[Marxism] How Iowa Flattened Literature - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Louis Proyect 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 
Cultural Freedom.

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 
others there.

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 
fund-raising pitches.

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.

full: http://chronicle.com/article/How-Iowa-Flattened-Literature/144531/




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