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? 



OK, I’m Home–Now How Do I Hang Onto All Those Memories?

10,000 miles. 20 states (OK, 19 plus Puerto Rico). 60 close friends and family members. 23 local, state and national parks. 

We’re home. Time to caption & share the photos. That should do it for capturing memories, right?

For any normal person, maybe. But for capturing the full vibrancy of a past moment, I like to play “Best of.” It’s a game we started with our kids when they were small, and I think it rubbed off more on me than on them. Here’s how it works:

Best Hike of Trip: Nevada Falls in Yosemite (3/28). (I mean, really, how could anything in Yosemite NOT win Best Hike?) Eating an orange way too close to the edge with my son who’s about to disappear into Central America for 2 months…


Runner-up: El Yunque Peak, Puerto Rico (3/7) Getting drenched with The Mate on the way down…after all, it IS a rain forest…

Honorable Mention: Nevada Falls again (3/27). Yup, I went up twice in a row. Didn’t have enough time the first day.

Best Bike Path: Turtle Bay, Redding, California (3/29). An old favorite, not a new discovery, but nothing beats this wonderfully curvy path with its little roller-coaster section, wild bunnies, blooming redbuds…

Runner-up: Provo River, Utah (3/23). Exercising nervous tension before Carolina’s final NCAA game…

Honorable Mention: Bettendorf, Iowa (3/20). Who knew the Quad Cities were so into fitness?

Best Dinner: That little hamlet near Ceiba, Puerto Rico that served fish with sauteed onions and lime (3/6). Giant as-yet-uncaught fish patrolled the waters beneath the restaurant deck, probably scarfing the entrails of our dinner.


Runner-up: a tie between Mama Dip’s Fried Chicken in Chapel Hill (3/14) (Mama Dip catered our wedding back in 1986!) and our friend Ben’s braised lamb shanks in Asheville, NC (3/1). Ben OWNS lamb.

Honorable Mention: fried pork and plantains, El Yunque (3/3 and 3/4). Good thing we got out of there; that diet would have killed us. But we would’ve died happy…

Best Lunch: Allen & Son’s BBQ with fixins (3/13). OOOF. No possible runner-up.

Best Breakfast: El Yunque Inn’s creamy oatmeal with fresh mango (3/4). Since all our other breakfasts were cereal, that one kinda stands out…

And, lest you think with me and The Mate it’s all about exercise and food…well, it is. On road trips, we are rarely in Museum Mode. But we do branch out occasionally.

Best Cultural Experience: Bluegrass & Beer at Asheville’s French Broad Brewery (3/1). It’s the name of the river, silly, not some Parisian chick…

Runner-up: My own (first!) author reading at The Regulator Bookshop in my hometown, Durham, NC (3/11). 🙂
Best Unexpected Find: Great Basin National Park, Nevada (3/25-6). Aspens. Quiet. Wild turkeys.

Runner-up: Rock Canyon, Provo, Utah (3/22). Whoa, those rock climbers are all so happy!

Honorable Mention: Tie between the Ceiba Country Inn, Puerto Rico (3/5-6)--all those dogs!--and the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 100-acre sculpture woods (3/19). Is that a spaceship sinking in that lake?

Notice a pattern here? The bolded words are the real memories. The whole “contest” is just an excuse to push my brain to run through all those thousands of possibilities, reinforcing the synaptic connections of every single one of those 49 days. 

Oh, and the dates? That’s just my nerdiness. See, my grandma lived to be 103 and kept a razor-sharp memory till the end. Just in case I’ve inherited her longevity genes, I’m keeping my own brain in SHAPE.

So that’s how I remember good times. Do you have other tricks? Memorabilia? Rock collections? Or are you so glad to be home you just let it all go and move on to doing laundry?


Are Subarus a Political Indicator? Observations from the Interstates

Road Trip IV, Days 41-43: Des Moines, Iowa to Provo, Utah

Since Wing’s World continues to be hijacked by a travel blogger for the duration of her road trip, I figure it’s time to focus some attention on…the road. Or more specifically, the vehicles and landscapes we’ve been looking at for the past couple thousand miles. For The Mate and me, the two coasts are all about visiting family, friends, and national parks, but in the middle of the country (with the exception of one newly-discovered cousin) it’s just us and the road.

And no Subarus. Our little Red Rover is feeling kinda alienated. Where’d all the Subarus go?

I’ll tell you where: Subaru Nation. A.k.a. Northern California to western Washington; New England; and the university-dominated sections of the Southeast, including my home state, North Carolina.

Outside of Subaru Nation, it’s all about trucks and SUVs. (Except in LA, where sports cars compete with Prius for Highest Degree of Cool.)

I’m telling you: I’ve driven across the country four years in a row, and I see a political pattern. Blue States? Subarus. Red states? No Subarus. (With the exception, again, of SoCal, and the Tarheel State, which seems to be backing away from its 2008 blueness at the speed of light.)

I don’t know if Democrats are more likely to buy Subarus, or if owning a Subaru exerts a subconscious pressure to buy Obama stickers. (It’s POSSIBLE, I suppose, that the issue is more complicated than this.) But if there are any Republican Subaru owners out there, I’d like to meet ’em.

imageSome other road observations:

Iowa gets a bad rap. Iowa is NOT flat. It’s beautifully rolling. Kansas, on the other hand? Pancake City. There’s a reason we’re taking I-80 instead of I-70.

Washington, my adopted, till-death-do-us-part state, has the best rest areas in the country.

It’s true. New England states, West Virginia and maybe a couple others in the northeast, have these “travel plazas” where you can pee, then refuel with Starbucks, McDonalds, or Dunkin Donuts. Most other states just have bathrooms, maybe a picnic area. (Half of Texas’s rest areas seemed closed, but then, everything in Texas is bigger, so maybe bladders are too.)

But Washington’s rest areas, at least on I-5? They have sweet little church ladies serving you coffee and cookies. For free. Well, you’re supposed to leave a donation, and everybody does, so those church ladies (or Elks, or Rotarians) probably earn a tidy little sum, which is why they do it, of course. But it doesn’t feel like that. When I wander over for a cup of tea, I feel like someone’s grandma has come out to the freeway to make sure I’m comfy. Thanks, Grandma! I miss you. I sure wish more states allowed you out on the road.

imageSo, am I right about Subarus, or am I crazy? Or am I missing some rest area gems from a non-Washington state? Or have I offended any Kansans? Let me hear your own Interstate Observations.