Letter: On the CIA and the Iowa Writers' Workshop


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Christopher Merrill or anyone else interested in seeing the documentary evidence for the CIA support of writing at Iowa should consult series two, box four, file four (1 Nov. 1964-31 March 1969) of the Paul Engle Papers in the University of Iowa Main Library’s Special Collections. That folder contains a list of contributors for 1967, including the Farfield Foundation. The Farfield Foundation has been established by the Cold War historians Frances Stonor Saunders and Hugh Wilford as a CIA front. The library permitted me to make a copy of the contributor list in question for my own records when I visited in 2007, and I would send along a PDF, but I do not have permission to reproduce the image.  The papers are open to the public, and I encourage anybody who is curious to go have a look.

What, exactly, was happening in Paul Engle’s life in 1967? Was the CIA money intended for the Writers’ Workshop or the International Writing Program? The donation landed in the IWP coffers, but the questions are nevertheless good ones. Wikipedia (and other popular accounts) cite 1965 as the last year of Engle’s directorship of the domestic Workshop. This is approximately true, but the narrative in the archives has the chaos of the worst of academic politics and reflects Engle’s great reluctance to relinquish his central role in the Workshop. It’s sad, boring stuff, and full of conflicting viewpoints and rancorous spats. In spring 1965, Engle got waylaid at a faculty meeting and was surprised to discover that he was losing control of the Workshop. He had been away from Iowa City a lot, traveling internationally.  His surrogates had been making important decisions without him, and he was enraged. So it’s definitely true to say that in spring 1965, his grip on the Workshop began to slip. But as late as spring of 1966 (a year later), Eugene Garber (the unofficial acting director of the Workshop in 1965-66) and Vance Bourjaily (faculty) sent letters from Iowa City to ask Engle (in Europe) about enrollment and personnel issues. Engle still, as far as I can tell, considered the Wrokshop to be his show, and he was treated by faculty as a necessary person to be consulted regarding important matters in spring 1966.

In fall 1966, amid continuing turmoil, George Starbuck assumed the directorship of the Workshop. Engle was finally fully ousted. He did not found the IWP with Nieh Hualing (who would later become his wife) until June 1967. I can’t judge from the documents that I’ve seen the exact week or month when Engle, privately and mentally, at last let go of the domestic program. He had been building the Workshop since the early 1940s and thinking of it as an internationally minded program at least since the mid-1950s. The letting go of the directorship was hard for him. Yet, despite the ambiguity of the timeline, I feel comfortable saying, based on all the evidence I have seen to date, that the donors whom Engle lists in 1967 were courted by him in 1966 or earlier, in months and years when Engle was still thinking of international writing as a dimension of the Workshop and not a separate thing. The money was raised for the Workshop but went to the IWP. Many of the individuals and organizations on the list in question, unlike the Farfield Foundation, were long-standing sponsors of the domestic Workshop.

In retrospective accounts, Engle presented the founding of the IWP in June 1967 as a spontaneous development unrelated to the Workshop. The archival evidence suggests something different: that the gesture reflected pride and anger as well as idealism. He left the Workshop, founded the IWP, and took his donors with him.

The CIA connection, which was fleeting, and which straddles the confusing months of the Workshop power struggle, serves the argument of my piece in the Chronicle Review by fitting a long pattern of evidence from Engle’s career as a fundraiser. I argue that he promoted the Workshop as a bastion of American free expression in contrast to Soviet control of the arts. The CIA detail, to judge by last week’s flap, is symbolically potent. But it doesn’t bear especially on what I consider to be the parts of my argument most worth discussing. The debate I had hoped to give rise to is about American literature since the 1950s. Have we, as creative writers, inherited more assumptions than we think? My hunch is yes. But I would love for the conversation to continue and for us to draw on as much historical evidence as we can all dig up together.

Eric Bennett is an assistant professor of English at Providence College. His article “How Iowa Flattened Literature” recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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