Did Conservatives Start Creative Writing Programs to Fight the Cold War?

Review: Eric Bennett, ‘Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War’

Wallace Stenger, Paul Engle
November 21, 2015

In 1946, there were only two programs in creative writing at American universities—one at Iowa and another at Stanford. In 1967, when the Associated Writing Programs (now Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was founded, there were 13. A mere eight years later, there were 55, which nearly tripled by 1985, when there were 150 graduate programs and 10 undergraduate ones. In 2012, there were 342 graduate programs in creative writing, from the M.A. to the Ph.D, and 163 undergraduate ones.

How did this happen? Why were creative writing programs started in the first place, and how did they become so popular?

In his fashionably titled Workshops of Empire, Eric Bennett argues we can thank Cold War conservatives and liberal allies. According to Bennett, during the Second World War, a group of loosely associated writers and critics came to believe that teaching fiction and poetry to American (and, eventually, international) students could inoculate them against communist propaganda. Indebted to both New Humanism and New Criticism, writers such as Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner founded creative writing programs that taught students that literature was essentially "individualistic"—that is, it affirmed the reality (and perhaps primacy) of the human will and individual actions—and that it valued messy particulars over neat abstractions.

Engle raised money by arguing that this approach to reading and writing could steal young people’s minds against the impersonal abstractions of Communism. This aesthetic is what came to be taught at workshops across the country and accounts, according to Bennett—though he does not explore this in detail—for the highly personal and "anti-abstract" writing that is produced by thousands of creative writing students today.

Bennett’s argument differs somewhat from D. G. Myers’s classic history of creative writing in The Elephants Teach. Myers argues that creative writing was grounded in a progressive student-centered pedagogy and was launched at American universities as an alternative to the heavy emphasis on philology in English departments at the time. It was concerned less with teaching young people to write than with reforming the way literature was taught. Rather than approaching literature as a corpus used in the study of language change, which generally ignored questions of literary meaning, early champions of creative writing, Myers writes, "sought to impart the understanding of literature through a use of it." "Creative writing," he writes, "was originally conceived as a means of teaching literature from the inside."

There is no reason, of course, that the founding of creative writing at American universities could not have been both a way to fight the Cold War and teach literature "from the inside." Indeed, Bennett’s account of both Engle and Stegner’s program building is regularly interesting and informative. Unfortunately, his larger claims about the politics of writing and style are mostly speculative and, at times, stunningly contradictory.

There’s no doubt that both Iowa and Stanford benefited from government support. In a long chapter on Engle, Bennett shows that the Iowa director was a savvy fundraiser, who acquired hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money from the Rockefeller Foundation, other foundations, private donors, and even the CIA by promising to build a program for both American and foreign students "far from both coasts" in the "heart of the Midwest," where they would learn "the essential America."

Engle made regular trips overseas to recruit foreign writers to Iowa in order to help them "write more understandingly of the United States." In 1964, Eun-Kook Kim, a student of the Iowa program, published the best-selling and critically acclaimed The Martyred. Engle used Kim’s success to tout the work that was being done in Iowa. In the New York Times, he boasted that it was only "by turning to that legendary figure, the American business man," that he was able to bring Kim to Iowa.

But was Engle really trying to fight the Cold War with creative writing or was he, as Bennett quotes him as saying, simply trying to "run the future of American literature, and a great deal of European and Asia, through Iowa City," where his vision of that future just happened to dovetail with Cold War concerns? Just because Engle used coded political language to raise money does not necessarily mean that he was, in Bennett’s words, "using culture … to fight communism." Anyone who has ever applied for a grant knows that sometimes you simply say what you must.

Bennett offers little evidence that Engle actively used creative writing to wage war for the West. Engle’s faculty hires and organizational decisions did not seem to be motivated by a strong anti-communist sentiment—at least not more so than any other university decision at the time. Engle himself floated from one political point of view to the next. He composed populist hymns to an idealized America in the early 1930s, Marxist claptrap in the late 1930s (which was panned by both the left and the right), before turning to poems on more regional topics. The one item of continuity in his work was an interest in addressing popular audiences—a view of the place of poetry in society that was championed a generation earlier by Vachel Lindsey but which lost out to the more esoteric view of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Bennett notes, for example, that Engle’s West of Midnight (1941) is a "call-to-arms for a popular readership," but he ignores the possibility that Engle might have used Cold War money to fight this aesthetic battle—one that crosses party lines and continues to this day—rather than a war against Communism.

In a telling remark in the middle of his chapter on Engle, Bennett states that Engle made "the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a bastion of anti-Communism." But in the very next sentence, he adds: "Regardless of whether it was so in fact—regardless of the ideological temper of its students and faculty—it became so in image." But it matters a lot whether the creative writing program at Iowa actually was anti-communist or not. If it wasn’t, how can Bennett argue that Engle used creative writing to fight Communism or that the workshop aesthetics developed at Iowa were shaped by politics?

The case of Wallace Stegner isn’t any more convincing, and Bennett admits early on that Stegner’s concerns were less political than purely aesthetic. As did Engle, Stegner shared certain views with donors about the nature and value of literature, but his interest "in the relationship between the particular and the universal ran deep and developed long before 1951." Bennett gets around this problem by associating New Criticism’s interest in specificity and the New Humanists’ concern with morality with what he calls "the conservative turn" during and after WWII, and uses vaguely sketched historical context to support this.

But it’s difficult to speak of politics, much less views of art, as either conservative or liberal during the 1950s. This causes problems throughout the book but particularly with Stegner, whom Bennett at first calls a "visceral conservative," only to state a few pages later that he "was the consummate moderate." A few pages after that and both Stegner and Engle have suddenly become "liberals" who were "open to other points of view"—as if conservatives, by definition, weren’t.

Bennett’s history stops before 1970, when creative writing programs began to triple nearly every ten years, but it’s hard to imagine how a supposedly conservative aesthetic gained such wide appeal during a period when conservative ideas among students were increasingly unpopular.

What’s more likely, as Bennett himself suggests, even though it seems to conflict with the gist of his argument, is that the emphasis early on in creative writing programs on reaching out to the marginalized became "an imperative stretching far beyond the white and the male—as the ripples and then waves of the identity movements washed over everything in America."

Published under: Book reviews