When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction-Writing: Iowa Writers’ Workshop as CIA Baby?

When you get involved in fiction writing, you hear “Iowa” a lot. It’s shorthand for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, operating since 1936 under the auspices of the University of Iowa. It’s also a flagship of American creativity. And, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it was also erected as a bulwark against Communism, and partially funded by the CIA.

Iowa, a weapon of the Cold War?! That bastion of individualism? The first program in the US to promote advanced degrees in creative writing, to amplify the voices of writers expressing themselves freely, independently, even iconoclastically?  Oh…wait. I think I get it.

It was a shock to me at first, I must admit, when I read this sentence in an article in Al Jazeera America about the CIA sending hip-hop artists to Cuba to further American ideals: “It was also a CIA front group, known as the Farfield Foundation, that provided seed money for what would become the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.” I had to investigate.

Turns out that quote comes from Professor Eric Bennett,  assistant professor of English at Providence College. [The article adds that Dr. Bennett’s “book on creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. This essay is adapted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber 
and Faber.”–just in case you want to track him down.]

Here’s the part of Dr. Bennett’s article I found most striking:

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.

After reading the whole article, I can’t say that I’m “shocked, shocked!” at the ideas Dr. Bennett expresses. The writing is not muck-raking; it’s a deeply personal statement about the impact of political ideas on a creative movement, and the more I think about it, the less surprised I am that such impact should have been so deliberately built. The Cold War was, after all, by definition, a war of ideas. Why should creative writing be held above the fray?

The only bit that leaves a bad taste in my mouth is Iowa’s own disingenuity when presenting its own history. Here’s what their website has to say on the subject:

One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was the poet Paul Engle, who assumed the directorship of the Workshop in 1941. During the 24 years of his directorship, the Workhsop gained a national reputation as the premier program of its kind. During World War II enrollment was no more than a dozen students, but after the war it grew, attaining in a few years a strength of over a hundred students, and dividing into the fiction and poetry sections which exist today.

Yep–same Paul Engle whom Dr. Bennett knew personally, and describes as “a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior.” The Iowa website seems to be opting for the storyline of spontaneously-arising program for artists. Given what Dr. Bennett has detailed, that origin story appears to be–perhaps appropriately–fiction.

No problems with those origins–but I would like to see Iowa be a little more open about them.

Do you agree? Are you “shocked, shocked”? Or is this old news to you? 



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