to hear from one of America’s most distinguished historians that he considered it a “scandal” that Erik’s three volumes had received the Bancroft Prize in 1971. I said nothing, but at that moment was reminded of how difficult it is to persuade most historians of American history to include the history of media as a legitimate and essential part of our twentieth-century technological society.
Direct contact with Erik occurred in early 1974, when I sent him an offprint of my first published article relating to media history. My revised doctoral dissertation had been a finalist for a prize sponsored by the Organization of American Historians, the principal organization for those who teach American history in the United States. After being told by the prize committee’s chairman that my manuscript would be published, something happened. After licking my wounds, I sent an offprint of my article on radio commentator Boake Carter to Erik Barnouw, asking for suggestions he might make as to where to publish [End Page 27] my dissertation, a subject on the mind of every Assistant Professor of History who hoped to publish, not perish.
Erik replied almost immediately, in a letter dated February 12, 1974:
Your “Croak” Carter article is most fascinating, and a very impressive contribution to the work in this field. Nothing comparable has been done on the leading radio commentators, and I am delighted to learn that you have been examining six of them in the same microscopic fashion, with due attention to social, political, and economic ramifications.... Feel free to mention my enthusiasm, and to quote me.
At the time, such an enthusiastic response greatly encouraged me; now I understand some of the ramifications of what that letter represented which eluded me in 1974. For example, when News for Everyman: Radio and Foreign Affairs in Thirties America appeared in 1976, Erik kindly provided a statement which appeared on the dustjacket: “David Culbert has rescued from oblivion an important chapter of mass media history: the rise of radio commentators in the thirties, and their impact on American foreign policy. His research has been relentless, and his appraisals impeccable. Add, for good measure, a delightful literary style.”
My involvement with Erik increased dramatically when I came to the Smithsonian Institution’s Wilson Center as a Fellow in 1976–77. Later I learned that Erik’s advocacy of my proposal to write a book about the American military’s use of film in World War II, including Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, persuaded a skeptical council to fill the quota of one Fellow per year in media history with my application.
In June 1976 I arrived in Washington to begin work. Erik had written a letter of congratulations, not, of course, indicating what he knew about the circumstances of my appointment:
My term at the Woodrow Wilson Center extends through December, so we shall have plenty of opportunity to get acquainted. Your topic...