The UNESCO Cities of Literature list has one or two rather curious inclusions, even though its criteria are focused on the strengths of current programs to support writers and literature, rather than deep world-historical literary and cultural significance. Dublin deserves to be on that list, certainly, and Edinburgh; but Melbourne comes as a little more of a surprise … and Iowa? Not to be snobbish or anything, but Iowa , which became only the third UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, does not trip naturally off the tongue as a cradle of our shared communal human heritage of great writing and high culture.

And yet … “as the home of the highly acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop – the world’s first Master of Fine Arts degree program in creative writing – Iowa City and the University of Iowa have played a substantial role in how literature, first in America and then around the world, has come to be written. The MFA degree workshop concept has spread to more than 300 hundred American universities and to universities in numerous other countries.” That’s the UNESCO program’s blurb talking.

Leaving aside for a moment the controversy over the actual value of MFA programs, and the quality of the writers they produce, why is it that Iowa was so instrumental in developing this concept? Well, according to a fascinating, if very personal, essay entitled “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” by Eric Bennett, assistant professor of English at Providence College, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the answer is the CIA.

Bennett writes out of evident antipathy to the MFA concept, at least as implemented in Iowa, but what he says about the funding of its genesis is fascinating. “Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.”

Actually, I know very well about the CIA’s funding of cultural endeavors elsewhere. The CCF used to fund Encounter, a UK literary magazine I wrote for, which closed, unsurprisingly, in 1991, shortly after the end of the Cold War. And Bennett describes Engle’s role as “the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior,” who garnered “checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956,” to fund and promote its Writers’ Workshop from a local institution in the 1930s to its current … well, UNESCO-recognized status. The Writers’ Workshop, he adds, “also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.” And according to Bennett, even the location was part of the value case for the CIA and private right-wing funding sources, by “rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City.”

As said, the contribution of the MFA concept to global literature is itself now a matter of controversy. Bennett’s own essay “is adapted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber & Faber.” But it’s worth reflecting also what revelations of CIA and related funding did in other contexts. Stephen Spender and Frank Kermode both resigned as editors of Encounter when the CIA money trail was laid bare. Noam Chomsky’s virulent leftwards tilt has long been attributed by many commentators to his own issues about US government funding of his early linguistics research in the 1950s. If Iowa’s role in the development of creative literature teaching worldwide deserves UNESCO commemoration, then surely the reasons behind it at least deserve to be known as well.


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