Monday, November 30, 2015

Writing the Cold War

When WW II ended, millions of GIs enrolled in colleges. The Cold War was heating up and creative writing programs reflected this change in subtle ways. Efforts were made in academia to create a climate of anti-communism. Any whiff of subversion, of the artist as disruptive to the system, was soon gone. Bohemian creativity of Greenwich Village was relocated to the heartland.

Foundation money was funneled to those institutions which encouraged a new American style distinct from that which marked the 30s. Writers became more provincial and personal. The thrust was to bring it close and then closer yet. Soon they were writing about themselves, disguised as him or her. 

Art became abstract. Confessional poetry bloomed. Attention turned inward. Both prose and poetry was safe. It lacked a certain reach in terms of language and substance.

What's wrong with that picture? What's wrong is what's been left behind. Absent was a global consciousness necessary for social comment. Doctrine had been drummed out the door and with it the language of critical discourse which requires a reasonable distance from the subject. Gone is the historical sweep from a mid-distant perch. Such thoughts were relegated to the non-fiction shelf.

The burning issues of the day was off-limits: root causes and dimension of the Holocaust, the loss of European empire and rise of the developing countries, emergence of the U.S. as the dominant power. In short the moral imagination of creative writing.

This is elaborated in Eric Bennett's new book, Workshops of Empire, which takes aim at writing as taught in universities, particularly the Iowa Writer's Workshop and at Stanford, under Wallace Stegner, in the three decades after WW II. Bennett's thesis is that from the beginning of the Cold War the prevailing anti-communist agenda encouraged academia to push fiction and poetry away from the social radicalism of the 30s into a more non-ideological direction.

America emerged from the war as the new world power, insular and superior. In spite of Ginsberg's Howl and Miller's Salesman a new aesthetic was born. It bore no resemblance to the social protest songs of the Depression era or even Steinbeck's, Grapes of Wrath. Instead we got Anne Tyler’s quirks and Updike’s Rabbit running through decades.

We swallowed a version of the American mythos so pervasive it went virtually unnoticed. Creative writing changed along the way. Eastern European writers released an new imaginative voice. Post-Soviet and post-colonial literature, has a decidedly different feel. The 2015 Man-Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James is both an immediately felt and politically-charged text. In fact all writing is political whether by commission or by virtue of what it omits.

The notion of Rockefeller Foundation or CIA intervention may not be so far-fetched. In 2012 Ian McEwan wrote, Sweet Tooth, a novel about a covert program by MI-5 to bankroll writers with a pro-Western, anti-communist proclivity. The idea is to keep them successful and not, heaven forbid, entertain any counter-cultural notions.  

If you've got a message, Sam Goldwyn famously said, send a telegram. They're not for movies or, for that matter, any art form. Yet the message of No Message carried the day via, Father Knows BestGunsmoke, I Love Lucy or the soaps. 

Hollywood showed women and people of color how to know their place and college workshops reinforced the American values with self-absorbed characters. There is room for both: vibrant ideas can challenge the margins while the language of introspection can burst with new life.

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