116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Eric Bennett, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and associate professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, has penned a study of writing programs on university campuses - including the University of Iowa's famed program - during the Cold War.
Via email while traveling in Europe, Bennett answered questions about 'Workshops of Empire: Stenger, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War,” which is published by University of Iowa Press.
Q: What first sparked your interest in studying writing programs and their possible relationship to Cold War agendas?
A: In Midland, an anthology of writing at Iowa published in 1961, Paul Engle thanks a long list of benefactors. The list includes Averell Harriman. At the time, Harriman was a towering political figure of international reputation. Engle's acknowledging him would be like Lan Samantha Chang's acknowledging John Kerry or Hillary Clinton for their support of today's Workshop. I saw that and I thought, 'That's interesting. There's a story there.”
Q: The book highlights a shift toward literature that features the individual and his/her unique experience, arguing that it stands in opposition to literature with more global or abstract concerns. How does this connect to (or contrast with) the notion that reading this sort of literature builds empathy for others and provides a framework for appreciating diversity rather than homogeneity?
A: This question goes deep to the heart of the American (and maybe even the basic human) dilemma. How does the freedom of the individual relate to the needs of the community?
In the 1940s and 1950s, in the wake of the Nazi death camps and in the shadow of the Soviet gulag, Stegner, Engle and their colleagues believed that the individual needed to be heard - not only for his own good, but for the sake of humanity, in order to ward off the danger of the effacement of the little guy.
The contrast, in the 1950s, was between freedom in the west and the oppressive conditions behind the iron curtain. And mostly it was white males writing the fiction and poetry. As the times changed, anti-Stalinist individualism flowed naturally into the countercultural insistence on the importance of suppressed American voices - those of women and minorities.
More recently this has broadened even more to include sexual orientation. I agree with those who believe that the work of cultural enfranchisement for all is far from complete. It remains utterly crucial work.
But I also think that many writers before the rise of writing programs painted on a much broader canvas and did so with great success. Does the default emphasis on individuality often condoned in the classroom deserve to be challenged? And can we really write best if and only if we write primarily about ourselves? These questions, and others like them, are at least worth asking.
Q: The depiction of Paul Engle could be said to reframe him not as an innovative, driven fellow with a singular vision that he worked creatively to achieve, but rather as a man buffeted by prevailing opinion and the influence of friends/mentors to serve political - rather than artistic - ends. Given this, is Engle's legacy something Iowans (and those with a deep interest in literature far beyond Iowa) should take pride in?
A: Engle's papers reveal that he, like so many writers and intellectuals of his generation, was radicalized by the Great Depression. His early poetry, through 1934, was patriotic and touted by conservative critics. Starting in 1935, the Soviet vision for a prosperous future compelled his imagination, and he wrote about Communism and espoused left-wing ideas.
Later, as news of Soviet horrors reached the West, Engle made his peace with capitalism and liberal democracy and never looked back. So his opinions, in his youth, shifted considerably, no doubt. But at the same time he was exactly what you say: innovative, driven, and creatively committed to a single vision, namely, the writer as a pacifistic global citizen.
He was a peacemaker who almost single-handedly established Iowa City as a crossroads of literary peacemaking, and Iowans can take enormous pride in this. I take pride in it, and I'm from Michigan.
Q: Do you think the literary arts would have been better served if the various workshops had never been founded? Or could they have been founded under different conditions that would have been more desirable?
A: What I discovered through my research was a riveting story - a story, at least, that riveted me, and one that I tried to give my full sympathy to. What made Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner tick? What kind of atmosphere did they move through? How did that atmosphere influence their actions at Iowa and Stanford? And how did their work as program directors shape our institutions of literature in the decades afterward?
Knowing more about where workshops came from can give us new purchase on our present-day conception of them. It might well be the case that a deeper familiarity with the history of these institutions changes nothing. But a greater sense of the history might, for some writers and teachers at least, create space to dream of new possibilities in response to new circumstances.
Q: Given the vast output of writers who have attended various workshops - including Iowa's and all those modeled on it - is it really possible to conclude that a single political/ideological agenda has been advanced by the programs?
A: The metaphor that I always come back to is that of weather as it relates to climate change. Writers, as you say, are far too numerous and various to pigeonhole. Iowa, Stanford and other writing programs graduate Marxists, Catholics, vegans, Ayn Randians, agnostics, apathetics, bleeding hearts, bicycle activists, veterans - the list could fill the rest of the page.
That's the weather of American writing: too manifold to generalize about. But is our literature today more focused on the individual than literature has ever been? And do the techniques and conventions of fiction and poetry - the very forms of language - contribute to that individualism? And do MFA programs play a role in that? And which programs? Some of them? All of them? And for what historical reasons?
The weather at any given time or place might be sunny or rainy. But if there's an overall trend - if the planet is getting warmer - then that trend is worth recognizing and talking about.