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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the CIA Fund­ed & Sup­port­ed Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines World­wide While Wag­ing Cul­tur­al War Against Com­mu­nism

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less, Kafkaesque Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

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

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  • David Bradley says:

    I always knew Aris­to­tle was work­ing for some­body. After I read John Dry­den, I was pret­ty sure it was the CIA.

  • Karl Wenclas says:

    I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a debate at CBG­B’s in 2001; the Paris Review ver­sus the Under­ground Lit­er­ary Alliance. After­ward George Plimp­ton told me that the one mis­take we (the ULA) were mak­ing was think­ing writ­ing could be at times polem­i­cal.

    Paris Review was a delib­er­ate attempt, dur­ing the Cold War, to shift Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture away from its pop­ulist direc­tion.

    This arti­cle by Josh Jones is spot on. Good job.

  • Todd Fahey says:

    No men­tion of the Stan­ford grad­u­ate-writ­ing pro­gram of which Kesey and Vic Lovell and Lar­ry McMurtry were mem­bers, and whose “leader” Wal­lace Steg­n­er was mon­i­tored of its stu­dents by senior SRI offi­cials (CIA) with­in the stu­dent vol­un­teer drug tests going on between 1958–63(-ish) at neigh­bor­ing Men­lo Park Vet­er­ans Hos­pi­tal. No men­tion of Tim­o­thy Leary, who was a great writer in his own right and, pre-Har­vard, designed the Leary Per­son­al­i­ty Test while as a Ph.D stu­dent and lecturer/Professor at UC-Berke­ley, and which became the CIA’s agent recruit­ment test. No men­tion of Allen Gins­berg, who was pur­port­ed­ly aware of the CIA’s drug exper­i­ments via hav­ing been com­mit­ted to a men­tal hos­pi­tal pre-Kesey years and giv­en LSD dur­ing his time in a nut­house…

    A thor­ough going of this epoch is found with­in _Wisdom’s Maw_:

  • Alderberry says:

    A dear friend and writer men­tor of mine wrote about this in 1979 for a mag­a­zine that fold­ed before publication,R ichard Elman. Here’s a link for those what want to read more and some­thing con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous, or more so, with some of the writ­ers dis­cussed in this piece. Cheers Alder­ber­ry

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