- Secret History of Writing Programs
University of Iowa Press
256 Pages; Print, $16.00
Given the current proliferation of American MFA programs in Creative Writing and the questions that continually surface regarding the homogeneity of the writing they produce, it is fascinating to read Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War to gain an understanding of the role such programs played in America’s Cold War policies and politics. How many current Creative Writing MFA students and their professors, who often came through such programs themselves, have any idea of the role the Rockefeller Foundation and the CIA played in creating the very atmosphere in which they are working?
In his Introduction to Workshops of Empire, Bennett outlines his project: “During and just after World War II, an influential group of American writers and intellectuals projected a vision for literature that in their minds might help to save the free world from totalitarianism or destruction…. [for] the artistic and critical excellence of creative minds in a liberal democracy could, they believed, inoculate the citizenry against fearsome ideologies, heal the spiritual wounds of catastrophic global warfare, and forestall or prevent a third world war.” Their belief was based on the feeling that the twentieth century “had brought terrific advances in scientific understanding and technological power,” but an equivalent knowledge of human values and needs was demanded by those same advances, which literature and creative writing could presumably provide. Bennett argues that a consensus of writers and critics, from Flannery O’Connor to James Baldwin, from Robert Penn Warren to Lionel Trilling, believed that the study of poetry and fiction was a means of exploring knowledge in a deeply engaged, rather than detached way. According to Bennett, creative writing programs “accommodated the changing demographics of higher education in the late 1940s, a massive boom” including many veterans who were taking advantage of the GI Bill.
Workshops of Empire’s opening chapters focus on the foundation of the Creative Writing programs at the University of Iowa and at Stanford University that became models for the various other programs that eventually were spawned as Stanford and Iowa graduates spread out across the country to generate and teach in new MFA programs. The two visionary founders whom Bennett discusses, Paul Engle at Iowa and Wallace Stegner at Stanford, reflect the conservative approach of “The New Humanism” despite Engle’s earlier flirtation with Communism. The New Humanism, according to Bennett, “urged the renewal of standards and the recuperation of human dignity.” While artists and writers of the twenties and thirties had been seen as Romantic anti-heroes on the fringe of society, self-destructive or suicidal inhabitants of Greenwich Village, bohemians who embraced free love or hoboes who wrote their poems while hopping on and off boxcars, the new Creative Writing programs touted “family men” in the classrooms, tamed and washed responsible artistic citizens who married and had children, artists who could find on the campus “protection from the dangerous influence of Communism or from the vulnerability of going it alone.” These new artists challenged the threatening notion that artists were radicals, and their leaders, Engle in Iowa and Stegner at Stanford, were interested in producing solid, mature, balanced male artists—and occasionally female artists—who would encourage democracy in America and abroad. Unfortunately, Bennett does not sufficiently explore the implications of these male enclaves of Creative Writing in terms of the effect they’ve had on quashing women’s voices, given the ratio of men to women in these 12-person workshops. Bennett does, in his chapter on Wallace Stegner, at least allude to the way these mostly male workshops eventually encouraged a backlash in the 1970s and 1980s as women writers involved themselves in the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement and protested against male prerogative. However, he does not address the ongoing complaint that more men than women are published and reviewed by major publications and how this may, in fact, be...