Eric Bennett, a professor of English at Providence College, wrote a long, meandering, but fascinating article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. The article offers a history of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop alongside a truncated overview of mid-century political realignments, plus a few digressions (a writer after my own heart). By the end, the article has become a polemic against the perceived bias in MFA programs against fiction whose scope widens beyond the concrete and the personal to include ideological, philosophical, and global vistas. But the polemic feels compensatory, extra weight to balance a tenuous but fascinating observation about Cold War propaganda.
Bennett’s article ought to be read rather than summarized, but I’ll offer some highlights. He opens with a jolt:
Did the CIA fund creative writing in America?
The answer is not entirely satisfying; to add some heft, Bennett swerves across multiple topics (including a piece of his own biography) toward a conclusion in which he admits the fragility of the connections he’s making. “You probably can see where this is going,” he writes:
One can easily trace the genealogy from the critical writings of Trilling and Ransom at the beginning of the Cold War to creative-writing handbooks and methods then and since. The discipline of creative writing was effectively born in the 1950s. Imperial prosperity gave rise to it, postwar anxieties shaped it. “Science,” Ransom argued in The World’s Body, “gratifies a rational or practical impulse and exhibits the minimum of perception. Art gratifies a perceptual impulse and exhibits the minimum of reason.” In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling celebrated Hemingway and Faulkner for being “intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.” Life was recalcitrant because it resisted our best efforts to reduce it to intellectual abstractions, to ideas, to ideologies.
He says it better in the next paragraph:
From Trilling, Ransom, and Arendt to Engle and Stegner, and from them to Conroy, Almond, Koch, and Burroway, the path is not long. And yet that path was erased quickly. 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.
Iowa’s Workshop has enjoyed its reputation as “the Death Star of MFA programs” (to quote poet Jorie Graham) since before there was a Death Star. In recent years, scholars of American literature have turned to the long-unexamined institution of the creative writing MFA and the workshop model that Iowa innovated. Every graduate student working in contemporary American literature must reckon with Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a literary-sociological study that posits MFA programs as the principle force determining the structures, forms, themes, and direction of postwar fiction. The Program Era elicited a rare response from literary scholars: near-universal praise and admiration. McGurl had struck a massive gold vein, one that would sustain years of groundbreaking scholarship, and in the most obvious place.
The MFA program and the workshop model predate the GI Bill, but they began to flourish after the postwar infusion of veterans into the public university system. The very concept of “creative writing” as a discipline was itself a practical response to mid-century geopolitics. Novelists and poets had always supplemented their income with teaching. But by the mid-20th century, fiction writers increasingly turned from journalism and screenwriting to academia to fund their metier. With the rise of totalitarian governments throughout Europe, many continental writers sought refuge within the American university system.
A dilemma now faced American literature departments, which were already struggling to reconcile their roots in 19th century German scholasticism with American trade-oriented pragmatism. What to do with all these writers? Most were given literature courses to teach, but they typically lacked training or interest in literary theory. Should these writers be expected to produce scholarship? Or should they just…write?
Two Cold War refugees, the linguist Roman Jakobson and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, famously butted heads on this issue at Harvard. Nabokov, a popular lecturer but terrible scholar of Russian literature, was promoted to a chair in literature, largely on the basis of his literary accomplishments. Irritated, Jakobson mused, “Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?” Jakobson’s quip inspired the title of D.G. Myers’ history of creative writing, The Elephants Teach. That’s precisely what happened, except that a partition between the Jakobsons and the Nabokovs produced, on the graduate level, the humanities’ equivalent of separate theory and practice tracks.
Bennett’s contributions to the study and history of the MFA program examine the intersection of creative writing and the Cold War (his forthcoming book, Workshops of Empire, will be published by University of Iowa Press). This intersection may seem incongruous, until one contextualizes the MFA program, and its influence on cultural production, within the geopolitical functions of the postwar American university. Bennett argues that the MFA program tends to promote concreteness, specificity, and real life in fiction and to discourage (or virtually ban) broad, ideologically-driven fictions. He links these tendencies to anti-Communist anxieties about totalitarian systems and Marxist ideology, anxieties which (he argues) shaped the MFA program’s development and agenda throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
During this period, creative cultural output was viewed by the U.S. government as a legitimate and productive tool in the fight against Communism. Since its inception in 1947, the CIA funded traveling exhibitions of modern American painters: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, et al, most of whom were ardent leftists. The CIA’s art program was a covert extension of an earlier State Department program that was forcefully terminated. The State Department had been pilloried with objections from hayseed congressmen (and a hayseed president) that Abstract Expressionism was subversive trash, not worth funding. But the CIA understood its value: Communists in America and Europe would visit the exhibitions and witness how Socialist Realism, the dominant aesthetic in the Eastern Bloc, paled in comparison to the West’s avant-grade.
Any Soviet artists who visited these exhibitions saw forms, styles, innovations – openness – that had been forbidden in Russia since the death of Lenin.
Soviet propagandists in the 1950s and ’60s had little difficulty convincing their people of the West’s decadence. The self-evident and vast disparity between Western prosperity (particularly in the United States) and life in the Eastern Bloc did that work for them. As middle class swimming pools sprang up like cacti across southern California and Dairy Queens appeared in every town, there was little to dress up or exaggerate.
Convincing the Average Ivan that such decadence was undesirable proved a greater (ultimately insurmountable) challenge. After Stalin’s death and the Sino-Soviet split, public discontent evolved from an occasional and easily remedied headache to a chronic migraine for the leaders of the Soviet Union. Official lies about “our prosperity” and “Western decline” were not as durable in the Eastern bloc as they’d been – and would be – in other totalitarian regimes. Information leaked through the Iron Curtain, and citizens could compare and contrast.
To convince its people – and to convince the millions of sympathetic ears listening beyond the Iron Curtain – of capitalism’s inherent corruption, the Soviet Union documented Western colonial and post-colonial atrocities and racial apartheid in the American South. “They might have better cars than we do, but they murder whole villages and hang black men from trees!” This reality-based propaganda would eventually pressure ardent Cold Warriors in the U.S. government to lend much-needed support to the Civil Rights movement. In the late 1950s, most congressmen didn’t care if blacks in Mississippi could safely participate in society. They did, however, care about the spread of Communism in all these young nations newly emancipated from European colonialism. If allowing blacks in Mississippi back into civil society could help keep the dominos standing, so be it!
The Soviet Union also inflated its own successes, hoping nationalism might be a satisfying alternative to a Cadillac (I wonder if they could actually see Lenin rolling in his tomb). Party solidarity, especially on matters of liberalization and foreign policy, were exaggerated. Weapons stockpiles were wildly exaggerated. Most famously, dummy missiles were paraded before cameras broadcasting straight into Ronald and Nancy’s living room while he ate his nightly TV dinner. Here, even the West was duped. The American intelligence community would endure a bevy of congressional hearings between 1989 and 1991, wherein red-faced one-time Cold Warriors demanded to know how, how, our intelligence had so wildly overestimated the size of the Soviet arsenal, the health of the Soviet economy, and the strength of Soviet institutions. Hype was a successful export.
But in the propaganda war, the Soviet Union failed in an arena where even fascists had enjoyed some success: cultural exports.
In its infancy, the U.S.S.R. experienced an extraordinarily flowering of the visual artists, particularly cinema (a medium Lenin preferred). Propagandists were recruited from Russia’s thriving avant-grade theater community and from Lev Kuleshov’s film school, where the degree and density of talent is still almost without precedent (the early years of Walt Disney’s animation studio or the informal confederacy of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave come to mind). Lenin asked for Communist propaganda, and the artists delivered – in part because they were given freedom over their own work. Abstraction, surrealism, and experimentation were permitted, if not always admired by the Party (especially Trotsky). The Kuleshov school’s chief innovations, Soviet montage and theories of editing, effectively expanded cinematic grammar. Filmmakers throughout the world could convey meaning with greater efficiency, power, and range. These innovations were permanent. They remain embedded in cinema and television. They are so ubiquitous that you forget their lineage.
The montagists helped sell Leninism to illiterate Russian peasants, but their broader impact almost exclusively on cinematic form, not ideology. Eisenstein and others theorized that the two were inseparable, that Marxism was embedded in their dialectical approach to cinematic expression. The theory would go untested. When Stalin assumed power, he declared Socialist Realism the aesthetic and ethos for all Soviet art. The great Kuleshov school filmmakers either fled Russia, self-censored, or were imprisoned.
Socialist Realism produced some interesting architecture, bold sculpture, and a few decent paintings, but in general it celebrated Russia’s dismal past and more dismal present with either straight representationalism, frightening bravado, or a sentimentality that would make Steven Spielberg sick. After Stalin’s death, aesthetic restrictions loosened and Soviet filmmakers began to enjoy a little freedom. But even the best state-approved Soviet filmmakers were overshadowed by their naval-gazing brethren, filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky who appealed to Western taste and defied governmental standards. Tarkovsky was not the cultural ambassador Brezhnev would have picked; he never tempted a Westerner to jump eastward over the Berlin Wall. But the petulant streak that allowed Tarkovsky to defy his government but also prompted him to piss all over his acclaim in the West (“the cinema,” he told a confused audience after winning the Telluride Medal, “she is a whore”). The majority of Russian filmmakers, however, lacked Tarkovsky’s cajones. And the majority of Soviet films produced between Stalin’s death and glasnost did receive Party approval. But even these films made the U.S.S.R. look like shit.
During the Cold War, nearly all communist propaganda that reached a wide Western audience was produced by Communists in the West. The most effective anti-Communist propaganda to infiltrate the Soviet Union – the conditions and quality of life of the Soviet people – was produced by the Soviet government. Ultimately, Cold War propaganda amounted to two vast spheres of humanity talking to themselves.
Those internal conversations included aesthetics and cultural products we consume regularly today. The conversations produced at least two creative technologies that persist and flourish today: literary minimalism and cinematic montage. They are so pervasive that we barely notice them. Their former political and ideological dimensions may have been “erased,” to borrow Bennett’s phrase. They are certainly innocent where gulags and napalm are concerned. But their parentage is compelling. The cut of a Transformers sequel or the delicacy of an Alice Munro story are just as much relics of the Cold War as missile silos in South Dakota or a toppled statue of Lenin in Kiev.