America’s Spymasters and Cultural Propaganda



books_450x300The U.S. intelligence community has come under fire for its mass electronic surveillance programs designed to discover what Americans talk about privately. But would it surprise anyone to learn that the nation’s spymasters have also tried to shape what Americans read? And not only disinformation they feed to credulous journalists—such skullduggery has been known for ages—but also the kinds of poetry and fiction that we might read?

Eric Bennett, an assistant professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1998 to 2000, hoping it would help him to become a literary giant. It didn’t do that, but it did help him to eventually discover surprising truths about American literary culture—as well as hidden facts about covert “perception management” and soft diplomacy during the Cold War.

Here, in my words, are some of the revelations in Bennett’s illuminating essay published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Revelation #1: One of the most influential writing programs in American academia was underwritten in part by the CIA.

One month after he began research at the University of Iowa for his forthcoming book about the culture-shaping Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Bennett discovered among the 40 boxes of papers left by Paul Engle, the Workshop’s second director, “the smoking gun of the CIA connection”: evidence of funding for the school’s International Writing Program, founded by Engle, from the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front organization that also financed the Europe-focused Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Bennett learned that Engle received Farfield funding for the International Writing Program in 1967. At other times program funding came from a different CIA-run group, the Asia Foundation, and from the State Department and the Rockefeller Foundation. (The latter organization reportedly doled out large sums of CIA money to numerous cultural institutions during the Cold War, although Bennett neglects to mention this.)

Bennett speculates that Engle may have first made contact with the CIA via the novelist John Hunt, who spent time at Iowa in the 1950s and worked for the spy agency.

Perhaps John le Carré might call Engle “the literary spy who came in from the Cold War.”

Revelation #2: The Cold War shaped the development of many creative-writing programs across the United States—and their participants.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop sired scores of academic writing programs throughout the nation. But Engle’s efforts to nurture literary talent were not limited to developing aspiring American authors. In the 1950s he successfully pitched the Rockefeller Foundation on the propaganda benefits of sponsoring left-leaning writing students from other countries—creating a training ground and showcase that would demonstrate to the world’s literati that America’s cultural bounty was not limited to the likes of Mickey Mouse and rock and roll.

By covertly funding the International Writing Program, the U.S. government promoted the literary talent that Engle deemed worthy of support. This funding conferred substantial advantages that helped Engle’s favored writers to succeed in the literary marketplace. Engle was a tireless promoter who knew how to leverage his influence. Even before he received CIA funding, he used his editorship of the O. Henry Prize collection to reward his favorite storytellers from the Workshop. His skill at grabbing the attention of the editors of Life, Look, and Time—magazines published by Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles, Jr., themselves also Cold Warriors—helped Engle raise the public profile of his program and its authors.

Yet few if any of Engle’s alumni knew of the covert backers who helped load the springs that launched their careers. Bennett writes, “Raymond Carver, trained by writers steeped in anti-Communist formulations, probably didn’t realize that his short stories were doing ideological combat with a dead Soviet dictator.”

Revelation #3: The literary values that animated academic creative-writing programs during the Cold War have endured, even if the covert funding has fizzled out.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop helped shape the M.F.A writing degree throughout American academia, and many of the literary values prized by Engle and successors such as Frank Conroy are still favored. Among these are what Bennett calls the “small-is-beautiful” approach to theme and story. Moreover, Iowa and its progeny urge their students “to aspire but not to aspire too much,” Bennett writes. Big concepts are to be avoided like clichés.

The widespread inculcation of the value of literary “smallness” in otherwise ambitious young writers may help explain why so many American readers are bored by contemporary literary fiction and rely instead on popular genre writing (including in TV and film) for their storytelling fix. The question is, why does this orientation continue to dominate many academic writing programs?

“Of course, it’s more than brute inertia,” Bennett answers. “[W]hen institutions outlive their animating ideologies, they get converted to new purposes.” A few nuggets of insight about how the cultural and political economy of creative writing programs has maintained these literary values await readers who delve into Bennett’s essay.

Revelation #4: Whatever change has occurred in the cultural winds in recent decades, irony remains an esteemed literary device.

The evidence? The publisher of Bennett’s forthcoming book on the history and legacy of Iowa’s writing program, warts and all, is none other than...the University of Iowa Press.

Now that’s a twist worthy of a great story!

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Correction: The original version of this post erroneously reported that Bennett claimed to have found evidence of CIA funding for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop during Paul Engle’s tenure as director. In fact, Bennett’s claim pertained only to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program during Engle’s tenure; the post has been updated to reflect this. Although the recipient of the covert funding is different than first reported, the overall result is essentially the same: the government’s surreptitious propaganda efforts, however limited in duration they might have been, served to distort the cultural marketplace. Readers interested in hearing Bennett defend his claims from rebuttals by the current director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, and other critics, can listen to a recorded segment on Iowa Public Radio devoted to this topic, available here. For more on CIA funding of cultural institutions during the Cold War, see The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, by Frances Stonor Saunders. An intriguing New York Times review of this 2000 book, along with a link to a book chapter, is available here.

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