[Marxism] How Iowa Flattened Literature - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 10 09:03:14 MST 2014
How Iowa Flattened Literature
With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and
eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.
By Eric Bennett
Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the
invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be
exact), Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received
money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at
the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a
foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations,
mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for
Seven years earlier, Engle had approached the Rockefeller Foundation
with big fears and grand plans. "I trust you have seen the recent
announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow
for students coming from outside the country," he wrote. This could mean
only that "thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could
never get University training in their own countries, will receive
education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination." Engle
denounced rounding up students in "one easily supervised place" as a
"typical Soviet tactic." He believed that the United States must
"compete with that, hard and by long time planning"—by, well, rounding
up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City.
Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia
and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send
to the United States on fellowship.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully
influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half
of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were
founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs,
also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional
wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.
But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing
programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time
had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the
1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers
matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education,
colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its
lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa
looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave
readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and
Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a
spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers
anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas.
So where did the money and the hype come from?
Much of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the
workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose
accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. For two decades
after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative
businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic
values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on
checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa
$40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went
by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel
for CIA money) and the State Department.
As for the hype, it followed the money and attracted more of it. The
publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of
themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the
American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of
their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce published Time and Life,
Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved
to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its
celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.
Knowing he could count on such publicity, Engle staged spectacles in
Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City. He read memorial sonnets
for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student
union. He convened a celebration of Baudelaire with an eye toward the
non-Communist left in Paris. He organized a festival of the sciences and
arts. Life and Time and Look transformed these events into impressive
press clippings, and the clippings, via Engle’s tireless hands, arrived
in the mailboxes of possible donors.
In 1954, Engle became the editor of the O. Henry Prize collection, and
so it became his task to select the year’s best short stories and
introduce them to a mass readership. Lo and behold, writers affiliated
with Iowa began to be featured with great prominence in the collection.
Engle marveled at this, the impartial fruits of his judging, in
The Iowa Workshop, then, attained national eminence by capitalizing on
the fears and hopes of the Cold War. But the creative-writing programs
founded in Iowa’s image did not, in this respect, resemble it. No other
program would be so celebrated on the glossy pages of Look and Life. No
other program would receive an initial burst of underwriting from Maytag
and U.S. Steel and Quaker Oats and Reader’s Digest. No other program
would attract such interest from the Asia Foundation, the State
Department, and the CIA. And the anticlimax of the creative-writing
enterprise must derive at least in part from this difference.
More information about the Marxism