The Power of Storytelling

Ever since the Big Bang spun the universe into existence and humankind squirmed up out of the muck, we have shared our deepest thoughts and feelings with one another through the art of storytelling. Stories help us explore our world and share our thoughts. They can entertain, inform, and influence; sometimes, all at once. Stories can range from the deeply personal to those of almost universal significance. Shared stories can be a valued part of an entire cultures’ identity. Ancient tales and records appear in cave drawings and can be heard in ancient songs and poems. Whispers shared by the fireside on a cold dark night can grow into folklore, myth and legend. Experience and Imagination were the only limits a story had.

Many Early American authors and their works challenged the codes and mores of the past.  In many ways, these authors and works sought to shape and hone an American identity based on self-reliance and what it took to tame the wilderness that was Early America. As the pioneers settled and spread across that land, there was an underlying worry that in order to be its own country, it must have a unique identity, it must be defined; it was felt that the arts fulfilled the need, with literature in particular providing the best example.  Let’s explore the early storytellers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most prolific writers of the nineteenth century “new America,” sought to ensure that America would come of its own and provide its own form of distinct style.  “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

In keeping with the spirit of Emerson’s declarations about nonconformity and his desire to see America with its own personality, it is easy to see how Emerson put the authors of the day to task.

In his call for a truly “American” effort in literature in “The American Scholar,” Emerson starts with indicating that our reliance on the past is part of what is crippling our progression forward: “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” Emerson believed that the “new American” author should have certain traits and thereby a new and different character from his European counterpart.

Emerson’s charge was to literally force his fellow writers into documenting the “spirit of the times” and help to create a new character unlike any other in the world.  America was a blank canvas awaiting the artists to create a new style of painting that could hang proudly in the world gallery for all to see.  Such authors included the likes of James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving (and many others).

Edgar Allen Poe, for example, does not meet Emerson’s challenge.  “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a gothic tale better matched to the old Europeans, rather than new Americans, as it involved all the story elements one would expect from a tale out of England: a mad artist with incestuous overtones toward his sister, a creepy old mansion that is falling apart from lack of attention over the years, and even a live burial.  This story is very comparable to the style of Shakespeare, with a heavy English influence.

Washington Irving, on the other hand, does meet Emerson’s challenge.  In “Rip Van Winkle,” for example, setting plays an important role in creating American identity.  With the Hudson River Valley as his backdrop, Irving speaks of people gathering in common areas of the community to talk “about rights of citizens—elections—members of congress—liberty…”

Even though it could be said that “Rip Van Winkle” is also gothic, it’s actually more of a fantasy story well-suited for the new and strange land known as America, an “overturning” of the tradition and style of more ancient European tales. The characters in the story could, very easily, also be representative of other things.

For example, Dame Van Winkle could represent Europe and the old ways – strict, with rules and expectations, a downright “termagant Wife.” “Times grew worse and worse” and it was observed that “a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use.”  If this isn’t a vision of England, then the portrait of His Majesty George III over the local inn cinches it!

When Rip finds the mountain people and joins them (think “Purple Mountains Majesty”), it is reminiscent of a voyage to another land – especially with the liquor, common on sea voyages.  Waking up and discovering time had passed, he ventures down to the village to find things had changed.  The village contained homes he had never seen before, buildings he didn’t recognize, and strange names on signs that seemed foreign to him.

In fact, no longer was King George on the inn, but a likeness of General Washington; the people spoke “about rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress liberty—Bunker’s hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” Dame Van Winkle was dead, symbolic of England no longer being involved in his life, and there were a few old friends and neighbors, along with his daughter, as if he had sailed to a new land and left some of his family and acquaintances behind.

Rip has become a “new American” at the end of the story.  There are so many references to America in the story.  The first, and most obvious, was the eagle soaring in the sky – the ultimate symbol of America.  Early American settlers realized the importance of family; if they had nothing else when they first came to America, they usually had at least one other family member.  At the new (and allegorically named) Union Hotel, Rip spotted a flag of stars and stripes.  When he was reunited with his daughter and grandchild and then his son, he was more at ease.

Of course, the eagle and family aren’t the only things that point to Rip being a “new American.”  In Rip’s own words, he says: “I’m not myself—I’m somebody else” and then he admits that “every thing’s changed, and I’m changed.”  He was no longer “a subject to his Majesty George the Third, he was now a free citizen of the United States.”

It is obvious that Rip’s dream has changed him.  Although he resumed his “old walks and habits” and found many of his “old cronies,” he would rather make friends with the younger generation of “new Americans.”  Despite being similar to how he was the friend of all the children in town previously, assisting them with their sports, toys, storytelling and being the playful butt of jokes, he became the town patriarch and told stories from “before the war.” Irving states that it was “some time” before he was able to understand what happened or comprehend the current state of affairs, implying that he did, in fact, both understand and comprehend his current place in society.  His wife was gone, he had reached that “happy age when a man can be idle with impunity,” could come and go as he pleased, had the comfort of family and chose with whom he would associate.  Rip was finally content – a far cry from the way he was at the beginning of the story.

In terms of changes in American identity after the Revolution, the changes correlate into many things.  For instance, when Rip wakes after his sleep and goes to his favorite tavern in town, he sees “a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, [arguing] vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress—liberty—Bunker’s hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words.” In this line can be seen much of the American identity that became “inalienable rights” in our Constitution, among them: Freedom of the Press (handbills), Bill of Rights (rights of citizens), Voting (elections), Various Freedoms (liberty), “and other words;” never before had there been a guarantee of such for Americans.  They were under the rule of King George and could only hope that they could stay out of his way and out of his mind, lest they be subject to his whim.  People could feel secure and worry about the things important in their lives – their family and their farms or livelihoods, rather than whether or not they were protected from the tyrannical rule of a despotic king.

The importance of politics is also part of the new American identity.  This is evident where Rip was mingling in the crown at the hotel and he was asked how he voted (in the last election) and whether he was a “Federal or Democrat,” the two prevailing parties at that time.

Meeting Emerson’s challenge isn’t that difficult.  Breaking away from the old world and the old world traditions that people became attached to was difficult.  Some writers were able to break the mold, others were not.

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” It is this idea that drove Emerson to continually challenge authors to create an American persona which shows distinctiveness that would uniquely identify the “new American” who could then take his place amongst the cultures of the world and, at the same time, stand-out as his own individual.

Irving was able to take Emerson’s challenge and not only meet it, but beat it.  His story, “Rip Van Winkle,” is a testament and proof of Irving’s success at passing the test and overcoming Emerson’s dare.  Some authors were able to make the transition from the old world to the new, others were not; Washington Irving, through Rip Van Winkle and his other stories, was one of the more successful. Those who were able to transcend the European pattern helped to form the unique flair and define the character that has come to be known as “American Literature.”

These writers helped to forge the storytelling craft.  Without their foundations, many modern storytellers would be lost.

The continuing evolution of storytelling has occurred down several different paths.  Before the mid-1890s, the most immersive storytelling was live theatre. Then, a new path opened; silent films. Storytelling technology had reached the point where humanity’s primary input (sight) could be fulfilled and mass produced by purely mechanical means. In the late 1920s, mechanical televisions (with sound) appeared. Roughly five years later, sound appeared in the cinema also; our most advanced tools for storytelling now satisfied both our primary senses.

Soon after that, the widespread replacement of mechanical televisions transitioned into purely electronic versions. Advancements in television and cinema kept improving and by the 1950s, broadcasting color pictures became practical. The 50’s also introduced the concept of linking computers on a network. Initial research and development had sizeable influence by the military and major universities across the planet (“The World Wide Web,” for example). By the early 70’s, the universal transition to color television was nearly complete. By the late 80’s, commercial ISP’s began to appear. The continual advancement and enhancement of computers keeps improving modern media across the board, with no end in sight.

No single nationality or medium can lay exclusive claim to stories. Inventors and pioneers like Edison and Farnsworth brought us our modern incarnations of the ancient phenomenon of storytelling – with movies and serials in Cinema and in our homes via television and the internet. Movies, television and the internet are now at the vanguard of storytelling. Stories are the DNA of which ALL media content is made. Without content, all the data transport and management in media is meaningless. Every bit and byte of data is a tiny thread of the (hopefully) rich tapestry that displays its producer’s grand vision. What are the stories and lessons that your content creator wants to share?

There is no shortage of storytellers.  The 20th Century has produced numerous storytellers – in literature, stage, silver screen and small screen – too exhausting to list.

The story at the 2019 Las Vegas NAB Show is that they want to help the media community get their stories out. The very latest tech will help your story tellers stoke the fires of creativity to help follow your hero along on an Epic Journey. With all the technology springing up to support the world’s constantly expanding media, the science of storytelling has finally risen up to fully meet the demands of the art of the story. No longer does it require a major studio to complete an effects laden movie. With more advanced tech, small studios and even individuals can build content. More portable and more rugged equipment opens up new storytelling opportunities.

Imagine what your favorite “YouTuber” might accomplish with a rugged ultra-quick SSD with 2 Terabytes of capacity, or what aerial acrobatics could by accomplished with a mini camera attached to a nimble drone.  What new heights of the story tellers craft can now be reached when the human imagination can be fully unleashed? NAB Show welcomes the chance to help the members of our expanding world media to discover these and many other potential outlets.

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Editor-In-Chief, Publisher at Broadcast Beat Magazine, LLC.
Ryan started working in the broadcast and post production industry at the young age of twelve! He has produced television programs, built large post production facilities, written for some of the industry's leading publications and was an audio engineer for about ten years. Ryan previously wrote for Broadcast Engineering Magazine, Creative COW and his projects have been featured in dozens of publications.
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