Did the CIA Fund Creative Writing in America?Posted: February 11, 2014
How Iowa Flattened Literature
Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.
Seven years earlier, Engle had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. “I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country,” he wrote. This could mean only that “thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination.” Engle denounced rounding up students in “one easily supervised place” as a “typical Soviet tactic.” He believed that the United States must “compete with that, hard and by long time planning”—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.
But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the 1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education, colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and others there.
Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas.
So where did the money and the hype come from?
Much of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. 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.
As for the hype, it followed the money and attracted more of it. The publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce publishedTime and Life, Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.
Knowing he could count on such publicity, Engle staged spectacles in Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City. He read memorial sonnets for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student union. He convened a celebration of Baudelaire with an eye toward the non-Communist left in Paris. He organized a festival of the sciences and arts. Life and Time and Look transformed these events into impressive press clippings, and the clippings, via Engle’s tireless hands, arrived in the mailboxes of possible donors.
In 1954, Engle became the editor of the O. Henry Prize collection, and so it became his task to select the year’s best short stories and introduce them to a mass readership. Lo and behold, writers affiliated with Iowa began to be featured with great prominence in the collection. Engle marveled at this, the impartial fruits of his judging, in fund-raising pitches…
Eric Bennett is an assistant professor of English at Providence College. His book on creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. This essay is adapted fromMFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber and Faber and n+1.