How the CIA shaped American creative writing

Paul Engle teachng at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.

In this fascinating article for  The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett describes the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the director of the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, the most celebrated and select writing program in the country.

“Between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, Engle transformed the Writers’ Workshop from a regional curiosity into a national landmark,” Bennett writes

And he did it with money that came with ideological strings attached, including money from the CIA.

Bennett’s piece is important because it exposes how culture was produced and reproduced in the mid-20th century America, how the individual creativity of writers was (and is) shaped by larger bureaucratic and ideological structures whose power is unacknowledged or officially secret.

Cold War and creative writing

Paul Engle, Bennett writes, was “a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior” whose fund-raising prowess was the key to the success of the Iowa program.

“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.”

The Iowa Workshop, he suggests, became preeminent “by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War…. 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.”

The Iowa schools of fiction

What does Bennett mean by “anticlimax of the creative writing enterprise?

He argues that the politics of Engle and his donors can be read in the styles of literary fiction that Iowa writers did — and did not — produce. He identifies three schools of literature that dominate among the workshop’s celebrated graduates.

1) The tradition of modernist fiction, running from Gustave Flaubert through early James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway to Raymond Carver (Iowa alumnus) and Alice Munro. Marilynne Robinson (teacher) .

2) The “charismatically chatty prose” of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, and John Cheever. These days a leading exemplar is Curtis Sittenfeld (Iowa graduate), author of  “Prep and American Wife.”

3) The tradition of “magical realism,” exemplified by Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Italo Calvino and now practiced by Joy Williams (alumna, teacher) and Stuart Dybek (alumnus, teacher), and Paul Harding, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tinkers.”

The road not funded

What Iowa writers do not do, Bennett writes, is write the kind of novels he wanted to write, novels of ideas and history

“Within today’s M.F.A.culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception,” he says. As an aspiring writer enrolled in the Iowa program, he admits he found the its approach narrow and admits he hated it. He wrote his dissertation about Engle in response.

“The question I wanted to answer, as I faced down my dissertation,” he writes, “was whether this aversion was an accidental feature of Iowa during my time, or if it reflected something more.”

It was not accidental, he says. In fact, an ideological acceptance of the established American order, celebrated in Time magazine’s concept of “The American Century,” and  covertly supported by the CIA, was baked into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the literary fiction it generated.

After he left the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Engle set up another creative writing program funded by $10,000 from the Fairfield Foundation, a CIA front organization.

“In our workshops, we simply accept it as true that larger structures of common interest have been destroyed by the atomizing forces of economy and ideology, and what’s left to do is be faithful to the needs of the sentence,” Bennett writes.

In Bennett’s account, the CIA was not the leading or most important force in this process, but the official secrecy that surrounded the CIA’s culture-making activities in 1950s and 1960s embodied the way an ideological agenda was baked into American creative writing.

11 thoughts on “How the CIA shaped American creative writing”

  1. Note – these are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.

  2. The CIA was also promoting and subsidizing abstract art and twelve-tone music during the Cold War. All sterile, modernist lines of art that lacked political content. All managed by Cord Meyer, the CIA’s cultural czar. (And also involved in the JFK assassination to judge by the book Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney, the son of a CIA associate and friend of Meyer and Angleton.)

    Speaking of Angleton, remember that, while an undergraduate at Yale, he wrote modernist poetry and edited a poetry magazine.

    1. Diane Roberts Powell

      James “Jesus Christ” Angleton also intervened on behalf of Ezra Pound to help him get hospitalized instead of being tried for treason.Pound was not insane. While he was at St. Elizabeth’s, Dr. Overholser (a CIA doctor and eugenicist) had Pound’s room moved closer to his office. In his large room, Pound was better able to hold court for the numerous poets and right wing nuts who flocked to pay homage to him.

  3. Is it any surprise the CIA sought in the 1950s and 1960s to influence creative writing in the U.S.? The CIA already had the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC, Life Magazine, Time Magazine, and other MSM outlets in its pocket.

    There were American creative writers of the period uninfluenced by the CIA. Nelson Algren, John Updike, Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, to name a few.

    1. How do you know that they weren’t influenced by the C.I.A.? Be consistent – how many of your named writers attended or were employed by institutions that received no federal funding? Funding that can always be considered to be ultimately from the C.I.A. according to the standards of the article.

  4. Exactly how much did the CIA contribute to this program- particularly in comparison to other sources of funding?
    I don’t recall stories glorifying washing machines or refrigerators coming out of Iowa City, which should have been easy to spot as the implication is that contributions influenced content. Or gourmet blue cheese for that matter.
    But what does this even remotely have to do with the JFK assassination? Was Tennessee Williams writing the script for the conspiracy? Did Mark Lane and Jim DiEugenio discuss fiction writing over dinner at the Ox Yoke Inn- family style?

    1. Are you kidding? You’re kidding. This story helps to illuminate how CIA has infiltrated itself into academia. We know that they got themselves into journalism, even writing a paper on how to respond to critics of the Warren Report:
      By putting key people in the news media and in academia, CIA can help control the message or at least be a major player in the influence game. I’m not saying that they always succeed, but they don’t just sit back in barca loungers either. They are like the KGB.

      FYI, Photon, NOBODY becomes a world power without using power, including covert power, on the world stage. To think that somehow America is an “exception to the rule” is just plain NAIVE. Or a LIE.

    2. “But what does this even remotely have to do with the JFK assassination?”

      The first conspiracy theories and loan nutter theories were first advanced by corporate creative writers, long before they were sanctified by the Warren Commission. The WCR is a red herring IMHO. According to the “Family Jewels” report, released, 2007, during the period from March 12, 1963 and June 15, 1963, the CIA installed telephone taps on two Washington-based news reporters:

      Who paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory? ( )

      “the official secrecy that surrounded the CIA’s culture-making activities in 1950s and 1960s embodied the way an ideological agenda was baked into American creative writing.”

      The CIA’s culture-making activities continued in 1980s,90s and 2000’s:
      “Former CIA directors William Colby and George Bush initiated a series of moves intended to convince the press, Congress and the public that the CIA had gotten out of the news business… But they maintained Agency ties with its best journalist contacts while severing formal relationships with many regarded as inactive, relatively unproductive or only marginally important:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top