By MARGALIT FOX
George W. S. Trow, a writer and media critic known for his biting lamentations over what he saw as the twilight of culture in late-20th-century America, was found dead on Nov. 24 in his apartment in Naples, Italy. He was 63 and had lived in Naples for the last few years.
The Italian authorities ruled that Mr. Trow’s death was due to natural causes, said Rory Nugent, a writer and longtime friend.
Associated with The New Yorker for nearly 30 years, Mr. Trow (his surname rhymes with “grow”) was best known for his provocative essay “Within the Context of No Context.” Published in the Nov. 17, 1980, issue of the magazine, the essay was released in book form by Little, Brown the next year. As a result of Mr. Trow’s work, “the context of no context” — his pithy indictment of the emptiness of modern discourse — became an enduring catchphrase in intellectual circles.
Among Mr. Trow’s other books were a collection of short stories, “Bullies” (Little, Brown, 1980); a novel, “The City in the Mist” (Little, Brown, 1984); and a second volume of criticism, “My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998” (Pantheon, 1998). His most recent book was “The Harvard Black Rock Forest” (University of Iowa, 2004), a long essay first published in The New Yorker in 1984.
In mourning the passing of American discourse, Mr. Trow was not so much a conservative as a wistful curmudgeon. As he passionately believed, the shimmering Manhattan of Champagne, dinner jackets and meaningful conversation had been devoured, in the decades after World War II, by a culture of celebrity-driven bombast. “A landscape rather like history with the tide out,” he once called it.
To Mr. Trow, the culprit could be named in one word: television.
“The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it,” he wrote in “Within the Context of No Context.”
While many critics praised the dyspeptic urgency of Mr. Trow’s prose, his style — deadpan, telegraphic, heavily autobiographical — could also work against him. At its most aphoristic, his writing struck some reviewers, in an odd twist of fate, as lacking sufficient context.
“One of Trow’s favorite formulations in ‘My Pilgrim’s Progress’ is ‘You’ll have to trust me on that one,’ ” Gerald Marzorati wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1999. “Among the things you have to trust him on are just about everything having to do with his thesis.”
Mr. Trow also wrote several plays, among them “The Tennis Game,” “Prairie Avenue” and “Elizabeth Dead,” that were produced Off Off Broadway. He collaborated on the screenplays of two films, “Savages” (1972), directed by James Ivory; and “The Proprietor” (1996), directed by Ismail Merchant.
George William Swift Trow Jr. was born on Sept. 28, 1943, in Greenwich, Conn., to a prominent family; his father was a high-ranking editor at The New York Post. George Jr. attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1965.
An editor of The Harvard Lampoon in college, Mr. Trow was an early contributor to its offshoot, National Lampoon. In 1966, he joined The New Yorker, then under the stewardship of the esteemed editor William Shawn. There, Mr. Trow wrote Talk of the Town articles and also published his short fiction.
He left the magazine, incensed, in 1994. For Mr. Trow, the provocation must have seemed like his most dire cultural prophecy come true: Tina Brown, then the editor, had invited the comedian Roseanne Barr to edit a special issue about women.
In his note of resignation, Mr. Trow likened Ms. Brown to someone selling her soul “to get close to the Hapsburgs — 1913.”
Ms. Brown shot back, in a note of her own: “I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.”
In the last half-dozen years, Mr. Trow’s nostalgia for a waning world grew into an enveloping despair, his friend Mr. Nugent said. Mr. Trow forsook his home in Germantown, N.Y., and roamed North America, from Texas to Alaska to Newfoundland, living a pared-down existence, never settling long in one place. After treatment in a psychiatric hospital, he expatriated himself to Italy.
Mr. Trow’s mother, Anne C. Trow, of Southbury, Conn., is his only immediate survivor.
“George was tireless at the oars in pulling toward what he thought was valuable,” Mr. Nugent said yesterday. “His world was that of Mr. Shawn and The New Yorker; of Diana Vreeland, who could be his companion at dinner. And the rest of the world was onto something new.”