When Norman Corwin died two years ago this fall at the age of 101, we lost a man who not only was perhaps the most famous writer ever to be forgotten because of the medium he chose, but also an early practitioner of the oddest of modern artforms: the non-sectarian prayer.

For those of us who in the past twenty years have come to spend our waking lives with eyes fixed on glowing screens, it may be difficult to remember that there was an earlier refocusing of our culture’s collective attention that was no less revolutionary. A radio scribe who once was a household name, Corwin once described the technology he used with a phrase that today could be applied to any of the gadgets that make possible our digitally connected world: “the miracle, worn ordinary now.”

When he wrote those words, it had been just nine years since a majority of Americans began to welcome voices from beyond into their homes, less than twenty since the earliest regional “radio-phonic” transmissions, and already it seemed perfectly natural for families to sit for hours in their living rooms, ears titled toward the hearth of a talking wooden box.

Corwin was more responsible than anyone for filling those talking boxes with words that mattered. When the National Association of Broadcasters began a campaign in 1939 to make listeners more “radio conscious,” it fell to the 29-year-old former newspaper reporter to raise awareness of the nature of the devices the nation had invited into its homes. With an odd, dramatic, and unabashedly lyrical piece called “Seems Radio Is Here to Stay,” Corwin took his audience on a guided tour of the airwaves, creating at once a rough primer on how radio works and a spell conjuring the sensation of what a “miracle” it truly was: “This microphone is not an ordinary instrument / For it looks out on vistas wide indeed,” he wrote. “My voice commingles now with northern lights and asteroids and Alexander’s skeleton / With dead volcanoes and with donkey’s ears… / It drifts among whatever spirits pass across the night.”

Corwin was the first radio writer who wrote with full awareness of what this new medium meant and what it could do. He knew that radio—and all the broadcast media that would follow it—had nothing less than the power to make intimacy of distance, to allow us, somehow, to be together while alone.

In his masterpiece, “On a Note of Triumph,” broadcast on V-E Day, 1945, Corwin put his skills as a deadline poet to work in the creation of secular scripture. Celebrating the Allied victory in Europe, he used the opportunity not for chest-thumping but introspection. He surveyed what had been gained and what had been lost in the war, and in the closing moments of the 58-minute broadcast, entwined the ancient tradition of divine petition with the technologies and politics destined to grant or deny the prayers of the future:

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint,
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes…
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend…

The broadcast gave Corwin a larger simultaneous audience than any writer had ever had before. It ran twice on all four networks and was heard by more than 60 million people—at the time nearly half the U.S. population. Out of a technology that seemed to some to breed isolation, Corwin used his radio pulpit to reach the biggest congregation in history.

It would be going too far to call it a work of piety, including as it does a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger ditty “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” Yet “On a Note of Triumph” was also, in its own idiosyncratic way, deeply religious, making use of the rhythms of liturgy and a self-consciously biblical tone, which was made all the more surprising by the fact that Corwin was hardly a religious man.

A Boston-born Jew of Hungarian and Russian descent, he had spent Friday evenings in his youth not in a synagogue, but reciting poetry with his family. Asked about this seeming disconnect via email the year before his death, he replied instantly (at the age of 100!) with a rush of Corwinian enthusiasm. “My religion is Jeffersonian and based upon personal freedom,” he wrote. “I am opposed to most organized religions, because they all have wicked origins and emphasize cruelty and godlessness and compete with each other, but I think that ethics are terribly important, and search for them in the Bible and elsewhere.”

His primary faith, however, was always in radio, a medium whose message was that humanity could indeed be united, if briefly, by the power of well-chosen words. At a time when the isolating qualities of the devices to which we are tethered can make “social media” seem a contradiction in terms, it is worth remembering the work of man who proved that technology could pull people together. He did so with a prayer that insisted not that we believe, but only that we listen.

“The Prayer”n Excerpt from On a Note of Triumph, by Norman Corwin (first broadcast on CBS May 8, 1945)

Lord God of trajectory and blast,
Whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent
So it withers in the sun for the just to see,
Sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names of nations writ on it,
And assist in the preparation of the plowshare.

Lord God of fresh bread and tranquil mornings,
Who walks in the circuit of heaven among the worthy,
Deliver notice to the fallen young men
That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear now before the hungry children;
That night again falls cooling on the earth as quietly as when it leaves Your hand;
That freedom has withstood the tyrant like a Malta in a hostile sea,
And that the soul of man is surely a Sevastopol
Which goes down hard and leaps from ruin quickly.

Lord God of the topcoat and the living wage
Who has furred the fox against the time of winter
And stored provender of bees in summer’s brightest places,
Do bring sweet influences to bear upon the assembly line:
Accept the smoke of the milltown among the accredited clouds of the sky:
Fend from the wind with a house and a hedge
Him who You made in Your image,
And permit him to pick of the tree and the flock,
That he may eat today without fear of tomorrow,
And clothe himself with dignity in December.

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint,
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors
and give instruction to their schemes;
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father’s color
or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream
as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of little peoples through
expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come
for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

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