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.