An essay of mine is being featured at the blog of the Society of U.S. Intellectual History. The piece came about as a response to Eric Bennett’s fascinating “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” I had a few things to say in response, and then a few more, and a few more, and I ended up with this rather long reply. [Update 3/13/2015: This essay has reached the finalist stage of the 3 Quarks Daily politics and social science prize for online writing.]
|Juan Rulfo: mountaineer, author, unwitting recipient of CIA funds
Did the CIA fund creative writing in Mexico? The answer is “yes.” In the second half of the twentieth-century, Mexico’s most prestigious creative writing center, Mexico City’s Centro Mexicano de Escritores, gave writers year-long grants to devote themselves exclusively to writing. Senior authors taught technique and supervised workshops based on the model of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Beginning in the late 1950s the CME began to receive funding from the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front, for its publications. Later, more money that was likely from the CIA arrived via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, facilitated by John Hunt, a novelist and CIA case officer who had once taught courses at Iowa. The Farfield Foundation, in the late 1960s, even helped Juan Rulfo, the CME’s prize graduate and teacher, purchase a parcel of land in the countryside.
This February, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a dynamic and engaging essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” by Eric Bennett, offering both an early look at the findings of his forthcoming book, and a story of how that work came to be.
The hook at the beginning of his article is structurally the same as the one used here: “Did the CIA fund creative writing in America?” and the answer is also the same: it is “yes.” The mechanisms and timing were also identical: the Farfield Foundation, John Hunt, mid-to-late 1960s. But in spite of their similarities, putting the two cases side-by-side seems to me not to suggest a reading of the evidence that speaks to the power of the CIA over culture at the height of the Cold War, but rather of the successful mobilization of Cold War politics by program directors seeking to fund necessarily unprofitable work. Put differently, it suggests that institutional writing programs used the CIA more than the other way around.
Before turning to an examination of the evidence, let me begin with an elaborate set of personal disclaimers, for Eric Bennett’s essay arrived at my virtual doorstep like an unexpected gift. The great majority of my childhood was spent in Iowa City, the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As a young man surrounded largely by cornfields, in a state with many more pigs than people, the Writers’ Workshop provided a serviceable illusion of cosmopolitanism. Important things happened elsewhere, but important writing happened there. I still remember the feeling of embeddedness in a larger cultural universe that came when, at age 14 or 15, I read Iowa teacher Kurt Vonnegut mention the local Sears Roebuck in Slaughterhouse-Five. (Though Bennett’s essay makes one wonder whether this might have been some sort of canny product placement.) Though I left Iowa City some fifteen years ago, as with Bennett, it remains one of my favorite places on earth. But there is more: I have since become a scholar of the cultural Cold War. Bennett’s book, forthcoming with the University of Iowa (!) press—is one that I have been hoping desperately that someone would write. As soon as it is published, it will immediately move to the front of my reading list. If the book in any way resembles the essay to which we now have access, it will be almost everything that we can ask of a book: thoughtful, bold, and entertaining.
But will it also be right? Bennett’s essay is occasionally difficult to pin down; like an anxious bug, its argument seems to change direction just as it is about to be caught. If I have understood it correctly, there are two related central claims. The most important is that something is amiss in the world of literary fiction: a universe that now produces an excess of technically sound work without producing anything that meets the highest standards of what Bennett thinks fiction should be—a literature of ideas. The second claim is that this is not some accident, but that the field of fiction programs was given shape by the politics of the Cold War, including in direct contributions by the CIA to Iowa, the standard-bearer of the MFA army.
These arguments need to be addressed in reverse order, so let me begin with the claim that the hegemony of Iowa in the creative writing ecosystem is responsible for certain deformities in the environment of literary fiction. Bennett’s essay is, in part, a memoir of frustration. Before he did his Ph.D.—where he did the research from which his recent essay was drawn—he too was a student at the Writers’ Workshop. There, he says, there were three types of writing that were possible: 1) modernist fiction à la Eliot, Hemingway, or Munro; 2) “winningly loquacious” writing like Fitzgerald or Cheever; and 3) magical realism. What was discouraged was “postmodernism”; the starting point of fiction was not supposed to be in the world of ideas but in the realms of sense and emotion. This attitude then cascaded throughout the country, for Iowa’s program influenced the formation of all the others: Stanford created the second by hiring Wallace Stegner, one of Iowa’s first graduates, to replicate the model. (And, as Bennett notes, Stegner shared similar impulses, believing that a novelist was “a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life […] not a dealer in concepts.”) The proliferation of MFA programs that came in the years to come bore the Iowa imprint as well, making our era of fiction The Program Era
, to borrow the title of Mark McGurl’s book about it.
And that landscape resembles the cornfields from which it sprung: pleasantly rolling—not flat—but certainly not dramatically changeable.
This argument has a level of plausibility to it that is hard to dismiss. It seems to have struck a chord with many of my friends with MFAs in creative writing, and it reminded me of a conversation that I had many years ago with my friend and teacher John L’Heureux, who taught writing and English at Stanford, and who warned me years ago against the “puzzle literature” of David Foster Wallace that I found exciting in those days. But there is a slippage in Bennett’s essay that I can’t follow: from a dislike of “cute” postmodern literature at Iowa to an absence of a literature of ideas. The authors that Bennett’s teacher Frank Conroy at Iowa discouraged from serving as models were the “postmodernists” like Barth and Pynchon: “Meaning, Sense, and Clarity” was the mantra. Bennett seems to be arguing that imposing these structural and stylistic constraints make it difficult to write Something Very Important. In a Bourdeauian sense, the “field” of literary fiction has been structured in a way that excludes the kind of work that would be foundational to a literature of ideas. “Texts worth reading,” Bennett writes in the final paragraph of the essay, “worth reading now, and worth reading 200 years from now—coordinate the personal with the national with the international; they embed the instant in the instant’s full context and history.” As an historian and not as a fiction writer, this seems to me perfectly reasonable. But the writers who Bennett signals are coming closest to that standard today, Jonathan Franzen and Marilynne Robinson, are working in a different tradition than Barth and Pynchon.
(And, for what it might be worth, Robinson teaches at Iowa.)
Additionally, speaking as a teacher, asking students to attempt to write something that will have value in two hundred years seems like an invitation to total disaster. Bennett wants us to work to produce a great work of ideas: the kind of thing that will come around every half century years or so, summoning the spirit of the age with one hand and asking it to wait with the other. But perhaps the work has already been written; what people fifty and a hundred years from now will find remarkable about our age may well not be what we think it is today. Though some miasmatic version of Bennett’s argument about the influence of Iowa seems plausible, I can’t help but think that even Iowa could not stand in the way of Something Very Important being written, at least over the long run.
But whatever my own doubts might be, this is world to which I cannot speak from experience. Many of my MFA-graduate friends seemed to find significance in Bennett’s piece, as if their exquisitely rendered career frustrations could be likened to a hollow novelty birthday cake out of which had just popped a man with dark glasses and an obvious record of human rights abuses. And to this second point, I can speak with more authority: what does it mean that the CIA funded creative writing at Iowa?
The “smoking gun” is a contribution to Paul Engle of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from the Farfield Foundation, dated 1967. As Bennett notes, the Farfield Foundation was not an ordinary charitable organization: it was a CIA front. Its most important task was to provide the public face for the money that to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA’s major vehicle for the support of anti-Communist artistic and intellectual work during the Cold War. The Farfield Foundation was “in” on the whole thing. Julius “Junkie” Fleischmann, the head of the Foundation, saw himself as doing the CIA a favor. One of the CIA officials who arranged for the money to be transferred described him as one of the many “rich people who wanted to be of service to government…They were made to feel they were big shots because they were let in on this secret expedition to battle the Communists.”
The full scope of CIA engagement with culture is beyond the scope of this essay, but let me be clear that it is not something that I want to defend. Indeed, around the time of Farfield’s contribution to Engel, such activities were becoming (appropriately, in my view), unacceptable. The Congress for Cultural Freedom had arranged to sever its financial relationship with the CIA in 1965; bailed out by a long-term grant from the Ford Foundation that substituted for it beginning in late 1966. The CIA was worried that its actions were close to being exposed (and they were, in newspaper articles in the New York Times in 1966 and in more detail in the magazine Ramparts in 1967). Subsequent actions required that these CIA contributions to cultural and “civil society” groups be wound down; a few of the most valuable properties, like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were maintained, and most were not and such functions were eventually passed over to quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy, created in the 1983. The contribution to Iowa in 1967 comes at the very end of possibility for such a transaction from the CIA.
But what are we to make of it? Here, I think the contrast with the Mexican Writing Center is instructive. The Centro Mexicano de Escritores was founded in fits and starts during the early 1950s; its prime mover was a North American novelist named Margaret Shedd. She was a semi-permanent resident of the Bay Area, and had witnessed Stegner building the program at Stanford, where she sometimes taught extension courses. (In that sense, the Mexican Center is probably the first attempt to internationalize the Iowa model, at two steps of remove.) Shedd’s husband had worked in the U.S. embassy in Mexico, and her boredom led her to formulate plans for a binational writing workshop. As with Iowa, a lot of money in the 1950s came from the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided year-long grants, mostly for Mexican writers but occasionally for some from the U.S. or elsewhere in Latin America, to devote themselves exclusively to their craft. Shedd and others taught much-ridiculed courses in technique, while students met in frequent workshops. The record of selecting promising writers was extraordinary: over its life, graduates of the CME included Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Monsiváis, and many others that number among Mexico’s best novelists, poets, playwrights, and essayists.
National security concerns were always present in the motivations of the CME’s foreign funders. The Rockefeller Foundation believed that exchange between North American and Mexican writers would improve relations between the two countries at an important node, making the (implausible) assumption that writers “spoke for their countries.” In 1959, the CIA-front Farfield Foundation began contributing a small percentage of the annual budget—something like 2% of the total. In the early 1960s, the Congress for Cultural Freedom itself grew interested, and paid the salary of Juan Rulfo for at least a couple of years. Rulfo’s lifetime literary output consisted of a celebrated short novel, Pedro Páramo, and a book of short stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain), both finished on CME grants in the early 1950s. He would never publish anything else again. Money from the Congress for Cultural Freedom paid for Rulfo’s salary in the mid-1960s, hoping that he would become a more prominent author to rival famous Communist writers like Pablo Neruda. In the late 1960s, the Farfield Foundation seems to have been persuaded to buy him that plot of land in the country—to give him the peace and quiet to write, of course—something he never did again.
It would be easy, at this juncture, to decry the CIA’s influence over Mexican culture. And indeed, the CME does seem to have had a policy of not admitting Communists in the 1950s. In turn, some on the literary left insulted the “Gringo-Mexican Institute” for its Rockefeller funding, and imagined that Shedd was writing a novel called the Subterranean Penetration of the USA in Mexico. But in the 1960s, when the CIA was providing some of the budget, there were actually several Communist students. Plenty of others who passed through the Center, such as Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, and Carlos Monsiváis, remained associated with one variety or another of left-wing politics and certainly did not shy from criticism of U.S. imperialism. The CIA’s manipulations seem entirely wasted: it is very difficult to see any clear relationship between the politics of the Center’s funders and what its literary output. The Rockefeller Foundation wanted Mexico and the U.S. to “understand” each other better; the CIA wanted to boost the profiles of anti-Communist writers. But the naïve Pan-Americanism and anti-Communist both went unfulfilled. After the 1960s, when the Mexican government and private corporations supplied most of the budget, they wanted the Center to produce great writers that would redound to the glory of Mexico. But this too was a failure: it was the years of most compromised foreign funding that produced the best graduates. It seems to me that the CME was a remarkable failure as an instrument of cultural diplomacy, but was, all the same, one of the most important and successful writing centers in the world during its best years. It closed in 2005, and looks to me like a noble monument to success through failure.
What is striking, then, given the parallels to Iowa—where many of the same features were present—is not the influence of the CIA over culture, but the ability of cultural producers to use the politics of the Cold War to further their own endeavors. “[Iowa’s Paul] Engle constantly invoked the need to bring foreign writers to Iowa so they could learn to love America,” writes Bennett. “That was the key to raising money. If intellectuals from Seoul and Manila and Bangladesh could write and be read and live well-housed with full stomachs amid beautiful cornfields and unrivaled civil liberties, they would return home fighting for our side. This was what Engle told Midwestern businessmen, and Midwestern businessmen wrote big checks.” Yes, Paul Engle at Iowa was a Cold Warrior. He accepted money from the CIA, and used the language of the Cold War to earn sponsorship from both local businesses and the state bureaucracy. Just as in Mexico, creative writing in the United States depended on shining the boots of the capitalist class and the state bureaucracy that defended it. But if the effects of this on what was written were minimal, then who, exactly, was using whom?