How the CIA Helped Shape the Creative Writing Scene in America

Image by Arielle Fragassi, via Flickr Commons

In May of 1967,” writes Patrick Iber at The Awl, “a former CIA officer named Tom Braden published a confession in the Saturday Evening Post under the headline, ‘I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral.’” With the hard-boiled tone one might expect from a spy, but the candor one may not, Braden revealed the Agency’s funding and support of all kinds of individuals and activities, including, perhaps most controversially, in the arts. Against objections that so many artists and writers were socialists, Braden writes, “in much of Europe in the 1950’s [socialists] were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.”

Whatever truth there is to the statement, its seeming wisdom has popped up again in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Sonny Bunch, editor and film critic of the conservative Washington Free Beacon. The CIA should once again fund “a culture war against communism,” Bunch argues. The export (to China) he offers as an example? Boots Riley’s hip, anti-neoliberal, satirical film Sorry to Bother You, a movie made by a self-described Communist.




Proud declarations in support of CIA funding for "socialists" may seem to take the sting out of moral outrage over covert cultural tactics. But they fail to answer the question: what is their effect on artists themselves, and on intellectual culture more generally? The answer has been ventured by writers like Joel Whitney, whose book Finks looks deeply into the relationship between dozens of famed mid-century writers and literary magazines—especially The Paris Review—and the agency best known for toppling elected governments abroad.

In an interview with The Nation, Whitney calls the CIA’s containment strategies “the inversion of influence. It’s the instrumentalization of writing.… It’s the feeling of fear dictating the rules of culture, and, of course, therefore, of journalism.” According to Eric Bennett, writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education and in his book Workshops of Empire, the Agency instrumentalized not only the literary publishing world, but also the institution that became its primary training ground, the writing program at the University of Iowa.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop “emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed,” Bennett explains. “More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates.” The program “attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War”—at first through its director, self-appointed cold warrior Paul Engle, with funding from CIA front groups, the Rockefeller Foundation, and major corporations. (Kurt Vonnegut, an Iowa alum, described Engle as "a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter, who, if you listened closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole.")

Under Engle writers like Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman went through the program. In the literary world, its dominance is at times lamented for the imposition of a narrow range of styles on American writing. And many a writer has felt shut out of the publishing world and its coteries of MFA program alums. When it comes to certain kinds of writing at least, some of them may be right—the system has been informally rigged in ways that date back to a time when the CIA and conservative funders approved and sponsored the high modernist fiction beloved by the New Critics, witty realism akin to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (and later John Cheever), and magical realism (part of the agency's attempt to control Latin American literary culture.)

These categories, it so happens, roughly correspond to those Bennett identifies as acceptable in his experience at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and to the writing one finds filling the pages of The Best American Short Stories annual anthologies and the fiction section of The New Yorker and The Paris Review. (Exceptions often follow the path of James Baldwin, who refused to work with the agency, and whom Paris Review co-founder and CIA agent Peter Matthiessen subsequently derided as “polemical.”)

Bennett’s personal experiences are merely anecdotal, but his history of the relationships between the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the explosion of MFA programs in the last 40 years under its influence, and the CIA and other groups’ active sponsorship are well-researched and substantiated. What he finds, as Timothy Aubry summarizes at The New York Times, is that “writing programs during the postwar period” imposed a discipline instituted by Engle, “teaching aspiring authors certain rules of propriety."

"Good literature, students learned, contains ‘sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.’” These rules have become so embedded in the aesthetic canons that govern literary fiction that they almost go without question, even if we encounter thousands of examples in history that break them and still manage to meet the bar of “good literature.” What is meant by the phrase is a kind of currency—literature that will be supported, published, marketed, and celebrated. Much of it is very good, and much happens to have sufficiently satisfied the gatekeepers' requirements.

In a reductive, but interesting analogy, Motherboard’s Brian Merchant describes “the American MFA system, spearheaded by the infamous Iowa Writers' Workshop” as a “content farm” first designed to optimize for “the spread of anti-Communist propaganda through highbrow literature.” Its algorithm: “More Hemingway, less Dos Passos.” As Aubry notes, quoting from Bennett's book:

Frank Conroy, Engle's longest-serving successor, who taught Bennett, "wanted literary craft to be a pyramid." At the base was syntax and grammar, or "Meaning, Sense, Clarity," and the higher levels tapered off into abstraction. "Then came character, then metaphor ... everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as 'the fancy stuff.' At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract."

The direct influence of the CIA on the country’s preeminent literary institutions may have waned, or faded entirely, who can say—and in any case, the institutions Whitney and Bennett write about have less cultural valence than they once did. But even so, we can see the effect on American creative writing, which continues to occupy a fairly narrow range and show some hostility to work deemed too abstract, argumentative, experimental, or "postmodern." One result may be that writers who want to get funded and published have to conform to rules designed to co-opt and corral literary writing.

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How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read Kurt Vonnegut? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Beneath Kurt Vonnegut’s grim, absurdist humor beat the heart of a humanist, but not, by any stretch, an optimist. Vonnegut looked balefully at every project intended to improve the sorry state of human affairs. In Player Piano, for example, he imagines a future very much like that envisioned for us by our contemporary technocratic elite: nearly all work has been automated and the mass of unemployed are given a modest stipend for their living and funneled into what anthropologist David Graeber might call “bullshit jobs.”

“Finally,” Ed O’Loughlin writes at The Irish Times, “Vonnegut’s non-tech proles rise up against the machines that have perversely enslaved them, smashing all that they can find. For Vonnegut, ever the pessimist, this is not a happy ending; the revolution runs out of steam, collapses internally, and the remaining rebels go happily to work in the wreckage of their struggle, eagerly repairing the machines that they destroyed themselves.” This bleak satire can seem almost upbeat next to the fatalism of his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.




In this book, Vonnegut uses an alien race called the Tralfamadorians to illustrate the idea that “all moments—past, present, and future—always have existed… always will exist,” as the Mia Nacamulli-scripted TED-Ed animation above explains. The aliens keep the novel’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, in a human zoo, where they patiently explain to him the inevitability of all things, including the bombing of Dresden, an event Vonnegut personally survived, “only to be sent into the ruins as prison labor,” notes Paul Harris at The Guardian, “in order to collect and burn the corpses.”

To say that Vonnegut, who once worked as a press writer for General Electric, was skeptical of scientific plans for managing nature, human or otherwise, would be a major understatement. As he watched GE scientists embark on a project for controlling the weather (while the company’s “military collaborators have more aggressive plans in mind”), Vonnegut began to demand “an answer to one of science’s greatest ethical questions,” writes WNYC: “are scientists responsible for the pursuit of knowledge alone, or are they also responsible for the consequences of that knowledge?”

The question becomes even more complicated if we accept the premise that the future is foreordained, but without the intervention of all-seeing aliens, there is no reliable way for us to predict it. Vonnegut’s experiences at GE formed the basis of his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, in which a military technology called Ice-nine ends up freezing all of the world’s oceans and bringing on cataclysmic storms. Cat’s Cradle’s characters survive by adopting a religion in which they tell themselves and others deliberate lies, and by so doing, invent a kind of meaning in the midst of hopelessness.

Vonnegut stressed the importance of contingency, of “growing where you’re planted,” so to speak. The best options for his characters involve caring for the people who just happen to be around. “We are here to help each other through this thing,” he wrote, “whatever it is.” That last phrase is not an evasion; the complexities of the universe are too much for humans to grasp, Vonnegut thought. Our attempts to create stable truths and certainties—whether through abstract in-group identities or grand technological designs—seem bound to cause exponentially more suffering than they solve.

Vonnegut may have achieved far more acclaim in his lifetime than his contemporary Philip K. Dick, but he felt similarly neglected by the “literary establishment,” Harris writes. “They interpreted his simplistic style, love of science fiction and Midwestern values as being beneath serious study.” (See, for example the 1969 New York Times review of Slaughterhouse-Five.) But perhaps even more than the perennially relevant Dick, Vonnegut’s work speaks to us of our current predicament, and offers, if not optimism, at least a very limited form of hope, in our capacity to “help each through this thing,” whatever it is.

If you want to fully immerse yourself in Vonnegut's body of work, the Library of America has created a box set that contains all 14 novels plus a selection of the best of his stories.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

These Four Manuscripts Contain All of the Literature Written in Old English–and Beyond That, There’s Nothing More

Book historians and rare manuscript librarians do not have the most glamorous jobs by the usual standards. They deal with weathered, tattered, fragmentary scraps of text in archaic languages and lettering. It’s work unlikely to receive the Hollywood (or Netflix) treatment unless wizards, witches, or occult detectives are involved. But the relative obscurity of these professions does not make the work any less valuable. Without dedicated archivists and preservationists, a slow collective amnesia, or worse, can set in.

One might call this attitude precious. Specialists are useful, art is great, but with sophisticated machine learning, we can make, store, and print copies of every historical artifact in the world, along with all of the accumulated knowledge about them. What need to dote on crumbling manuscripts? Why the special status of the original? The question, taken up by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” comes down in part to something he called “aura.”




Take the case of four manuscripts, all of which recently appeared together at the British Library’s extensive exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War: The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf Manuscript contain riddles, religious texts, elegies, and the oldest manuscript of the oldest known poem in English. These represent the sum total of extant original literary manuscripts in Old English, a tongue several centuries distant from our own but still embedded deep within the structure of every modern version of the language.

Each manuscript has what, as Benjamin wrote, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking… its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Josephine Livingstone puts the matter more plainly at The New Republic.

Why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript… is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story…. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.

We can reproduce history infinitely, but the only way to experience the humbling otherworldliness that dwarfs our cramped ideas about it is through its physical remainders. Livingstone doesn’t clarify whom she includes in the phrase “our literary selves,” but we might as well say, at minimum, this means every speaker of English and everyone who has read English literature in translation or felt the influence of English words and phrases in other languages.

We acquire the language we hear and read from literary sources, however remote; they are constitutive, the threads that weave together cultural narratives into a larger pattern. The original work of art, Benjamin argued, like the relic, has religious significance. And where the relic grounds the cult, art grounds material culture in such a way, he thought, that it repels fascism's aesthetic obsession with destruction.

Original artifacts “must restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses,” literary scholar Susan Buck-Morss elaborates, “for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation.” The statement may sound less grandiose in the context of Europe in 1936, or we might consider it just as relevant today (and expand it to include not only art but nature).

We can rely on the fact that, should the Beowulf Manuscript be destroyed, Livingstone grants, “the poem would still survive,” as would the image of the manuscript in very fine detail. That is “the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge.” But what is lost can never appear in the world again. You can view most of these rare texts—The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, and the Beowulf Manuscript—in high resolution scans at the British and Bodleian Libraries.

The texts are a minuscule sampling of the number of cultural artifacts around the world worthy of preservation, and publicity. And they are a tiny sampling of the literary production of Old English. But on them rests a great deal of our understanding about the linguistic ancestors of the language, with more to learn, perhaps, as scanning technology becomes even more advanced, illuminating rather than replacing the original.

via The New Republic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

ErnestHemingway

Image by Lloyd Arnold via Wikimedia Commons

Before he was a big game hunter, before he was a deep-sea fisherman, Ernest Hemingway was a craftsman who would rise very early in the morning and write. His best stories are masterpieces of the modern era, and his prose style is one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Hemingway never wrote a treatise on the art of writing fiction.  He did, however, leave behind a great many passages in letters, articles and books with opinions and advice on writing. Some of the best of those were assembled in 1984 by Larry W. Phillips into a book, Ernest Hemingway on Writing.




We've selected seven of our favorite quotations from the book and placed them, along with our own commentary, on this page. We hope you will all--writers and readers alike--find them fascinating.

1: To get started, write one true sentence.

Hemingway had a simple trick for overcoming writer's block. In a memorable passage in A Moveable Feast, he writes:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

2: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

There is a difference between stopping and foundering. To make steady progress, having a daily word-count quota was far less important to Hemingway than making sure he never emptied the well of his imagination. In an October 1935 article in Esquire "Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter") Hemingway offers this advice to a young writer:

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

3: Never think about the story when you're not working.

Building on his previous advice, Hemingway says never to think about a story you are working on before you begin again the next day. "That way your subconscious will work on it all the time," he writes in the Esquire piece. "But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start." He goes into more detail in A Moveable Feast:

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

4: When it's time to work again, always start by reading what you've written so far.

T0 maintain continuity, Hemingway made a habit of reading over what he had already written before going further. In the 1935 Esquire article, he writes:

The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can't do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That's how you make it all of one piece.

5: Don't describe an emotion--make it.

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, said Hemingway. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to external events, but to also notice any emotion stirred in you by the events and then trace back and identify precisely what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify the concrete action or sensation that caused the emotion and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes about his early struggle to master this:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.

6: Use a pencil.

Hemingway often used a typewriter when composing letters or magazine pieces, but for serious work he preferred a pencil. In the Esquire article (which shows signs of having been written on a typewriter) Hemingway says:

When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.

7: Be Brief.

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, "never learned how to say no to a typewriter." In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway writes:

It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2013.

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An Atlas of Literary Maps Created by Great Authors: J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island & More

Plot, setting, character… we learn to think of these as discrete elements in literary writing, comparable to the strategy, board, and pieces of a chess game. But what if this scheme doesn’t quite work? What about when the setting is a character? There are many literary works named and well-known for the unforgettable places they introduce: Walden, Wuthering Heights, Howards End…. There are invented domains that seem more real to readers than reality: Faulkner’s Yoknapatowpha, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex… There are works that describe impossible places so vividly we believe in their existence against all reason: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, China Miéville’s The City and the City, Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"….

What sustains our belief in the integrity of fictional places? The fact that they seem to act upon events as much as the people who live in them, for one thing. And, just as often, the fact that so many authors and illustrators draw elaborate maps of literary settings, making their features real to us and embedding them in our minds.




A new book, The Writer’s Map, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones, offers lovers of literary maps—whether in non-fiction, realism, or fantasy—the opportunity to pore over maps of Thomas More’s Utopia (said to be the first literary map), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Branwell Brontë’s Verdopolis (above), and so many more.

The book is filled with essays about literary mapping by writers and map-makers, and it touches on the way authors themselves view imaginative mapping. “For some writers making a map is absolutely central to the craft of shaping and telling their tale,” writes Lewis-Jones. For others, making maps is also a way to avoid the painful task of writing, which Philip Pullman calls “a matter of sullen toil.” Drawing, on the other hand, he says, “is pure joy. Drawing a map to go with a story is messing around, with the added fun of coloring it in.” David Mitchell agrees: “As long as I was busy dreaming of topography,” he says of his maps, “I didn’t have to get my hands dirty with the mechanics of plot and character.”

It may surprise you to hear that writers hate to write, but writers are people, after all, and most people find writing tedious and difficult in some part. What all of the writers featured in this collection share is that they love indulging their imaginations, making real their lucid dreams, whether through the diversion of drawing maps or the grind of grammar and syntax. Many of these maps, like Thoreau’s drawing of Walden Pond or Johann David Wyss’s illustration of the desert island in The Swiss Family Robinson, accompanied their books into publication. Many more remained secreted in authors’ notebooks.

There are many such “private treasures” in The Writer’s Map, notes Atlas Obscura: “J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketch of Mordor, on graph paper; C.S. Lewis’s sketches; unpublished maps from the notebooks of David Mitchell… Jack Kerouac’s own route in On the Road….” Do we read a literary map differently when it wasn’t meant for us? Can maps be sly acts of misdirection as well as whimsical visual aids? Should we treat them as paratextual and unnecessary, or are they central, when an author chooses to include them, to our understanding of a story? Such questions, and many, many more, are taken up in The Writer’s Map, a long overdue survey of this longstanding literary tradition.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Edward Gorey Talks About His Love Cats & More in the Animated Series, “Goreytelling”

My childhood discovery of Edward Gorey proved revelatory. I recognized my own bewilderment in the blank expressions of his obsessively-rendered Edwardian children. His characters, imprisoned in starched collars and stays, stared at the world through hollow eyes, struck dumb by alternating currents of absurdity and horror. Every youngster with budding goth and New Romantic sensibilities found themselves drawn into Gorey’s weird worlds. Confessed Goreyphiles like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman took much from a style Steven Kurutz describes as “camp-macabre, ironic-gothic or dark whimsy.”

He gave his readers permission to be odd and haunted, and to laugh about it, but he never seemed to have needed such permission himself. He was as sui generis as he was mysterious, the scowling older gentleman with the long white beard assumed the role of an anti-Santa, bestowing gifts of guilt-free, solitary indulgence in dark fantasy.




But the man himself remained shrouded, and that was just as well. Learning more about him as an adult, I have been struck by just how closely he resembles some of his characters, or rather, by how much he was, in work and life, entirely himself.

A fashionably bookish hermit and Wildean aesthete, a man to whom, “by his own admission… nothing happened,” Gorey organized his life in New York around reading, seeing films, and attending George Balanchine’s ballets. (He rarely missed a performance over the course of three decades, then moved to his famed Cape Cod house when Balanchine died in the mid-80s.) “Despite being a lifelong Anglophile, he made just one brief visit to Scotland and England,” writes Kurutz, “his only trip abroad.”

In a Proust Questionnaire he answered for Vanity Fair, Gorey wrote that his favorite journey was “looking out the window.” The supreme love of his life, he wrote: his cats. Those beloved creatures are the subject of the third episode of Goreytelling, at the top, an animated web series consisting of short excerpts from an upcoming documentary simply titled Gorey, directed by Christopher Seufert, who spent several years recording his conversations with Gorey. The very Gorey-like animations are by Benjamin and Jim Wickey.

If you’ve ever wondered what Edward Gorey sounded like, wonder no more. Hear his solidly Midwestern accent (Gorey grew up in Chicago) as he describes the travails of living with adorable, frustrated predators who destroy the furniture and throw themselves on his drawing table, ruining his work. Further up, he tells the story of a mummy’s head he kept wrapped up in his closet, and just above he tells a story about The Loathesome Couple a 1977 book he wrote based a series of real-life murders of British children by a married couple. “A lot people,” he says, would tell him “this one book of yours, I really find a little… much.”

Goreyphiles out there, and they number in the millions, will thoroughly enjoy these animations (see episode 2, “Fan Mail,” here and 4, “Dracula,” here). Gorey the documentary promises to bring us even closer to the curmudgeonly author and artist. His life makes for a quirky series of vignettes, but ultimately Gorey was a “Magellan of the imagination,” says cultural critic and biographer Mark Dery. “He journeyed vastly between his ears…. So that’s where you have to look for the life. On the psychic geography of his unconscious,” and in the pages of his over 100 satisfyingly unsettling books.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The “Most Secretive Library in the World”: The Future Library Will Collect 100 Original Manuscripts by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell & More, to Be Read for the First Time in 2114

Should intelligent life of some form or another still inhabit the planet in the year 6939, such beings might come upon an “800-pound tube of an alloy of copper and chromium called Cupaloy” that was buried 50 feet beneath what was once Queens. The first time capsule, lowered under the Westinghouse exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair contains “35 items one might find in any run-of-the-mill Smith family household,” as Jinwoo Chong writes at Untapped Cities, “including copies of Life magazine, a Sears and Roebuck catalog, cigarettes and seeds of wheat, corn, alfalfa and soy.”

The Future Library, a time capsule-like project presently in the works, takes a very different approach to the concept. “A forest is growing in Norway,” explains an introductory video on creator Katie Paterson’s website. “In 100 years it will become an anthology of books.” The books that will be printed from 1,000 trees planted in Nordmarka, north of Oslo, will not, however, transmit mining and navigational instructions, but a full range of human emotion and personal experience. Or so we might assume. Unlike the 1939 time capsule, we'll never know what's inside them.




Scottish artist Paterson has planned a library of 100 creative works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—one manuscript submitted every year until 2114, when she intends them all to be printed in 3,000 copies each and read for the first time. Almost none of us will be there to witness the event, yet “the timescale is… not vast in cosmic terms,” she says. “It is beyond our current lifespans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativize,” unlike the incomprehensible future of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the far-off world for which Westinghouse designed their capsule.

Nonetheless, technological, and perhaps even evolutionary, change has increased exponentially in the past several decades, as have the possibilities for global extinction events. Margaret Atwood, the first author to submit an unpublished, unread manuscript to the Future Library in 2014, is characteristically less than sanguine about the existence of future readers for her manuscript, entitled Scribbler Moon. “It’s very optimistic to believe that there will still be people in 100 years,” she says in the short video above, and “that those people will still be reading.” Atwood imagines a near-future that may not even recognize our time.

Which words that we use today will be different, archaic, obsolete? Which new words will have entered the language? We don’t know what footnotes we will need. Will they have computers? Will they call them something else? What will they think smartphones are? Will that word still exist?

Writers for the project are chosen by the Future Library’s board of trustees. After the canny selection of Atwood, they chose the equally on-the-nose David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who calls the library “the Ark of Literature.” It is a strange ark, filled with animals few people living now will likely ever see. "The world's most secretive library," The Guardian calls it.  In 2016, Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón submitted his mysterious text. The fourth work came from Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who named the project “a secular act of faith.”

The latest writer chosen is Man Booker-winning South Korean novelist Han Kang, who described the Future Library as a literal expression of the writer’s thoughts on their duty to posterity: “I cannot survive 100 years from now, of course. No one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write?” Did Jane Austen imagine her readers of 100 years later? Could she ever have imagined us?

Not only is the Future Library an act of literary faith, but it is an ecological one. “The next 96 years do not look promising for the seedlings,” writes Merve Emre at The New York Times, “which are more vulnerable than their ancestors to all manner of man-made disasters.” The project symbolically binds together the fates of the book and the trees, making “the physicality of culture palpable by insisting that we confront the long, laborious process of preserving language.”

In 2020, the collection of manuscripts will be moved to a “Silent Room” in Oslo, a “womb-shaped chamber facing the forest, lined with wood from its trees.” Visitors can come and venerate these secretive future relics in their ribbon-wrapped gray boxes. But their contents—should the ambitious endeavor go as planned—will remain as elusive as the shape of our collective future 100 years from now.

via NYTimes

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Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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