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  • The Invention of the Global MFA:Taiwanese Writers at Iowa, 1964–1980
  • Richard Jean So (bio)

In 1961, C. P. Snow wrote: "Of all the small towns in the western world, I suppose Iowa City is by now the best known among writers" ("State Department Notes"). Paul Engle, the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop (IWW), took pride in that recognition. By now, the rise of creative writing in the US, the IWW's vital role in that process, and the broader transformation of US writing through such programs have become well known to both scholars and writers. In his influential analysis The Program Era (2009), Mark McGurl argues that "these programs are the most original production of the postwar period, its most interesting and emblematic—and yes, increasingly hegemonic—literary historical transformation" (31). The MFA has arrived, and the story of its emergence commands attention. But this story has another important yet overlooked aspect that concerns the MFA's historical relationship to world literature.

Engle's ambition for Iowa City went beyond being merely the most famous small town in "the western world." If, by the 1960s, Engle had achieved great success with the IWW, he had also grown eager to test the limits of the MFA concept. Could the MFA shape the development of not only US literature and the literatures of the English-speaking "Western world," but also the entire globe? As he proudly declared to a friend: "My ambition is to run the future of American literature, and a great deal of European and Asian, through Iowa City" ("Letter to Virgil," 31 Oct. 1963). That same year, after a nine-month trip to Asia, Engle envisaged building a [End Page 499] new program that annually invited dozens of authors from around the world to study creative writing in Iowa City. The International Writing Program (IWP) was born.

Engle asserted a wholly salutary vision for the new program: to build what he calls, in a documentary on the IWP, a "community of the imagination" enabling foreign writers to live in the US and learn about its culture (Community). But the invention of the IWP quickly assumed a specific ideological cast. Like many academics of the day, Engle strongly endorsed anticommunism and a view of international diplomacy now known as "modernization theory." He believed that developed nations, such as the US, could help postcolonial countries, particularly in East Asia, still emerging from the wreckage of World War II, attain higher levels of economic and social prosperity through the reception of technology and Western values. For Engle, the IWP could directly contribute to this transformation. Exporting ideas about how to write well, alongside new factories and TV stations, would help elevate standards of living in places like Taiwan, bringing such nations closer to the US fold of modernity. Or so the theory went. Here Engle's twofold aspirations for the Iowa MFA seamlessly blend together. In first imagining the impact of creative writing to extend internationally, he lent a distinctly cultural impetus to the broader political project (one embraced by numerous US academic institutions, and the University of Iowa especially) of spreading democracy around the globe. By articulating the purpose of the IWP in these ideological terms, the more belletristic goal of turning Iowa City into a center for world literature took on greater prestige and significance. The US State Department certainly saw Engle's project in these terms and gave a tremendous amount of funding to the IWP. As Eric Bennett has recently argued, the story of the IWP is thus also a story about Cold War US empire.

In practice, the IWP operated through a specific pedagogical mechanism. It differed from the IWW's curriculum in targeting foreign students who came from developing nations often at threat of falling to communism. On the one hand, these students were typically already established authors, often eminent, and thus did not require so much explicit teaching. On the other, the IWP believed that these students needed to be socialized into an American way of being, one that embraced core US values of modernity, so that, once they returned to their home countries, they would spread the gospel of democracy and...


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pp. 499-520
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